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Protection of nature in Sicily.

Sicily has 5 Natural Park and 77 Nature Reserves. 14% of the island is protected. Not too many regions has that in Europe.

Madonie Park General Introduction.


Madonie Mountains are called the” Dolomites of Sicily “for their unique carbonate limestone rock formations. Till the XVIII century the MADONIE were part of the NEBRODI. Was the French scientist Deodat de Dolomieu, who discovered the special limestone of the mountains in the Alps that had from him their name, that saw the analogies between the limestone of Madonie with the Dolomites and the huge difference between the rest of Sicilian mounts. Madonie were the first mountains to come up from the very ancient ocean existing before the formation of Sicily. They are very rich of fossils of ancient sea creatures. Madonie are divided in three main mountain complexes: Mount Carbonara, Mount Cervi, and Mount Pizzo di Pilo. The highest mountain is Carbonara with his 1979 meters. This mount is characterized by very many depressions (doline) formed by the action of snow with limestone which is slowly dissolved in spring when snow became water. Looking at the Carbonara from a helicopter it looks as was bombed by war planes for the hundreds of these natural depressions existing. On the bottom of “doline” there is a very particular micro-clime that permits the life of many species of endemic plants. All water collected by doline goes inside the mountain through some fixtures in the rocks called “swallowers” (Inghiottitoi) and it is saved by a complicate system of underwater lakes and channels that give water in hundreds of springs at lower altitudes all year round. That’s why in the Madonie villages there is always plenty of source water all year round.

Botany.Few people know that before the Romans conquered Sicily it was covered for 92 % by primary forests. Deforestation started with the Romans during the three Punic wars with Cartagine. They established two navy ship yard on the coast down the still existing villages of Caronia (Nebrodi area) and Pollina (Madonie area). They used the centennial oaks to build the ship bodies and the very tall Abies nebrodensis (Fir of Nebrodi) for the mast trees of the war boats. They cut this fir almost till extinction. Only 22 of them survived in a narrow and secluded valley of Madonie. Nowadays the Abies nebrodensis is reintroduced in the Nebrodi and Madonie by the Sicilian Forestry Service (Azienda Foreste Demaniali).

Madonie host an enormous amount of botanic species (5500 of the 6500 of all Italy) with many of them endemic of the place (35). There are also very many species of wild orchids that attract scientists and foreign orchids lovers. There are many endemic species and, inside the doline, some very little endemic plants with a cycle of life very short. There are in the Park around 200 the species of orchids. Along the trails used is easy to see many interesting or endemic plants like Genista cupani, Astragalus, Cystus, Crocus, Primula, and so long. Madonie host the most wide botanical biodiversity of Italy. In Piano Pomo there is the most ancient and wide wood of holly trees of Europe, not far away there are some of the oldest oaks of Europe. Till 1500 meters, mountains are mainly covered by mixed woods from five different species of oaks, higher starts huge woods of beeches. All the hills now occupied by fields of hey and wheat was covered by oak forests with secular trees cut down by the Romans. From the second century B.C Sicily became the “granary of Rome” and the homes of Rome were build mainly with wood coming from Sicily and Calabria.

Wildlife.Wildlife is also rich despite were extinct all the big games like elk (during the XVII century), bear (Neolithic), wolf (1959), lynx (late Neolithic). Deer were extinct during XVIII century but reintroduced around 10 years ago. It is easy to see from horseback deer, wild boars, Sicilian partridges (and endemic specie called Alectoris grecae whitacheri) a nesting couple of King eagles, many species of day and night bird of prey. It was reintroduced around 5 years ago the vulture (Gypsus gypsus) that is easy to be seen in the sky exploring the territory looking for carcasses of cows and sheep. Very elusive and difficult to see are wild cats and martens.

People and Traditions.

Madonie were used by the men from the Paleolithic times. There are some grottoes that show signs of their use as home by the men from that time. They were reaching the mountains in spring to hunt and collect wild plants and wood. From the Neolithic started the activity of breeding sheep for milking and meat. Before the huge emigrations to Americas and Australia after the world wars, were bred on Madonie more than 100.000 sheep! The life style of the shepherds did not change too much from the Neolithic times. The same was the hut used (Pagghiaru) made by a circle or a square of stones 1 meter high, then a roof made with trunks of oaks and branches. The same was the organizations of the shepherd work place (Marcatu) constituted by some huts, then the stone corrals for the sheep, the corral for the lambs, the working area to make milk. Before the arrival of 4x4 cars the shepherds were living in summer up in the mountains for long periods, going home a couple of days every some weeks. Today the breeding of cows, sheep and goats to make meat and cheese it is still very important in the local economy. Tourism became more and more important in the last 15 years. The principal traditional cheeses made are: “Pecorino” (with sheep milk), “Caciocavallo” (with cow and goat or sheep), “Ricotta” (from cow or sheep or goat) some goat cheese. The method it is the same from Neolithic times, using the dried and cured interior of intestine of a lamb as “cheese maker” and traditional tools made with some specific woods.

Madonie people are very gentle, hospitable and hard workers used to live traditionally, especially in the less touristic villages as Isnello, Polizzi, Petralia Soprana and Gangi.


Madonie area saw Sicani and Siculi people living mostly on the coast interacting later with Phoenicians and then Greeks for commerce. The Rock of Cefalù was always a very important strategic and sacred point with his megalithic remain dated from the IX century B.C. The location was then enlarged by Greeks and conquered by Romans which started the exploitation of the forests of Madonie. Petra Lileum (Petralia Soprana) was founded by the Romans as main center in the interior to control the cultivations after deforestation. Pollina was a Roman fortified village on top the hill where lie the actual village. Just down on the coast there was the shipyard where were build the war ships used in the 3 Punic wars against Cartagine. In the IX century A.C. Moors coming from today Tunisia Libya Algeria conquered Sicily and Madonie saw the presence of many Arabic villages destroyed by the Normans in the XII century A.C. when they liberated all Sicily from Muslims. The golden age of Madonie was under Frederic II, German Emperor of Sacred Roman Empire. He choose Palermo as capital of the Emperor and he developed there all arts and culture of the time. Madonie were domain of one very important family of Feudal Lords with Norman ancestors: the Ventimiglia. They had a sort of kingdom inside the Empire. They were the only one to have permission from Emperor to make their own coins (In Castelbuono still exist the Money factory in the central square). After the conquest of Madonie (XII century) they were living in the Castle they build in Geraci. In the XIV century they preferred to move at a lower altitude with a better clime building a Manor around an ancient Arabian Tower. Around this new castle was born Castelbuono (which mean: Good Castle). In each village of Madonie there was a castle of Ventimiglia family to host them during their temporary visits. In Castelbuono castle, in the XV century, many years before Naples and Versailles, was founded by the Ventimiglia the first Horse Riding Academy of history: The Academy of the Star. The best horses and trainers of that time were concentrated there to do carousel on horseback with hundreds of riders and even theatre representations on horseback.

The ancient Sicilian horse culture and the 3 Sicilian horses.

Not too many people know that during the ancient Greeks Olympic Games, the majority of equestrian games were won by the Horses of Syracuse. Greeks were the first to import in Sicily high quality horses. They were all Orientals coming from Mesopotamia, Lebanon and Syria regions. In Sicily these horses found a very good environment very similar to their original but with a better soil (lots of limestone with calcium) and grass. So they fortified their bones becoming stronger and bigger.

The oldest horse race known was done every year in Sicily in Agira (in the centre of Sicily) along the road that was going from the Greek village up to the Agorà on top one high hill. This race it is held every year from that times till nowadays. The Romans imported and breed in Sicily the Eques italicus, the breed developed by them for their cavalry and they mixed with local oriental horses forming a quicker and most endurance horse. When Arabians invaded and conquered Sicily for three centuries, they imported more than 10.000 Berber and Arabian horses followed by the Norman’s battle horses arrived with the heavy cavalry of the Normans army. After their conquest, new horses came with a group of Celtic speaking language emigrated from the North Italy that had permission to settle in the nowadays Nebrodi mountains founding the village of Sanfratello. They took with them their black, strong horses that became the today “Sanfratellano” Sicilian horses, always living free up in the mountains.

The Ventimiglia family, in the XIV century, established in their Manor in Castelbuono the Academy of the Star, the very first horse academy in history, long time before the schools of Naples and Versailles. They were making carousels with hundreds of riders, theatre on horseback and a top level military cavalry corp.

A very important moment of the Sicilian horse culture was when Ferdinand II°, King of Two Sicilies Kingdom, moved the Capital of the Kingdom from Napoli to Palermo after a revolution that forced him to leave the city. He loved in life only two things: women and horses. So in Sicily he opened another huge horse breeding farm after the one opened in Naples: Ficuzza, not far from Palermo. In this facility the local Sicilian horse mares (all with Oriental and Arabian blood) were breed with Andalusia stallions to develope a new light cavalry horse: smaller, faster, endurable and overall really beautiful also to parade. When the English build the English thorough bred they came to Palermo to buy 100 mares of this “Sicilian indigenous horse” that was developed there.

Unfortunately, when Ferdinand II° died, his brother Ferdinand III° was not interested at all in horses and so closed Naples and Ficuzza breeding farms and sold all horses! An enormous genetic patrimony was going to be disrupted. Luckily few Sicilians noble families bought some of these stallions and mares maintaining some of that blood lines but the most of the Sicilian indigenous were sold to anybody and they were mixed with any kind of other horses. One of these families that bought that Sicilian indigenous and still is breeding that ancient blood lines is the Salomone family from Tusa. Nowadays they have the best samples of what was and still is the original Sicilian indigenous. 12 years ago was formed the Association of the Sicilian indigenous to re-establish the guidelines to have again alive the breed. Our horses are mostly Sicilian indigenous (some more, some less pure). The third Sicilian horse is the Sicilian Pure Oriental (Puro Sangue Orientale: PSO). In 1876 was established the stud book of these horses imported by the Italian Cavalry in Catania after a trip of a Colonel to buy top stallions and mares from the area of Syria/Lebanon. These horses were used to improve the blood of the horses of the Cavalry and to be breed in purity. After so many generations breed in purity on Sicilian soil, this horse became a specific Sicilian breed. There are now only around 190 horses left. They are under the UNESCO protection. Comparing the forms of oriental horses imported by the Greeks and drawn on vases and coins of the time now in museums, we can see that head and proportions are exactly the same of the PSO. Genetic studies found that the DNA of PSO it is coming from one only aplotype so without the “crazy” mix of different Arabians bloods that there are in many Arabian horses of today made by the man to enhance “necks and noses” as the actual fashion want. Some of our horses has PSO father.


Castelbuono born when the Ventimiglia family decided to move from Geraci (in winter very cold place at 1200 meters to live) to the 400 meters of the valley between the Madonie mountains and the sea coast. Before the conquest of the Normans, in the place there was only an Arabian defence tower and a very tiny village with a Mosque. The Ventimiglia build a big Manor and around soon born the village that became the capital of the sort of “Kingdom of the Madonie” of the Ventimiglia family inside the Sacred Roman Empire. The city became quickly very important attracting noble families and very many religious orders with lots of churches and monasteries. Many peasants came to cultivate in the valley the Manna tree imported and planted by the Arabians. The historical centre of Castelbuono is very interesting with many places to visit as the Castle with his museum and art gallery, the churches, the little medieval streets with their very ancient names. Today Castelbuono is full of activities in agriculture, food and tourism hosting very many good restaurants. In summer his population became triple and the main street and the squares are very alive till late.

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