Most people know for a fact that in 1066 Normans invaded and took the British Isles under William the Conqueror. It is generally less known that these same Normans - not in person but certainly their relatives - at about the same time set out to conquer another island - in fact on the other end of the world as they knew it. Sicily and the southern part of Italy (Apulia and Calabria) were taken in the 11th century and kept for about 200 years. A kingdom was established which survived even as the Normans faded away from the area. Today there remain many tokens of that reign, manly in the form of buildings, often ecclesial ones like the cathedrals of Messina, Palermo or Catania. In these churches the austere Norman style is blended with the one of their predecessors, Arabs and Moors, creating a unique architecture.
High in the mountains of the Madonie coastal ranges, near one of the major passes which lead into the range, you find the Gibilmanna Sanctuary. It is one of these pieces of Norman architecture on Sicilian ground, nested on the western slope of Pizzo Sant'Angelo. The latter is the highest summit of the coastal ranges of the Madonie Mountains in north-central Sicily. The mountain also is advanced farthest into the range and towers above the Isnello Valley. This peculiar position makes it a prime lookout peak into the central Madonie but also towards the northern coast of the island.
Though the Sanctuario is rather popular with the tourist groups and though there even is an asphalt road which leads to an observatory on the back of the mountain, the summit itself is still a place of tranquility. The tourist hordes generally stop at the end of the way of the Cross - if they get that far. The path up the mountain is hidden beneath the oak forest that covers the mountain and it is steeper than any tourist would go. The road to the observatory appears to be used only for access to the institution. Moreover there are quite a numbers of paths which climb the mountain directly without making use of the road and if you proceed on these you will be able to ignore civilization entirely.
That is - until you get close to the summit. There a queer structure has been "built" and secured. A huge rock is balanced on some smaller rocks, creating a sort of cave. The rock is secured by steel cables and the cave is secured by a wall of bricks. It makes you think of an hermit's abode but in fact this is the chiesetta of San Michele Arcangelo. The real summit of Pizzo Sant'Angelo is a bit further to the south and some 10m higher.
As mentioned in the overview section, Pizzo Sant'Angelo, thanks to its location is one of the best lookout peaks in northern Sicily. It towers above the Isnello Valley and though itself not very high, offers views of the Catarinecci, Cervi and Dipilo Groups of the Madonie. Especially impressive is the view south towards Sicily's second highest mountain, Pizzo Carbonara, with its south-western faces that drop into the Isnello Valley below. As you can see from my shots - it takes a clear day to really enjoy the views.
Getting ThereSicily can be reached from all Italian and the major European airports by plane. There are two large international airports, one at Catania in the east and one at Palermo. Since Palermo is much closer to the mountain than Catania my itinerary starts here. Also, Palermo is the main ferry port in the area.
From Palermo airport
- Take motorway A29 direction Palermo
- In Palermo the motorway turns into a four laned city highway which circles the city to its south
- The city highway turns into motorway A20 direction Messina
- Turn off at the exit Cefalù and head for the town centre
- Shortly before you reach the town centre take SP28 south towards Isnello and Gratteri
- Shortly behind Passo di Gibilmanna you will see the Sanctuary to your right. Drive up there and park at its gate. The path up the mountain follows the way of the Cross which starts to the left of the church.
In principle Pizzo Sant'Angelo belongs to the Parco delle Madonie, which was established in 1989 and covers an area of approximately 40000ha. However, I'm not sure how and if any rules of the park apply here as the mountain and the Sanctuary are of touristic importance. In the Sicilian parks you can climb and hike almost everywhere. Obstacles are the many barbed wire fences, which however can be crossed. They serve only for the pastures and to keep cattle sheep and horses from getting lost in the vast terrain.
You can quite easily find hotel rooms and apartments everywhere on the coasts. All European travel companies offer accommodation so a visit to your nearest travel office will find you some. In the mountains themselves accommodation is much harder to come by. Since camping is not allowed (see red tape) you have to ask at the local inns. Moreover there are some farms which offer “agriturismo” though on Sicily this often means only food and no rooms.
At the Santuario there is a hospice - you might even get a room there. But since Gibilmanna is only half an hour from Cefalù on the northern coast where you can find plenty of rooms, apartments and campgrounds there doesn't seem to be much need of it anymore.
Weather ConditionsSicily is located very close to northern Africa (Marsala on the west coast is closer to Tunis than to any place on the Italian mainland), thus temperatures can get very high. March, April and early May are the best months if you plan to hike the mountains, the winter can be wet, the summer scorchingly hot. Here the nearest weatherunderground link for Palermo:
Maps & Books
Unfortunately there are no current topographic maps of Sicily. The best are reported to be more than 50 years old and probably are the same as the basis for the digital maps of atlanteitaliano.it.
As a workaround you can use street maps for general orientation together with a good guidebook (see below). The most accurate maps are scaled 1:200000, sometimes detailing everything down to forest and dirt roads through the mountains. I settled for
Mairs Geographischer Verlag
Since there are no good topographical maps of Sicily you should take care to get a good guidebook. The one I used is in general excellent and is available in German and English.
- Sizilien / Sicily