Even if I am a sicilian girl, knowing enough about small boroughs names and locations around Sicily, I must admit that I had never heard about this tiny medieval village of Sicily before it was nominated as “Borgo più bello d’Italia”, literally “Italy’s most beautiful village” in 2015, an exclusive club that gather the most charming and well preserved small towns of Italy (if you are curious to check the “borghi” included in the club, go visit their web site).
Let’s be honest, I am pretty sure that your first thought reading the name Montalbano Elicona was: “Is this place related to Camilleri’s novels ‘Inspector Montalbano’?”
Well, even if there is no direct connection between the two sicilian excellences, it is worth mentioning that the famous actor Luca Zingaretti (the protagonist of the TV series ‘Inspector Montalbano’) actually received the honorary citizenship of this town. You were not completely wrong!
The origine of this site’s name: Montalbano comes from the latin “Mons Albanus”, meaning white mountains because of the winter snow or from the arabic “Al-bana” that is “excellent place”. Whereas the word Elicona comes from the “Monte delle muse dell’Elicona” and the river Elicona.
After this necessary premise, go get your car and let’s drive to this magical sicilian treasure!
HOW TO GET THERE
Can you drive to Montalbano Elicona from Catania? Well, it depends…Thus unfortunately this small jewel is well embedded amongst the mountains so the easiest way to reach it and see the surrondings will definitely be by car.
However, if you do not want to drive, there are bus connections from Catania Piazza Giovanni XXIII (central station) and change in Messina (check the bus company timetable here), or you can take a train to the closest train stations (Floresta, Patti, Furnari, Novara) and then catch the bus to Montalbano. Alternatively, consider to book a private driving tour or, if you like hiking, bear in mind that the village is part of the Sicilian Francigena Way.
If you are planning to visit both the Argimusco plateau and Montalbano town in one day, I suggest you to make your first stop at the nature park and after lunch, head to the town.
The road to Montalbano and to the Argimusco plateau is part of the excursion itself, because of the landscape and the small authentic villages you will drive through! It takes roughly 2h via the high –way A18 Catania – Messina.
Then exit at Giardini Naxos and drive towards Gole dell’Alcantara (Alcantara Gorges, a natural canyon considered one of the best wonders of Sicily!).
Keep driving passing by the small towns just north of Mount Etna – Francavilla di Sicilia, Moio Alcantara, Malvagna…- and after some curves amongst many hazelnut trees (a real treat of this area!) you will finally get to the enchanting Argimusco Rocks – the entrance is free and you can easily park your car in the asphalted street close to the gate.
This place will surely bring you back to an ancient era. When I first saw the Argimusco Megaliths, so immersed in the peaceful surroundings of Malabotta wood (Riserva Naturale Orientata del bosco di Malabotta), I felt like the time had stopped and I was walking along a timeless landscape.
These special standing stones have peculiar shapes and a strategic position that reveal their ancestral archaeoastronomic value, thanks to which the site is now identified as the Stonehenge of Sicily.
It is possible to walk around the Argimusco nature park, get close to these massive rocks and feel the energy of nature just touching them (I did also enjoy taking a lot of pictures on different perspectives!).
It really is a magic land and you can breath the sacred and misterious atmophere around, no matter whether this sculptures were effectively used for the rites of the medieval megalithic civilizations or whether they are just the result of wind erosion.
In case you are planning a camping vacation in Sicily, this is a perfect spot to pitch your tents and wake up amongst sacred rocks..and some “sacred cows” too!
WHERE TO EAT
One of Sicilian hinterland’s highlights is by far the food! I guarantee you that it is in the small off the beaten path villages of Sicily where you can still taste the old fashion flavours of the authentic sicilian cuisine.
Montalbano and the area between Peloritani and Nebrodi mountains, are just paradise for foodies! When I visited Montalbano Elicona, we stopped for lunch at Ristorante La Sciarbornata, located just outside the town centre.
A real family run restaurant: the owner is an enthusiastic lady who loves to share with the clients the story of the family and the ingredients used in their menu. Fresh cheeses, handmade pasta with tomato and sausage (“pasta al sugo”), caponata (tipycal sicilian appetizer)…just to mention some of the delicacies in the table! Important: book your table well in advance, especially if you are going in summer!
When you leave the restaurant table, you will be so full you could roll down to the town center…instead, park your car just at the beginning of the pedestrian area of the town (we parked right in front of the tourist info point in Via Roma).
WHAT TO VISIT
The distance between Montalbano and Argimusco is more or less 7 kms, roughly 10 minutes driving.
The sightseeing tour of Montalbano takes between 2/3 hours roughly. Your walk through the narrow medieval streets of this town will take you back in an old time made of ancient crafts, taverns, knights and miladies.
The suspended atmosphere of this tiny lovely town is even increased by the weather you might find in Montalbano (we visited in autumn); a chilly and foggy day where the lacy walls of the castle fade in front of your eyes…
As a matter of fact, this town raises at 3000 feet above sea level (900 mt s.l.m) so it can often be hit by fog and even snow on winter time! Even so, on a clear day, the view over the Aeolian Islands from the Belvedere is just stunning!
WHAT TO SEE IN MONTALBANO ELICONA BUCKET LIST
- The Swaban-Aragonese Castle, a well preserved building which also hosts the museum of Weapons and the Musical instrument museum (ticket costs 3 euros and includes the visit to the museums)
- The Sanctuary of Maria Santissima della Divina Provvidenza
- The Church of S. Caterina
- Piazza Duomo with its Basilica
- Belvedere Portello
Before getting back to your car, do not forget to make a stop to the local shops in town for a tasty souvenir: cheese is by far the speciality of the place, mostly the baked ricotta and the “cavalluzzi di tumma” (animal shaped cheeses).
We also enjoyed the hazelnut biscuites and if you go during Easter, you should also try “biscotti a ciminu” (cumin seeds biscuites).
Pay attention on your route back to Catania as the first part of the journey is amongst mountain streets where is dark in the night.
N.B. The community at Montalbano Elicona is very active and schedules many cultural events throughout the year: “Montalbano Mistic Fest” in September, the Medieval “Aragonese fests” in August and the magical living nativity scene “Presepe Vivente” during Christmas holidays. Do not miss any of these popular events by following the official town Facebook page.