n e b r o d i

[ 17:20 monday 4 september – porto di milazzo, sicily ]

the hydrofoil’s crew unhurriedly take their places, preparing to cast off from milazzo for the final journey of the day. the late afternoon sun catches my face through an open hatchway. in two and a half hours i’ll be on stromboli.

on friday i said goodbye to gaetano and his family after an invigorating dip in the stream that tumbles down from the aspromonte. the tiny train carried me down to gioia then i got the main line to villa san giovani with its criss-cross relay of ferries  traversing the straits of messina. there was a tiny beach between the ferry terminals and the water looked reasonably clean so i had a quick swim before taking a ship. from messina i caught the coach to palermo, where i passed a riotous night with impromptu friends before uniting with gabriele.

on saturday morning gabriele and i drove to a rocky stretch of coast for a swim then headed up into the mighty nebrodi mountains in the north-east of sicily. we stopped and watched the spectacular sunset with livid-hued clouds swirling all around us.

after spending saturday night upstairs from a bar in the little town of cesero we bought some supplies, packed our rucksacks and set off on foot. we hiked all afternoon through the wooded mountainside, eyed with curiosity by the wild black pigs that seem to be the nebrodi’s masters. our goal was the biviere di cesaro, a remote and beautiful lake a thousand metres up in the mountains. our solitude was disturbed only by a convoy of mountain bikers in a race.

by the time we reached the lake the morning’s clear sky had been obscured by clouds trickling up from the mountains. the water was completely still, with reed beds dotting its perimeter and the forest extending down to its western shore.

looking northward one could make out the hazy outline of the aeolian islands. the view to the south was dominated by etna’s brooding cone with its eternal streamer of smoke. the only sounds were the buzzing insects, faraway cowbells and the occasional hoot of water fowl.

gabriele had heard that the solitary farmhouse near the lake had a cattle shed that was left open where hikers could pass the night. the farmhouse’s gates were heavily padlocked and there was no reply to our calls so we climbed over and looked around for the shed. at this point the farmer returned. he seemed like a tough fellow, accustomed to being alone, and he was not amused to find us there. it turned out gabriele’s information was essentially correct, but the farmer resented people like us taking the shed for granted. in the end gabriele’s charm and my stupid englishman act worked their magic and he said we could stay. he also gave us permission to walk in the mountainside around the lake, all of which was his property.

the shed was a little way up the hill from the farmhouse. inside we found three ancient camp beds and a rickety table. it was already inhabited by eight adorable little bats, hanging from the rafters busily cleaning themselves, and everything was covered with their shit. we dumped our rucksacks and headed out to explore.

below the lake was a marshy area, followed a dry stream-bed piled with huge boulders washed down the mountain. beyond this we discovered an abandoned village comprising seven or eight simple stone dwellings in an advanced state of decay. each house had a carefully leveled stone terrace in front of it where the inhabitants must have lived and worked in daylight hours through the warmer months. it was a strongly evocative place.

after dark we climbed up the hillside and sat silently in the bright moonlight, looking out over the mountains and valleys stretching to the distance. at one point a hedgehog trotted over to investigate us. later an owl swooped around us, hunting for its prey. there were probably no more than a dozen people within ten kilometres.

: c :

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