Sicily Riding Vacation: Mt. Etna and National Parks on Horseback

March 23, 2017

"September found me returning to Italy, after thirteen years, to enjoy Sicily on horseback..."

by Alice Fisher

The first week I wandered Rome for three days beginning with Sunday mass in St. Peter's Square given by Pope Frances from the steps - a glorious and unexpected event. After my first of many “gelato lunches”, I boarded the metro to the Coliseum and Roman Forum. Although more security and longer lines than when I visited previously, both are majestic to visit and nice to see so much renovation/restoration going on. Dinner found me at a small cafe just in front of the Coliseum where I met a delightful Canadian couple. They had done more “homework” than I and, after leaving the cafe, we walked to the Basilica of St. Cement. In 1857 excavations under the present basilica uncovered the original fourth century basilica and, at an even lower level, the remains of a late first century structure were discovered. Numerous frescoes have also been restored.

Sicily roman ruins

Early Monday morning I was on a “beat the line” tour of the Vatican (Basilica, Sistine Chapel, popes' apartments, museum and art gallery). After wandering some shops and, of course, a gelato lunch, I headed to the Spanish Steps in Spagna for “Evening Tour of Rome”. Extra time gave me a chance to have a glass of wine at Caffe Greco, an historic landmark which opened in 1760. It is the oldest bar in Rome and was often frequented by Keats & Byron who drank coffee at the marble tables of this celebrated, richly- ornate 18th-century cafe.

Our tour included several obelisks (created in antiquity by the Egyptians, they were taken from Egypt after the conquest and brought to Rome), churches, and fountains before ending at the Pantheon where we enjoyed an Italian Aperitivo. Rome at night, with all the lights, is quite magical. Tuesday I had booked an “Angels & Demons” tour, based on the book by Dan Brown, and thoroughly enjoyed following the Path of Illumination and the clues represented by the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Wednesday found me on a train ride from Rome to Naples; within fifteen minutes we were in farm country with gentle hills, various abandoned buildings and occasional towns.

My accommodations that night were in the historic district of Naples, a city of balconies. A volunteer led tour took five of us along the waterfront passing an opera house built in 1717, an indoor mall built in 1890 and a castle that was first a fortress and then a prison. After wandering the cobblestone streets near my B&B, it was time for my first pizza of this trip! Thursday started early as my driver picked me up at 8am and we began with Mt. Vesuvius where I climbed to the top and looked into this historic volcano! Then onto Pompeii, which was a bit overwhelming - should have allowed a full day there, and Ercolano, the ruins of Herculaneum. Alexander then drove me to the airport where I caught a plane to Palermo, Sicily and met up with Ann Jamieson. Friday a two hour train south took us to the Greek ruins of Agrigento established in 580 BC, and now a huge, mostly still unexcavated, archaeological site with seven monumental Greek temples. Impressive!

Saturday we briefly visited the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel in Palermo before boarding a train to Castlebuono; a lovely hour trip along the northern coast.

Our Sicily trek began with Franco picking Ann and me up at the very deserted and desolate Castlebuono train station and driving us north into the Dolomite mountains to a renovated monastery in the Madonie natural park. Here we meet our group: Tim & Ruth, Jenny, Julia, Nicky and Carole (all from the UK) and Joe & Sylviane (from France); the ten of us become acquainted over our first, of many, traditional Sicilian dinners (five courses!).

Sicily horseback riding vacations

Our six days of riding, as we head to our destination Mt. Etna, will take us through three natural Parks: Madonie, Nebrodi and Etna and two nature reserves: Sambuchetti Campanito and Lake Gurrida. After breakfast on Sunday, we are introduced to our horses and given a lengthy tutorial by Franco including knot tying lessons! Our guide will be Paolo, Franco's partner, accompanied by Vincenzo or Pasquale. My horse is “Rinaldo” a solid built grey gelding who is delightful and hopefully will be a perfect match, i.e. forward moving and flat walking.

We head out late morning riding up a steep incline on an ancient trail across a rocky hillside before descending on a cobblestone trail to a village for lunch provided by Franco and set up in a Forestry wooden area. The horses are secured to trees with bridles removed (halters & lead ropes are always on) so that they can eat out of feed bags. Our three hour afternoon ride on ancient shepherd trails, cattle trails and thru fields brings us to a lovely restored inn. Nicky and I quickly head to the beautiful swimming pool. Another five course dinner is served in the dining room and the next morning finds breakfast being served on the front patio overlooking the horses' corral and rolling hills in the distance. Life is good indeed.

Sicily riding holidays

Our second day of riding Tim is grounded for the morning as his horse has a big knee. We leave the bay gelding in the field at Villa Raino, to be retrieved when the van full of horses returns home at the end of the trek. Our ride takes us along a river bed and then up to the wind turbine park where we gallop along a long trail on the edge of the mountain.

We continue into woods along dirt roads built by the Spanish in XVII, and used for moving travelers, cattle, sheep and goats to winter or summer grazing areas, arriving at our lunch spot at the far side of the Sambuchetti reserve. Tim joins us for the afternoon riding Vincenzo's horse as we pass through more woods and then farmland with cattle, sheep and even Sicilian donkeys! Our destination is a country house with an equestrian center which is fortunate as we borrow a horse for Tim. Again Nicky and I head for the pool.

Joe chooses not to ride on our third day so his horse runs along loose with us. We start out passing through a valley with farms but then head up into grazing land and mountains – sometimes on a trail and sometimes along the mountain side but always admiring the landscape. We return to woods, mostly old beeches, before reaching the pass of Femmina Morta. The horses spend the night here in an electric fenced area with Pasquale and Vincenzo sleeping in a nearby tent to watch them. The group is transported in our trusty minibus to a recently renovated lodge where we enjoy drinks by the fireplace before dinner. I awake to a cold damp day as it had rained during the night.

Mount Etna Sicily horse riding

There is wind and fog as well but fortunately the weather improves as we have lovely country today – woods emptying into open meadows and numerous lakes. All the time Mt. Etna gets closer and closer. Our lunch today is sandwiches, carried in our saddlebags along with our horse's feed. We sit on rocks in the paddock of an abandoned dairy farm enjoying the view as well as the cattle that come up to observe us (from outside the fence!).

A short afternoon ride of 2.5 hours brings us to the Tre Arie Refuge of the Forestry Service. The eight ladies are in a large bunk room with cots and sleeping bags with fresh sheet inserts. The two men, along with our guides, are in a bunk room in the main building. As Paolo had a previous life working in a pizza restaurant, he creates individual gourmet pizzas cooked in a wood oven. Marvelous. Brought back memories of camp days. Thursday, our fifth day of riding, is only four hours and passes through the Lake Gurrida Nature Reserve. We are allowed to cross with permission of the Forestry Service who open and close the gates for us. Once inside we passed through areas of ancient eruptions with lava banks and a lava field. Leaving the reserve we ride an ancient trail through vineyards lined with lava walls and after crossing railroad tracks, we head up the volcano to 1400 meters reaching a Refuge with a small hut and fenced field – overnight accommodations for the horses and Franco. Our hotel is at the base of Mt. Etna so we all enjoy sitting on the patio with glasses of Prosecco but unfortunately the clouds are coming in...

Sicily breakfast horse

Our last day of riding we head along an old road through lava fields from the 1981 eruption that lasted three months.

We stop at 1800 meters to enjoy our picnic sandwiches in a refuge area arriving just as a group of hikers were heading out. The horses were watered from a well and enjoyed their grain under the trees. However clouds continue to roll in so we put on foul weather gear before continuing across lava fields and pass craters from the 2002 eruption up to an elevation of 2000 meters. Unfortunately, the visibility doesn't permit us to go to 2800 meters so we return along a lava road to 1900 meters where our trek ends in a large parking area. Re-entry into civilization! The horses are loaded onto a transport to begin their five hour journey home, and we climb into our minibus heading to a mountain chalet.

As much as I love my adventurous treks, it always great to return home and climb on “Arthur Guinness”.

Learn about upcoming dates and itineraires for these Sicily Riding Vacations.

Topics: Horseback riding Sicily, Italy, Italy Riding Holidays, Madonie National Park, Sicily, Sicily Riding Vacations