«For a significant portion of the global population, the Navel of the World can be found exactly in Piazza Margherita, in Castelbuono».Roberto Alajmo
That’s how the Sicilian writer Roberto Alajmo begins his excellent book “Castelbuono, la città gentile” (Castelbuono, the gentle town), published by Edizioni di Passaggio. It is an amusing and well-documented tale of the little medieval Sicilian town, capital of the ancient Ventimiglia county, resting on a vale on the slopes of the “Colle Milocca” and part of the luxurious natural set of the Madonie woods.
An argument, that of the Navel of the World, that has conquered a growing number of new supporters, at least judging by the surprising growth of the touristic flows, and the tourists’ satisfaction when they visit the town and discover what it has to offer.
Behind this clever expedient, certainly perfect for an impactful first line, a lot can however be found of the original character of the local population: hard workers and proud to the extreme, the inhabitants are tirelessly promoting their high self-esteem and are self-appointed ambassadors of Castelbuono’s typical features in the world.
“Castelbuonesità”, a way of life exclusive to Castelbuono’s population, that is considered by some even a pathology: the incapacity – especially for those who emigrated – to sever that umbilical cord with their motherland and the duty they feel compelled to pursue, to keep telling stories, over and over again, about the exploits of their gifted and proud territory, almost as if it were their life mission.
That Castelbuono is undoubtedly a land of exploits and records, in its own peculiar way, is something that’s already significantly remarked by the famous panettoni, a Milanese tradition reinterpreted with incredible luck by the Madonie town. Or yet, the “quirky” idea of using the donkeys, that in the last few years have been helping the everyday door-to-door waste collection. They too are a great addition to the town’s celebrity.
However, for those who really know Castelbuono, not just on the surface, those who had the chance of appreciating the exquisite cuisine of its restaurant or the extraordinary artistic beauties, all those people know that Castelbuono’s excellence is well beyond what easily attracts mass media attention.
They know, for instance, that the imposing medieval castle after which the town is named (“castrum-bonum”, literally “good castle” a name earned thanks to Castelbuono’s good climatic conditions) is the location of a most appreciated museum. The Civic Museum to be specific, where “civic” stands for the people’s collective feeling towards the castle itself, that was purchased almost a century ago by the community after the fall of the Ventimiglia family.
An extensive fundraising that gave the castle back to its people, because – among other reasons – it was the “container” of the stunning baroque chapel covered in stuccos sculpted by the Serpotta brothers, Giuseppe and Giacomo. Inside the chapel, one of the town’s most revered sacred items: the skull of Saint Anne, protector of Castelbuono. A chest then, but also a fortress open to visit. Over the years, the museum has been able to attract a growing number of people, reaching almost fifty thousand visitors per year, also thanks to sections and activities dedicated to contemporary art. From this perspective as well, Castelbuono seems almost like a small oasis, somehow protected from all the difficulties and wastefulness that still afflict Sicily when it comes to preserving and promoting its great historical and artistic heritage.
Visiting the ancient castle gives us the chance to know in advance how the current urban fabric is structured and has evolved through time. There is in fact a specific didactic section that guides us through a perfectly preserved town center, rich in churches and prestigious monuments, that developed from the XIV century castle and that was naturally encircled by the Madonie woods.
A constant relationship between nature and art, that you can see in all aspects of the town life. From the other local museum – the naturalistic one – dedicated to Francesco Minà Palumbo, a famous botanist who lived in the XIX century, to the music festivals that have developed in the last decades: the Ypsigrock with a focus on rock and indie music, Castelbuono Classica and the Jazz Festival.
On the table as well, the quality, creativity and a reinterpretation of traditions have happily married the natural context’s typical features, without unnecessary internationalisms or embellishments: only (culinary) art and (generous) nature, wonderfully combined, that become – together with all the rest – a reason on its own “to go to Castelbuono”.
Because that goes without saying, you go to Castelbuono even just to eat, which is in no way a reductive quality.
Aside from the panettone, a tradition born from the healthy madness of a wonderful family with no inhibitions, there’s the “testa di turco” (Turkish head), the most typical dessert, or the “Risu n’ taanu” (literally “Rice in the saucepan”), another local dessert, made especially around Carnival time. Not just pastry though. There’s the rest of it, and the mushrooms, which come before the rest. From the porcino to the Pleurotus nebrodensis (commonly known as Funciu di basiliscu), the latter being the Madonie truffle, even more precious because it’s incredibly rare and out of season and unexpected, the basis for some incredible late-winter dishes. Or still, the meat of some wild animals, the scented oil and the biodynamic wines.
A territory driven to excellence, “nomen omen” Latins used to say, true to its name, it always gifts its trusting visitors with something “good”. And, even though that vintage amazement of cars racing in the town’s streets, competing to win the Targa Florio, is long gone, there’s still the same unchanged wonder of enjoying routes full of art, flavours and life.