We had not intended to interrupt our hike for such an early picnic but the grassy glade in Sicily's Madonie Park was so glossy green in the sunshine that a short break was impossible to resist.
At first they seemed unaware of us. A herd of ten or so had slipped from the trees while our attention was lulled by birdsong and the sound of the nagging wind, which blew away our scent, and had begun grazing perhaps only 100 metres down a slight incline. But at our slightest movement one of them froze, ears pricked, and away they went, leaping for safety in the dense beech forest.
Though it is not far, as the crow flies, from the lively resort of Cefalu on Sicily's north coast, the park is a world away. Here is some of Europe's wildest country. You cannot get there as the crow flies, of course. From our hotel, set among is own hillside vineyards a short drive from the sea, it took over an hour on tortuous roads often buckled and broken by the opposing forces of winter frost and summer heat, approaching each bend with apprehension, lest a car be coming the other way in the middle of the road.
Perhaps it is something in the Sicilian nature that makes its drivers, arguably, the most reckless in Europe. They are always on your back bumper. On the ring road around the capital, Palermo, I even saw one overtake another in the same lane.
On the generally well-marked hiking trails our nerves were soon soothed, however. In spring and early summer the limestone is a rock garden of delicate flowers. Under the trees there are splashes of wild cyclamen, clearings are snowy with daisies, open slopes are lorded by asphodel and what appears to be a bluebell wood turns out to be carpeted with forget-me-nots. One route took us through an extraordinary grove of holly trees, the oldest of which are reckoned to have stood there since the 16th century. Another led to the lyrically named Vallone Madonna degli Angeli (Valley Madonna of the Angels) where Nebrodi firs grow, relics of the ice ages.
After losing our way, we were helped by mushroom hunters who showed us their haul of the prized, pale-fleshed basilisco, protected in wicker baskets by the ubiquitous, fennel-like plant of the same name, among which they can be found.
Climbing through shattered limestone to Pizzo Carbonara, Sicily's highest summit outside the volcanic complex of Mount Etna, we thought we had sighted wild boar in a sink hole below the track. They may, on reflection, have been farmed animals gone feral. But there are certainly plenty of boar in the woods, for there was freshly scraped earth everywhere, evidence of their quest for roots, and one afternoon we met two German hikers, gingerly skirting a stand of trees for fear of provoking a sow they had encountered with her litter.
In and around the park there are small towns and villages, inward-looking and secretive, huddled on hillsides, still relatively isolated despite their TV satellite dishes, where it remains unusual to see a woman in a bar and small Fiats squeeze through steep, narrow streets. Such places yield fascinating vignettes. A collection of Sicilian observations by Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped At Eboli, his classic account of political exile to Italy's deep south during the Mussolini years, led us to Isnello, where he described a return visit by a Mayor of New York who had been born there. During the celebrations, he wrote, boys touched the mayoral limousine, apparently in the hope that this alone would transport them to a richer life in America. When we arrived on the street named after that famous son made good, Isnello was in darker mood. A priest waited for a coffin to be brought from a house and to lead a slow procession down the hill in the rain.
In Geraci we climbed to the ruins of a castle at the top of the village. Some workers were taking a lunch break from cutting the grass between the stones. One of them, introduced amid much cackling from the linguist, offered red wine from a plastic bottle and something indeterminate to eat from a tin. "You like some breakfast madam?" he asked my wife.
They were preparing for the annual festival of the transhumance, when cattle are driven to high pastures for the summer. There would be events around the park from cheese tasting to music and dancing. Here there would be a falconry demonstration.
By the weekend of the festivities, happily for the cows, hot weather had returned. Had they been with us on the slopes of Pizzo Carbonara they might have staged a sit down – in protest rather than merely in anticipation of rain. There were still small patches of snow in late May, while the anticipated views of the Aeolian Islands was obscured by cloud.
But though we cursed the cold wind and the need for several layers of clothing, the adverse conditions – not unusual in the park – added to the intrigue, to the thought that around the next bend you might stumble across another of those memorable images which, in more predictable places, you could not dare to expect.
Roger Bray booked through Italian specialist Long Travel (01694 7221934, www.long-travel.co.uk), staying at the Relais Santa Anastasia, a converted abbey where wine from its surrounding vineyards is available with meals. B&B is 176 per room, per night until September 3, half board 234. You will need a hire car (from 43 a day). Scheduled flights from Edinburgh involve changes. One possible option is to fly to Catania via Frankfurt with bmi and Lufthansa. Walking maps can be bought for E2 in Cefalu, at the park office on the Corso Ruggiero.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 6, 2010