Hiking along a mountain trail, coastal path or meadowed field, do you ever wonder whose idea it was to turn it into a park, nature preserve or protected environment? Often Magellan and I comment on how thankful we are for whoever it was and occasionally, as we did on our first hike in Sicily—the island’s first park—we wonder how, and when, they made it happen.
Lo Zingaro as the locals call it, became a reserva naturale forty years ago this month, May 6, 1981.
On the northwestern coastline of the Gulf of Castellammare between the towns of San Vito lo Capo and Scopello, Parco dello Zingaro is one of the few unspoiled stretches of coastline on the island.
Steep cliffs and a network of walking paths rise above quiet bays. Turquoise waters lap seven pebbled beaches. More than three dozen species of birds nest and mate on this 1,620 hectare reserve. Rare and endemic plants scatter in abundance (800 species!)
We saw more wildflowers at Lo Zingaro than on any other hike in the world.
Starting at the north end near the town of San Vito lo Capo, we walked along the coast and looped back up through the mountains. It was late March, Easter weekend, the perfect time for this 15 kilometre hike, which is rated moderate-strenuous.
We had a big problem on this hike—Magellan forgot his water.
“Copious amounts of drinking water (and of course food) are essential for the walk as supply points inside the realms of the reserve should not be relied on,” Gillian Price warns in Walking in Sicily.
There were no vendors selling water at the start of the hike, no water taps along the route.
Lo Zingaro is totally exposed, it offers no shade. The sun beat down for the seven-hour duration of the hike. By the time we finished walking, our car was orphaned in the parking lot.
Plus, the elevation gain was actually 913 metres, not 600 metres as our guidebook said.
And I had only two litres of water to share, the amount I normally consume on a winter’s day curled up with a book.
Absorbed by the beauty of so many colourful blossoms, changing lenses, crouching to get a close-up and angling to the light helped us forget about our thirst. Oddly enough, just this week I read about neuroesthetics—an emerging science discovering how our brains respond neurologically to beauty. “We know that although flowers have little practical use, they have powerful effects on people’s behavior and feelings,” writes Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a professor at Harvard. The dazzling variety of wildflowers saved the day.
Magellan drank only small mouthfuls and was especially thankful that I would never (yet anyway) forget to carry water, but 6,000 citizens also deserved our gratitude on that hike. Here’s why…
Naturally, Lo Zingaro has long been admired. Vistages of palaeolithic settlements have been found in the park. Until the 1960s farmers raised livestock, grew patches of wheat and tended groves of almonds and olives. Smugglers and traffickers sheltered in coves and hid their goods in the numerous caves and grottoes.
Against the wishes of the local population, in the 1970s local governments persisted in their political efforts to build a coastal road to shorten the distance between San Vito lo Capo and Scopello. Soon after the first tunnel was cut through the limestone, environmentalists started a nationwide campaign to stop the road.
The culminating protest, the “March of Nature Lovers,” took place on May 18, 1980, when 6,000 citizens and conservationists held a peaceful protest blocking advancement of the tunnel and road. It’s said, “The lonely ‘entrance’ tunnel is a testimony to the power of will of citizens, while its raw, unfinished rocky walls with dripping water prove the tenacity of Mother Nature.”
At he south end of the hike, I slumped in near delirium in the shade of a building while Magellan jogged without his daypack to the parking lot near the village of Scopello, returning with two large bottles of water. I slaked my thirst with a two-litre bottle of Evian, narry a drop wasted, and shared the other bottle with him on the return.
But it’s a quenching of our thirst for wildflowers that defines Lo Zingaro for us. I imagine each of those wildflowers (we must have seen 6,000), rising up, showing us their heady brightness, representing one of those protesters, the finest reminder of what exceeds us.
Why didn’t I find out until this week that between March and May, you can follow the orchid path and see all 27 species scattered around Lo Zingaro?
Hunter, Alice. On her blog Alice Hunter Photography, you can see some gorgeous photos of Zingaro wildflowers.
Landscapes of Sicily Sunflower Books Short Run Press: Exeter, 2016. Another excellent hiking guide that also includes car tours and gentler walks.
Pak, Faith A. and Reichsman, Ethan B. “Beauty and the Brain: The Emerging Field of Neuroaesthetics.” The Crimson. Harvard: November 10, 2017.
Price, Gillian. Walking in Sicily. UK: Cicerone, 2015. Another one of her excellent guides to hiking.
The town of Scopello has a good online guide about Lo Zingaro.