GANGI, Sicily — Far from the packed beaches of Sicily's busy coastlines, there's a quieter and wilder world in its high mountains.
In more dangerous times, this was where much of Sicily's population settled, building castles, towns, monasteries and churches on steep slopes and the tops of mountains as protection against invaders and pirates.
This history of treasured isolation is stunningly revealed in the Madonie Mountains, a set of dramatic peaks dominating Sicily's north-central coast where the inhabitants live in towns that nesting eagles would be fond to call home.
When night falls, these mountaintop towns, lit up by the glow of lights, hang in the sky, complementing the constellations and shooting stars that can be seen here, a rare spot in Italy where light pollution isn't a problem.
One of these hanging towns is Geraci Siculo, built with vistas of the Tyrrhenian Sea and, far off over mountains, Mount Etna, Sicily's smoldering volcano.
To reach Geraci Siculo from the coast means taking a snaking highway up past vineyards, olive orchards, small gardens, livestock and the lively, medieval town of Castelbuono before climbing again through cork tree forests to reach 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) above sea level.
But the vertical ascent is not over. Reaching the piazza and the ruins of a medieval castle involves an ascent on foot up narrow staircases and streets, past quiet houses and balconies, embellished with an abundance of flowers in the warmer months. In summer, it's cool and refreshing here, a relief from the sweltering heat below. It's even chilly at times, as a mountain storm rolls through all day, delivering an operatic show of thunder, lighting, rains, brilliant displays of sun and darkness with banks of clouds.
Inside a shop, Giovanni Paruta, a 48-year-old butcher, is slicing veal for a client. "It's the good air," he said about what makes his town special. "The people, they are so welcoming."
He handled the slices of veal carefully, and then added: "The water. The water of Geraci has a lot of minerals in it. It's water that arrives straight from the mountain." The town bottles this mineral-rich water and sells it, and it gushes year-round from public fountains.
Many locals leave their doors open and say they enjoy life's simple pleasures. "We don't have a lot of needs up here," said Graziella Puleo, a 57-year-old school bus driver and town volunteer in Petralia Soprana, another dramatic mountain town.
For her, and so many others, growing a garden is one of those pleasures. Pointing to rows of vegetables, Puleo listed them: "Green beans, zucchini, eggplants, peppers. They're better than what you can buy in the store. I put nothing on them but water and a bit of animal manure."
Traditions carry on, too. There are shepherds, whose flocks of sheep often slow traffic on smaller roads. Family-run shops sell delicious local cheeses, breads and sweets. And every town has its artisans and tinkers, who can make and repair anything it seems, from an old pair of shoes to a watch that's stopped working.
"I fix anything," said Rosario Scancarello, a 71-year-old handyman in Geraci Siculo, working on a broken toilet float ball. Proving his point, he pulled out a highly-prized accordion he'd previously restored.
The Madonie Mountains are also a place where a bounty of ingredients found in the wild — mushrooms, mint, fennel, truffles, oregano, berries, chestnuts — are cherished by locals who forage for them in the mountains.
Wildlife is found here too — a rarity in Italy. There are eagles and falcons, wild pigs, foxes, deer, wild sheep. There are places where the sounds of humans fade away, replaced by breeze, animals and silence.
Despite the bucolic setting, not everything is rosy here, many residents said. Why? No jobs, which has, for decades, led to emigration.
"When I was born, there were between 150 and 200 children born a year," said Santo Sottile, a 57-year-old high school mathematics teacher in Gangi. "Now there are maybe 30 born a year."
Gangi is an ancient theater of human activity precipitously arranged on a hillside overlooking a vast plateau of rolling hills and cone-shaped peaks. This is the interior of Sicily, once a breadbasket for the Roman empire.
But in the modern world, "there is no work. The kids are forced to go away. This will inevitably lead to a decline," Sottile said.
He looked around the cafe, where he sat alone reading the newspaper on a Saturday afternoon. Outside on the main street, foot traffic was light.
"When we were young, there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people" out and about at the height of summer, he added as the cafe owner nodded.
"The Madonie," Sottile said. "What remains? Certainly the history." With that, he got up and went over to the Saint Nicholas Church, a fabulous example of rococo art.
Where to start? It's filled with paintings, candles and dangling lights, statuary of saints, gold, a crypt with mummies, history. A gigantic painting of the Last Judgment by Giuseppe Salerno, a 17th century Gangi painter, soars up to the ceiling in a back corner.
The Madonie also cast a spell on those who have left: Every summer, they return for religious processions, family meals, evenings spent among friends at bars and piazzas, soaking up food and customs.
That's the case with Mimma Sottile and Roberto Dinolfo. They were attending Mass at the Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, a church the faithful flock to since miracles were attributed to the site in the 14th century. They live in a city but they were born in Gangi.
"You can't take it out of us," said Mimma Sottile.