Gangi: The Italian hill town the guidebooks forgot to mention

Have you ever fallen in love with a place that doesn’t merit a mention in most guidebooks and felt conflicted about the its obscurity? On the one hand, you don’t want it to be “discovered,” but on the other, the snub feels like a bit of an insult, even for you, the newcomer who just fell for the place. This is how I feel about Gangi, an obscure, remote 12th century hill town tucked away near Sicily’s Madonie Mountains.

Gangi is well off the tourism trail, and only 24 people have bothered to “like it” on Facebook. But in my family, it is our Jerusalem, Mecca, and Athens. My grandfather, Carmelo Seminara, was born in the town in 1880 and lived there until emigrating to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. My father talked about Gangi so much during my childhood, that by the time I visited Gangi myself for the first time, I felt like I already knew the place.

Gangi’s old town hasn’t changed much since my grandfather left almost a century ago. You can see the town’s pyramid of stone buildings, newer ones on the bottom, older on top from miles away as you approach. The road that leads up into the ancient center is so steep, narrow and intimidating that only those who live in town, have raced the LeMans course before, or who have a death wish should consider driving up to the very top of the town. Want to walk up? Better have a damn good pair of shoes, strong calves and a clean pair of lungs. You’d have to be on crack to even try to read a street map of the place- just keep going up, up, up until you reach the town’s heart, the Piazza del Popolo, or collapse in exhaustion trying.

The first time I tried to drive up the center, I made it about half way and then chickened out. Even when you have the road to yourself, a simple trip is harrowing. When a car tries to come at you going in the opposite direction, one party needs to back up and come to some kind of agreement regarding how the situation will proceed. I would pay good money to see someone try to drive an Escalade up into the Piazza.

The modern traveler cannot help but notice what isn’t in the old town of Gangi- no restaurants, no internet cafes, art galleries, hotels, wine shops, tourist information offices, souvenir stands, or any other business that caters to those who don’t live in the immediate area. What Gangi does have is a tangle of ancient streets and narrow dwellings populated by proud people that all know each other and still buy their bread, milk and veggies from men who drive by in trucks and hawk their wares by broadcasting over makeshift bullhorns.The pace of life is glacial and no one would have it any other way. Life in ancient Gangi revolves around the picture-perfect Piazza del Popolo, which features the Chiesa Madre, a remarkable 17th century church that contains a few dozen mummified priests in its basement, and an attractive town hall building with a clock tower.

In the corner of the piazza sits the Seminara Bar, which is owned by Pino and Mimma Seminara, wonderful people who make what I consider to be the world’s most perfect homemade gelato, right in the small back room of their shop. My family has no connection to the Seminaras- in Gangi, the name Seminara is a bit like Smith- but they treated my wife and I like members of the family from the first time we walked in the door and introduced ourselves.

The weather can change very fast in Gangi, and at night, it can be a mysterious place. Fog often rolls into the upper town and enshrouds the whole place in a haze of mist so dense that you may not be able to find your car or the place you are staying in.

To really appreciate the town, you need to stay up in the old town overnight, and that means asking around for a room or apartment to rent. At night, you can trek up and down the quiet, ancient streets amongst medieval churches and old stone dwellings or you can make the passegiata along the town’s corso, nodding to the old men who sit in one part of the square and grinning at the teenagers who play with their cell phones and kiss their boyfriends with gusto.

As we said goodbye to the Seminaras and to Gangi, I felt as though we weren’t just outsiders passing through the place, but rather, descendants of Gangitanis returning home. But Carmelo made a choice to leave the place, and as a result, we could never really fit in there, no matter how long we stayed or how much Italian we learned.

Gangi- like many hill-towns all over rural Italy- is a place that does not embrace change or outsiders. Perhaps, this was precisely what Carmelo didn’t like about it, but Gangi’s stubborn refusal to change is also a great reason to check the place out before it’s too late. Or, better yet, find your own favorite hill town.

Visiting Gangi

Gangi is a scenic hour to hour-and-a-half drive from Cefalu. Bus service is infrequent, so it’s best to rent a car, park it at the base of the town and walk up to the old town. We asked around and rented an apartment in Gangi, but there are also at least three agriturismos that offer food and lodging in the vicinity of the town: Tenuta Castagna, Gangivecchio, and Casale Villa Raino‘. I’ve eaten at the first two establishments and they are both excellent. The gentleman we rented an apartment from is Vincenzo Blasco, who lives at 42 Via G.S. Antonio. (telephone- 339-643-2483) Don’t miss the otherworldly gelato at the Seminara Bar in the Piazza del Popolo. Within a short drive of Gangi, there are several other atmospheric hill towns that are well worth visiting: Polizzi Generosa, Petralia Soprana, Sperlinga and Nicosia to name a few.