Portella Mandrazzi


by Albano Marcarini

The Portella Mandrazzi, which the athletes will meet at an altitude of 1,125 m halfway through the sixth stage Catania-Villafranca Tirrena, divides the Nebrodi and the Peloritani, the two coastal chains of north-eastern Sicily and connects the Tyrrhenian Sea from the north with the Ionian Sea to the southeast. It is crossed by the highway 185 “of Sella (!) Mandrazzi”, whose route dates back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, among the first public works carried out by the Kingdom of Italy in Sicily. Previously there was a road that reached Portella Mandrazzi from the north and continued to the south with a different route, much steeper and more straightforward, and probably only a mule track, aimed at reaching the “fiumara” Zavianni to allow a relatively easy connection with Francavilla di Sicilia. In fact, it is known how in Sicily, and even more in Calabria, the impressive and stony water streams used to serve as actual transit routes to enter the inland chains from the coast.

Francavilla di Sicilia, of distant Norman origins, is the reference village for the ascent from the southern side, characteristic for the high ground on which a famous fortress in the time of the Angevins stands. The ascent, 13 km long, starts after leaving the village, at progressive kilometre 43,4 of highway 185, at the Laurella bridge (elev. 460 m) on the S. Paolo river. An isolated and a little stranded cypress tree, at the roadside, marks exactly the beginning of the ascent. The landscape is a cross-section of the plant variety of the region: from prickly pears, to olive trees, including chestnut trees, and black pine forests on the peak. So, it is a particularly inviting route, but it is all exposed to the sun with the exception of the last 2 km when entering the woods. After briefly running along the parched Piano di Mancina, one takes the first of the seven hairpin bends climbing diagonally a slope that, from below, seems within reach. One goes up with a good pace because the slopes are absolutely easy (from 4 to 6%); one can enjoy the open view towards Etna and towards a slice of the sea. The cultivations are still visible: vineyards and olive groves, which soon, however, will give way to an uncultivated and bushy slope of poor pastures and rocks. No houses, only dried fountains and shaky roadhouses. The highway, one lane in each direction, with wide curves and two sets of double hairpin bends, it moves towards a ridge that is not the final destination but the watershed between the S. Paolo valley and the one of the Zavianni torrent. One can reach it at an elevation of 749 meters, where a secondary road also coming from Francavilla di Sicilia joins in from the right.

After two more hairpin turns, at progressive kilometre 39, one meets Borgo Schisina and Borgo Malfitano. Both uninhabited and abandoned – only the perimeter walls of the houses still remain – they are the result of a failed attempt to repopulate the mountain area pursued by an agrarian reform in the 1950s. Already in 1960, out of 164 houses that had been built and assigned and only 15 were actually occupied. However, Borgo Schisina had its moment of glory when in that year Michelangelo Antonioni filmed some scenes of the movie L’Avventura  starring Monica Vitti and Lea Massari.

The climb promises nothing more than the pleasure of the view by approaching the cliff of Pizzo Gromero. The slope keeps steady and in the last two kilometers it approaches percentages typical of a false flat (3-4%). It is also the shady stretch, sheltered by the pine forest. The ‘portella’ (elev. 1,125 m) is an open space with a ruined roadhouse. No signs, no indications. A constrained view towards the opposite side: only after a few hundred meters the colossal cliff of the Rocca Novara (elev. 1,340 m) makes itself clearly visible to the eye.

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