Having stayed in Rome for 2 weeks, I finally opted for the place likely to give me the best weather. Sicily. Getting there seemed to be rather painless, a train to Napoli, and a boat to Palermo.
Cycling in Naples was crazy, more so than in Rome. At one point, I look over to see the driver next to me doing her makeup in the mirror, casually lurching forward in time with the other vehicles. I’m pretty sure she already had enough on, there was no need for mid traffic touch ups. These are things I look out for when riding… just as important as eye contact with drivers. Avoiding piles of garbage is also key. It’s a jungle out there.
Straight away, I went to the port in Napoli to purchase my ticket to Palermo. The guy working the desk was apparently excited that someone else should be riding a bicycle in Naples. It’s like riding a bicycle here is a novelty. He gave me the low down on his Scott bicycle that he rides to work. I think he bought it at decathelon. Oddly excited about a shitty bike, in the land of legendary bikes. Still, good on him.
Eight hours to kill in the city. What to do? Well, Pia, my lady friend in Rome, warned me of the Spanish quarter. The narrow streets laden with mafioso and the generally unsavory citizens of this southern city. It’s like telling a child not to. Why the hell not 🙂 The Spanish quarter itself was an unwarranted climb, for a shitty castle. Riding in the narrow streets was more interesting. On several occasions, I’ve found myself in the arena of a lively debate. My lack of social intelligence here makes it hard to know if the yelling is normal, or adversarial. I did eventually roll around to Galleria Umberto, likely one of the only places I can ride inside.
I had plans to meet Elisabetta for a pizza in Napoli. When you know someone in a famous place, it’s generally advised you meet them and ask them to bring you out to eat. Mange mange mange! That’s what you’re supposed to do when in Italia. Unfortunately, I got a flat while cruising around the city and wasn’t able to make the meeting. I did manage to fold a couple pieces of pizza into my pizza hole prior to embarking on the bateau. Having already purchased my ferry ticket to Palermo, I didn’t want to screw around too much and miss my ferry.
I took the overnight ferry to Palermo. Took the cheapest fare possible, which involved curling up on a couch and hoping some sneaky Sicilian doesn’t steal your shit. I managed a couple hours of shut eye, however, debarking at 630am was a bit of a jolt to the internal clock.
In hindsight, this kind of screwed with my sleep patterns for the following two days.
I didn’t find Palermo very interesting. Rolled around the city for a while, checked out some of the sights and left. The northern coast going west was spectacular. I now know where Pelligrino is from. The first day was amazing, 18C and a blue sky all day. Amazing coastline, little traffic, and a pretty view of the sea.
I had ambitions to camp near the sea, however, that didn’t work out and I ended up in a cattle pasture.
Having purchased ingredients to make a beef curry, I was busy cooking up a storm when a herd of cattle walked by. As they spot me, they stop and stare. I can really only make out a couple dozen beady eyes. The pause draws out for a long time, and I wondered if some karmic justice is going to play out here.
I got there around noon, and never left for the rest of the day. I wander around, visit the castles, take photos, and shoot the breeze with the elderly locals. The place is home to three castles, the oldest predating the Romans.
I managed to find a place near the Spanish piazza where I could pitch my tent. This campsite rivals the other contenders for best wild campsite ever.
As I’m cooking my meal at this spectacular campsite, I get out of the tent to retrieve something. The moon is out, lighting the land. I spot two animals walking toward me down the path near the tent. Initially, I thought they were dogs, but there was more of a waddle than a walk. Shit, porcupines. Big porcupines. For the first couple seconds, they don’t realize someone is shining a light on them. They keep right on waddling over to me. At this point, I had some time to think. Three options come to mind:
2.Wield camera tripod on picnic table, wave it around menacingly, and then panic.
I already had significantly invested in option 1, and was thinking about option two when the porcupines made the next move. About 2 meters away, they suddenly realize my presence. The first picks option three, and runs away. The second, squeaks, pauses, and turns around to run the opposite direction. Paranoid, I kept peering out of my tent peephole all night.
Another ~80km along the coast, and I realize my goal of camping on the “beach”. The hilleburg tent is amazing, however, putting any tent up in 50km/hr winds is challenging. It’s worth it, to be seaside. In the evening, the clouds cleared, the full moon came out, and a deep pleasantness was had.
The following day I’d big plans to make it to Selinunte. The ride there was amazing. No traffic at all, only the sounds of the sheep moving about in the olive groves. Ancient Greek ruins, well worth the visit. I spent a couple hours wandering around, thankfully the weather was fantastic.
The park itself is large, and they wouldn’t let me take the bike in. Yet, there’s a road in there were I’d seen several cars drive by. I’m not sure what to make of this hypocrisy. This seems to happen in quite a few places in Italy, the Vatican, and most parks.
The following morning I awoke to the first rain I’d experienced in Sicily thus far. It came down quite heavily, so I took refuge.
The weather in Sicily seemed to change very quickly, so this little nasty passed by very quickly.
Down the road, I stopped and had a conversation with a very enthusiastic old bartender. He informed me that I should go 6km out of the way to a national park reserve called Torre Salsa. At this point, the weather had cleared again, sun out, and warm. This seemed like a good idea. I left everything at the park gates, and went for a walk. Again, another park where bicycle riding wasn’t permitted, despite the paved road through the park. My stroll turned into a 10km jaunt through the park, during which a large ominous cloud crept up behind me.
I hadn’t brought my jacket, and was beat down by large hailstones. Hail was something I didn’t expect in Sicily, at all. Thankfully, this passed quickly and I could continue my walk back. Along the ride out of the park, I passed a small hill and noticed ancient ruins spread over it.
This place is amazing.
I would come to the conclusion later, that there are hundreds of archeological sites in Sicily where the artifacts are lying out in the countryside, with not much there. No signs, park designations, or really anything at all.
Agrigento. This has been a highlight since I did the homework on Sicilia. The valley di Templi, with Greek temples, catacombs, theatres, and everything else that goes with it.
Having spent some time in the town, I rolled around doing some urban reconnaissance for urban wild camp sites. Typically these include parks, industrial areas, really anywhere I pitch a tent and be discreet about it. Rolling doing to the valle dei Templi, I was denied entry as they were soon closing. However, the adjacent olive grove was open for investigation. I managed yet another amazing campsite, under the ruins of ancient Greek temples. A small danger of being found out by the park staff, only amounts to a requirement to be discreet. Camping with this as a backdrop was amazing.
I split my mind over spending more time at this fantastic venue, or getting on the bike while the weather is still good.
Earlier, I’d asked my Swiss friends Tobi and Nicole about their cycling adventures in Sicilia. They’d mentioned the traffic was heavy between Agrigento and Gela, so they had taken then train. However, three children were brought along on this adventure, so it’s understandable you wouldn’t bring your loved ones on a busy highway. They were right to take the train, the ride wasn’t very interesting, unless you happen to enjoy greenhouses. There are an awful lot of them here.
On my way to Ragusa, I tried to avoid the main highway as much as possible. Plotting out a route on the map, I found a small secondary along coast. Along the way, there was little traffic, and I didn’t think much of it. 25Km along this road, I encounter this sinkhole. A road block, and a pack of wild dogs further complicate the situation.
Eventually, I was able to skirt around the roadblocks and carry everything across. The wild dogs typically back away when you show no fear. Typically. I’m getting pepper spray.
Along the road from Gela to Ragusa, I took a wrong turn and hadn’t realized it for 25km. Not wanting to backtrack this distance, I opted instead to take the small rural roads I could find through the hills.
These detours, the small roads, the forgotten streets, the places you never thought you would find yourself in, can yield the best surprises. Along this route, I found the pastures to be partitioned by stone walls. Some of them had been improved upon with electric fence, however, most of them were high enough to keep cattle.
It’s at this point the odometer wraps the 10,000km mark. Not a bad place to celebrate this milestone. Hard to believe it came so quickly, I almost feel I should be more tired or worn out. I guess it’s just a big round number, I shouldn’t say anything more about it. It ain’t the destination or the distance, it’s the journey.
The following day, I made it to Ragusa. Famous for chocolate and olive oil.
A nice town, I rolled around for a while but never stayed for long. I had anticipated making it to Siracuse, as I had arranged a host there. I did, however, stop in Modica and take that city in a couple hours. I witnessed a wedding in the center across the street from a coffee shop. Given the smells I must have been emitting, it was likely a good thing I stayed across the street.
Siracuse was a beautiful place to stop and take it all in. One of the most famous cities in the Mediterranean, conquered and operated by most major empires, home to archimedes, pagan churches, 2700 years of history … the list of reasons to love Siracuse is long. With scenery like this:
it isn’t hard to look at either.
The archaeological park is rich with ruins, and well worth the visit.
The cave is natural, and was according to legend, once used to imprison enemies of the tyrant Dionysius.
Between his time in Milano and Siracuse, Gianni seems to keep himself occupied with classical guitar, and tango lessons. He’d just started to learn tango, and had a dance event on the night I was there. I was invited to this Sicilian tango potluck, and I think my head nearly exploded. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and some of the best dressed people I’ve ever seen. All I had to do for the evening was wallflower it until intermission when everything was served. Wallflowering turns out to be more difficult when you only know a little Italian, and even less tango. Yet, I still got the mange mange mange from the Sicilian women sitting next to me.
When I eventually left Siracuse, I was treated to a absolutely beautiful warm day along the coast. Gianni mentioned a cycle path heading north, 25km along the coast. The only cycle path I found on the whole island, this was 25km of soul nourishing goodness.
That night, I camped in the countryside south of Catania. The night was clear, warm, and well lit by the full moon. The volcano Etna, snow covered and large, dominated the horizon. Etna towers at 3300M, and seemed much closer than the 80km away it was. Sadly, no exposure shot will suffice to explain the atmosphere. It was nothing short of amazing. I did manage to snap this photo the following morning.
I had resolved to climb up Etna, I wanted to get up there one way or another. More or less, I just wanted to be above the clouds. From where I’d camped, it didn’t look so far away. I made my way to Catania, gathered supplies, and begin my ascent. By the time I got into the park, it was 5pm and getting dark. I continued my ascent up the park road in the dark, lit by the moon. For two hours, I powered uphill in the quiet silence and eerie moonlight. The landscape changed to that familiar desolate look, and little patches of snow began to appear around 1500M. I had grand plans to camp above the clouds, where I could get a good view of Catania perched on the side of the volcano in my tent. I found a spot next to a building I believed to be abandoned. Two things can be learned from this experience. One, it is generally a dumb idea to pitch your tent on a high scenic plateau, unless you plan to remain awake all night while the wind rocks your tent. Two, not all abandoned buildings are abandoned. Some of them house construction equipment for park workers.
After a long night of little sleep, I was awakened by the park staff who were beginning road repair at 730am in the morning. They cranked their necks and looked a little confused at me, likely confused that someone would be camping this high up the volcano. Aside from the awkward Ciao in the morning, they left me alone and I did realize my goal of cycling above the clouds.
Eventually, I arrived in Messina and took the ferry to Reggio di Calabria. I had made plans with a friend to arrive in Ascoli Piceno. I hadn’t really thought this through properly, and kind of assumed I could just get on the ferry or the train. Getting to Ascoli involved taking a train to Rome, Ancona, and a third to Ascoli. The train to Rome doesn’t allow bicycles. The angry lady at the ticket booth tells me in Italian, that I must get a box and put the bike in a box. Ok fine. I hate this, but fine.
The conductor doesn’t seem to be impressed, and makes me take it in the cabin. As the night train does the milk run, more passengers board and we have to load the box in the baggage overhead. The Italian woman sitting next to me gives me the priceless mixed smile and incriminating look, while shooting the occasional nervous glance at the bending box above her head.
24 hours, 4 trains, and many va fanculos later, I arrived in Ascoli Piceno.
This is the place I spent Christmas, but that will have to be a story for another time. As usual, there are more photos on my flickr site.
Hope you all had a happy holiday.
Peace, love, and bicycle grease.