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A trip to Sicily

March 1997

By Andrea Casalotti, Sat, 29 Mar 1997 20:19:32 +0000


A group of five, three boys and two girls, went to Sicily in the third week of March 97. We all love cycling but for three of us it was the first week-long trip. We brought our mountain bikes, but did only two off-road stretches. The roads are mostly in a very good shape. We did Agrigento-Catania by train because we were behind schedule, our original plan was to cycle from Enna to Catania around the North side of Etna. What makes Sicily an excellent place to cycle is the quality of the food. We experienced no petty crime. Most hotels had a garage to keep the bikes overnight. Knowledge of Italian is a big bonus.


Leaving Palermo's airport we climb out of the autostrada and ride among lemon groves near the sea. At Terrasini twenty men are playing cards on a big terrace above the harbour. Their Sicilian is hard to comprehend, but we manage to follow their instructions to the Museum of the Carretto (the brightly painted Sicilian cart). It looks closed. "It's Saturday, 3 o'clock" we are told "They must have gone home." So we continue with a range of austere mountains on our left and the blue sea on our right. The main road is deserted and we ride 5 abreast. We follow the wide gulf and the holiday resorts are overbuilt. At Castellammare we ask the fruit-seller for a B&B. He makes a call and an apartment is found, conveniently in front a big pizzeria. It's Saturday night and everyone is out, from the large group of school girls at the pizzeria, to the cruisers down at the harbour, driving up and down the sea front. We play some calcetto at the Vogue bar and enjoy our first ice-cream sitting among the fishnets.


The bread is wonderful, with its thick yellow dough and sesame-filled crust. For breakfast we accompany it with cheese, olives and fig jam. We follow the coast, rocky now, rich with pines and eucalyptus. At Scopello's old tuna factory, six girls play the guitar and sing 'Sapore di Sale', a couple of fishermen crouch on the rocks and the cactus-topped faraglioni, the turquoise sea, the old buildings and the rows of rusting anchors give the place a magical air. At the entrance of the Zingaro Nature Park, officialdom blocks our way, so we decide to settle in Scopello, savouring ricotta-filled cakes and ice-creams in the picturesque square, more like a private courtyard with a grand eucalyptus in the centre. Under it Phil restores his reputation as a bike mechanic, and we return to Zingaro for a hike. The slopes are covered with wild fennel and white flowers. We find a little bay, the jade green water is too tempting and we dive in. After the sun has dried our bodies, we hike up the slope and return on the high ridge path in a white sea of flowers and rocks, with wonderful views of the coast. After relaxing in the square with a tasty panino, we intertwine our legs around the fire and have a dinner of pasta con le sarde, spaghetti with sardines and bread-crumbs.


A warm sun greets us and some pastries fuel us for the first climb. At the top we stop for bread and cheese, and talk to a shepherd who has an agreeable smell of sheep's milk, a falcon circling overhead. After a quick descent we climb a dirt track up a beautiful valley, and then to the top of the Zingaro ridge. From here the view over S. Vito lo Capo is spectacular and so is the descent. After an hour through olive groves and wheat fields, we start the climb to Erice. Switchback after switchback, we enjoy the view over distant Mt. Cofano, its top at first clear of clouds, then with a table cover followed by shaving cream, and by the time we enter a pine forest, clear again. In Erice's pretty main square we sit at a bar and look up: framed by the medieval buildings a fantastic show of clouds racing close above the rooftops. Erice is very pretty and not spoiled by tourist shops, but lacks the warmth of a lived city. And the wind was positively cold. The beginning of the descent was through the clouds, then the view over Trapani, and the Egadi islands opened with the sea shimmering with sunlight. Bliss. In Trapani our efforts were rewarded by an excellent meal: antipasti, followed by the local pasta al pesto trapanese and pasta with anchovies and melanzane, ending with cassata and cannoli


Breakfast in Sicily: eating a delicious almond pastry, watching the beautiful bar girl with the sensuous painted lips. A short train ride takes us to Segesta. We climb around the verdant hill and suddenly the temple appears, majestically blending in the countryside. We walk up the hill among yellow daisies to the theatre. The schoolchildren leave and we savour the salty cheese, olives bread and oranges on the marble seats with the vast countryside as a backdrop. The hills are beautiful and we climb to Salemi, where they have prepared an intricate construction made of bread for the St. Joseph's celebrations. Ask two Sicilians for directions and you will get two diametrically opposite answers. I choose wrong and end up doing some off- road. Then an exhilarating ride among rolling hills of wheat to reach Castelvetrano. A dirt track among olive groves takes us to our second sea, after sunset.


We get up before sunrise to sneak in the ruins of Selinunte. The collapsed columns, the heaps of marble, the half standing temples, vivid symbols of human creativity and destructiveness. We walk down the beach to the little harbour where the day'' catch is being auctioned. Marinella is a deserted sea resort and everyone is fixing things, including the road in front of our room with the view. Maari has an ear infection and needs evacuation by bus to Agrigento, Phil nursing her. We ride among fertile coastal plains to Sciacca, where in the vibrant harbour, people huddle pick-up trucks to buy crates of fish as they are downloaded from the boats. Action then shifts to another oncoming boat. We experience the freshness of the catch at dinner: triglie al cartoccio followed spaghetti alla marinara and spaghetti alla bottego. Meanwhile our kind pensione landlord was celebrating Father's day with a feast of 50 fried rice balls.


The wind mercifully changed direction and it powerfully pushed us among orange groves or along the tempestuous sea. At Eraclea, after a quick visit to the Greek theatre, we take a walk on the beach. The wind is roaring, long surfing waves sweep the beautiful arc of sand and as I play and run with an Alsatian in the water, the joy of being alive. We cycle inland and it is a great ride to Agrigento among wonderful mountains. Maari feels better and we walk to the temples of old Agrakas. Reunited I appreciate what an ideal group we are, our differences complementing well, and a sense of joyous fun pervading our trip. In spite of the heavy carabinieri presence at our hotel, we manage to sneak in one of us free. We end the day with a good selection of pastas at a simple trattoria.


The train leaves the elegant station heading towards the interior. Soon after Enna, we see Etna, in white splendour. We visit Catania during siesta time, from the Norman castle, to the baroque monastery, to the Roman and Greek theatres. After resting, we are invited for dinner by Angelo, whose girlfriend Stefania has prepared a very good pasta with tuna and saffron, followed by a rice based dessert served with hot honey. Our contribution is a delicious chocolate dove.


While the girls go and see sword fish being chopped up in the lively market, the boys join Angelo for the big climb of the week. 40km up Etna to Rifugio Citelli at 1750m. With the bags left behind, and the legs by now primed, it turns out to be easier than feared. After a short rest stop at Zafferana, where we admired a huge display of mock-fruit marzipan, the climb proper starts in an oak forest. The weather has changed and we soon reach the level of the clouds. This adds to the mystery and charm of the landscape as the large lava fields seem to smoke. We see how a recent lava flow had pierced the wall of a small chapel. There are no cars, it is just us in this silent world, our attention focused on our pedal strokes, steadily climbing. I am piloting a tandem, occasionally Angelo rises from his seat to push stronger and I feel his breath close to my back. These are magical moments. We reach the snow line and suddenly the clouds clear, we see the sun and the white slope of the mountain. But it is a fleeting moment: at the top the rifugio is closed, and the descent is very very cold as heavy rain starts to fall. We restore our circulation 15 km down with a plate of pasta alla Norma. We continue the descent, the tandem feels like a bobsleigh, Phil and Ramzi chasing each other on the wet tarmac. After a hot shower we have an excellent pizza alla rucola.


A light rain is falling and we abandon our plans to cycle to Aci Reale. We walk in the centre, watching church-goers buying interwoven palm leaves (it's Palm Sunday) and enjoying our last pastries and ice- creams.