Trans-America bike ride 2014, final prep and panic.

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Bunnies.

Bunnies.

Cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossoms.

Back when music was good and thoughts of nuclear annihilation was dinner party conversation, there was progressive rock and concept albums. I have a sneaky suspicion that the average attention span was longer back then. A three album live offering featuring tracks that stretched close to 20 minutes did not feel too taxing for my teenage self. You set aside close to 2 hours whilst you did your chemistry and physics homework, and away you went on a musical journey.

Second-hand dress.

Second-hand dress.

Washington in early spring.

Washington in early spring.

Now one of the things that you will notice on those live albums, in between the 15 minute drum solos, is the crowd. You had sleeve notes and artwork with these vinyl masterpieces and the mob going crazy is in New York. American crowds did that, and still do that. There would be a couple of guys shouting ” Albatross ” in reference to a Python sketch on the tracks recorded in London but that would be it. America does enthusiasm, and has a limit set high on self-conscious and embarrassment that makes the rest of the world look reserved, timid even.

Rims

Rims

4 new rims from the UK.

4 new rims from the UK.

Milk powder, oats & raisins. Check!

Milk powder, oats & raisins. Check!

After nearly 27,000 miles on the road we are tired. That is 31 rides Lands End to John O’Groats back to back for goodness sake. We needed people pulling over, getting out of their cars and shouting ” Your awesome!!! “. It had to be a ride back in the USA for our final year, we needed an American crowd this time.

Warren's Dave Yates Bike, aka Sebastian.

Warren’s Dave Yates Bike, aka Sebastian.

Longer mud flap.

Longer mud flap.

Quietstove - a simmering aid that we could not work with.

Quietstove – a simmering aid that we could not work with.

The bikes have had their brushes with baggage handlers and scrapes down gnarly brickwork and looked tired. Bits that go round had been doing that for ages and needed replacing. The Big Agnes tent was showing it’s age, waterproofs and tyres were on their last legs and other things we were just bored with. Almost everything we needed had changed in the 3 and a bit years we have been on the road. Shimano does not produce the gear system and hubs we set out with and Schwalbe has dropped the tyres and even my favorite underwear is different now.

Jeff from Aviation Velo, Linthicum, near Baltimore.

Jeff from Aviation Velo, Linthicum, near Baltimore.

Top mechanic Dave, Aviation Velo.

Top mechanic Dave, Aviation Velo.

American Flag days.

American Flag days.

The geese started to fly north in wide V-shaped skeins as the days lengthened and temperatures picked up. It snowed again. We tried out new bits of kit and some of it worked. We renovated things and washed and dried everything that did not have a care label telling you not to. Some new things worked – mud flaps for the bikes, and some we could not work with – Quietstove. Lots of our kit is still with us just to see how long you can use it before it falls apart. My Rapha shorts have exceeded all of my wildest expectations and are still on the team.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur; new.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur; new.

No 7303 tram.

No 7303 tram.

No 2187 tram.

No 2187 tram.

No 26 tram.

No 26 tram.

So, it is time to ride out of the garage here in Catonsville and down the coast to pick up the Trans-America bike route. We have been guests of Amy and Jerry Newman who have treated us like family and are now very much part of ‘ Team Sportswool ‘. If you want to see what it is like to ride across the USA, then join the blog by clicking on the button towards the top left of the page. If you have been with us before, you know the routine.

At the Orioles Park, Baltimore.

At the Orioles Park, Baltimore.

The field, Orioles Ball Park, Baltimore.

The field, Orioles Ball Park, Baltimore.

Big screen, Orioles Ball Park, Baltimore.

Big screen, Orioles Ball Park, Baltimore.

USA, one more time.

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Washing and drying sleeping bags after 500 sleeps!

Washing and drying sleeping bags after 500 sleeps!

” I tell you what, shall I scribble out that zero in the brackets? ” I had been given two places that are on the database of my insurance company, and this was the closest. Since we had arrived here my sinuses had been complaining. It was starting to feel as if I was being pinned down by a woman wearing stilettos. She had got one foot on the floor, but the other had the heel right on the bridge of my nose. We were trying to help the girl at reception make her first international call.

‘ There are too many numbers! ‘. We were trying and failing to get across the concept of telephoning somewhere outside the USA. ‘ It should be like that, ‘ and of course she was pointing at the telephone number of where we were staying. ” This is a number in the UK, England and not anywhere near Baltimore. “

If she had been a dog in a previous life she would be a Spaniel, that is 100% certain. ” You need all of those numbers, you can’t take any of them off the front or the back, that is the number “. I was starting to doubt that I had used that very number less than an hour ago. For the tenth time, she tried again to dial the number.

To be honest it dawned on us then that it may not be Spaniel girls fault. ” I think your phone will not accept an international number “. ‘ I’m dialling 9 for an outside line though ‘. She was smiling, still eager to do a good job and try again. ” We had the option of coming here or John Hopkins, what would you do? I asked her ” We went to John Hopkins Emergency Room. All I needed was antibiotic nose spray.

$200 for the consultation and $70 for the meds. I could have scored crack cocaine faster and cheaper. The little bottle of clear liquid with the spray pump is more expensive than the single malt 12 year old whiskey that is on sale at the liquor store next to the pharmacy.

Air Malta had treated the bikes well on the flight to London Heathrow. We handed them over to left luggage for a night and went to see Virgin Atlantic. ” Do we have to book them in? ” Virgin Atlantic are our favourite ‘ flying with bikes ‘ airline, and part of the reason we are transiting through London. ” Just turn up and a bike bag up to 23Kg is free “. Richard we love you.

With most of the day to play with, we booked into a hotel and joined the crush of humanity that is a tube ride into central London. You have to stick to a bit of a plan if you arrive at the British Museum or it is a bit like the panic of facing a near empty car park. The choice paralyses you, and you will probably end up in the bookshop or cafe. ‘ A History of The World In 100 Objects ‘ is possibly the best podcast on the WWW. All of the objects are in the museum, including my favourite – Minoan Bull Leaper and we had to see it.

Well done Virgin!- both bikes there and in great conditions.

Well done Virgin!- both bikes there and in great conditions.

Virgin Atlantic took the bikes for hand delivery to the plane and we had enough time to relax, drink half a cup of coffee and spill the rest over the departure lounge floor. Also enough time in duty-free to get the first inkling that someone had cloned my credit card.

Washington Dulles airport USA and the horror of immigration. No matter how many times you have checked on the WWW about ESTA requirements and the validity of the visa you have sitting in your passport, the guy at the desk is judge and jury. We have given ourselves 3 days ‘ wiggle room ‘ this time in case our outward flight is delayed.

Walk through the woodland.

Walk through the woodland.

We are in. Welcome to the land of zip-lock bags and switches that you flick up for on! Welcome to tumble drying on a summers day, welcome to the best customer service in the world. Welcome to some of the best cycling in the world.

Within 48 hours we are more pleased than I would ever admit to, and getting our sleeping bags laundered. We had pushed the envelope of acceptability on this one, and run up over 500 sleeps on Esther’s bag. It may be as much as 800 sleeps, which is truly disgusting and possibly a record. You need an industrial sized dryer and nerves of steel washing down, and we had one of those. It teaches you to never let your down bag get wet.

My credit card had definitely been cloned. Possibly on Sicily by some Mafia crew, or possibly Malta. We had only used the card over the counter about 3 times this month when we ran low on folding cash. More than three years on the road and always dealing with cash withdraws from the safest looking ATM’s, and now we have let our guard down.

... with the dog.

… with the dog.

We are in a good place. N0 what am I saying here, we are in a great place and this could have been a disaster in the depths of China. The snow falls and we take the dog long walks. You can settle down and wait the short amount of time it will take for your scant knowledge of the American Civil War to be found out. I think I could write about half an A4 page on the war. Esther, as a German and from the former East by way of excuse and apology could write her knowledge on a postcard. There would be lots of room left for the address and stamp and kisses at the bottom. In her defence, she knows rather a lot about Marx and Engels.

Annie the dog, I.

Annie the dog, I.

Frozen.

Frozen.

We know almost nothing about the battles, but then why should we. I can sit on my bed at home and see the wood where Mary Queen of Scots surrendered to the English forces, and the history of Europe changed forever. There is the site of a Roman camp if I look slightly the other way. There is only so much room for history and I have not even mentioned ‘ The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh ‘, which is just a bit further over. If Clint did not feature in a film about it, then I do not know about it, sorry.

Annie the dog, II.

Annie the dog, II.

The winter is a long one here. We have learned the phrase – Polar Vortex, and drop it into conversation over coffee like meteorology graduates. Animals are finding it hard with day after day of sub-zero temperatures. Our nemesis from previous cycling here has paid us a visit.

Stared down by a raccoon on the other side of the window.

Stared down by a raccoon on the other side of the window.

If you think about bears and camping, then you must consider Raccoons as an equal adversary. Our panniers have been holed, clasps undone and jerky and cheese stolen by Raccoons. Never ever underestimate them, and certainly try not to let one bite you. They are fearless, cunning, smart and undeniable cute. Do not drop your guard even for a moment. I know we will be outsmarted again, but at the moment it is us looking out the window from a warm room. When humanity finally presses the button and sends us into oblivion it is predicted that only cockroaches will survive. I think you could add Raccoons. Some how, some way they will be there in the smoking rubble, that is a given.

Good beer - we are so predictable... Fat Tire.

Good beer – we are so predictable… Fat Tire New Belgium Brewing Company – HURRAH.

Sicily, Malta and how to pack a bike for flying.

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Sketches of angler and man with bird cage.

Sketches of angler and man with bird cage.

We are packing for the next part of our journey at the moment. Which is what led me to thinking about ‘ a stuffed shark’. Damien Hurst created what even the BBC refers to as ‘ the stuffed shark ‘, back in 1991. It became the iconic work of Britart and sold for  a baffling quantity of cash. I like the work.

Bike in bag, I.

Bike in bag, I.

What has rather been lost in all the fuss, is the proper title of the work. One thing Damien Hurst is very good at is titles, and of course self promotion. Anyway, the title is ‘ The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living ‘. Which is why I was thinking about the shark and empathy. When you pack, and certainly when you have something as delicate, irreplaceable and beloved, as your touring bike. You have to put yourself into the head space of a baggage handler, and possibly a very pissed off one.

Bike in bag, II.

Bike in bag, II.

Pipe insulation for the frame. Cardboard for the chain ring.

Pipe insulation for the frame. Cardboard for the chain ring.

How can they throw your bike? Is there enough padding? How many bags can they pile on top of it, how will it cope with being crushed? Even if your bike survives the flight, there is the more brutal passage of the delayed luggage van. All you can do is pad it, zip tie it, label it and possibly make the sign of the cross and wish it ” bon courage “.

Taking off the pedals using furniture to lever against!.

Taking off the pedals using furniture to lever against!.

Chain and derailleur off.

Chain and derailleur off.

Then there is the empathy required to be standing in a place that is -20′c, and packing stuff for +42′c. We are back to the shark again. This is the maths we had to do on our way to Malaysia last year, and at the moment we have 24′c here in Malta and need to pack for the snow and arctic of N.E. USA and the flooded streets of a southern England transit day. It is said that only humans and dogs, have the ability of empathy, which you can have a think about along with a look at the shark.

The bike bag.

The bike bag.

You left us in Siracusa, which we loved. Getting out of Siracusa we loved somewhat less, and we were doing it at rush hour. We were heading away from the coast in a sort of 10 o’clock direction, heading towards the town of Florida. You do wonder if there is a Sicilian and orange growing connection with the name. We were eventually riding through the zone where town gives way to orange groves and left the madness and pot holes behind.

In scale, Archeological Park Siracusa, Sicily.

In scale, Archeological Park Siracusa, Sicily.

Off to Florida.

Off to Florida.

It continued to be busy and mentally challenging biking until we picked up the SS124 and left behind unpleasant sections of narrow road-work cycling. This became calmer, but the road tipped upward, pointing us towards the mountains that fringe the coast and hold the clouds.

Announcement board in a local cafe, Solarino, Sicily.

Announcement board in a local cafe, Solarino, Sicily.

Skeletal tree. Sicily.

Skeletal tree. Sicily.

Once more we are on a perfect road, in summer biking gear, with sun on our back and it is February. This area just inland and around Etna is one of the best cycling areas of the island. It rolls and curves in a pleasing way as it passes through the most lovely of pastoral landscapes. We stop in Solarino for first coffee.

The day was warming. Now up to over 20′c a few local road cyclists came by in what I would label, deep-winter clothing. Full face hats, full finger gloves, over-boots the lot. This is obviously a choice road and they were full of high spirits as they shouted greetings. The local fly population was also out in number and enjoying the warmth, which brings me to a bit of advice.

Never, if you can avoid it, should you drain your last water bottle. Always leave a mouthful in reserve as you may need it. This is a rule that I follow. Coughing, spluttering and eventually retching I am trying not to swallow a fly. Eventually you have to give in and swallow, and this is where the emergency water comes in. You will be very glad you kept some back and possibly email to tell me.

Italian Baroque, Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, Italy.

Italian Baroque, Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, Italy.

After 850m of steady climbing the road decides to ramp up beyond cycling grades for a walk and a push to the town of Palazzalo. We have something to post which takes an eternity. An oppertunity for a chat and catching up on gossip is never missed. Which is why we’re late for the shop closing time by 3 minutes. An Italian friend looked us in the eye when we asked about siesta, ‘ Italy does not have siesta’. I remember it well.  But it does not explain why everything is closed from 1 till 4pm, which I would describe as the very definition a country that has a siesta.

Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, Italy.

Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, Italy.

There is an open cafe and we sit and order coffee number two of the day and some tasty treats. In a moment of curiosity we log onto the ferry company site on the WWW. They have bought forward the sailing times by 5 hours and cancelled the next days all together. We knew to look as we had already come across some of the rather Cavalier attitude to timetables that this company has. We had already done our days work but this changes things. Winter storms can trap you for days on the wrong side of the Med. We needed to cycle on.

A big old Olive tree.

A big old Olive tree.

It is always horrid when you think you are done for the day and need to do more. Just to make things worse, the sky clouded over just enough to threaten rain. We needed to leave ourselves with very little to ride in the morning. The sort of distance where you could have a puncture or two without panic and still make the ferry.

We arrived in Noto by late afternoon. There are many B&B’s as this is a world heritage site and exquisitely beautiful in a sort of cake icing over the top baroque way. We did an increasingly desperate tour of B&B establishments. None opened the door or answered the phone. There was a sign for a hotel. Like all such signs it failed to mention anything about how far you were going to be led. We followed the signs. It was well signed. It took us through areas of construction, areas of dereliction where our hearts sank. Finally what looked like a dead end. But it was open.

One of the great Baroque churches in Noto, at night. Sicily.

One of the great Baroque churches in Noto, at night. Sicily.

Noto deserves more attention than a walk in the dark looking for something to eat. Sadly that is all we gave it. We had an early start to prepare for and a ferry to catch. Noto did not want us to leave. It has the most despicable one way system on Sicily and it had us in its grip.

You can see the guy who designed it pouring over print outs of the town map. Tongue out slightly at the corner of his mouth, brow furrowed in infantile concentration. He may even have used crayons. It is a nightmare on a bike. Describing a sine wave it cuts across the grain of the land leaving you pushing or pulling on brakes for fear of your life. You could walk there quicker, no twice or three times as fast.

Almond blossoms.

Almond blossoms.

Palm trees and fluffy clouds.

Palm trees and fluffy clouds.

We wasted ages sticking to the law. We make good time, but then there were roundabouts. Only the Brits get the concept of roundabouts and understand the rules. It should be as simple as give way to those on the roundabout and wait for a gap. The French don’t manage, the Germans are slowly getting it after years of thinking about it. The USA had them first in the world but hated them. The Italians put random STOP signs in the middle of them. Crazy!!

The Med from the Sicilian side.

The Med from the Sicilian side.

Shadow in Mediterranean sand.

Shadow in Mediterranean sand.

Which is how Esther hit the back of my bike. She stayed upright, but we are both shaken. We make it to the ferry terminal with loads of time to spare but nerves on edge. Bringing the sailing time forward has done us a favour and we arrive in Valletta in the light, which is a big help with adjusting to riding on the left.

Back at the Qawra promenade in glorious sun shine.

Back at the Qawra promenade in glorious sunshine.

A night in Valletta and then it is a ride along the coast to Bugibba and our hotel. We have bikes to pack, insurance to arrange and stinking colds to recover from. We will be in the USA, just outside of Baltimore for a while whilst we wait for the snow to clear from the east coast mountains. We have a talk at the Streetcar Museum and radio interviews to give. If you are in the area, do say hello. If you are on our planned route, we would love to meet you. See you in the depths of winter very soon.

Trans America Route.

Trans America Route.

Plaza in Taormina.

Plaza in Taormina.

Syracuse/Siracusa, at the end of a ride around Mount Etna, Sicily.

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Dramatic appearance of Etna's peak. South Side.

Dramatic appearance of Etna’s peak. South Side.

For two days the Norman tower that overlooks Motta Sant Anastasia, had been making only the very briefest of appearances. It, and the town have spent most of that time obscured behind curtains of low grey cloud as rain sheeted down. There are many types of rain. The rain that spoils a wedding, that which spoils a cricket match that looked to be won, or the sort that robs you of sleep if you have just cut your hay crop and face ruin.

House front in Motta Sant Anastasia. Sicily.

House front in Motta Sant Anastasia. Sicily.

For the touring cyclist at the very dreg-end of enthusiasm and energy, even a bit of rain can be too much. Optimism is a great energy giver. It can add ten years to your life, make hills feel less steep and panniers lighter. There is nothing like days of rain to banish optimism. If you have a horrid cold and the rain is falling like stair rods, your glass is nine-tenths empty. It is time to book another night at the hotel reception and look up the weather forecast for Edinburgh to cheer you up a bit.

Seniore Motta's Lemon grove.

Seniore Motta’s Lemon grove.

It was not until the end of day three that we realized that our room had a view of Mt. Etna, and probably one that we had been paying a premium for since the moment we arrived. After four days I am still too ill to be turning up for work if I had any. But there I am, throwing my right leg over the top-tube of the Yates’. A wispy veil of cloud hangs over Etna and a thrilling amount of smoke is now visible rising from the rim. It is time to move on.

Etna from the South. February.

Etna from the South. February.

Etna from the South -West. February.

Etna from the South -West. February.

It is all a bit of a gamble as the WWW. tells us we have a climb to over 1,000m ahead of us. I think I know my body well enough after all these years of sporting endeavour to know what reserves I have available. Today I judge it to be 1,000m of climb and not a kilometer more than expected or we are in trouble. We turn left, then right, and within the first kilometer I am off the bike and pushing as the road kicks up before we are even out of the town.

The first lava flows.

The first lava flows.

The land South-West of Etna. Sicily.

The land South-West of Etna. Sicily.

We pick up the SS284, the climbing eases back to 4% and we begin a slow circumnavigation of Europe’s most active volcano. The road is busy, but most of the time there is some sort of a strip to ride on at the side. It feels good to shake off the inertia and turn the legs. We celebrate good progress by pulling off the main road and diving down to the town of Adrano, for first coffee. By great good fortune we are in the hands of 4 time Italian baking champion and Harley rider. ” Pope Francis has blessed my Harley “. ( a few days later we read about how the Italian Harley riders presented the Pope with a customised Harley that he sells at auction for over  €250,000 to fund a home for the poor ).

Purple cauliflower.

Purple cauliflower.

He was showing an old (!) lady dancing up and down his fruit stall.

He was showing a film of an old  lady dancing up and down beside his fruit stall.

640m climbed, but the second half of the day is harder as the road turns through old lava fields. I have no idea what makes a good place to grow Pistachios, but evidently this is it. We are riding through Italy’s Pistachio area and it looks beautiful. 850m and we ride into the town of Bronte. The town’s fruit sellers are at the roadside to meet us. Esther gets shown a film of the celebration of Pistachio day – they take the nut very seriously.

Ring road around Etna.

Ring road around Etna.

West side of Etna.

West side of Etna.

Route 284 .

Route 284 .

Entering Randazzo. Sicily.

Entering Randazzo. Sicily.

We are now nudging the 1,000m contour and the slope to our right has snow on it. The temperature is just 9′c and going down. There are steep sections that have you tugging at every zip and trying to vent heat. Short descents have us freezing and zipping up again. This is repeated, never once letting you feel quite warm enough or cool enough to be comfortable. My shorts, gps, gloves all have snail trails of snot over them and my legs are turning to jelly. A fast descent and we have made it to Randazzo. If it was 2Km more it would have been in doubt. The cold air hits and I am starting to shake violently. We have a room booked and need to find it quickly and get warm.

I felt like Winter. North Side of Etna in February.

It feels like Winter. North Side of Etna in February.

Bike.

Bike.

Lava Stone as building material. Randazzo, Sicily.

Lava Stone building material. Randazzo, Sicily.

Morning is dry, and there is a low winter’s light that is picking out the bare trees on the slope in front of us. We do a lap of the towns narrow side streets. Everything is constructed of dark laval stone. People must flock here for the cool in summer, but today this winters light is less than flattering. We need to get some movement going, some heat into stiff bodies after yesterday climbing. It should be a downhill ride to the coast today, but somehow we find a few brutish climbs first. Once more, I would not be at work today.

Randazzo. Sicily.

Randazzo. Sicily.

Working the land. Sicily.

Working the land. Sicily.

Route 120 . Sicily.

Route 120 . Sicily.

Rock hard Lava flows.

Rock hard Lava flows.

We take a left and pick up the road to Linguaglossa – the SR120, and start our descent into the orange groves and warmth of Spring that is down the hill from here. It should be an easy day. Somehow life knows when to wrench an easy day from your hands and spoil things. If it can rip you off a bit as well, then so much the better.

Furtile Land on the North Side of Etna. The valley of Alcantara.

fertile land on the North Side of Etna. The valley of Alcantara.

In the distance : Castiglione di Sicilia. Sicily.

In the distance : Castiglione di Sicilia. Sicily.

Fresh produce.

Fresh produce.

The valley of Alcantara. Sicily.

The valley of Alcantara. Sicily.

We have booked a room, and from the very first moment we have a bad feeling. It is not ready, can we come back in an hour? One and a half hours later we have got both our bikes and all ten bags up to the sixth floor of the horrid block of apartments. We are shown a grubby room, and then the guy starts on the long list of additional costs we are expected to pay. If I wanted to kill someone and not have the body found for weeks this would be a good place. The guy is staying just the right side of friendly as we try to tell him words to the effect ” This is a shit hole and you are trying to rip us off “. We get an unchristian vindictive joy in posting an online review later that evening on the WWW.

Balcony and typical Sicilian pottery.

Balcony and typical Sicilian pottery.

The light is almost at the point of unsafe to ride, and we are sitting at a cafe trying to find a place to stay. If you sit still anywhere along the coast here an athletic African guy will try to sell you a wooden giraffe or a bowl that folds flat made out of wood. It feels like the most dispiriting business models yet created short of prostitution. By the magic of the WWW. we book into a hotel that is just 20 metres away, and the day is saved just short of bursting into tears.

Taormina, Sicily.

Taormina, Sicily.

Perfect setting for a theatre. Taormina, Sicily.

Perfect setting for a theatre. Taormina, Sicily.

Graffiti.

Graffiti.

We book two days and have nothing but light duties planned as we are now both suffering from heavy colds. This begins next morning with what must be ‘ one of the great bus journeys of the world ‘. It is short, steep and violently sinuous and takes you up to Taorminn and stunning views of Etna.

Big arch of the Greek Theatre. Taormina, Sicily.

Big arch of the Greek Theatre. Taormina, Sicily.

The bus drivers require great skill, nerves of steel and a little of the Ninja. Our driver is young, which is good. He is trying to chat up the girl in row 3 as he drives, which is less good but typically Italian. I can see his eyes in the rear view mirror and 95% of the time he is paying the girl the compliment of full eye contact. He gets up the climb with muscle memory alone, and a good chunk of luck of the young. The trip is worth every bit of the €3 return.

Door knob. Taormina, Sicily.

Door knob. Taormina, Sicily.

Church. Taormina, Sicily.

Church. Taormina, Sicily.

Etna. Sicily

Etna. Sicily

After a day so unremarkable I have no memory of it, we set off again.With great good fortune we stumble across one of the best rides of our time on Sicily. We pick up minor roads that run along the coast and allow us to leave the traffic of the SS114 behind. With the sea to our left, we tick off fishing villages as we make our way around the base of Etna. Why anyone would build here is beyond me. In a quite section we stand astride our bikes and can hear the explosions from the volcano. They are deep low Hi Fi deep, and can be felt in the stomach and soles of the feet.

Ionian Sea.

Ionian Sea.

Fishing Village North of Catania. Sicily.

Fishing Village North of Catania. Sicily.

Orange groves, near Catania. Sicily.

Orange groves, near Catania. Sicily.

The lava flows on the East side of Atna.

The lava flows on the East side of Atna.

My cold is getting a little better, whilst Esther is going in the opposite direction. We have booked into a hotel once again and wake to rain and thunder. Neither of us would now be at work if we had it. The hotel is fully booked and we leave Catania without really seeing that much in daylight. What we do get to experience is the one way system and lethal traffic of a Saturday morning. In stark contrast to the beauty of yesterdays ride, todays is rubbish.

The old 114 , 30+ km of Petrol Chemical Industry.

The old 114 , 30+ km of Petrol Chemical Industry.

Roads made with blocks of lava stone are hard wearing, beautiful to look at and slippy both wet or dry. Yesterday a procession for one of the saints days passed the hotel dripping candle wax. If there was one way to make the streets even more slippy – and they are now ‘ as slippy as well buttered ice rink! ‘, that would be it. We walk the first bit. If you are looking for a ride that takes in every one of the islands Petro Chemical facilities, this is it. We have a rubbish day of taxing navigation.

Sea urchins and mussels.  Siracuse. Sicily.

Sea urchins and mussels. Siracuse. Sicily.

The weather remains kind to us today, which is a good thing when moral is in the gutter. Chemical smells so thick we can taste them and a uncontrolable urge to lick your lips to be avoided, we finally meet the outskirts of Siracusa. We take a late coffee and a bite to eat. A local cyclist pays for our meal, and raises our spirits more than he will ever know and then it is into the city.

Siracuse. Sicily, Italy.

Siracuse. Sicily, Italy.

To every Yin there is almost certainly a Yang. For every bad day on the road, a good, and every expected highlight dashed an unexpected gem. Siracusa is an unexpected gem that looks as if it has fallen from favour with the guide books. It is wonderful. We have completed our ride around Mt. Etna now and have one last ride into the mountains planned. But first we have enough time to walk the streets of this beautiful town and try to shake off these colds.

Fresh artichokes.

Fresh artichokes.

Motta, near Catania and 42,000Km done.

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Valletta door and touring cyclist, I. Malta.

Valletta door and touring cyclist, I. Malta.

I am tall, tall enough to be called tall but not freaky basketball tall. We are back cycling around Sicily, and the feeling is like visiting the island of Lilliput for someone who has ever had ‘ tall ‘ as a descriptive adjective . You may be used to ticking the sizing box M or L when ordering a cycling jersey from Trek. Ordering from an Italian manufacturer will have you pondering if you are an XXXL or really more XXXXL. Such sizes do exist, and still it may be short in the arms.

Valletta door and touring cyclist, II. Malta.

Valletta door and touring cyclist, II. Malta.

The ferry to Sicily had been out of service for almost three weeks. Its return coincided with the island of Malta getting a lashing from a series of severe storms that lead to it now being cancelled because of bad weather. When we have to return for our flights from Malta we may be panicked, but for the time being we are a picture of sanguine cheerfulness. Finally, on Jan 27th we headed for Valletta and the ferry terminal.

Spring blossoms near Pozzallo, Sicily.

Spring blossoms near Pozzallo, Sicily.

The boat puts you down just outside the town of Pozzallo. At this time of year that means you have a ride in the dark along pot hold and unfamiliar streets with a devil of a one-way system to negotiate. We decided to push the last bit to our B&B when it looked like the only sensible way to get there. You also have to remember to go back to cycling on the right, which is all a bit much.

Minor roads through fields, South Sicily.

Minor roads through fields, South Sicily.

Big lazy waves are rolling up onto the sandy beach as we ride along the sea front. We are heading inland and into the hills above the town, so there is a steep climb on cold legs to begin the day. A gap in between storms is predicted, and it really feels good. It is 15′c on the metre, early blossom and spring flowers in bloom . This is touring country as good as anywhere you could choose to be this morning. It feels good to be turning the legs, exploring a bit and seeing new roads.

Cows in a field.

Cows in a field.

The climb has us both pealing off layers of clothing until we are riding in summer kit. Dry stone walls line the narrow roads and we are following the gps between hamlets and small villages. Turns come quickly and some roads look almost unused since the olive trees were harvested.

Approaching Scicli, Sicily.

Approaching Scicli, Sicily.

Grotto become shed. Scicli, Sicily.

Grotto, junk for sale Scicli, Sicily.

Another "shed". Scicli, Sicily.

Another “shed grotto”. Scicli, Sicily.

Scicli sits in a natural bowl scraped out of the rock. The road down to it follows a cleft in the land that somehow finds a way down to the town. We have no idea what to expect as we ride between rock walls hundreds of metres high. The town opens up at the last-minute with a grand church, shops and homes cut back into the rock and a dusty main street leading to the promise of bars for first coffee. The sound of scratching and hammering comes from two junk shop grottos. Old men are busy repairing and renovating things that I can not for the life of me see anyone in their right minds ever buying. It is fascinating.

Baroque church. Scicli, Sicily.

Baroque church. Scicli, Sicily.

Shrine.

Shrine.

Church. Scicli, Sicily.

Church. Scicli, Sicily.

Our lack of preparation means that we are constantly surprised by tucked away little towns like this. Gems that we hope will escape the guide books for a little while longer. There is enough in Scicli to hang around and perhaps sit down on a bench for a while. We do a bit of that, and take a near perfect cup of coffee, and then it is back onto the bikes and more climbing.

Along the SP42 towards Modica. We missed the rain.

Along the SP42 towards Modica. We missed the rain.

Approaching Grammichele. Sicily, Italy.

Approaching Ragusa, Sicily, Italy.

We ride through Modica, another town where for the want of it being 10′c warmer, we could sit and watch things not happen. We are over 300m, the sun is dropping behind hills and already throwing cold long shadows across the road. We need to find a pitch for the night. Near the village of Ragusa we ride by a path disappearing down amongst small fields. A moment later we have a better view and can see a possible tent spot. There are birds singing as we set up and it soon gets cold enough to pull on down vest and Rab thermals.

Wild camping near Ragusa. Sicily.

Wild camping near Ragusa. Sicily.

There is a fast moving stream, so water is not a problem and we brew one tea after another and sit out till forced into our bags by the chill. It is cold enough to keep on all of our clothing as we settle in for a long dark night. Even before 6.00pm the temperature has fallen to 4′c outside the tent. We have with us the same equipment exactly that we were carrying when the temperatures were 42′C which gives you some idea of how well the equipment was chosen.

Approaching Monterosso Almo. Sicily.

Approaching Giarratana, Sicily.

A late start. The tent is wet with condensation after the clear skies and windless cold night. It is not before 9.30 that the sun finally crests the shoulder of the hill and falls onto our tent. The effect is magically restorative, and we stand like Cormorants, arms out to soak up the warmth. A climb, it always is a climb first thing. Up we go to over 520m and the town of Giarratana.

Detail of Monterosso Almo. Sicily.

Detail of Giarratana. Sicily.

We arrive dripping with sweat. This is the nightmare of these low temperatures and the dampness of the air. You are rarely completely comfortable, and often too cold and too hot at one and the same time. Down and then back up we go to over 600m and the town of Monterosso and onwards.

The road ahead from Monterosso Almo on the 194. Sicily.

The road ahead from Monterosso Almo on the 194. Sicily.

42.000km done. Near Vizzini. Sicily.

42.000km done. Near Vizzini. Sicily.

Vizzini ahead. Sicily.

Vizzini ahead. Sicily.

Another climb. Vizzini. Sicily.

Another climb. Vizzini. Sicily.

Before the next town, we have a significant moment as we ride through the 42,000Km point on our journey. A climb, a steep one on cobbles that has us pushing the bikes and we are in the town of Vizzini. If ever a town requires double glazing it is this one. A flat plain with winds from the north and nothing but a summer frock. There are cold rooms in most of the houses here on the island and people move into a single room to be kept warm through the winter. We try to warm up with a coffee in a bar. Land Rovers and old Fiats belt by outside, some stop and drivers dive in for an espresso. They try to stand half in with the cup and half out the door with the cigarette.

The view from the top of Vizzini and where  we came from.  Sicily.

The view from the top of Vizzini and where we came from. Sicily.

Again we are looking for a wild camp spot as the light fades. We push the bikes off the road and to a far corner of a field. There are scruffy olive trees and just enough room between them for us. We have a visit from some of the wild dogs of Sicily overnight. They snuffle around the tent and then get too excited not to bark. This sets of a half dozen other dogs and eventually leads to a canine howling that makes sleep difficult for a while.

Climb to the Centre. Vizzini, Sicily.

Climb to the Centre. Vizzini, Sicily.

Stairs with decorated with local tiles. Vizzini. Sicily.

Stairs with decorated with local tiles. Vizzini. Sicily.

Bra.

Bra.

Dawn is greeted, as so often in Italy by a volley of gun shot. There are more and I have not the first notion of what they are shooting at. I have a nasty thought it may be small birds. It is overcast as we push away and looks likely to stay that way all day.

Caltagirone. Sicily.

Caltagirone. Sicily.

Door and balcony. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Door and balcony. Caltagirone. Sicily.

A lumpy ride to Caltagirone that again ends with us pushing our bikes up steep and desperately narrow cobbled street. The place is a labyrinth and we are trying to find the centre. A plug the town name into the gps, this usually does the trick, but today it shows a figure of 8 route that makes no sense at all.We have not come far today, but the cold and the climbing have us beat. We take a B&B and walk the town and poke our noses into some of what must be at least 30 ceramic shops.

Front to the Museum of Ceramics. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Front to the Museum of Ceramics. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Ceramics shop. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Ceramics shop. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Baroque church. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Baroque church. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Steps with local ceramic tiles from Caltagirone. Sicily.

Steps with local ceramic tiles from Caltagirone. Sicily.

We have a choice to make. Go onwards and into ever higher mountains and colder nights. Or we could drop to the lower levels and ride towards Mt. Etna and it is not an easy choice. We take a look at the online forecast and then take the advice of Harry Nilsson. Go where the weather suits your clothes, he proposed in Midnight Cowboy. Good advice Harry. We will drop down into Orange groves first thing in the morning.

View from the top. Caltagirone. Sicily.

View from the top. Caltagirone. Sicily.

Ferrari Club Palagonia. Sicily.

Ferrari Club Palagonia. Sicily.

Down we go, towards Palagonia and through field after field of oranges. We nip into the town for first coffee and ride by the Ferrari Club. I wonder if they would believe us if we told them we spotted more Ferrari’s in one day in China than our months here in Itlay. The town has a limited pallet of colours; grey, light grey and dark grey plus white. Winter light with its flat monotone does it few favours beyond smoothing the wrinkles. Like every town here, it is populated by elderly people in somber coats. The barman gives us two oranges as a parting gift.

Orange harvest. Along SP74i. Sicily.

Orange harvest. Along SP74i. Sicily.

We are searching for quiet roads and trying to get out of what is becoming a strong headwind. There is a storm coming and we need to get a room to sit it out. The narrow lanes are mostly safe except for the trucks loaded to overflowing with boxes of oranges. The run close to our panniers on more than one occasion. Fruit is supposed to be universally good for you and here we may be killed by it.

Orange grove. Along SP74ii. Sicily.

Orange grove. Along SP74ii. Sicily.

The landscape is now flat and rather featureless. Ahead, and as yet unseen is the towering mass of Mt. Etna. Uniform grey, a ride without contrast or shadow. It is rather hard on the moral with roads heading straight into murky vanishing points. We pass a girl sitting by the side of the road on a plastic chair. Her coat is pulled tight around her against the wind. She has just too much make-up, looks just too desperate, looks too wrong. We are having a hard day, she is having a hard life as the loneliest prostitute in Sicily. It all becomes clear when we start to ask the prices of hotel rooms. There is a US military base here pushing up the prices of everything. It is the only economy and the only hope for some. We pick up a B&B in the town of Motta St. Anastasia to sit out one of the worst storms for years.

The valley leading up to Catania. Sicily.

The valley leading up to Catania. Sicily.

Malta, little excursions and massive pot holes.

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The dome of the Mosta Rotunda. Mosta, Malta.

The dome of the Mosta Rotunda. Mosta, Malta.

Alexander Selkirk – aka, the ‘ real Robinson Crusoe ‘, the cast of the TV series Lost, Tom Hanks in Castaway and if you wanted a longer list, with a bit of gravitas, you could add Nelson Mandela. All, in fiction or real life, have spent time on islands that they did not want to be on.

Best tarmac on Malta; dead end road and hardly any traffic.

Best tarmac on Malta; dead-end road and hardly any traffic.

Islands, by their very nature are difficult to get off once you are on one. I was going to say that they are difficult to get on if you are planning a bit of expansion to empire but the facts do not really back this up. Ever since the trip across what was to become the Channel, stopped being a simple walk, to something involving a boat as the land bridge with Europe disappeared beneath the waves. The British Isles have been invaded and conquered.

Interior of the little Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Malta.

Interior of the little Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Malta.

Sunny day. Malta.

Sunny day. Malta.

We have been ‘ castaway ‘ on the island of Malta for over a month now. The last two weeks or more have been against our will as the ferry operator has serviced all of its fleet at the same time. We ate like donkeys for the first week or so, and then like mules. The weather was so unspeakable that we walked from cafe to cafe with appointments at each with large cappuccinos and cakes. We started to regain weight, which was good and then we over compensated, and still the wind blew and the rain hit the hotel windows horizontally.

Workbench wall at the saddlers.

Workbench wall at the saddler’s.

Entertainment. Malta.

Entertainment. Malta.

Since we went from happy holiday to ‘ castaway ‘, we have had to buck our ideas up and get down to a bit of organised exercise. I told you in the last blog about the rubbish road surface here, and that anyone on the island who is in any doubt can now quote me ” These are the worst road surfaces in the world ” as a definitive answer. We are riding on elderly rims. My front has done 24,000Km and back 14,000Km and I think Esther has front and back that have done about 20,000Km. Much riding with luggage around Malta would end in tears and possibly a long walk, that is certain.

North West Malta in January.

North West Malta in January.

North West Malta with Gozo cliffs on the horizon.

North West Malta with Gozo cliffs on the horizon.

We have adopted a ‘ book into a cheap hotel and go trips most days on bikes without luggage ‘ policy to seeing the island and keeping our touring legs turning. We now have our loops and coffee stops of choice at which we are greeted like locals. I have told you before how we are no strangers to bad roads. The maintenance rotation of East Lothian roads is in places 200 years behind schedule. There are pot holes that most keen cyclists know by name.

Tower overlooking Golden Bay, Malta.

Tower overlooking Golden Bay, Malta.

Corner statue. Mdina, Malta.

Corner statue. Mdina, Malta.

Queen Victoria statue and pigeons. Valletta, Malta.

Queen Victoria statue and pigeons. Valletta, Malta.

Through years of neglect these ‘ rim breakers ‘ have gone from scrapes in the macadam to huge cavities. Now, even tractors have to swing around them and us cyclists treat them more as roundabouts and duck ponds in poor weather. We know them, we remember false dawns when chippings were thrown into their depths as temporary solution. The good thing is that we are not overwhelmed and we can remember each one and which bends we can cut, which descents we have to be steady on. In peloton riding you hardly have both hands on the bars for more than a few miles, so busy are you waving to those behind about this hole and that.

Old shop front, Valletta, Malta.

Old shop front, Valletta, Malta.

Malta takes rubbish roads to spectacular new levels. There is no way at all that you can become familiar with all the pot holes. The cabbies London memory test ‘ the knowledge ‘ would be easier than memorizing just 10Km of road holes here. We have done our training rides, for this is what they have become, never once wanting to lift our heads for more than a few metres at a time. In towns there is the added fun of drainage grills that run in the wrong direction. With the road, not across it and offer up great chasms of open road between the metal. This keeps you alert.

Feeding the cats. Valletta pier. Malta.

Feeding the cats. Valletta pier. Malta.

Amongst all the moaning though we know we are blessed. Every time we stumble across a weather forecast for home we wonder how on earth we are ever going to manage when we get back there. There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes goes the saying. Well these people have never had an outdoor hobby in Scotland in winter. I always wondered why I was so slow up the hills in winter until my pal Jimmy pointed out ” Warren you are wearing 4Kg of clothing “. He was right of course and we decided to call winter miles ‘ long slow distance ‘ or LSD.

Valletta, Malta.

Valletta, Malta.

More Off-road than On-Road roads.

More Off-road than On-Road roads.

The end of our ‘ Castaway Status ‘ is in sight now. We have used the time to plan our travels for the year ahead. Bike bags were purchased from Chain Reaction within a few seconds of finding out that they ship to Malta free. The plan is to bike around Sicily for a bit and then return here to Malta to fly to London, and then onwards to Washington – Dulles. We are going to ride USA coast to coast, east to west on the TransAmerica Adventure Cycling Route. All very exciting and whilst we have a valid 180 day visa in our passports we may as well go and do it.

If any of you live within a short hop of the route, we would love to see you. We are just about to clock up 3 years on the road. The blog pre dates this by a bit and has been helping people with insomnia and the work shy with computer terminal in front of them for almost 200 episodes. Thanks so much for staying with us and posting comments it has lifted spirits many times. Here then is to the final year and to getting off the island of Malta.

Trotting.

Trotting.

Waiting on the island of Malta.

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Castle walls. Gozo, Malta.

Castle walls. Gozo, Malta.

For a few, the idea of another winter of cold and wet becomes too much. Now that a big chunk of the coast of the Mediterranean is visa free with most European passports the sun-kissed retirement is an option. From Portugal’s Algarve to the islands of Greece the snow birds come to run down the clock. Amongst the summer crowds they are hard to spot. But travel the coast in winter and along with the silver-haired migrants that still return to Germany or such, you will see the ones that choose to stay.

Street in Mdina.

Street in Mdina.

They may have been librarians back home, or accountants possibly, but some take the opportunity to become slightly excentric when they get here. The island of Malta has many cats. Most are robust creatures of lazy disposition and friendly temperament. Many are fed by ‘ cat women ‘. They may have been midwives in Amsterdam until 15 years ago, but now their caring nature is put to feeding stray cats. We asked a local about the first that we had seen, ‘ there are lots of them, and they are very territorial’. We talked to our local ‘ cat woman ‘. ” I feed about 40 cats and my dog knows which are ours and growls at the cats that aren’t ours “. Her territory and the next ‘ cat woman ‘ meet in front of our hotel window. There is a documentary waiting to be made.

Cat lady's dog and cat.

Cat lady’s dog and cat.

We left Victoria on the island of Gozo and headed towards the ferry. Booking.com, our hotel site of choice had on occasions thrown us a random option. We had almost booked a hotel in Switzerland once when we were in Slovenia as the towns shared the same name. Only the eye watering price alerted us to our error. In Gozo we had always worried that a moment of dyslexia or keyboard clumsiness may book us a room in Gaza. We turned right to hug the coast on minor roads and tracks.

Popeye Village, Malta.

Popeye Village, Malta.

Wine and Mgarr in the background. Malta.

Wine and Mgarr in the background. Malta.

Robin Williams came here in 1980 to play the roll of Popeye, and the film set is still here. We looked down at the bay and the prop homes with the African migrants fishing off the jetty. Under the most perfect of blue skies we continued down the coast on a series of dreadfully surfaced roads to the village of Mgarr. The square is dominated by yet another of Gozo’s large churches. This one close up offers not a single beautiful aspect. It is impossible to get a pleasing photograph of it until you are at least 2Km away. Esther went inside ” They have a real stuffed duck that’s part of the nativity scene “. We rode on to find more rubbish road surfaces.

Chapel near Mgarr, Malta.

Chapel near Mgarr, Malta.

Cycling through the country side of Malta.

Cycling through the country side of Malta.

Shrine to the Madonna. Malta.

Shrine to the Madonna. Malta.

Mdina Rabat, two towns that have merged over time. Mdina was once the capital of Malta, when a position inland and high on a hill was desirable. It is beautiful, possibly even charming, but today it was too late to find a safe place for our bikes. We pushed on to find a camping pitch for the night. There are twists and turns through hamlets and villages till we find the first possible good spot. The valleys are steep sided and very much more fertile than anything we had seen on Gozo. Sandstone outcrops are easy to dig into and over millennium many have. Storage pits, shrines, and places to shelter have been cut. The last major use being to hide from the air raids of WW2. The gps shows a track towards the sea and we take it before it is too late.

Another church. Malta.

Another church. Malta.

St. Paul Church, Rabat/Mdina; Malta.

St. Paul Church, Rabat/Mdina; Malta.

Traditional house. Malta.

Traditional house. Malta.

It is one of our best wild camp pitches for many months. Again the tent is soaking wet with dew after a cold still night. We pull it into the sun and take a slow breakfast as it dries a little. Daybreak is early here and by 9.00 the sun has a summer warmth to it. Pushing the bikes back up the track to the road requires sweating and cursing in equal measure. The road surfaces as we ride on are every bit as bad as the previous day and are starting to try my patience.

Perfect, quiet camping spot. SouthWest of Malta.

Perfect, quiet camping spot. SouthWest of Malta.

Steep track. Malta.

Steep track. Malta.

Coastal Road, SouthWest. Malta.

Coastal Road, SouthWest. Malta.

We call in to the islands archaeological gems. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, that overlook the coast here. The local stone is easily weathered and the site has suffered from erosion over the centuries and is now covered over. As usual at such places we marvel at the moving of blocks that weigh up to 20 tons and the precision of the building work. We ride on again along the coast. The capital is now that far away and things are getting busy.

Detail of Mnajdra Temple. Malta.

Detail of Mnajdra Temple. Malta.

Dressed Stone at the temple. Malta.

Dressed Stone at the temple. Malta.

Sand stone.

Sand stone.

The sun is going down and there are few quiet places. A wall comes to and end and through the gap there is a path that overlooks the bay. This will do. There is a flat area of grass and the tent is put up quickly. It is all a bit extreme, with a view of the container terminal, the oil refinery which is giving off a feint but noticeable whiff of petrochemicals. I make a brew and we sit down to take in our campground views for the night. As the sun sets, the last of that days flight turn low overhead and drop their undercarriage to land at the airport a few kilometres away. The light fades and the air is shaken by the first of three very loud bangs that are preceded by bright flashes that light up the sky. The fireworks factory on the hill behind the town is testing some of its Pro Range and three plumes of smoke now hang on the still air. We have not had such a stimulating wild pitch since we stopped having to worry about bears.

Balcony. Malta.

Balcony. Malta.

Wild camping below a fortress, opposite a ship yard. Malta.

Wild camping below a fortress, opposite a ship yard. Malta.

The container terminal works all night. At 4.00am one of the boats is ready and with a blast on its siren tugs pull it out towards the open water of the Med. Not long after, the sun comes over the shoulder of the hill behind us and day begins. Again we pirouette the tent and take a slow breakfast as things dry out. Twelve hours or more in a small tent are hard work for the back even on a comfortable Exped mat. It feels like being reborn as we try to find our feet every morning. Getting muscles ready for the road is a slow process. We push the bikes up and head further along the coast.

... not sure about this fusion cooking. Malta.

… not sure about this fusion cooking. Malta.

Fish display. Malta.

Fish display. Malta.

Another dog on a boat. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

Another dog on a boat. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

Fishing boat, II. Marsaxlokk, Malta

Fishing boat, II. Marsaxlokk, Malta

Marsaxlokk, the next town is a gem and we sit and take it in at a harbour cafe. It has a parrot which is rather vocal any time someone passes. I had forgotten just how big parrots are and how brave you have to be to have anything with such a powerful beak quite so close to your ears. Pirates were made of stern stuff. We walk around between the colourful boats and nets laid out to dry. This is still a working fishing port and has a great feel to it. Charming would how be how you might describe it, particularly on a quiet winters day with a warm sun on your back as you drink a coffee.

Doorway. Malta.

Doorway. Malta.

Fishing boats. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

Fishing boats. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

Friends. Malta.

Friends. Malta.

Local fishing boat, I. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

Local fishing boat, I. Marsaxlokk, Malta.

The good times come to an end with a terrible ride towards Valletta on busy roads. The few kilometers of modern surfaced roads are all in this area and locals put their foot down. There is equal measures of joy and frustration at any hold up. Today we are the hold up as we swerve out to avoid pot holes and drains. Through Sliema and to the end of St. Julians bay we ride to our hotel. We are going to have a couple of days in the city.

Valletta seen from Sliema. Malta.

Valletta seen from Sliema. Malta.

The Duck Village. Sliema, Malta.

The Duck Village. Sliema, Malta.

Flaky paint.  Mdina, Malta.

Flaky paint. Mdina, Malta.

Day one begins well as we are just around the corner from a travel agent. We need to book our flights to the USA and ferry back to Italy. Neither go well and there is bad news. The only ferry to Italy went in for service yesterday and will be there for two weeks. We ask another two people the same question. ” Is there any other way ” and get the same answer ” Fly “. We are not going to do this and risk a baggage handler mauling of our bikes. We are stuck here on the island that we have biked around already that is the same size as a farm in Wisconsin, we are stuck.

Red door.  Mdina, Malta.

Red door. Mdina, Malta.

Colour purple,  Mdina, Malta.

Colour purple, Mdina, Malta.

Lane,  Mdina, Malta.

Lane, Mdina, Malta.

Red shutters.  Mdina, Malta.

Red shutters. Mdina, Malta.

The prices for hotels have gone through the floor with the economics of over supply. We book into the one we stayed in for Christmas and pedal out along the coast. This change of plan takes a bit of getting used to, but we use the time to book our USA flights and wash our clothing in the shower again.  A bus ride out to the beautiful town of Mdina passes a day without having to worry about the safety of the bikes.

Architecture,  Mdina, Malta.

Architecture, Mdina, Malta.

Facade,  Mdina, Malta.

Facade, Mdina, Malta.

To pass time we make up a game of count the cats. The winner is the one who counts the most cats from our hotel window. I win day one with 9, just after the rival ‘ cat woman ‘ has fed her cats. The airline tickets are booked and we are committed to our fourth and final year on the road. We still laugh often, and celebrating our 7th year of marriage in a cheap hotel at the end of a day when the sky was blue and the sun on our faces is warm is not so bad.

Architecture,  Mdina, Malta.

Architecture, Mdina, Malta.

Door.

Door.

 Mdina, Malta.

Mdina, Malta.

Gozo, the island off Malta.

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The sea and shadow - Mediteranean.

The sea, wave and shadow – Mediterranean.

There is the driving on the left, the chunky and familiar electrical plugs and of course the red phone and post boxes. All very familiar if you have come here from the UK. A poor winters day on Malta is the equivalent of a rubbish summers day back home in Scotland. Which is why we are here with our bikes.

Little traditional boat. Malta.

Little traditional boat. Malta.

Weekend is for fishing. Malta.

Weekend is for fishing. Malta.

Malta and the UK are both densely populated little islands that sit just off the coast of huge continents. Africa and Europe are drawn to the prosperity or just plain security that lies just off their coast. It could be a criminally overloaded boat or a cheap seat on ‘ Easy Jet ‘, but the reasons are similar. The press in both countries are of course in a frenzy of comment on the subject.

Along the quay. St. Paul's Bay, Malta.

Along the quay. St. Paul’s Bay, Malta.

New holiday homes. St. Pauls Bay, Malta.

New holiday homes. St. Paul’s Bay, Malta.

One little bit of the coverage may have passed you by, but it made me laugh. At the end of each year a simple question is asked of lots of people in Europe – ‘ out of 10, how happy are you? ‘. The UK averages out at 7.3, not as good as the Danes, who are over 8 on the happy scale. Down at the bottom of the table is Bulgaria, at a frankly rather glum 5.5.

Motorised mountain bike.

Motorised mountain bike. ( all of the drive and gears are still work for cycling! )

Your average Bulgarian now has nothing in their way between there and an appointment to fix your plumbing. The bit that made me laugh was that as they arrive, a happy Bulgarian will reduce the average happiness of both the place that they left, and the place they move to. Wish them a Happy New Year and try and cheer them up a bit.

Melliha Parish Church. Melliha, Malta.

Melliha Parish Church. Melliha, Malta.

Very old graffiti. Melliha, Malta.

Old graffiti  Melliha, Malta.

We came to the end of out 10 days of Christmas rest and it coincided with a good day of weather. Many of the days that I would not have turned a dog out into. It was still warm enough, but horizontal rain is demoralizing at any temperature for a touring cyclist. We walked around the flooded streets watching more botched attempts at reverse parking than anywhere else we have ever visited. Malta has a poor reputation for road safety, and on this evidence it may be deserved.

Graveyard. Melliha, Malta.

Graveyard. Melliha, Malta.

View from the hill top. Melliha, Malta

View from the hill top. Melliha, Malta

There are so few people on bikes here. Many are worried about road safety, some are just lazy, but we had another theory put to us. ” Maltese have almost no sense of balance “, which was an interesting theory. We decide to head to the little island of Gozo after we are told for the tenth time ‘ It’s like Malta was 20 years ago’.

Catching the ferry to Gozo.

Catching the ferry to Gozo.

Thursday January 2nd 2014, a new year in the saddle. We gather our things together and push them down into our bags. The weather today is perfect, with almost no wind and a deep almost dark blue sea visible from our hotel window. Fluffy summer clouds complete the picture, and we are off along the prom. We are hugging the coast to the ferry and have a lumpy time of our first ride. It is amazing how quickly you get all ‘ rose tinted ‘ and forget the sick tasting horrors of hills and bike touring. I can taste my breakfast for the first hour.

Full English Breakfast.

Full English Breakfast.

One thing is obvious about Gozo when viewed from the ferry. It has a lot of rather large churches. A little girl brings us up to speed, ” Gozo has 15 main villages and each one of them has a large church “. Her mother wishes us well on our visit to her island. We ride off the boat and in under 3 minutes have ordered two ‘ Full English Breakfasts ‘ at a harbour cafe so close to the sea that you could fish and order a meal at the same time.

Warren.

Warren.

Xewkija, Gozo. Malta.

Xewkija, Gozo. Malta.

Xewkija in the distance, Gozo. Malta.

Xewkija in the distance, Gozo. Malta.

The sun is dropping. We have been rather aimlessly touring the back streets of villages, but now we need to find our camping spot. We have marked a likely place on our map and are heading along what is becoming a rough goat track. It looks like the track on our map and gps, but only because it is a mirror image of the right one which is on the other side of the steep valley. There is of course a maze of roads, farm track, goat tracks and a myriad of wrong ways, and the light is failing.

From sea level to the top of the hill. Gozo. Malta.

From sea level to the top of the hill. Gozo. Malta.

Xewkija and the gorge, Gozo. Malta.

Xewkija and the gorge, Gozo. Malta.

We pitch the tent, just in time and make a tea by torch light as the first of the stars become visible. Mgarr Ix-Xini Bay is a beautiful and quiet spot to spend a night, and worth the struggle back out up a 19% incline that the road takes in the ‘ V shape ‘ grove that the bay cuts into the land.

Christmas decoration. Gozo. Malta.

Christmas decoration. Gozo. Malta.

House front Victoria (Rabat).  Gozo. Malta.

House front Victoria (Rabat). Gozo. Malta.

Market at Victoria (Rabat). Gozo. Malta.

Market at Victoria (Rabat). Gozo. Malta.

A day of random roads is in order. It is such a small island that it takes a while to come to terms with the fact that the other coast is a 15 minute ride away and not a  journey of a day. It is glorious weather that will touch 23′c before midday and we head through Victoria towards the north coast.

Along the South-West coast of Gozo. Malta.

Along the South-West coast of Gozo. Malta.

Gozo off-road.

Gozo off-road.

It looks like a perfect loop on the map and gps that will follow the coast to the point before it turns back. There are road numbers and everything to add to our confidence. What there is not in ‘ on the ground ‘ reality, is anything that resembles a road surface. We find this out well beyond the point of no return of course. We get back onto a bit of black-top and dive down to the beach and the sea around Fungus Rock. Always a bit of a laugh to gate crash a tourist honey pot on a touring bike.

Cliffs with Fungal Rock. West Coast of Gozo.

Cliffs with Fungal Rock. West Coast of Gozo.

Warren and the Azure Window. Gozo. Malta.

Warren and the Azure Window. Gozo. Malta.

Another poor performance in the wild camping. We dial in what we think is a quiet sandy beach into the gps. We have got the wrong place and realize too late as we arrive in Marsalforn among the hotels, bars and disco beats. We take a cheap hotel and vow to do better next time.

Climbing out of Masalforn Bay. Gozo. Malta.

Climbing out of Masalforn Bay. Gozo. Malta.

In a moment of WWW. ramblings, I dial into GOOGLE ‘ circumference of earth kilometers ‘ - 40,075.017 km (equatorial), and find that we have now biked around the earth including both wet and dry bits. A little late, but we go out to celebrate our achievement. The morning begins with the usual beast of a climb over a headland that does more to explain the lack of local bike use.

View inland, near Masalforn. Gozo. Malta.

View inland, near Masalforn. Gozo. Malta.

Field above Ramla Bay. Gozo, Malta.

Fields above Ramla Bay. Gozo, Malta.

Ramla Bay. Gozo, Malta.

Ramla Bay, Gozo, Malta.

A ride around two headlands and then a drop back on ourselves and we are at Ramla Bay, which is where we wanted to camp. It is spectacular, and on this hot day will soon be covered in day trippers keen to show epidermis to the sun. In the 10Km that we bike in the morning we have done just shy of 300m of climbing as we enter the village of Nadur.

Blue scooter, Blue door. Gozo, Malta.

Blue scooter, Blue door. Gozo, Malta.

Main street, Nadur. Gozo, Malta.

Main street, Nadur. Gozo, Malta.

St Peter &  St. Paul church, Nadur, Gozo, Malta.

St Peter & St. Paul church, Nadur, Gozo, Malta.

There is of course a big church, but also a good cafe. We sit down to watch things. A Ford Anglia goes by, and then a Ford Cortina Mk2 both in mint condition. MG’s, Triumphs both bike and car in variety, we have seen them all. It is a trip down memory lane for a Brit, and must be the equivalent in automotive nostalgia as an American in Cuba. If you have forgotten how small the original Mini was compared to the new one ( that gets bigger with every design change! ), you are in for a shock.

Cliffs at Xlendi Bay. Gozo, Malta.

Cliffs at Xlendi Bay. Gozo, Malta.

We bike over to the other coast via Victoria again and then set off to find a quiet wild pitch. Easier said than done on what is rather a busy little island. We are passing yet another church when we see a track heading up the hill. This is no ordinary track rather more a religious walk. It links together the ‘ Stations of the Cross ‘ statues and winds its way to the top of the hill. We push the bikes along, passing marble statues I to VIII before finding a flat spot to pitch the tent.

Stations of the cross at Ta Pinu shrine with view towards the North. Gozo, Malta.

Stations of the cross at Ta Pinu shrine with view towards the North. Gozo, Malta.

Ta Pinu Shrine. Gozo, Malta.

Ta Pinu Stations sculptures. Gozo, Malta.

We have a commanding view of much of the island. Small villages huddle beneath the long shadows of huge churches. I count five churches and can hear the bells of three more, and start to wonder about how the economics of it all ever added up. We watch the sun drop into the Med and the first planets and stars a we drink our third brew of tea. How can so few people have so many churches?

Sun set. Gozo, Malta.

Sun set. Gozo, Malta.

The weather takes a change for the worse overnight and a gale throws the tent fly back and forth making sleep difficult. There is rain on the way as we head for Victoria again. A cheap deal on a hotel and we walk into town to have a look at the old citadel.

View over Victoria (Rabat) from the citadel. Gozo, Malta.

View over Victoria (Rabat) from the citadel. Gozo, Malta.

Back street doors. Gozo, Malta.

Back street doors and broken umbrella, Gozo, Malta.

It looks as if rain and heavy rain possibly is going to hit in a few minutes. We head into a bar and order a coffee and sit with the owner and two locals. It has been great to have a common language for once. We join in with conversations and gossip of island lives and business. We tell of our travels and plans for the year ahead. I know when we say what we have done, it comes across as a 3 year holiday and I know we are talking to hard working people. It is better to steer the conversation to that of weather, the British conversation of lowest denominator, and another cultural point in common here. We agree that it is cold this afternoon and all are happy about that.

Interior of St Goerge's Basilica, I, Victoria (Rabat), Gozo, Malta.

Interior of St George’s Basilica, I, Victoria (Rabat), Gozo, Malta.

Interior of St Goerge's Basilica, II, Victoria (Rabat), Gozo, Malta.

Interior of St George’s Basilica, II, Victoria (Rabat), Gozo, Malta.

Shrine to the Madonna in the back streets of Victoria. Gozo, Malta.

Shrine to the Madonna in the back streets of Victoria. Gozo, Malta.

Malta, a Christmas island.

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Houses in Valletta, Malta, Sketch

Houses in Valletta, Malta, Sketch

There are few things on the WWW that can give you such a charitable, warm and rather fuzzy feeling towards your fellow humanity than ‘ Warmshowers.org ‘.The basic premise is that people will offer accommodation to touring cyclists, out of their unquestioning good nature and spirit of community. It works on blind altruism towards your fellow two wheeled website members.

Having exchanged missives on the WWW you are invited to stay at people’s homes. It is understood, that you will turn up hungry and with questionable hygiene. That you may be there for a week if the parcel you ordered does not come and is waved away with a ” things happen “, and shrug of the shoulders.

Smiling Prince. Valletta, Malta.

Smiling Prince. Valletta, Malta.

House of Fashion. Valletta, Malta.

House of Fashion. Valletta, Malta.

We have used warmshowers.org on a number of continents now, and are always amazed at the generosity of strangers. ” I will be late so let yourselves in “, was the instruction from one host. We biked out of town following her directions, and of course were lost in under 2Km. Houses in this very desirable valley had names rather than anything so vulgar as a number.

Bike. Valletta, Malta.

Bike. Valletta, Malta.

On we biked  around the lake and the houses got bigger and the driveways longer. We pulled up at what can only be described as a mansion made from hand crafted Chestnut, and possibly held together by individually turned brass nails. Let yourself in had been the instruction, but this being the USA there was a very real risk that opening a door may trigger an armed response. We walked around sizing up the problem and looking for signs of bicycle obsession.

Door, Valletta, Malta.

Door, Valletta, Malta.

In an example of ‘ Holmesian Deduction ‘, it was the initials on the Welcome Mat that gave it away. They matched those of our host for the evening, and we let ourselves in, helped ourselves to beers from the fridge and settled down to wait with a view of the sun setting over the private lake.

House facade, I,  Valletta, Malta.

House facade, I, Valletta, Malta.

House facade, II,  Valletta, Malta.

House facade, II, Valletta, Malta.

That such a thing works is in no small part due to the ‘ niceness ‘ of cyclists and perhaps a fellowship of purpose. Try the same thing with another group of people and it may end in tears.

House facade, III,  Valletta, Malta.

House facade, III, Valletta, Malta.

I have over the years introduced myself at parties as varying things,  from Wildlife Ranger to Fork Lift Truck Driver and a further 28 other things as well. For a while I, and the small world of Edinburgh was happy to call me ‘ artist and illustrator ‘. Yet I do wonder if a WWW. site for artists offering accommodation would ever work.

Interior St. John's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

Interior St. John’s Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

A few days ago I stood in front of the largest canvas that the artist Caravaggio ever painted – The beheading of Saint John The Baptist, which covers the full width of one walls of the Cathedral in Valletta, Malta. I knew a enough of the biography of Caravaggio, to have him marked as trouble. The details, when you look them up are applauding, and end in his flight to Malta to escape a death sentence for murder.

Ceiling, St. John's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

Ceiling, St. John’s Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

Despite all of this, Caravaggio is perhaps my favourite of the great masters, but I would not want him as a house guest. Even the modern crop you would be making excuses rather than giving them bed space. Damian Hurst no way, and I would not let his pal Tracy Emin anywhere near a room I wanted to stay clean. Artists just do not have the good manners and tidy disposition of touring cyclists and that is a simple fact.

Miles of plastic covered landscape, Southern Sicily.

Miles of plastic covered landscape, Southern Sicily.

A glance out of the hotel window in Licata and we knew immediately we were in for a day tormented by wind. Washing tugged at pegs on balconies opposite and litter skitted across the courtyard between us and the church to our left. What it would be like once we were out on the coast was something best not dwelt on. Soon enough we were grimacing and gurning our way down the SS115.

Christmas decoration on round-about. Sicily.

Christmas decoration on round-about. Sicily.

What we needed was something of interest to look at. Sicily was letting us down in this respect and offering nothing more absorbing than thousands of square metres of polly tunnels. For a nation to which Tomatoes are not even native, they have been taken to heart, cultivated, force fed and venerated above any other fruit/vegetable.

Any real agriculture visible involved what may very well be the cultivation of 95% of the worlds Artichoke harvest. It all added up to quite a dull ride and a first coffee venue that looks to be shut. The room is in darkness, but there is the sound of cups being washed. Thin and thimble small, the espresso cups are chattering against one another like pebbles on a beach, we are in luck.

Local Habour, Scoglitti, Sicily.

Local Habour and fish market, Scoglitti, Sicily.

Thinking back, I am trying to think of something positive to say about that days 60Km through petro-chemical plants and agri-business. It didn’t rain, and lets just leave it at that. We come to the sea again at Scoglitti and a once more there are row after row of unoccupied holiday homes patrolled by lethargic dogs. The one bright spot is the working harbour. We go in search of what may very well be, third coffee.

Ernest looking men with rugged complexions are looking at boxes of fish. Other younger men are carrying boxes of fish and stacking them in the back of white vans before driving off at speed. Locals, old and young are heading away from the fish market with poly bags sagging and stretched under the weight of fish. Grey tails hang limply from the brims. It pays to be fond of fish here.

Beach near Scoglitti. Sicily.

Beach near Scoglitti. Sicily.

Highlight of our ride comes within a few kilometres, as we are overtaken by an open backed van loaded with Fennel. We ride for the greater part of a Kilometre in a slipstream of the most Fennely smell I have ever encountered. We camp wild in dunes and stretch out with the fly flap open. Which is why we see what is the highlight of the day.

The sun has just dipped bellow the horizon when a light streaks arrow straight across the sea. At the head, a ball of bright light that splits into two. This is the first meteor that I have ever seen and is spectacular. We go to sleep on a high.

Church along the way. Sicily.

Church along the way. Sicily.

More tomatoes and polyethylene, as we continue down the coast. Someone must say ‘ Artichoke ‘, when asked what their favorite vegetable is. There are more than I thought the world needed.

Sign for the Med Bike Route. Sicily.

Sign for the Med Bike Route. Sicily.

Promenade at Donnalucata, Sicily.

Promenade at Donnalucata, Sicily.

Now and then, and always quite by accident, we have stumbled across a recognised bike route along the coast. Occasionally we follow it as it weaves an unpredictable path through villages. Often it lacks any logic and will spit you out with nothing but 800m of soft sand to ride on. Other times it is as cunning as an urban fox in its route.

More vegetable green houses, Southern Sicily.

More vegetable polly tunnels, Southern Sicily.

Eventually we arrive in Pozzallo, where we are going to catch the ferry to the island of Malta. Like much in Italy, you can find at least two websites on the WWW. that will give conflicting information about most tourist things. We ask a local what time the ferry leaves and get a third possible answer. It turns out that we have a long wait and so ride into town looking for something distracting to do for 6 hours.

There is nothing to do. We ride around twice and then once more just to check that we have missed nothing. We have missed the market and stores being open and are now in the twilight zone of siesta and misanthropy. Time stands still.

Arriving in Valletta, Malta.

Arriving in Valletta, Malta.

The ferry leaves at 7.30pm. We are on time by almost 2 hours in our favour. Some day all ferries will be like this, a sleek catamaran of unbelievable speed. The company is Maltese, and is a first hint that the island of Malta is for reasons unknown, rather well off. We are spat out into the night. Disorientated and quite unaware that they drive on the left here. The arrival in the Unesco World Heritage city is stunning. Every second person at some time during the Knights tenure here must have been a stone mason. It is fortified, and then the fortifications are fortified. Wow!

Pigeons, Valletta, Malta.

Pigeons, Valletta, Malta.

British Postbox,  Valletta, Malta.

British Postbox, Valletta, Malta.

Only the gps makes any sense of where we are. We blindly follow it to a hotel we have booked. Sign in, then crash out after a long and mostly boring day. The sight of sea going by at 40 knots would have been a highlight had it not been dark and I am already excited about the journey back.

 Valletta, Malta.

Valletta, Malta.

Church interior,  Valletta, Malta.

Church interior, Valletta, Malta.

Universal Store 180a, Valletta, Malta.

Universal Store 180a, Valletta, Malta.

Quite by accident, we have now visited 5 of the top 10 smallest countries in Europe. I doubt we will ever tour through Monaco or San Marino, so it is a list that may never be completed. Malta brings our total to 38, which is good enough.

Interior St. John's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

Interior St. John’s Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

View  across Grand Habour, Valletta, Malta.

View across Grand Habour, Valletta, Malta.

Malta for all of its Mediterranean colours, smells and latitude has a feel of home for me. Most countries have electrical sockets that show little regard for the lethal amount of ampage you are dealing with. Italy’s sockets don’t look like anything you would want to wire up something with more juice than a car battery to. Here in Malta I am safe. UK style plugs and earthing systems and the comfort of English as a first language. Add red phone booths and post boxes and it is all rather reassuring.

Notice. Valletta, Malta.

Notice. Valletta, Malta.

View across St. Paul's Bay, Malta, Sketch

View across St. Paul’s Bay, Malta, Sketch

We take a few days to walk around Valletta and then get back on our bikes to head for Qawra to spend the holiday season. We are worn out beyond reason and need some time without decision making and where we are warm and dry. We check into a cheap hotel for a 10 night stay. Time to plan for next year and do a bit of washing. It is remarkable how clean you can get clothes with a bar of detergent. My method of choice is to wear as much as possible and proceed as if showering. Layers are striped and then given a final stamping on in the shower trough. What on earth does a washing machine do for 2 hours? Highlights include making tea on the balcony with the Primus stove. See you all in the New Year.

View from our hotel. Qawra, Malta.

View from our hotel. Qawra, Malta.

Christmas drink.

Christmas drink.

View across St. Paul's Bay & Esther, Malta.

View across St. Paul’s Bay with Esther, Malta.

Mince Pie.

Mince Pie.

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