Have you ever wondered why so much of the Western Worlds important buildings look the same. Again and again you find yourself standing before buildings that you feel you have seen before; the Louvre, the White House, Buckingham Palace, The New York Stock Exchange and all the way down to homes in gated communities and footballers pads in Cheshire in the north of England. To quote from Bill Bryson’s book on the home, ‘ The Villa Chiericati, with its striking portico of triangular pediment and four severe columns, isn’t just rather like the White House, it is the White House, but weirdly transferred to what is still a working farm just outside Vicenza in northern Italy’.
Much of the world would look very different without the work of just one man, a mason by the name of Andrea di Pietro della Gondola. He became an architect and took his inspiration from the monuments around him, and their classical ideals. But his genius was that he made them rather easier to live with and in. Not many were built, but architects being architects, goodness was he copied. In 1570, just before he died, a book of his plans and principles was published and his style rapidly spread.
The Romans copied the Greeks and then Andrea noted it all down in easy to follow ABC steps, and before you know it you have a direct link from the monuments we have been riding by to the Reichstag. More pressing, as we push the bikes onto the road in Trapani is a flat tyre. In goes a spare and spirits are high and so they should, it is 20’c and hardly a cloud in the sky. We head down the coast, picking up the closest ridable road to the sea.
There are salt pans and windmills and at a stroke we triple our lifetime Flamingo count. We pass a sign ‘ Trapani 6Km ‘, we have managed to accumulate 16Km with all our mucking about and dead ends. We pick up the SR 21 to Marsala, it is still minor, but points in the right direction and wiggles less. We are there before we know it and are soon swallowed up by it’s narrow roads. Most towns here have streets just wide enough to get a Fiat 5oo down with both its wing mirrors rubbing. There is a cool gloom of shade like entering a forest, and this is exactly why the streets are built this way. On a sun bleaching July day of 40 something Celsius, they would be heavenly.
On a bicycle, it feels like being at the controls of the Millenium Falcon in the Star Wars bit where it attacks the Death Star. Here there is the devilment of One Way Systems and loony Italian driving to contend with and a steady nerve called for.
We are out and stringing together yet more minor coastal roads and the day is already turning cooler and shadows lengthening. There is a campground in the gps and we dial it in. It is probably closed, but there might be options to negotiate. We are heading towards the beach. There are run down farms, wild dogs too worn out to chase us and blizzards of litter pushed by the sea breeze that picks up at sun set.
There is no one around, but the campground has a hole in the fence and we let ourselves in. We get the tent out and pitch, tucked down behind the dunes. We are just in time, the wind drops as the sun catches high wisps of cloud and dips into this wine dark sea. Imediatley it is cold, and I pull on a down vest. Food is eaten, tea is drunk and it is quickly into the warmth of the sleeping bag at not much beyond 6.
We are listening to a BBC podcast about why time feels like it speeds up as you get older. Fact of the program is the statistic that you can only expect to live for a little over 800 months. Blimey that feels short put that way. The night is still enough to be just above freezing even here at sea level and damp with dew. The tent is wet with condensation because of the lack of air movement. We take a slow breakfast and turn the tent to dry in the sun. It pays not to be in too much hurry. Within an hour it is a summers day and we make our way back out through the fence hole.
Another minor coast road. We are passing through dusty villages, pale with sun and wind. There is almost no one around and to call them sleepy would be over stating any sign of urgency here. Italians try to be at the beach in July and August. Beyond that, and certainly in December, the place is empty. There are row after row of holiday homes and we set off a succession of guard dogs that roam the properties. It all looks rather sad. The dogs go mental with excitement at having something to do. You can quite imagine they have been left to look after things. ” Now you have got my number if you need me, and your food is in the shed “, and off they go back to the city and jobs.
We stumble through fields of unfussy wine into the town of Mazara Del Vallo, by riding straight through the docks. It is busy, with oil stained men working on oil stained boats that would require a great faith in an afterlife to set out to sea in. Fishing boats never look sea worthy at the best of times, and these are nowhere near the best of times.
A coffee and it is back out to the dogs and the dusty roads as even this early, the light begins to fade. We ride into Marinella in a bit of a panic. The road has high fences guarding summer homes and tourist businesses. We do a lap of the town and head back towards a campground. On the way, we spot a wild pitch and push off the road. It is another cold night, with a dog and owl chorus and sharply defined stars.
The morning is grey, which is a bit of a shock. The morning is an overload of archaeology at the Selinunte temple complex. As ever, you wonder how it was done over 2,000 years ago. We wonder around with the place to ourselves for a couple of hours.
Back on the bikes and it is inland and up and down hills. Away from the coast there is more variety in the landscape. One moment the agriculture looks ordered, the vines managed and next it is weeds and brambles. The wind is picking up, bending olive branches to show clean light green undersides at us. It is pushing us along as shadows again lengthen.
The road becomes lumpy, dropping into fertile valleys with vegetable fields before going back up to the wine and olives. We, or rather I, need a shower. AT the town of Sciacca we take a hotel on the harbour front. The town, like so many we are passing through, looks as if it was bombed during WW2. Gaps and new builds sit next to the flaking old buildings. It is all very picturesque in parts, but thrown together under cover of darkness in other bits.
We pick up the main SS115 by mistake. All fine until a section with road works over a long bridge. There are temporary fences tight on both sides and we ride through like idiots and hope no one tries to squeeze through. As soon as possible we dive off into the winding secondary roads. The sea is on our right and again we are trying to pick up a route with the gps.
Navigation is not too much of a problem, but the geography is working against us now. There are sharp climbs up steep little hills and pushing and cursing a plenty. A wild camp ends the day and there is a big return on our efforts. We pitch in the lee of a hill and overlooking the ocean. We brew a tea, eat some food and look out at the Mediterranean. Fishing boats move slowly, making their way into harbour and then it is dark. The full moon throws our shadows against the tent fly and the cold drives us into our bags.
It is 6.30 and again we are asleep early enough to count as an afternoon nap. The moon is bright enough to read by as it arcs over us and out to sea. The same hill that kept the wind off us, shades the sun in the morning and makes breakfast a chilly affair.
Lumpy riding on cold legs as we ride to pick up the SS115. The whole point of today is to do some quick distance. We are trying to judge our approach to catch a ferry to Malta. If we push hard today, we can sneak a rest day. We have a bit of a shoulder to ride on and we just get our heads down to time-trial the distance. The surface requires our full attention particularly on the fast decent. It is hot and dry, with little to pass for amusement or distraction.
We make it, and celebrate with a third coffee on the outskirts of Licata. As ever, the best bars serve great coffee even if they look terrible. It would be a crime against humanity to serve rubbish here. As usual, the place comes to a stop as we enter.
We enter the maze of the old town and head for the harbour and a hotel we have looked up on the WWW. If anything, the streets are tighter here than any of the other towns. In the morning we walk around as Licata gets itself ready for Christmas. We walk around looking left, right and down. Licata is rather nice, but like everywhere it is full of dogs with great character and rather a lot of dog shit.