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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.