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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.