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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.