Well, the point really was to get to know Snežana. After five months of e-mails and video phone conversations and a week in person in Belgrade, a short bicycle tour in Sicily seemed like a perfect way to challenge a relationship. Yes, relationship-by-fire seems no more ridiculous than anything else at this point.
Even though the location of the tour didn’t matter, I couldn’t help but come away with a few impressions of cycling through Italy’s southernmost province. We flew in and out of Palermo, and our route took us to Sicily’s largest cities; the famous archaeological site, Valle dei Templi, outside of Agrigento; the mountainous interior of the island with mountaintop cities and castles; and a few days of riding along the coast.
A couple notable surprises:
- The island feels deserted. So many towns have few people on the streets, and some towns were completely abandoned. A few times we camped right next to houses because, it seems, most houses have no people living in them. The rural interior feels particularly depopulated.
- Where we actually saw people in the streets it was almost entirely older (older than 50) men. No women in the streets and no young people. With this trend rural Sicily will feel more and more empty. Emigration has been a story in Sicily for over a century so I guess this isn’t news.
Although the coastal towns felt more alive, Sneki and I both preferred the riding of the interior. The green fields, rocky mountain tops, and rural farmhouses provided a beautiful setting. We had some challenging climbs and at least three spectacular downhills:
- the road east and then south out of Mussomeli where newly-married and pregnant Calogero and Calogera hosted us with a much-appreciated shower and the best pizza of the trip
- the phenomenal road NE from Chiaramonte Gulfi; this climb was spectacular as well and one of the best days of riding after spending the night at a wonderful B&B in Acate
- the switchbacks east then south out of Sortino on a gorgeous Saturday morning
Sneki in particular liked the long and a bit slower descent from Buccheri to Necrópoli di Pantálica via Ferla. Indeed this was a beautiful road, but I couldn’t shake the worry from the back of my mind that we would be riding back up this long descent after coming to a dead end. Instead we spent two hours hauling our bikes and gear 1-2 km down into and up out of a steep canyon on a trail that largely consisted of narrow stairs.
The ride down and south through Montelepre was too windy to be enjoyable, and the ride down through Cammarata was far too steep to be enjoyable. Never have I seen such a steep city as Cammarata.
We had leisurely mornings, lingering lunches, and ended up looking for a place to sleep in the dark about half the nights. I often say cycle-touring is really all about eating. Well, this was no exception. Snežana takes her meals seriously and got us in a pleasant habit of firing up the stove — and thus ending up with a better meal — more often than I normally would have. The fresh vegetables were fantastic. The tomatoes were delicious, the peppers unusually large, and the black olives consistently a favorite of ours. We often found ourselves cycling through orange, lemon, and olive orchards.
The best riding weather was usually in the warmest part of the day which helped push us into the late morning routine. The nights were always damp and felt colder than what the temperature would indicate, I think. It only froze one night that I know of, but that night didn’t seem particularly cold in the tent. At any rate, March is a fine time to cycle in Sicily. It’s certainly warmer than Colorado or Serbia. We did, however, have a lot of rain during our first week — more than is typical according to locals. When we finally got views of Etna as we approached the east coast, it was covered in snow. I imagine a fair bit had fallen up there this March.
From our camp on a deserted beach 20km south of Catánia, we worked out the next part of our route: climb up the west side of Mt. Etna, wrap around north and east and drop into Taormina, cross the Strait of Messina, into Calabria, north to Rome, Umbria, Tuscany — enough to keep us busy for at least a few more weeks… Dreamers, indeed.
But, alas, we were out of time and took a train back to Palermo from Catánia. Bicycle logistics for that were easy: €3.50/bike and wheel them right onto the train. It was only at the end of the trip that we took half a day to wander around Palermo on our bikes. We arrived by train in Palermo in the early evening, and, incredibly, we found a great place to camp on the beach just a 10-15 minute ride from the central station in Palermo.
A note on language: Snežana was amazed by how little English was spoken. Even at the tourist spots and the airport, people only spoke Italian. We got by with horrible pidgin Italian and hand gestures. My Spanish and French certainly provided a useful start for Italian, but it definitely isn’t Italian. Sometimes I would hear myself say something and know that it sounded absolutely awful, but people would still smile and try to understand.
Here’s our route: Palermo airport, Villa Grázia di Carini, Carini, Montelepre, San Giuseppe Jato, San Cipirello, Corleone, Lago di Prizzi, Cammarata, Acquaviva Plátani, Mussomeli, Racalmuto, Favara, Agrigento, Palma di Montechiuaro, Licata, Gela, Acate, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Buccheri, Ferla, Necrópoli di Pantálica, Sortino, Belvedere, Siracusa, Priolo Gargallo, Augusta, Catánia.