A two-week bicycle tour in Sicily

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Villa Grázia by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3247 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3275 by bryandkeith on flickr

Happy bicycle tourist by bryandkeith on flickr

Lunchtime in Corleone by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3344 by bryandkeith on flickr

Small street in Santo Stéfano by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3402 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3430 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3448 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3457 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3469 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN6317 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN6323 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3495 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3509 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3589 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3622 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3634 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3659 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3708 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3724 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3744 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3748 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3755 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3777 by bryandkeith on flickr

DSCN3821 by bryandkeith on flickr

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.

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25 Responses to A two-week bicycle tour in Sicily

  1. Snežana says:

    When are we going to continue riding to Rome? 😉

  2. Kevin says:

    That’s a great collection of photos you’ve posted here! Talk to you soon.

  3. Paul Koenig says:

    Bryan-
    Detlev mentioned you were back from your trip and it looks awesome. Happy trails.

    Paul

  4. armin says:

    Hi, can you help me by giving me some route advices from syracuse to Catania. I am plening a byke trip and i want to avoid the crowdet roads!

  5. Armin says:

    I m planning a road trip by bicycle on the east coast of Sicilly and I would like to know which are the roads with less traffic , or if could tell me which road it’s better to take from siracussa to Catania . Thank you so much . Appreciated

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Hi Armin,

      Well, as I recall we were able to follow a road between the coast and the big highway straight out of Syracuse and continue on that most of the way to Catania. However, coming into Catania there was construction, and we ended up on horrible huge highways coming into the city. I think the last 20-30 km into Catania were the worst riding that I did on Sicily. Good luck. I don’t have my maps handy (they are in a box in Boulder; I’m in a pansiyon in Antalya) so I can’t provide more details.

      Bryan

  6. Jelena says:

    Hi,

    My husband and I are going to Sicily in a couple of days and we came across your website by chance, while searching for information on cycling through Sicily. Looks like you had a great time – now we’re even more eager to get there.

    We just wanted to ask you if you had any trouble from the police/other authorities when camping outside designated campsites? We were reading online (to our dismay!) that it is not allowed in Italy, but we don’t know if this is strictly enforced or not. We’re not planning to set up a permanent camp anywhere – just to be able to spend a couple of nights by ourselves, without feeling like sheep in a pen.

    Any help would be appreciated!

    Greetings from Skopje,

    Jelena

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Dobar dan Jelena,

      Maybe I’m too late to be helpful for you. You might already be in Sicily. I was on the road.

      You can’t camp in Italy??!! Haha, I never heard that before. Snežana and I had no trouble camping in Sicily. We usually didn’t ask anyone for permission, just camped where we wanted to.

      I hope you have a great trip. If you post photos or write about your trip, let me know. I’m curious to hear how it went.

      Bryan

  7. james says:

    Thinking of a bike tour in sicily in may. Do you have details of your route / distances etc. We have a week and dont mind big miles

    • sofia says:

      posso consigliare di passare a Sortino alle Porte di Pantalica Patrimonio Unesco che offre panorami davvero suggestivi. per dormire 338 4908385

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Hi James,

      Well, I don’t have any more information than what I’ve written here. Like I said, my favorite riding was inland away from the coast. I guess I’d recommend those fun descents that I mentioned in the text. 🙂

  8. Hey Keith,

    I really enjoyed reading this post and looking at your photos!

    I am planning a month stay in Sicily for a photo project this coming Fall, though most of it will be spent on the project, I do want to take a week and bike around the island. Any suggestions on places to rent gear and other resources for someone who has never done a biking trip ( I do bike long distances). Any links would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    Jo Ann

  9. Rob Hanson says:

    Hi,

    Bit of an odd question, but what were the roads like? I was thinking of skate touring down there (on a longboard – not as odd as it sounds and I’m not the only one!), but bad roads affect the board a lot more than they do a bike! Photos look beautiful by the way, thanks for sharing.

    Rob

    • Bryan Keith says:

      The roads seem good enough from what I remember, but it’s been a couple years, and road quality isn’t so important on a bike.

    • Mark Bugeja says:

      Hi, I am from malta and ride sicily often. The roads are great but a bit rough , I mean grippy, as not to slied . I am going to do the whole Sicilian coast line in a week next April as it’s a bit warmer and dry, riding around 150km a day. We like to sleep in b/b to ride lighter. Only 25€ a night. So only we only carry 5 kilo spair parts and cloths on our racks . Lucky we speak Italian . as you go off the main towns a few locals speak anything but Italian , so take a Translation book. Once out of towns the roads are deserted whichever e love as our little island is packed with cars

  10. Richard Alvarez says:

    Hey there, love the pictures! I’m planning on a tour of Sicily in May 2014, I do have one question, were there plenty of places to buy food and provisions (supermarkets, markets, shops, stalls) ? even in remote locations? The only thing I worry about is finding enough food!

    Thank you for your time,

    Richard

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Hi Richard,

      Somehow I just noticed this unanswered comment. Who knows, maybe I answered you via e-mail. If not, it’s probably too late to help you. Anyway, I’ll say that we found markets every day. When we did find a market, we’d buy the food we needed for the day. It was certainly no problem. I like to have my dinner food with me fairly early in the day so I’m free to camp wherever I want in case I find a good spot.

  11. Chris Ambridge says:

    Hi There,

    Great Website!

    you may like our video of our recent cycling trip to Sicily from Catania to Palermo.

    If you have any questions fell free to ask.

    Thanks in advance & have a great day

    Chris

  12. Jo Amess says:

    Brilliant Website of riding Sicily,
    Thank you for sharing it. I am looking for a big cycle challenge this year and I had thought Sicily. After see your blog I am now going to see how I can make that happen.

    May be a strange questions but what theme you are using on wordpress. I have recently statered a blog on it http://www.joamess.wordpress.com bu i can’t seem to find a theme that looks good. I like the look of yours.

    It is a great insight into Sicily and your pictures a lovely.

    Thank you again and well done

    Kind regards
    Jo

  13. James Dalton says:

    Thanks for the great descriptions and absolutely fantastic pictures, they really told the story. My wife and I dream of riding in Corsica in Sicily someday, we are from Spokane Washington. Good luck to you guys, safe riding!!

  14. Alex White says:

    Hi Brian – beautiful photos! I was enchanted by the image of the abandoned castle. Do you remember where it was? Ive heard that some of these abandoned towns are offering houses to those willing to go live there… maybe you rode through some of these places?

    thanks
    Alex

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