2 guys 2 bikes 2 weeks on the island of Sicily
Day 1 Airport – Palermo 40km
A 3:00am wake up call was a little early for a 6:30 departure, but the excitment of travel got me out of bed quickly. By 3:50 i was on my way in the dark night to the airport, and without even weighing my bike they checked it in at the airport. Things were off to a good start.
At the Munich airport i enjoyed several free coffees before taking a nap as i waited for Rob, my traveling companion to arrive from Freiberg.
After a 3 hour layover we were on a flight to Palermo. my excitement rose as i could see the island that reached the sky. The first thing i said to Rob out of the plane was ‘i hope you’re in good shape’
We received our bikes that looked as though they fell down some stairs in their boxes, but that was expected. With a lack of customs we were outside of the airport reassembling our bikes 'pronto'.
It was time to mount up and set off. There was one road that exited the airport and according to the sighn it led to the main freeway. We made a u-turn and returned to the airport in search of local advice. We were told to follow the road to the ‘autostrade’ but to get off at the first town, then ask once again.
We so we ended up on the freeway. With cars constantly honking their klaxons we got off at the first available area, and some of the locals warned us of the dangers riding on the freeway, we understood only their tone. One elderly taxi driver told us to get off in the next exit and follow the 113 into Palermo. His advice was solid and after two hours of breathtaking scenery riding along the coast we were entering the neatly nestled capital of Sicily. It was getting dark and i was feeling ill. The last time i ate was sixteen hours ago. We stopped at what claimed to be an American pizza joint. A place where local teenagers hung out smoking cigarettes while sipping on coca – colas. The pizza was not up to par considering where we were, but i needed something warm in my belly. The proprietor of the established was interested in the origins of his foreign patrons. From this conversation we became aware that the name of the establishment came from the fact that he lived in New York for 4 years before deciding that there ‘was no place like home’. The streets began to be more saturated with locals as we got closer to the center, and the fact that i had a my bike box attached to the back of my bike, giving me wings, did not help to avoid
day 2 Palermo – Corleone
Day 2 – Corleone
Route: Palermo to Corleone
Distance: 69 km
This Post was written by my travel companion Rob as he is the real writer.
Bike Mike’s Quote of the Day: ‘Palermo’s smells would give foreign dogs a heart attack.’
‘Didn’t you see the map that I sent to you online?’ Mike asked as I dragged myself and my bike to a lay-by on a level bit of road. He had been waiting for about 15 minutes. Yes, I said. But he knew I was lying. Because if it were true there would be no look of severe shock accompanying the pain etched on my face.
I wish I had checked the bloody map. At least I would have been psychologically prepared for the exit out of Palermo, a hellish journey that was made – exclusively, it seemed – of gradients between 15 and 20 degrees up crumbling, pot-holed rural roads.
Demented neighbourhood dogs contributed to my torment. Jumping head first onto the inside of their fences, their frenzied, frothed barking further sapped what little energy I had left.
Today was a rude awakening. I consider myself a man of above average fitness. I jog most mornings and play football twice a week. I’ve been known to visit the gym on occasion. But nothing prepared me for this torture.
I wasn’t even 2pm and my legs were gone. Finished. Starting at more or less sea level, we cycled up to around 800 metres. Well, Mike did. My thighs, on fire, gave way. I began to walk, itself a big challenge which resulted in my calves burning.
Even on a bike with no saddle bags I would have struggled with the climbs. But with two bags, weighing about 12kg each, either side of my rear wheel, there was only ever going to be one winner: gravity.
At one stage, Mike used his mutant legs (I’m convinced that he was bitten by a radioactive grasshopper years ago) to charge up the hill. We lost each other and agreed to meet in San Giuseppe Jato, the nearest big town between us and Corleone.
I joined the SP20 road and duly made my way towards the town. By this stage the gradient, and the road’s surface, was much better. But try telling my legs that. I desperately needed food to refuel.
Once the route levelled out, I jumped back on my bike. My spirit soared as I found myself slaloming, at nearly 40km an hour, downhill. Fierce cross-winds pushed me side to side. A sudden drop in temperature forced me to stop and put on a jacket.
With the pain subsiding in my legs, I was able to concentrate more on my surroundings. I wished I couldn’t. The fields and hills, save for a few bundles of trees, were barren, dark-cinnamon scorched swathes of earth bordered with what looked like singed bushes and plants. Litter lay everywhere. Lay-bys served as ad-hoc dumping grounds. No sign of human life; what few houses and farm buildings I saw were abandoned and derelict.
A few kilometres later I stopped to take a photograph. Mike suddenly appeared from behind, and we continued onto San Giuseppe Jato where we ate pizza bread and chocolate. We then set off to Corleone, on a second leg which we thought would be mostly flat. My legs rejoiced as we hurtled down more hills.
The gradient discreetly began to increase. Mike used his super-powers to pull away. I turned a corner and suddenly, in the distance, saw that the approach to Corleone was all uphill. If I I could actually feel my legs, I’m sure I would’ve sensed them melt. I walked the last 5km into the town.
The plan for tonight is rest and filling my body with protein and carbs. I’m writing this from a cafe where stills and memorabilia from the Godfather films hang on the walls. I feel I could wolf down a whole chicken. Tomorrow we head around 60 kilometres towards the coast.
My legs now think they know what’s in store. With enough recuperation, I’m confident that they will acclimatise and only get stronger on this tour.
But I know something they don’t: Mount Etna awaits. And following today’s brutal climbs, that’s a prospect that fills me with dread.
words by Robert Szmigielski
day 3 Corleone - Agrigento (on the coast) 130km
This day would prove to be both grueling and rewarding. With Rob complaining of pain in his hamstring we were forced to exit Corleone by climbing a 12% gradient. I promised Rob that that was the worst of it, not knowing exactly what the day would look like as stopping Corleone was allready not part of the original route.
22Km out of Corleone we reached Pizzi, a town i had hopped to stop in to refuel. The only problem was, as with most Siclian towns, it was perched ontop of a hill. I looked to Rob ‘2Km the signs says, think you can do it?’ The climb was steep and Rob ended up walking it, but if you ask me it was well worth it. The town was perched on a steep slant on top a hill almost 1000 meters high. The streets of the old town composed labrynth that was difficult to navigate. i was puzzled by how people could drive their cars in a town where the streets were a little over a meter wide. I entered the maze on my own as Rob chose to wait on the outskirts. It seemed like i had entered an Escher painting. The roads slanted up and down and sideways. As i rode through the narrow streets i could feel the eyes of elederly italian women gazing through their shades.
Once i reemerged from the town in bewildrement i found Rob eating a banana given to him by the fruit truck vendor. I had bought some oranges from him earlier, and all he had given me was a firm hand shake. After refueling we were back on the road. Along the way i stopped at a water fountain where scratched in the stone well was the word ‘portable’ meaing drinkable. It tasted good so i filled up my bottle only to find that there was a ‘no’ faded in front of the Italian word.
We were in the middle of the island, and the land was desolute and scorched. A landsape reminiscint of Mordor. At any moment you can look behind you and see a series of vast valleys and hills the same ones we had just come from.
Eventually we would get over the pass, and thus descend at speeds reaching 60Km/h. I regret only not having my gopro camera on. Rob and i had swapped helmets days ago, his proved to be too small, and along with my helmet went my gopro attachment.
After traversing quickly through two towns it was time to climb again. And after not seeing Rob for a couple of hours he reappeared. We rode along a ridge with spactacular views then again descended into another valley. I had stopped to get my bike light out and let Rob take the lead as the sun said its farewells. After a half an hour i caught up with Rob but from afar i could see he was not okay, as his rear light kept dancing in the dusk swaying from side to side. He was running out of fuel and we had a climb ahead of us. I thought about accompaning him but realised this would just make things worse as in this sort of mental state one can become quite irretable in the presence of others, this was a mental obstacle that once can only defeat on one’s own. I continued passed him as i spoke words of motivation. I made it to the top of the pass to be greeted with another valley and a sunset. The stars appeared and i felt quite relaxed and calm in these surroundings. Many people find biking in the dark dangerous but i feel more secure, as i am able to see the cars coming from afar, and they always slowdown when they spot me as though they need confirmation of what they are seeing. The lights of Agrigento flikered far below me as i looked upon them from on top of a ridge. The next 25 Km could be described in one word ‘descent’. Rob would eventually reunite with me a couple hours after my arrival. He was beyond exhaustion and just needed a place to rest. I came a across a bed and breakfast that proved to be more than worthy for out two night stint in the town of Agrigento. Rob needed a rest and the ‘Valley of Temples’, was worthy of a day, so we we treated ourselves to seperate rooms in this lovely apartment that was located at the begining of a staircase of art int he middle of via Athena. A portly Nino greeted and led us into our rooms.
day 4 rest day in Agrigento
While Rob rested up i set off to the Valley of the Temples, some of the best preserved and largest Greek temples on the island. The temples were nestled between the coast line and the hill that the city of Agrigento was perched on. I was amazed at the the engineering involved in building a structure of such scale and magnitude almost 3000 years ago. as i walked through the ruins i felt blessed realizing that i have had the opportunity to visit many of the world’s ancient architectural gems, from the Mayan temples of Chichén Itzá, to the Incan wonder of Machu Pichu, to the Hindu and Budhist temples of Asia. As i was pondering this a bronze statue caught my eye, clearly of modern form, it seemed displaced yet oddly familiar, like the work of Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj who, if you have ever visited Krakow, has a giant head of his works lays in the main square. The work in Krakow is known as ‘eros bandato’, he does a lot of Greek and roman inspired pieces. At closer inspection a plaque confirmed my theory, it was indeed his work. i recalled the one new years eve i had spent in Krakow when the main square was covered in a series of his works and i believe that this same piece was on display then. ‘We have met before’ i whispered to the fallen headless angel as i walked passed it.
After visiting the site i continued biking all the way to the coast of San Leone. To my surprise there was a bike path along the boulevard. I spend some time on the pier looking out into the ocean, alone with my thoughts before engaging in the treacherous climb that would lead me back to center of Agrigento where i found Rob in bed just as i had left him.
day 5 Agrigento - Gela
After two days in Agrigento it was time to leave our lovely flat and head along the coast. i set our sights for Ragusa, which was 150KM away. Rob did not disaprove verbally but i could see it in his face that this idea did not appeal to him. I told Rob we would ride as far as Gela and see how we feel. The route out of Agrigento was like ‘snakes and ladders.’ The main roads were a series of elevated concrete bridges that twisted their way off the hill where Agrigento lay. This provided nice views of the orange orchards below but i did not appreciate the velocity that the motorized trafic was reaching as they passed us. Being on a bridge we were restricted to the amount of shoulder we had.
Soon we were greeted by a sign warning the drivers of cyclo tourists, it was much appreciated. The road widened and led us to the coast where we could feel the dual force of the sun as it reflected against the mediteranean. There was not a soul around and we took advantage of this as we descended down the hill to the sea rarely braking, until a blockade in the road caused me to suddenly stop, and not a second after i could here Rob yell ‘Watch out,’ i could feel his panniers rub against me as i quickly jumped off my bike. No one was hurt. It was the parked truck 20 meters from the blockade that obstructed our view and caused a near accident.
The road looked like there was a landslide years ago and now nature was flexing its muscles and was braking through the concrete. We carried our bikes through the bushes that were growing through the pavement. The road cleared up and we got back on our bikes. The route led us to the sea where we had to ride on the sand before traversing through a seaside town that we assumed only comes to life in the summer months. By the time we got to Gela Robert had enough. He made the point that this was starting to feel more like a athletic venture than a holiday. 7 hours in the saddle was more than enough. So we rode down to the pier and watched the sun go down behind the liquid horizon as i hydrated with some local liquor. That night we would find an apartment where we could take advantage of the kitchen facilities and cook a shrimp pasta. This would give us much needed strength for the next day.
Day 6 Gela -Syracuse 246Km
It was decided that Rob and i would take separate routes to Siracusa. I would head up to the hills towards Ragusa, a baroque town built after the 1655 eruption of mount Etna, and Rob would stay along the coast.
I was rolling along on a steady reasonable grade towards the hills while listening to music that i was streaming on my ipad. Accompanying me was a pleasant woman’s voice from google maps who was telling me which way in order to get to get to my destination. What she didn’t tell me was when i took a wrong turn, instead she adapted my mistake and made a new route for me without my knowledge. I realized this 12KM into my mistake. I had to turn back if i wanted to get to Ragusa. I hate turning around, and since i was already heading towards Syracusa i decided to continue that way knowing that would take me over 140Km. I was feeling strong after last nights supper and when I considered how much time was a factor on this trip I decided to head towards Syracusa. This is about the time the incline began to get quite steep.
In the distance i could see a curious town known as Chiarmonte Gulfi perched on top of a very steep hill. I would have to climb that hill and further. I ended up climbing to 1200 meters where the vegetation changed from forest to barren land separated only by hand placed stones forming walls that i assumed must have been there for a thousand years. On top of the mountian pass i did my traditional dance in the middle of the street to celebrated the highest point of the day. After my spectacle it was back on my bike this time with my gopro mounted as the next 20Km would be down.
By the late afternoon i could feel my fuel diminishing and i stopped in Palozollo Acreide for a snack. As usual i was limited to what was available as noone eats in the afternoon. At the local bar I stuffed myself with 3 pastries of tomatoe and cheese before realising my eyes had been bigger than my stomach.
It was getting dark and i still had 30Km to do. With the sun setting and Eddie Money blasting in my ears i sang along to ‘take me home tonight’ and in the dead of night i descended all the way to the sea. The air was warm and my bike lights were flashing both front and back. I was on my very own mobile discotheque.
The hostel in Syracusa proved to be closed for the winter so I stayed in a smelly hotel. I wasn’t bothered. i fell asleep with a smile while listening to a Sting concert in Germany on an Italian TV channel. It was another good day of riding.
Day 8 Syracuasa - Catania
After a day spent in Syracuse doing all the tourist stuff, such as the Greek theatre, Dionysus’ cave, and the Archimedes' museum (i recommend all but the last) i met up with Rob who arrived that evening. We went out for a couple of drinks in a pub as our paths would not cross for another 3 days. Rob was going to take the train then ride along the north coast and i was heading inland into the ski hills.
it was time to get back on the bike. It was going to be a flat coastal ride, and from what i read this the area i would be be riding through is known to be the most industrial in all of the European union. The stories were sadly true.
The last couple of days i have been experiencing a slight crunch on the downward peddle stroke. Having experienced this before i knew it to be my bottom bracket unscrewing. The only problem was i did not have the tools to tighten it. Just then a sign for the French sports store Decathalon caught my eye. The employees were nice at first thinking i just needed to burrow one key tighten what i needed to tighten and leave. The supervisor came by and scolded the employee who gave me access to the work bench. I was then asked to leave. The problem was i did have a vice grip i needed to remove the cranks to get to the bottom bracket. Luckily behind Decathalon was another french superstore Auchan. It was there that i purchased a vice grip and glue for my sun glasses that had broken earlier. Tools in hand i returned to Decathalon and disassembled my cranks outside the store before entering with a plea for just use one tool for five minutes. I did, and in gratitude i purchased sunglasses that were on sale for four euros. Those glasses were cheaper than the glue i bought to fix my previous ones. And the were much more sporty.
I rode away silence and continued my journed along the coast passing numerous oil refineries along the way. The night before i read about some ancient Greek ruins located in the area. I had noticed a sign for them so i turned off the main road and made a four km detour. When i arrived at the location i was disappointed to find the area fenced off and padlocked. So i took a little break and had a look at the beach which overlooked another refinery.
Back on the road it seemd as though i was in a post apocalyptical Earth where the highway was old and rarely used it was covered in plants breaking through the concrete. The refineries just added to the feel When i finally made the turn off the road i began to descend, and it was then that i felt the rim of my hat flip, i thought that to be strange as the helmet that i wear ontop of my hat would stop the rim of the cap to flip up. It was then that i touched my head and noticed the lack of head protection. after scanning my selfie fotos i came to the conclusion that i had left the hat back at the ruins ten km back.
I returned to find the helmet as well as the gate to the ruins ajar. I walked in and was greeted by some locals that i assumed had the key. i got the helmet
Day 9 Mount Etna
I awoke early that morning as i had a big climb ahead of me. The road out of Catania was covered in black lava stone. Via Etnea was constructed from the lava spewed out of mount Etna’s spout. More than once she let her presence known in the last hundred years, and yet still she was not completely dormant. Along the roads there were signs warning that cyclists should not be riding when Etna is erupting. At Least that was what i gathered from my little Italian.
The plan was I was to climb 2000 meters to the refugio Sepienza on top of mount Etna in 40Km. I dont think I have ever made such a great climb in so short a distance. I took the route up the east side of the volcano in hopes that there would be less traffic. I was right, the gradient however, was steep but with a few breaks along the way i managed better than i had expected. Most of the ride up Etna was covered in clouds, but for a brief moment those clouds parted and i was humbled by her presence, and just as quickly as she appeared she again vanished.
Once i reached refuge Sapienza there weren’t any hotels open. My plans of spending the night on top quickly vanished and i was disappointed due to the face that i would not get to ride onto its giant crater, which i had planned for the following day. Instead i visited a a crater just off the main road.
It looked as though i had landed on Mars accompanied by my bike. It wasn’t easy to ride along the crater in the red sand and perhaps this was a sign that climbing to the top would be next to impossible.
After a quick snack i headed down the west side of the volcano. 40KM of pure descent.
In the town of Nicolosi i found a nice hotel that was a little out of my price range but i had deserved a bit of luxury after the day’s climb. With a sign on the door that welcomed cycle tourists i knew there was no need to look further.
Day 10 Nicolosi - Nicosia
I tended to lose my way that morning as my phone started acting funny. I use google maps to plan my route on my iphone 4s But since updating to the 7.0 operating system my wi fi chip has been overheating. The solution is to heat up your phone with a hair drier to the point that you receive a warning, at this point you are to place the phone in the freezer for 10 minutes. This will cause the wifi chip to completely reset. This worked for over four months until it began to happen again at the worse time, in the middle of Sicily.
I still managed to remain off the main roads, which meant riding in the dirt, this i do not mind at all. However, i did find a lot of trash thrown on the sides of these quiet roads, needless to say this was not pleasant.
My plan was to follow a river which would eventually lead to lake Pozzillo. The route was nice without a car in sight, only the likes of sheep herders. After needing to traverse through metal cable gates, used to keep the cattle in, my road ended in a swamp. I was to return to the asphalt 5 Km back. Instead of remaining on the river side i climbed a giant hill only to descend to Lake Pozillo. I am happy i did, as this was one of the nicest lakes I had come across, and it had a wonderful route along its perimeter.
After the pleasantry of the lake i was hit was some steep gradients. The sheepherders were puzzled as i greeted them, slowly pushing my way up the hill with a traditional ‘Bonjourno’ that was muffled by the sweat that poured down my lips.
By the time i reached Nicosia i was ready to eat, but as usual no restaurants were open only bars. After four slices of pizza and two beers i was inclined to look for an some accommodation for the night. I found a B&B not too far from the bar but when i got there no one answered. I asked the neighbouring real estate office about the B&B she seemed puzzled and ran across the street to a small market, when she emerged she was accompanied by young man who spoke a very rapid form of Italian. It came apparent that he had a room for rent and he would escort me there in his car, while i followed in sweaty pursuit behind. The place was central, but minimal, and cold.
After having a walk around town i found some bruciato and bread and headed back to the house. I was hovering at an altitude of 1000 meters, the nights chilled down to 13 degrees. Using all the blankets found in the apartment i made a cocoon for myself. That night i would try to fall asleep while watching the Italian Xena warrior princess. This proved little success.
Day 11 Nicosia - Cefelu
Had a rough start that morning. At 1000 meters elevation it was still 9 degrees by 9:00am, and quite misty. This made the pavement quite moist, which led me to my first fall on this trip. While taking one of several sharp corners down from the hilltop town of Nicosi my tyres slipped from underneath me and I slid off the side of the road. No serious harm was done but my attire had some additional holes.
The plan that day was to head towards the Madonie natural reserve, as i heard there was good mountain biking there. It later occurred to me that the Madonie was one of three ski resort hills, the other one was mount Etna.
The weather wasn’t good and i ended up taking the long way into the reserve. I stopped a while and debated whether i should take the easy way out and ride straight towards the coast, considering how unpredictable the weather in the mountains can be. After some deliberation i took into consideration my frequency on the island of Sicily and headed towards the mountains peaks.
I am glad i did as the scenery was some of the most spectacular i had seen on the whole trip. The landscaped varied from thick green fir tree lined forest to grey cliffs. At the top i did a little dance and descended for 3 hours all the way to the coast.
As i sped down through one town I noticed the country’s influence on me. I saw a donkey eating a metal road sign, and i yelled ‘Heeey! Whatchadoin dat fa!” It worked he stopped chewing.
As the sun set i went over my last mountain pass and i could see the lights of Cefelu twinkling on the coast.
After 146Km and 2400m of climbing tomorrow would be a well deserved rest day.
Day 12 Cefalu Rest Day
The perfect city to relax before the flight back. Cefelu has everthing from history to art to pristine beaches just behind the door. A little more touristy than some of the other places and the prices reflect this, nonetheless a must for anyone visiting Sicily.
The cathedral dates back to the twelve century and is an unique mix of Byzantine and Baroque art.
The beach is right in town and in winter is practically empty yet still warm enough to bask in the sun.
Towering over the town is a fortress perched on top of a hill dating back to the 12 century that makes for an excellent half day excursion.
All in all Cefelu is an excellent mix of natural and historical beauty and only an hour away from the ski resorts and airport, an excelent winter destination and city break.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves