Deep in the mountains of south-eastern Sicily, there is a place of ancient and foreboding mystery. The place is called Pantálica: a giant necropolis consisting of thousands of tombs, in the form of body-sized holes cut into the sides of sheer cliffs and precipitous rocky overhangs; and constructed around 2,500 years ago by a civilisation that we know almost nothing about, and that has long since vanished from the face of the Earth. Pantálica would have to be one of the most bizarre, the most isolated, and the most disturbing places that I've visited on my world trip so far. Most fittingly, the necropolis can only be reached by one long and winding road, that stretches tenuously to the site and back again — the only way in, and also the only way out. This afternoon, I headed east from the village of Ferla, and boldly embarked upon this road. It was a strange and lonely journey: but I lived to tell the tale.
From my little milk stop in Cassibile, this morning I continued straight up the SS115 highway (the main highway of Sicily's east coast), and by 11am I was in beautiful, famous Syracuse. It was a quick and easy ride: as with yesterday, I continued to be blessed with beautiful weather (something that I don't take for granted these days), and with flat and smooth roads. Although it's one of Sicily's major cities, I actually thought that Syracuse would be much bigger: I was surprised at how quickly I managed to whiz through the moderate sprawl of outer suburbs, and to reach the island of Ortyiga, the historic centre of the city. This gave me plenty of time to cruise around on my bike, and to give myself a leisurely tour of Ortygia.
After a boring morning's ride, I continued east from Pietraperzia this afternoon, towards the town of Piazza Armerina. The weather continued to be fine, and the terrain remained largely unchallenging; but otherwise, the afternoon ride was in stark contrast with the rest of the day's trip. Gorgeous scenery this afternoon: the whole way, the countryside was peppered with green, fertile farms, that blanketed the gently rolling hills of the area. And just short of Piazza Armerina, I reached the big attraction of this part of Sicily (and one of the biggest attractions in all of Sicily), and the reason for my taking the longer inland route through this region in the first place: Villa Romana, the ruined Roman mansion of two thousand years' antiquity, and home of one of Europe's largest and finest works of tiled mosaic art.
Along with easy terrain and fabulous weather, today was also a day of only a short time spent on the road. The reason: I was too busy to cycle much, as I had so many of these Sicilian Greek ruins to see :P. From Eraclea Minoa, it was another two hours or so of pleasant coastal riding, before I reached the big city of Agrigento, and its neighbouring site "Valle dei Templi" (lit: "Valley of the Temples") — probably the largest, the most impressive, and the best-known of all the archaeological ruins in Sicily. And it was lucky I got there by lunchtime: because the valley is quite expansive, and I needed several hours to explore it thoroughly, and to really appreciate it and to soak it all up. For any semi-serious visitor to Sicily, the Valle dei Templi is not to be missed: it may be a bit crowded (even in November), but it really does blow you away.
From my field near Sciacca, I continued east along the coast this morning, and passing by some random possible gum trees along the way. It was rather a hurried exit I made this morning, as the neighbours on the field spotted my tent — however, they didn't seem annoyed about it, they even walked past and said "good morning". Nevertheless, I didn't want to hang around and test their hospitality further: so at 7:50am, it was my earliest on-the-road start so far. The morning ride was glorious: as with yesterday, the Sicilian south coast continued to grace me with easy terrain, fine weather, gentle winds, and romantic Mediterranean scenery. My first stop for the day was the seaside Greek ruins of Eraclea Minoa.
Apart from getting stopped by police, I did also enjoy myself this morning in Sicily. From Campobello, I continued east, and stopped by at the ancient Greek ruins of Selinunte. Selinunte is the first of several Greek archaeological sites strung along Sicily's south coast — and like the ruins of Segesta further north, its highlight is a big columned temple. A single temple is the only structure that really remains intact today — but the rubble that makes up the rest of Selinunte shows interesting clues as to the site's former glory; and the scenic views of the surrounding sea and countryside is gorgeous. I can certainly see why they chose this place for honouring the G-ds, back in the day.
To finish off my travels for today, this afternoon I stopped by the Greek ruins of Segesta. Located smack-bang amidst rolling countryside — near the town of the same name — Segesta is a large and impressively well-preserved temple (and ampitheatre), and is believed to be about 2,500 years old. It's also, as far as I'm aware, the first set of ancient Greek ruins that I've ever seen in my life; and it seems to be that it was a very good place to be introduced to it all. I reached the archaeological site rather late in the day (4pm), so I wasn't able to take the shuttle bus up to the hillside ampitheatre. However, I had plenty of time to explore the temple, and to admire both the ancient construction and its pleasant rural surroundings.
For this morning's ride, I left my field near Gangi bright and early, and rode west through the town of Gangi, continuing on until I reached the turnoff north into the Madonie mountains. From here, it was only a short ride to the mountain town of Geraci Siculo, where I found a lovely (albeit mostly ruined) hilltop castello ("castle") to explore. It was a tough ride to Geraci Siculo — the weather turned quite cold, and it got a bit rainy, plus there were quite a few minor uphill sections — but when I got there, I was rewarded with great scenic views, a quaint village atmosphere, and a bar that served an excellent hot chocolate for the morning break. Plus, after reaching the town, the weather improved, and it was all downhill riding.
After going to the pub for some reunion beers, my friends Tom and Fede took me to the heart of Rome, for a very unique (although not 100% legal) tour of the city's ancient ruins. They showed me how the ruins of central Rome seem to have almost no security at night: all they have is fences; and these proved to be ridiculously easy to climb over. Apparently, Italy simply has so many ancient ruins and archaeological parks, that they can't be bothered to provide proper guards or patrols for any of them. This was fine with me: it allowed my friends to show me ancient Rome in a much more cool way than most tourists see it; and seeing the ruins at night has a certain beauty and eerieness to it that you just don't get during the sunlit, tourist-infested daytime.
I wasn't planning to do any sightseeing today — as the weather was lousy here in Rome, and as I had other things that needed doing — but on my way back from Porto Portese this afternoon, I ended up wandering by the Roman forum and senate. this is the north-western part of the "Palatino", the archaeological site in central Rome, that's actually the preserved remains of what was the main street of the ancient city. I never before realised that the absolute key, central area of ancient Rome is actually still here (albeit in crumbling form), and not all built-over, 2,000 years on. Quite a cool introduction to this most historic of all cities in the world.