When I began my ride today, the destination that I had in mind was the famous town of Taormina. Not a terribly ambitious destination — by 11am I was in Giardini Naxos, and Taormina is at the top of a big hill that overlooks Giardini — but then again, I was feeling pretty relaxed today; and I haven't got much further to ride anyway, until I once again reach Messina. So from Giardini, I slogged up the winding mountain road that takes you up to Taormina; and once I'd conquered this steep but not-overly-long road, I went to see what all the fuss is about, and why Taormina is considered one of the top tourist hotspots in Sicily. Well, Taormina is a gorgeous town: squashed into a tiny hilltop plateau, it's all narrow cobbled streets and fresh mountain air; the architecture is gorgeous, and can be seen in the many churches, palaces and terraced houses in town; and the views of the beaches and bays of Giardini on one side, and of Mazzarò on the other side, are quite breathtaking. However, the place is riddled with tourists — you can't even sneeze without being offered a souvenir handkerchief — and it's also ridiculously expensive. This dangerous combination made Taormina decidedly unappealing to me, particularly as a place to spend the night.
Once I'd finished finding my way north-west out of Catania today, I continued straight up north, into the eastern foothills of the ever-looming Mt. Etna, which watches over the city of Catania and over much of the Sicilian east coast, from its lofty peak of 3,326m asl. While this morning's riding was flat and easy, the afternoon ride through the towns east of Etna was uphill virtually all the way. Nevertheless, the ascent was reasonably gradual, and it was worth it for the rewarding and diverse scenic views. The steepest uphill was actually at the edge of Catania itself; once I was past the town of Sant' Agata li Battiati, I was basically through the worst of it, and also through the extent of Greater Catania. While the immediate landscape did change throughout the afternoon — the populous mountain towns eventually gave way to farmlands, and eventually to forest — the presence of Etna to the west was constant, and the view of it just kept getting better and better.
It was meant to happen yesterday afternoon; but due to technical difficulties, it happened today instead. This morning I jumped on my newly-repaired, newly-serviced bike, and headed west out of the city of Syracuse, into Sicily's Monti Iblei highlands. The day was kicked off with a fantastic B&B breakfast (I vote it "best breakfast I've had this year" — it was That Good™): the owner of Caravaggio — whose name is Mario — not only prepares an enormous and delicious spread; but he's also really friendly, quite fluent in English, and full of interesting things to talk about. Since I was expecting mountains today, I was pleasantly surprised by the first hour or so of the morning ride being flat and straight, through the town of Floridia, and all the way to Solarino. However, the mountains appeared in full force from Solarino onwards: it was a fairly tough slog ascending through the foothills; but once I was up, I was up — and once the scenery started getting good, it just kept getting better.
This morning's ride — both parts of it — was one of those times that really tests you. If you want to do something big, you have to expect to be challenged at some points — and in my big Sicilian ride, this was one of those points. Part one of the ride was a battle against various odds: rough and confusing roads; a cold battering wind; and angry roadside dogs without relent. Part two was simply a question of pure, uphill determination: the ascent to the mountaintop village of Erice, located 750m asl, was not for the faint-hearted. But I endured, and I persisted, and I told the dogs where to shove it; and I made it through. And proud to have done it, too.
After a great breakfast at my lucky find, this morning I headed out of the Sicilian capital, and found myself back on the road. I didn't really see much of Palermo — although I was here almost 24 hours, all I did was relax and catch up online — but I don't think I missed that much: apart from a few nice churches and museums (which are everywhere in Italy), it's really just a big and chaotic city. From Palermo, I headed south-west, uphill past the town of Monreale, and over a small set of mountains to Partinico. The weather was perfect when I first headed out, although it quickly deteriorated into a cold, light drizzle; and to some extent, the dreaded wind of previous days came back with a bite.
Call me a silly cyclist if you will, but it seems that I just can't get enough of these Sicilian mountains: after a (rather aggravating) morning coastal ride, today I'm headed inland again, into the mountains. From Términi Imerese, I rode south up a gruelling mountain road, until I reached the town of Caccamo. This is a quaint little place, which is most famous for its imposing Norman castle, of at least 1,000 years' antiquity. It was a hard slog: but I had a good rest and a big drink when I reached Caccamo; and the castle (although I didn't explore it) is worth at least passing by.
Last night I had a solid and luxurious night's sleep in Sant' Stéfano, and this morning I had an amazing B&B breakfast (my first ever B&B experience, if I'm not mistaken — and it was great). But even all that couldn't prepare me for this morning's ride: from Sant' Stéfano, I decided to take the road south into the Monti Nebrodi; and boy, was it one excruciatingly hard slog! The road began on the coast, just outside the town — and until it got well past the mountain village of Mistrella, it was no less than 4 hours of constant, uphill cycling. It damn near killed me. Plus, it was quite a hot day, and the sun was pouring down on me the entire time. Fortunately, it was a very good road (if rather winding), and the scenery was gorgeous; nevertheless, it was hard to appreciate all that, when my entire body and soul was screaming for relief.
From my night's abode at Camping Bazia, this morning I cycled on, and tackled the winding road that leads up to Capo Tindari, and to the village and attractions at the top. It was quite a tough uphill ride — like Capo di Milazzo to its east, Capo Tindari is tall and steep — and a sprinkling of damp, drizzly rain along the way didn't help, either. However, once I reached the top, the weather improved, and the sights proved to be worth the effort. Not that I had a choice, anyway: not only is Tindari a major attraction in this part of Sicily; there's also no easy way around it. As well as some Greek ruins (which I skipped), Tindari is also home to a very impressive church, which sits right atop the cape (above the village), and which overlooks the cliffs and the sea beyond.