Jaza's World Trip

Great Sicilian Ride: the wrapup

They called me weird, they called me twisted, they called me crazy. But I did it. Twenty days. Almost three weeks. On the bike every day. Up mountains, in fields, through storms, against winds, and all alone. All the way around the island of Sicily, plus plenty more in between. The Great Sicilian Ride has been an utterly unique and inredible experience: it was the perfect thing for me to do on this trip, and it was the perfect time to do it. It's an experience that I'll treasure for the rest of my life, and that I wouldn't trade for anything else in the world. It's certainly had its ups and downs, and its trials and tribulations. There are certainly things about it that I could have done better, or planned better; and obstacles that I could have confronted better. But that's all part of the learning experience. Hopefully this will be my first great cycling trip, but not my last — and everything I've learnt here in Sicily will come in handy for Great Rides of the Future.


Everyone I told thought I was mad: "why are you going cycling in Europe in November? It will be wet and freezing!" But actually, I couldn't have picked a more perfect time. Sure, for almost anywhere else in Europe, November is too late in the year to enjoy anything outdoors — the weather really would be too miserable to make a bike trip feasible. But here in Sicily, November is the ideal time of year for a long-distance bike trip.

Contrary to the assumptions of most people, the weather is still mainly fine, down in Sicily in November. It's true that I did hit some cold days, and some wet days — even one hailing day — but on the whole, the weather was warm and dry enough to let me enjoy the ride, but also cool enough that it wasn't unbearably hot. I think I did kinda just scrape in the final few weeks of good weather in Sicily: on average, the weather deteriorated as my ride progressed; and it's only going to get worse from here on. But the best thing of all, is that along with the reasonable conditions, there are also very few crowds of tourists down here in November! This meant that I enjoyed calm and serenity in many of the "tourist sights" that I visited; I had entire hotels and B&Bs virtually all to myself; the locals were much more easy-going and lenient, e.g. about rough camping, and about entry to archaeological sites; and best of all, everything was at low-season prices.


The language barrier has been quite a serious problem, on this trip. I learned precisely zero Italian before arriving; and although Spanish and Italian are very similar (and I can confidently say that I'm now semi-fluent in Spanish), they're not quite similar enough to be interchangeable. At the end of the day, they are two different and distinct languages. I've sorta gotten by with saying things to people in semi-Spanish, and seeing if they understand me; and I've sorta understood many things that people have said to me in Italian. But this is hardly an ideal way to communicate.

I'm also a little disappointed that I didn't manage to pick up more Italian than I have, over the past three weeks. I've come to recognise and to be able to say a few key words and phrases; but I still haven't even mastered the basic questions and answers that you need to know, when meeting a stranger for the first time (e.g. "how old are you?", "where do you live?", "what do you do?"). I've also devoted a small amount of time to studying my little LP Italian phrasebook; but I find it very difficult to actually study it and to learn things from it — learning from a teacher is infinitely more effective.

Many people say that "everyone speaks English in Italy", that "you don't need to learn Italian", and that "you know all the names of foods in Italian anyway, and that's enough". Well, that may be true of the big tourist cities in the north — it can certainly get you by when hostelling through Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan — but down here in Sicily, that is not the case. Virtually nobody speaks English here. If you want to have a conversation with someone in Sicily — or even just to go shopping or to eat at a restaurant — you need to speak the language. Considering that I've been stopping by in remote mountain villages, going through the really remote countryside, and straying far from the tourist centres down here, it would have been a very good idea to have invested more time in the language, prior to arriving.


I managed to complete the ride in significantly less time than I anticipated. I originally planned on the whole loop taking 3-4 weeks; but as it turned out, it was just under the 3-week mark. I think I rushed the ride a bit, during the first week or two — in retrospect, the rushing was unnecessary — and then during this final week, I realised that I actually had a full week to complete the short and easy east coast, so I relaxed and went much slower. Anyway, I'm happy that I finished ahead of schedule: that gives me more time to explore northern Italy, for which I haven't allowed enough days anyway. I also think that three weeks was a good amount of time to spend doing a bike trip: it was long enough to develop a routine, to build up my stamina, and to really soak up and appreciate my surroundings; but not so much time that the constant cycling wore me down and got tedious.


This is an issue that I hadn't really anticipated — mainly because I've been in the thick of the backpacker trail almost all year until now, and because I've had lively hostels and hordes of fellow travellers keeping me company everywhere I've been. As well as spoiling me in terms of price and convenience, Latin America has also conditioned me to take constant companionship for granted. However, during the past three weeks of riding around Sicily, I have indeed been all alone, and that constant loneliness is starting to hurt.

For the past three weeks, I've encountered almost no fellow travellers. The few other travellers that I've run into haven't been my own backpacker kin, but rather have been travelling families, middle-aged couples, or elderly people in tour groups. I've spent most nights alone in a tent, squatting illegally in someone's field — generally with only a few bleating sheep or barking dogs to keep me company — rugged up inside my cramped little tent. During the nights that I've stayed in hotels, B&Bs, or proper campsites, the places have been virtually empty save for myself.

There have, of course, been local people everywhere. However, the language barrier (discussed above) has meant that they've hardly been the best of company — of all the places I've been this year, Sicily is the place where I've had the least ability to communicate with the locals. So all up, it's been a very solitary three weeks: and although it was nice to get away from the backpacker scene and the much-trampled tourist trail for a while (indeed, that was one of the main reasons for doing this ride), I'll be very relieved when I return to the world of friendly hostels and abundant English-speaking companions.

The bike

It was a crazy setup. From the very beginning, I was extremely worried about it not holding up. A €50 second-hand bike, riddled with minor technical problems, and purchased at a dodgy market in Rome. A pair of saddlebags stuffed beyond their capacity, of poor design and worse quality, and with very little water resistance. Plus a plastic bucket, stuffed with bulky equipment, with no protective covering against the elements, and secured to the bike by no more than being wedged between the seat and the basket-holder, and with the aid of a few guy-ropes.

Anyway: all I can say is that the setup lasted (just), and that I'm very relieved it did. Fortunately, I had no cases of anything falling off the back of the bike. Apart from the handle-strap breaking, the saddlebags and bucket held up alright. And aside from two technical hitches (flat tyre, and snapped axle — both of which were surmounted), the bike itself lasted as well. However, my setup was precarious, it looked ridiculous, and it felt uncomfortable. It's nice to be able to say that I rode around for three weeks equipped like that, and that I lived to tell the tale: but I think next time I do a long-distance bike trip, I'll invest in some better equipment, and I'll ride with much more comfort, style, and security.


I've mentioned numerous times the fact that Sicily takes siesta time seriously. Between the rough hours of 1pm and 5pm every day, you shouldn't expect anything to be open — at least, not in all but the biggest or the most touristy of towns. As someone who's lived all his life in a country that runs by the traditional business hours of 9-5, this alternative Mediterranean system has struck me as a right pain in the a$$. Even after spending most of the year in Latin America, I'm still not used to it — although I didn't go anywhere in Latin America where the siesta is observed as rigorously as it is in Sicily.

Siesta sucks, there's no doubt about it — but after a little while, you get used to working around it. Basically, if there's anything at all that you want to see or do, then you should plan to see it or to do it in the morning. In particular, any shopping needs to be done early; some sightseeing is better done early; and even stopping at a cafe should be done before lunchtime. In my case, I found that the best thing to do in the afternoon, was to just keep on riding. On the nights where I stayed in town for the evening, there was also the chance to do things later, after the siesta had finished — but, of course, that's not an option when camping (as siesta doesn't finish until it's dark, and you've set up camp well away from any towns).


So, what has been my impression of Sicily? Well, first of all, Sicily really is a gorgeous place. The history is rich and ancient; the climate is mild and inviting; and the landscape is (mainly) unspoiled, pleasantly varied, and consistently beautiful. As for the people of Sicily, I've found them to be on-the-whole very friendly, very hospitable to strangers, and lacking in hostility. Most of the preconceptions that I held of Sicilians turned out to be wrong: contrary to what "everyone says", they're not liars, they're not unsavoury crooks and thieves, and they're definitely not all mafioso (in fact, I encountered nothing mafia-like at all during my whole time in Sicily — although I hear it does still exist here).

Most of the other "warnings" that I received about Sicily also turned out to be largely wrong. It just goes to show: if you want to know what a place is really like, you just have to go and see it for yourself. Sicily — contrary to popular belief — is not a backward or primitive place: certainly not nearly as backward or as primitive as many places that I've visited this year. It's developed with all the infrastructure that you'd expect from anywhere in modern, first-world Europe: in every corner of the place, there are good roads, there's clean running water, there's electricity and telephone service, there's postal and police service, and there's at least some signage and information for tourists. There are also railways and freeways in all but the most isolated areas.


One of the key reasons why I decided to do a long-distance bike ride in Europe, is because I've had very few opportunities to jump on a bike during this year's trip, and because I was worried that my level of fitness on a bike has been declining as a result. When at home in Sydney, I'm generally a keen cyclist, and I ride an average of around 8 hours per week (mainly to get from home to work / uni / family). In light of that high standard, I've been feeling some "withdrawal symptoms" for much of the year: basically, I've been missing the regular riding, and I've been feeling both physically and psychologically lacking without it. I figured that I needed a nice, big cycling trip to kill the cravings.

All up, I think that my fitness has improved a fair bit as a result of this ride — I'd say it's at least returned to the level it was at when I left Sydney in February, if it hasn't exceeded it. However, I'm also resigned to the fact that I'm not a natural athlete, and that I'll never be a particularly fast cyclist. I haven't been using a speedometer or calculating my average speed on this trip: but I doubt that my average speed has been far off its usual mark of 16km/h. Despite that, I do feel more alive and more healthy (and more athletic) than I did before arriving in Sicily — which is what I expect after any extended period on a bike.


I've made no secret of the fact that I've regularly broken the law while in Sicily, by illegally camping in the private property of farmers and other rural landowners. The illegal squatting has been fun: every time that I've done it, there's been an element of fun, of adventure, and of danger and uncertainty; while the risks have also been low. They've been so low, in fact, that I've squatted a total of 13 nights down here, with absolute impunity and with no consequences — most times I haven't even been seen; and on the few times when I was seen, the owners were indifferent (or even welcoming!). Nevertheless, I could have gotten into fairly serious trouble through my squatting, and it's not something that I'm particularly planning to do again in the future.

In my case, I've had every reason to squat, and not much reason to try and do otherwise. In most places that I've squatted, there haven't been any formal campsites in the nearby area at all — in particular, I've spent numerous nights inland in the mountains, and almost all of Sicily's campsites seem to be on the coast. What's more, even in the cases when I have found formal campsites, at this time of year the majority of them have been closed. So if I've wanted to camp, then on most nights I've basically had no choice but to camp rough. And just to top it off: on the occasions when I've managed to actually stay at formal campsites that are open in November, they've been terrible value for money, and they've provided precious little more than what I'd get from free squatting.

Camping in Sicily has been good fun, and it's been a welcome change from the usual situation of staying in hostels or hotels. Although it's been cold and/or wet on some nights, my tent has proved to be insulated and weatherproof, my sleeping bag is bloody warm, and my self-inflating mattress makes even the hardest and bumpiest terrain into a comfortable surface. Camping encourages early nights and early-morning starts — which is good for me, as it means more time to spend on the road. It's a nice opportunity to sleep amidst nature: whether that involves having the company of farm animals, being in a grove or orchard, or just enjoying the stars above you and the hum of insects around you. Camping is also cheap not only because of the obvious saving of a night's accommodation, but also because it prohibits you from visiting town in the evening, and from spending money on take-away food or on expensive drinks.


While my cooking skills are hardly (as I recall a fellow backpacker in Argentina saying, in a hilariously strong Aussie accent) "muy gourmet", I've always enjoyed cooking, and my "cooking in the field" during this bike trip has been no exception. I've basically stuck to cooking pasta and rice the entire time: and while that does get a bit boring, it does taste great; there are always ways to vary it from night to night (e.g. different vegies, different sauces, sometimes mix in a bit of fish or cheese); and the leftovers make for a nice easy lunch the next day. Apart from burning a hole in my tent, I've had no accidents while cooking, and I haven't starved to death or made myself sick from overly poor meals.

Just as I've always enjoyed cooking, I've always rather detested the inevitable follow-on task of having to wash up. What's more, washing-up in a fully-equipped kitchen with hot running water may be a chore; but washing-up in an empty field with nothing but a scrubber and a bottle of cold water is Bloody Hard™, and a right pain in the a$$. I don't recommend it at all. I've gotten by washing-up in the field; and sometimes I've been able to hold off doing the dishes, until the next night when I reach a B&B, and when I can wash up properly using hot running water. But anyway, that's the price of cooking. And besides, cooking (and washing-up) here in Italy is much cheaper than eating out: even living on the very cheapest take-away is roughly triple the cost of groceries in this country; and as for a sit-down restaurant, I could barely even afford the primi piatti ("first course dishes").

Filed in: MessinaWrapup