As my mate Dave would say: very saaad news, folks. This was it — today was the last day of the Great Sicilian Ride, all around Sicily and back again. And it wasn't a particularly long or memorable day either: just a quick, flat, straight 50km's or so of easy coastal road, from Giardini Naxos back up to Messina. Most of the way, all that I rode through was an uninspiring sprawl of beach towns and beach resorts — less beautiful than most here in Sicily, although not the worst I've seen or heard of. The landscape on this final morning's ride was dominated by the Monti Peloritani, an extremely rugged range of mountains that's virtually uninhabited, and that leaves naught but a very narrow strip of coastal land for most of the way: the result of this is that between Taormina and Messina, you can see towns, highways, autostrade and railways, all crammed in between the mountains and the sea. I managed the ride in around 3 hours, which meant that by midday today, the loop was complete. 20 days straight on a bike — and now I'm back to square one!
Yesterday I ascended and skirted the eastern edge of Mt. Etna, from the south-east corner northwards. This morning, the tour of Etna came to a close, as I headed down out of the foothills, and returned back to the Sicilian east coast. Sadly, there was no view of Etna to speak of, as the fog that I encountered while camping last night was still lingering and obscuring the view; nevertheless, it was a sweet and speedy downhill ride, and the villages along the way weren't bad either. From Camping Mareneve, I continued up to the town of Milo (only about 5 minutes further along the road); and once I was through Milo, the looong downhill began. I took the small turnoff for the village of Presa; and from there the road took me ever further down, to the town of Piedmonte Etneo, and then finally to the coastal town of Fiumefreddo di Sicilia. It was a bit cold, and a bit foggy; but very quick, and easy as can be.
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.
So I'm sitting in a cafe in the middle of Ortygia — having just finished my little tour of the island — polishing off my hot choc and croissant, and having a pleasant chat with the locals. I get up from my table, dust off a few breadcrumbs, wave goodbye to my fellow patrons, and jump on my bike. The plan is to head straight out of Syracuse — having seen the city centre and its sights — and to make my way west into the Monti Iblei, for an afternoon of uphill riding, and an evening of rough mountain camping. Possibly to see the Syracuse archaeological park, and famous Greek theatre, along the way. But all those plans suddenly disappear out the window — and the day's cycling comes to an abrupt and premature end — when I start pedalling, and I realise that something is really, seriously wrong with my bike. Something far worse than the usual problems of squeaky brakes, unresponsive gears, or even flat tyres. I have a snapped axle.
Jochen, his wife and his 12-month-old baby girl are on vacation here in Sicily, and they're travelling round for a few weeks in their campervan home. I met them this evening at Sabbiadoro, where they were camped near my tent. The couple are mad about cycling: they've brought their racing bikes down in the campervan, and are getting in a few hours each day; in the past (i.e. pre-baby), they've done such ambitious cross-country cycle trips as the famous Carretera Austral (in southern Chile); and they currently own and operate a bike shop, in northern Italy where they live (they're both originally from Germany).
Over the past two weeks here in Sicily, I've met more than my fair share of locals. The main contact has been during my morning visits to the local coffee bars in town — but I've also struck up conversation with them at tourist sights, in supermarkets, and in hotels and B&Bs. Usually, the first thing they ask is: "da dove venite?" (lit: "where do you come from?"); and then when they see my bike, they invariably proceed to give me a wide-eyed stare, and to ask incredulously: "dall'Australia, in bicicletta?" (lit: "from Australia, by bike?"). After about 5 seconds, they realise just how hilarious the notion of cycling from Australia to Italy is — at which point they proceed to burst into laughter, as though it was the funniest joke in the world, and as though they were the first ones ever to think of it. Which of course they weren't, since I hear this exact same joke 10 times every day, and since (therefore) I find it neither original nor amusing at all. After that many repetitions... I'm sorry, but it's just daym lame.
Talk about contrasting experiences: following yesterday's stormy ride to Modica, today's riding was nothing short of divine. This morning — after an amazing B&B breakfast — I rode out of Modica, and ended the mountain detouring of the past few days, by returning to Sicily's ever-gorgeous coast. The morning weather couldn't have been better, or more different to yesterday's: all those evil storms and winds were gone; and were instead replaced with clear blue skies, and with warm and soothing sunshine. First destination of the day: the southernmost tip of Sicily, and indeed of all Italy — Isola Delle Correnti.
What with getting lost, and with the obstacles of bad weather and worse signposting, it was a difficult morning. However, things took a turn for the better this afternoon, as I continued my south-eastern journey today, from Piazza Armerina to Ragusa. Just after lunch, and after passing by (the edge of) the town of Grammichele, I swung onto the lovely new SS514 highway — a road that my friend Conrad recommended I take, when I dined with him last night. And once I was on that road, I managed about 2 hours — and 30 k's — of fun and solid riding. The road is new, smooth, wide, and straight, and it goes dead south towards Ragusa. It's reasonably flat, with some nice downhill stretches at the start, and with a mild uphill tendency towards the end. And the weather decided to cheer up, and to be a lot more kind for the afternoon. So today turned out to be a relaxed, sunny, and productive day on the road after all.
Not much to report about the majority of today's riding, as it was fairly uneventful. This morning I rode east (and slightly north) from Agrigento, headed inland and slightly into the mountains. I intended to take the highway directly to the inland city of Caltanissetta: but the signs out of Agrigento were a bit confusing, and I ended up instead taking a lesser route, which detoured through the town of Favara. Not to worry: I found the main highway soon enough; and it was a small and scenic (and less heavy-in-traffic) detour. The rest of the way to Caltanissetta — on the SS640 the whole way — was incredibly boring. I shouldn't complain, as the good-quality road, the tail wind, and the fair weather helped me eat up plenty of distance. But seriously: the boring (and rather arid and ugly) countryside, the lack of towns or buildings, and the repetitive (if gentle) ups and downs, combined to make this one of the most uneventful legs of my ride so far.