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.
This morning was a pleasant, relaxed start to an extremely challenging and unpleasant day. From last night's garden campsite, I managed to pack up and sneak out unnoticed (quite lucky — as it literally was someone's back yard, I doubt that they would have been impressed with my squatting there), and to continue south along the SS514 highway. The collection of farms and houses that I camped in shared a common driveway, which sported a large gate at its entrance: fortunately, this gate was open both when I arrived yesterday afternoon, and when I departed this morning. It was a quick and sunny morning's ride to the city of Ragusa: the weather looked promising; the roads were easy and the signs not-too-confusing; and traffic was fairly light. Before I knew it, I was enjoying the sights and sounds of Ragusa. Just a pity that I didn't stay in the city longer: had I done so, I could have saved myself a great deal of hardship.
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.
"The Prizzi gang" is the friendly, local folks whom I met today, upon collapsing into the hilltop town of Prizzi after a wind-buffeted morning's ride. There were the owners of the cafe on the main drag: English-speaking, they've returned to Sicily after living for many years in the USA (you know New Yaahk — Braahklyn?), and they're very hospitable to tourists. There was the gang of "local boys": none of them were at school (apparently it was a teacher's strike today — but I don't think they attend much anyway), so they were just hanging around the cafe. And there were the quintessential random old men, who were also hanging around the bar, and who insisted on helping me change my flat tyre (they're all experts on bike repairs, of course). Cool crowd, and as Sicilian as anything I could ever imagine.
This afternoon I finished my two-day sojourn in the mountains of northern Sicily, by completing my descent through Le Madonie, and ending up in the coastal town of Cefalù. Cefalù is the most well-known and the most popular tourist spot on the Sicilian north coast, and I reached it at the bright-n-early time of 3pm. It's a gorgeous place — unlike the rest of the north coast, it's not just "another tacky generic beach resort", it's a quaint town with a very historic centre — but unfortunately, the weather there this afternoon was terrible. The mountains may have been sunny today; but the coast is stormy as can be, as well as decidedly chilly. Despite this, it was well worth spending the evening here, and soaking up the atmospheric ambiance without too many other tourists around.
We had a relaxed but really enjoyable day today. Although it was Saturday, most of the Goldsteins were (sadly) busy: Adam and David were off at a golf tourmanent; and Becca was (for a change) working like crazy all day. So it was just my dad, Janine, and myself. Janine drove us over to the town of Lexington, which is about ½ an hour west of Newton (it's almost part of Boston, but not quite), and which is one of the great historic Massachusetts towns from the 18th century War of Independence. Charming place, and filled with monuments from centuries past.
It was a bit of a slow start to the day, today being Sunday, and last night having been such a big one. But eventually, Oly and I managed to haul ourselves out of our hostel, and off for some afternoon lunch and some exploration of the city. We ended up in San Telmo: the quaint and quirky artists' area of BA, and home of a sprawling Sunday market. San Telmo's my favourite neighbourhood, out of everywhere I've seen so far in BA: both the buildings and the people are filled with character; there are great places to eat and to shop; and it almost feels like being in, say, Montmarte in Paris. Was also a good, not-too-demanding place to hang out and to wear off the effects of last night.
There's only one thing you want to do, the day after a stint of mountain-climbing: nothing. And nothing is exactly what I did today. After I got back from the Cotopaxi climb yesterday, I didn't hang around in Quito very long: headed straight to the bus terminal, and hopped on a bus north to Otavalo. And today, I discovered that Otavalo is the perfect place to spend a Friday resting, blogging, reading, and eating some cheap local food. R&R in Otavalo: just what I needed.
For our second day in the Quilotoa Loop area, Patrick and I decided to do the popular hike from Chugchilán, to the "cheese factory" in the countryside nearby, and then on to the cloud forest. We had a great morning's walk, through a fairytale countryside of rolling hills and quaint little farms (although it was uphill most of the way). We were also blessed with great weather (not something to be taken for granted, here in Ecuador). However, the visit to the cheese factory turned out to be — well, somewhat different than expected! In short, it looked more like a house than a factory; and we saw little or no evidence of cheese, or of cheese-making, in the immediate vicinity.
At one of the villages that we stopped in, during this morning's hike through the Cañon del Colca, we found the famous "museum of local life", which is run by a charming and extravagently-dressed Quechuan lady called Victoria. Most people in the village only speak Quechua, but Victoria also speaks Spanish, in order to communicate with her gringo visitors. She gave us a cute and interesting tour of her little museum, which is just one room in her house, that she's filled with the little artefacts of daily life around here. She's one hell of an entrepeneur.