Trip to Sicily 4- 14th Oct 2020
This was a trip that seemed on, then off and then on again. I had signed up to a trip to Puglia with Exodus to cycle for a week in June. The plan was to motorbike out and back. Bit of both, motorcycling and cycling. Puglia in June was cancelled but later I saw there was a trip to Sicily in Oct. Surely this virus thing would be over by then. Moved my deposit over to that trip.
It then became doubtful if I could motorbike there and back to this destination without having to quarantine as countries got blacklisted by our government. In the end, much against my wishes I decided to fly. I still did fancy seeing Sicily. I did however decide to hire a motorbike once I am there. I can hire at the airport. It can sit for a week while I cycle and then I can do 3 days exploring by motorbike after the cycling. I am still in danger of having to isolate on return if Italy is put on the black list while I am there.
Finally left Norfolk on my motorbike at 3pm which was 10 mins after it stopped raining. Wet roads but super lucky and did not encounter any rain as I headed for Heathrow terminal 5. Free parking for the bike. Locked it up after taking bag off and headed for an hotel bus stop to take me to Premier Inn terminal 5 which was 1.7 miles walk away. But it was wet and I had baggage so I thought bus. After standing around for ages we were told no bus coming. So it was taxi. I had looked at Uber charges and it was £20 plus!!! Unbelievable…I paid £16.50 in the end to a black cab driven by a Hungarian.
You unfolded the box to make a kind of plate. Wooden cutlery. Wine …not great.. in a can. Asking why the waiter said they had only been open a month. Only a few premier inns open, he had been furloughed for 6 months and only 2 terminals open at Heathrow.
Oct 4th Sunday
Did not sleep well. Up at 6ish to catch a local bus…bus stop outside….to the terminal. It was raining. Dark and dismal.
This is the first time I have been out and about on public transport since the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic. I have worn a neckie as my mask. This has been fine in Norfolk as we have only had to put anything on in shops. In , out and take covering off. Now I am in serious stuff. Daughter Gina had made me a lovely silk and cotton mask which I had not worn…till now.
To me the airport was fairly normal. Quite busy, with people standing further apart but otherwise check in and security just as awful as before. Mask off to drink a cup of tea…hurrah. Plane boarding was much the same except we were all wearing masks. Plane was full. We got given crisps and biscuits. We could walk up and down…etc. Several forms to fill in though as we get traced through our trip. I filled in 4 forms I think. Two got collected up and the other two I still have. Slightly more orderly emptying of the plane. Out of the airport it was off to find my motorbike rental place, Manganaro Moto Rent.It was 650m away according to Google maps. So phone in front I traced the way. Brand new bike…done 9kms! 125cc Honda.
Strapped bag on the back and put rucksack on and yippee I was away…mask off.! I proceeded to circle my way to the hotel. It should have taken an hour and a half but I took much longer as I had to stop and look at Google maps on the phone in my pocket and then remember. I wanted to take an inland route but confronted by a shut road threw all my mapping out and it was dual carriageway in the end. But I had seen the back streets for a while. I think I can safely say not the best part of Sicily. Rubbishy, industrial etc. But lots of lemon tree orchards…or unripe oranges!.
I eventually reached the hotel just in time to catch up with the group having a tiny guided trip into Palazzola Acreide. A drink in true Italian style on a piazza in front of a huge church. Nice temperature. Relaxing.
Oct 5th Monday
Motorbike is put away inside a building safely…I hope! Put a pile of bike stuff on it and now its over to cycling. 16 of us in the group. 4 ladies … I get out my padded gel seat and wear my padded shorts! 6 people are using ebikes. In practice this meant the group tried to keep up with them on the hills. We went from Palazzola Acreide to Modica today. 54 km/ 33 miles. We had fairly frequent stops which was great with the back up van providing water when needed. It was quite hot, high 20s and sultry with rain in the air. We had a few drops but that was all. Stony, dry looking countryside. Stone walls, baroque buildings, old but full of style. Huge ornate churches and essentially all looking just as Italian as you would imagine.
Lovely hilltop towns. Modica is in a gorge….must be a small river as have not seen it yet.
I went for walk to the old town and just made it to the huge old baroque church on the hilltop before it rained . So sheltering from the rain I wandered around inside. Very high roof and ornate alter. It continued to dribble with rain. Met the rest for supper in a restaurant.
Oct 6th Tuesday
We are doing a loop down to the coast and back to Modica. Essentially downhill from 300m to the coast and then back up. It undulated however and the whole day seemed to have plenty of uphill. My bike gears are not adjusted correctly. I have said something but no great change. The man in the backup van who is also mechanic is a wee bit slothful. Our guide is the opposite! We get to Donnalucata and on the way back we come through Scicli. We admire more churches. We swim..well a few of us swim…in a fairly rough sea. Must have been stormy. Sea temperature was fine. Nice swim.
We are falling into our cycling spots in terms of who gets up the hills the fastest. One or two of the guys are pretty good and fit and seem to belong to cycling clubs. Then we have the ebike group who have no problem on the hills. I seem to come about 10th or 11th…behind 6 ebikes and 4 or 5 others. Louisa comes in at her own pace. She is not going to be rushed and is refusing an ebike BUT she is coming in quite far behind. We do wait….She is a fascinating character. Probably the oldest..73… and seems to be wearing her old school sports skirt which is a kind of grey faded black. The ebike gang come from the Brighton area.
Modica in its gorge.
This is our cycling guide with the map of our route for the 6 days.
Inside a church in Modica.
We ate outside until it got too cool and moved inside!!
October 7th Wednesday
Because Modica is in a gorge it was uphill to start the day. We visit Ispica which has an amazing church with a fabulous interior. The day is not bad as it is downhill to the sea again, this time to stay in a hotel at a most southerly spot opposite the island Correnti. We stay in Portopalo di Capo Passero. We do all the cycling in the morning and end up having a picnic once we arrive. My room had a good view. We ate all manner of excellent fish. The town church had a weather vane of a swordfish. There are various ruins of old tuna or swordfish factories/ packing sheds.
Swordfish weathervane on the church.
This is another very strange church right by the shore edge , also in Portopalo di Capo Passero.
Most easterly point of Sicily.
Oct 8th Thursday
Discussions about the virus at breakfast and fears of quarantine when we get back. Very pleasant morning. We bicycle along the coast till we finally reach a strange nature reserve with some flamingoes in the far distance. We can however swim and have an hour swimming in a lovely bay, clear sea and a ruined tuna factory as a backdrop. Excellent lunch under the trees before cycling uphill to Noto. Hot and sweaty we walk through the pedestrianised centre past vast baroque buildings. There are 4 notable palaces and at least 5 huge churches on a number of piazzas. All built after the shattering earthquake of 1693.
We go to a pizza place to eat which was not brilliant. The news from UK is that Italy has remained on the safe list. Should not have to quarantine. But anyone wanting to come here now has to have a test 72 hours before travel, get the results and not have the virus.
Oct 9th Friday
Lovely day as we set off on our hardest day.. 800m ascent. The cool of the morning helped as we tackled the first 5kms. Then we did more, and more. Gradient not impossible but rather relentless. We head to Noto Antiqua…old Noto. Abandoned after the 1693 earthquake. Not much to see!!
On upwards till we got to the edge of a canyon…Cavalcade del Cassibile , one of the deepest in Europe.There we had another picnic lunch and relaxed after our morning efforts.
Then great downhill section with hairpin bends. The men were rather timid and I ended up first. I didn’t quite get that…, then mostly nice after that till last little nasty hill as we reached Noto again. A second night here. We eat in a much better place .
The group. Stuart,Cherry,Ross,Louisa,Rex,Anna,Malcolm, Nina,Colin,David,Simon,Paul,Peter,Chris,Howard,Richard and Davide the guide
Plod round town for a bit admiring more Baroque buildings. The paper map belonging to our guide said there were 6 palaces and 21 churches. There was a film crew at work so a street was shut for a while.
I have not mentioned rubbish. It spoils the roadside everywhere. Glass bottles galore ,plastic bags tied but full of rubbish and everything else from plastic bottles to fridges. Its bad…
Nice place we stopped at.
Oct 10th Saturday
Paul had asked me if I minded swapping bikes. He had an ebike along with his less fit mates and fancied the real thing. Today’s ride was along the coast so not hard. The ebike was so much less effort. It really was great on the small hills we had today. As I get older I can see myself using one. You still have to pedal..a bit!
And so we cycled our way to Syracuse and the island of Ortegia which is where original Syracuse was founded by the Greeks. Very beautiful piazzas and old buildings. A lovely fountain has recently been damaged by two drunk English ladies who fell in and broke the toe of one of the statues. Wandered around..
Can you spot the broken big toe?
We ate on the island of Ortegia in a classic trattoria . Not cheap but the best tuna I have ever eaten. Very narrow streets were very busy but while italians had their masks on as legally they must ( and us) the tables and chairs were pretty close and of course masks off then if eating and drinking.
Oct 11th Sunday
The end of the cycling. Most disappear to the airport about 11am but some of us are staying on Sicily for another day or two. Howard says let’s meet for lunch so in the meantime I head off to look at a modern church but instead get diverted towards the remains of amphitheatres both greek and roman and an amazing cave called ” the ear of Orphaeus”. It was very high, big and narrow. Some italians were singing in there and the acoustics were wonderful.
The ear of Or[phaeus.
Roman amphitheatre in Syracuse.
Greek amphitheatre in Syracuse.
Lunch with Howard overlooking the harbour and then time for my lift back to Palazzola Acreide and the motorbike. Its there and all is well. I am sole occupant of the hotel tonight and must eat in town !
I walked up the hill and eventually found where we had been before. Had a drink getting quite cold sitting outside. Eating only begins at 8pm! They had a few inside tables. The waitress forgot my food it seems after my order so I was there for while. Longish walk back to the hotel. Forecast for to tomorrow is for rain.
Oct 12th Monday
Breakfast in solitary splendour . After I slowly pack while it rains, pack the bike and set off in the dry. Not for long…probably about 5 mins. I now have mounted my Tom-tom with map so do at least know where I am going. I have some thin old waterproof trousers, good waterproof over jacket, ordinary non waterproof leather summer gloves and my waterproof walking boots. It pours, stops and pours again over the period of my 2 hour journey. No lovely stops, no admiring countryside or towns., just want to get to my hotel especially as I got cold as well. I seem to constantly be going over another range of hills. My feet were wet, my hands were wet and cold and I got cold. Little bike was fine, my luggage on back had dustbin liners over the clothes inside and I knew it was not to be trusted in the rain. Ruck sack contents in waterproof bag. Very luckily it stopped raining in my destination town, Piazza Armerina, so I could stop to check google on the phone for the exact position of the hotel..(tomtom no good in this instance).
Snails for sale in Piazza Armerina.
Fancy scooter in hotel reception. !
I was too early for official check in but they were kind and showed me to another room that was ready. I was wet in many places including stuff in bag. Bit of sorting and hanging round the room. I took a while to warm up. Once sorted it was off on the bike to go 5 miles to Villa del Romana Casali. Dry as I left, did not want baggage so no waterproofs. Started to rain within 5 mins so it was quite a scurry to the villa. Outdoor walk to it so succumbed to a cheap umbrella…3 euros.
In a nutshell this villa was buried under a mudslide in about 1200 ad and was not found till 1950 or so. It has a stunning number of mosaic floors and all the rooms of a very high end villa of a roman. It was breathtaking . It did not rain while there and much of it is roofed. I was also lucky in that there were very few visitors because of the virus which meant there was no difficulty taking photos and I could wander unimpeded. With a jolly paper mask on!!!
This is famous mosaic floor of young girls getting fit for some contest. I could not take enough photos to justify these amazing mosaics.
Back on bike, not raining but started when I was halfway back to the hotel. Another scurry… A bath for the first time in Sicily was very welcome…first bath I had seen in the hotels here.
Went round the corner in the evening and had a nice plate of food and glass of wine with no problems.
Oct 13th Tuesday
Good breakfast served by a guy from the Gambia who came to Sicily in 2014. Magnificent views across the valley. The town is 700m up…one reason why its not so warm.! I wander around town. Most italians have a mask somewhere around the face. Some on properly, many just below the nose, some on the chin ready to use and some not. I have a fairly old paper one which is floating up and down . Walking up the very steep roads is impossible with mask on. There are loads of churches. The biggest is open and has a wonderful decor. Some churches are literally next to each other, some have houses built adjoining them. They are everywhere..
Set off on bike towards Etna. Had to check out by 11am and cannot check in to next spot till 3pm. The journey will be minimum 2 hours. The little bike trundles along on lovely winding roads with little traffic. Incredible views from one hilltop town.
A nice lie in the sun and great satisfaction that it is not raining. Yesterday was spoilt by the rain. Sicily seems to have all sorts of scenery. Eucalyptus forests, other forests and then bare rocky land. Farming land with lots of wiggly fields. Then fruit orchards, lemon trees and vines. Don’t forget olives too and the quite high hills up to at least 100m or more where it freezes and down to lower land where it does not. I ride through some changes and then start climbing up Etna. Staying the night at Rifugio Sapienza which is 1910m high.
Little bike struggles a bit with the gradient and a big black cloud hangs low over the volcano. Before I am engulfed by the cloud I see old lava flows. The cloud is rain and 5 miles from my destination I have to stop and put waterproofs on. Push on in the cold and arrive dripping. All good and there is both a cafe and restaurant. It is a ski centre in the winter which I had not really imagined. I splash out and pay for a guided trip to the top tomorrow…weather permitting.
Oct 14th Wednesday
The sun is shining! Have breakfast and pack bag to leave downstairs as have to check out before the climb up Etna.I have not realised but these crater tours are only 3 days a week and I happen to have hit one of the days. There are about 30 of us with a number of guides. We are grouped according to language but this lasts for about 5 mins..very italian style. First up a cabine ski lift. I had no idea they ski here…there are 5 lifts!
Then bused further up in some ancient american style buses driving on a volcanic ash road. We get out at about 2700m. The top ..the highest crater is about 3200m. Its very cold with a howling wind but hard hat on and all the warm clothes I have with me in Sicily plus motorcycle jacket ( whatelse do I have ?) and walking boots ( which are good). We walk off in an enormous bunch which the guides fail to break into groups. We are single file as we climb ever upwards over old lava flows and snow. Snow looks fresh. It is hard work at this altitude. beside us the Southeast crater is billowing clouds of steam and now and then a bit of something else as the cloud darkens. It is quite noisy, you can hear things going on within it.
At the top. It was 0 c.
We head for an old crater, the original at the top, Crater Bocca I think. We very slowly inch our way up. I am probably the oldest, many are younger couples, many european nationalities. This top crater is gently steaming away and the ground we are on is hot. Dig down a little and it is untouchable. We start heading down and towards another crater when the weather closes in and as we get lower we are in fog.
We slide and scramble down a volcanic scree slope…quite fun. But decision is taken not to picnic in the fog but rather keep on heading down. Downhill is hard work on the knees and my old knees find it tough. An hour of straight downhill, we skip the bus and walk to the top of the lift. Down we go. It took 5 hours.
My son whatsapped this to me. Proof I was there!!
More proof I was high!!
I quite quickly get my bag on the bike and head on down in a slightly easier fashion on the motorbike. To me it looked like rain up there and I could see the sun shining all the way down to sea level at Catania. Down and down, warmer and warmer. It was another world up there. Glad I did it… Slowly made my way to the airport, got the bike back to the hire spot, messed around in the nice weather getting my bag sorted for flying and clothes on me of the right kind and headed to a cafe for a well earned glass of wine.
Mask had to go on from this moment till I got to my hotel in Heathrow. Nightmare…6 hours or so what with airport queues etc. English end was quick.
Sicily was very interesting. All sorts to see and I need to make another trip one day. It was not cheap…same as here.