Boldly sticking my left arm out, I cycled forward into the heavy traffic circulating on a large roundabout in Palermo. I was a bundle of nerves, adrenaline pumping around my body and my muscles tense. We had heard from several people that the drivers here in Sicily were crazy and someone, jokingly, even advised us to buy an army tank to protect us on our cycle tour of the island. We had already felt our lives endangered crossing the road on foot, were we crazy to be cycling out of the city that vies with Naples for the most dangerous driving in Italy?
‘Well, here goes’, I thought as I cycled forth, hoping Jerry was following close behind. And then, much to my surprise, all the drivers behind us slowed down and drove along at our pace without attempting to overtake. It was my first lesson in Italian driving etiquette.
Here, it seems, that you do what you want to do on the road. You just need to make sure you don’t hit anything. This does mean though that we have had close passes, vehicles overtaking and then turning right immediately in front of us, or, on one occasion, overtaking Jerry then realising there was not enough room to get past me as well because of oncoming traffic, so pulling into a fairly nonexistent space between us. And we have also had drivers, coming out of side roads, reversing back to let us pass and slowing down to drive through puddles to avoid spraying us. Five days into our Sicilian adventure, I can honestly say I feel safer on the bike than walking. Town cycling is tiring though, as we have to watch every vehicle, moving and stationary, in case it takes off in a new direction or a door opens in front of us. We only had one minor incident on our exit from Palermo, where a diagonally parked car started reversing towards me and I stopped without warning Jerry, who despite his speedy reactions, rode into my rear paniers. That soon brought him to a halt!
So that’s ‘sicilian bogie’ number one. Number two is dogs. The dogs here are big. If I just went by the paw print size, I’d say they are all lion sized. But luckily, frequent sightings have confirmed that most are only the size of an Alsatian. Some are contained within property fences or chained to a kennel. These ones bark, often aggressively, and delight in catching me unawares bringing a rapid metallic adrenaline taste to my mouth and a instant acceleration in cadence. And then there are the ones that are just roaming free. The difficulty with these is we never know how they will react even if we have seen them ahead. I think, pretty much every day, we are chased at least once. Sometimes, I see the dog is lardy and know that it either won’t catch me or will quickly collapse breathless. Other times, they have been training hard on previous cyclists, and we have to deploy either, the ‘ride as fast as f…’ to the edge of their territory or, produce one of the small stones that we keep in a crossbar pouch and take aim. I think this latter technique must have been used by others as even a raised arm preparing to throw has so far kept them at bay. We also often, involuntarily, deploy the scream very loudly technique, but its efficacy is yet to be proven.
One day, we watched a dog up ahead chasing three cars that passed it, before returning to an ‘I own the road’ position on the central white line staring us down. We rode towards it, arming ourselves with stones and discussing options, only to see it passively walk to the side of the road and let us through. Our jaws dropped!
Towards evening, the neighbourhood dogs seem to form gangs – a much more terrifying prospect. One late afternoon, about three hundred metres ahead of us, we saw six dogs chasing and barking at a car, before turning back to wait for the next ‘victim’. We stopped for a discussion on tactics and decided that discretion is the better part of valour, retracing our steps and going a much longer route around. Let’s hope we always have that option.
Bogie number three is heavy rain and floods that can hit Sicily anytime over the autumn and winter. With my Italian sim card, I am able to check the weather forecast daily. Our first two days on the road were showery and cool with snow falling on the surrounding hills and a mixture of heavy rain and hail passing over us. We found shelter, when and where we could to wait out the heaviest showers, utilising the side of a closed beachside bar, the verandah of a pizzeria, a railway station entrance and trees. After two sunny dry days and a very windy one, a weather warning for heavy rain and thunderstorms was issued for the whole of the next day. We decided to head for a B&B in the historic centre of Sciacca and sit it out and we are rather glad we did. Click on this video link to see the water washing down the steps outside our lodgings half an hour after we arrived. Rain and floodwater Sciacca. Four hours of continuing torrential rain later, the steps are still a water feature and we are grateful to be in a first floor bedroom.
Update: 14 centimetres of rain fell in 24 hours in Sciacca!