‘You speak English!’, I say with glee as I follow a couple about the same age as me into the bed and breakfast reception. We had not seen or spoken to a mother tongue anglophone for over a month and the thrill of hearing a British accent in deepest, darkest Sicily was massive. I’m thinking on the scale of Stanley bumping into Livingstone in deepest, darkest Africa. I am so excited. The possibility of conversations lasting more than a few sentences, in depth discussions about life, the universe and current world affairs open up before me. I forget I am soaked to the skin, dripping water onto pristine polished tiles. I just want to talk, to let words fall from my mouth untranslated, to be understood, and I want to hear news from home, how is the country bearing up in the current Brexit division. They turn and gaze at me, with quizzical looks on their faces. They had just arrived from England on a week’s holiday and were far more delighted to be surrounded by Sicilians speaking Italian, than a babbling Brit with damp, overgrown hair. It is easy to forget on a long bike tour around Europe that not everyone has journeyed for twenty months and is in need of meaningful conversation.
We were at the end of our first day of cycling on Sicily, having successfully escaped from Palermo and cycled out through the extensive ribbon development that stretches west out of the city along the north coast. The scenery is dramatic with high cliffs and hills huddling in close to a flatter, coastal ledge. Rocky headlands separate white sandy beaches, and as the conurbation thins out, small towns gain their own shape and personality. Their streets, tightly packed, run inland at right angles to the sea. Cold, wintery showers punctuated the day and we ate our picnic lunch sheltering from the wind and rain on the gable end of a closed beachside bar. Our feet were cold for the first time since March last year and, with snow on the surrounding mountains, it was starting to feel like winter had finally arrived. Whilst in Palermo, I had worked out a ‘cunning’ route that avoided the main roads as much as possible, taking smaller lanes weaving along close to the coast. It turned out to be too cunning when we discovered that a two metre high brick wall had been built across one lane, with no way round. Why, we have no idea. Peering over the top, the lane on the other side appeared to have been enclosed into a garden for five metres and then became public road once more. As most of the surrounding properties had aggressive sounding guard dogs, and we value our lives, we decided not to risk a rapid crossing and retraced our steps back five kilometres to regain the main road and continue our journey westwards.
As the afternoon wore on, the white, overcast sky slowly darkened and we knew rain was heading our way. We increased our pace, hoping to reach shelter in the next town but the storm out ran us and we were soon cycling in a deluge. Eventually, I spotted a railway station up ahead with a small entrance roof large enough to accommodate the two of us and our bikes. We stopped to take stock. It was half an hour to sunset, though with the thick, black clouds nightfall seemed well underway. We had seen nowhere even with the hint of a possible stealth camp site so far and we were very wet. (Since washing and reproofing our cagoules in the Spring, with the top recommended products, they have leaked like sieves). We decided to make use of my Italian data sim card and book a B&B. I saw one with a photo of a courtyard where there was potential to leave our bikes overnight and pressed the ‘book’ button. Half an hour later, after a further five kilometres of cycling, we checked in, had a hot shower and were treated by the receptionist to hot tea that he ‘felt moved’ to offer us. What a wonderful, generous gesture.
Sicily has proved challenging to find places to stealth camp for several reasons. A lot of the land is fenced and cultivated or built on; there are few woodlands; what ‘wild’ land still exists has been designated as natural parks or nature reserves; and, there are a lot of roaming dogs near all the settlements. I have taken to examining satellite images along with the app Maps.me to identify potential spots for the next day and then adjusting our mileage each day to reach these spots. When we’ve not found a site, or when the weather has been very inclement (once we had 14cm/6 inches of rain in twenty four hours) we have booked into a cheap B&B for the night. Thankfully, at this time of year there are many to choose from, though later in the year we would chose to stay at campsites instead. They all open up again at the beginning of April. That said, we have still managed to camp more nights than we have slept indoors, which has helped to limit the overspend on our weekly budget (£140) to around 120 percent. Luckily, we still have some money reserves left from weeks where we have underspent.
Sicily has a long and rich history of human habitation with many civilisations wanting a share in its mild climate and rich soils. I knew nothing of this before arriving here and little about early history in this ancient part of Europe. I have been grappling with new dates and wars and peoples, and attempting to get them all into order in my head. So here’s a brief run through of what I’ve learnt so far (with apologies for simplification):
The first people recorded were the Sicani, the Sicel and Elymian, kind of post-stone and bronze age tribes. They lived all over the island and were farmers. One day, the Phoenicians (from modern day Lebanon, Syria and Israel area) sailed by and thought they could do good business trading goods with these tribes and indeed they did for several hundred years. By this time, 2500 years ago, the Greek population was booming and they started to look for new islands to inhabit. Sicily looked like a good option, and so they arrived in the south, fighting the locals to win a defendable, hilltop location to build a city and from there, over several hundred years, they worked their way up the coasts building more cities with houses, temples and theatres. The Sicani continued living inland in the hills.
Then the Carthaginians from nearby modern day Tunisia, decided they wanted in on this amazing island and attacked unexpectedly taking over some cities on the west coast.
By this time though, the Roman Empire was on the rise and they came over and fought both the Greeks and Carthagians losing some battles, winning others and eventually moving into the cities and remaking them in their own style.
Slowly the Roman empire got weaker and the Vandals (modern day Germany) saw the chance to grab some territory and take home honey and olive oil. They invaded but only stayed a short while as the Byzantine Empire, expanding from modern day Turkey, had its sights set on this jewel of a Mediterranean island. Rushing across the eastern Mediterranean, around the south Italy, they sent the northerners packing. They stayed around for a couple of hundred years before they too were shoved out by the Arabs from north Africa who brought their own culture and architecture.
Now about this time, the northern European Christians were getting heavily into crusades to ‘the holy land’ and were doing a bit of tourism on their way to and fro. Some Scandinavians liked Sicily so much they decided to stay and so the Norman period began here about the same time their fellow countrymen were taking over a rather cooler England.
Some time about this point, the Swabians from southwest modern Germany came for a brief sojourn. Though across to the west of the Mediterranean, the Renaissance Aragons and Catalans (modern Spain) were building ships and looking for some new lands. Sardinia looked like a good first option and from there they headed south to Sicily and took over here as well. Back in the Iberian peninsula, they were conquered by the Castellans who decided to take on all their overseas territories too.
At some point, thereafter, Sicily became its own Kingdom and linked up with Calabria in the toe of Italy. Finally, Garibaldi landed here in the mid-nineteenth century and persuaded Sicily to join the modern nation of Italy.
So, in summary, Sicily lies at the central cross roads of the Mediterranean and besides the population having a very mixed gene pool, there is a treasure trove of archaeology, and built and cultural heritage here.
Starting with more modern times, and with a desire to see some nature after the claustrophobia of Palermo and its apartment blocks, we headed to the saltpans of Trapani and Marsala.
The salina was created here in the seventeenth century and was capable of producing 2000 tonnes of salt a year. The shallow ponds, walled in limestone blocks, cover over 25 hectares. Sea water is pumped into transit ponds nearest to the sea using windmills. Here, it is left to evaporate for a while increasing the strength of its salinity and then pumped into a set of gathering and crystallising ponds. The solution is left until it has all evaporated leaving a white crystalline coating on the bottom of the pond – salt. This is scraped up and collected into piles alongside the ponds ready for use.
Production has reduced in recent years but the ponds are still home to a wealth of wildlife that thrive in the warm, shallow waters. We stopped at the base of a disused windmill for lunch and spent a very pleasant hour watching Shoveller, Shelduck, Spoonbills and Flamingos feeding in the surrounding pools. The Spoonbills were particularly exciting to see as they are a species under threat and are a curiosity with their spoon-shaped bills sifting through the pond sediment.
Travelling in a generally southeasterly direction along the coast of Sicily, it us impossible not to trip over a plethora of Greek archaeology. Their demise at Selinunte was so rapid, that temples were part finished. We called into their quarry at Cave di Cusa and it resembled a newly abandoned site, with large column blocks of limestone left at every stage of excation.
It felt very much like one day everyone was at work there and the next day they were off fighting a war and never returned. The only thing missing were the work tools. We wandered around the site in warm sunshine seeing how the column sections were first marked out on the rock over two metres in diametre, then chiseled out from the top in the round. The workers slowly carved a channel round the outside of the column and downwards until the column section stood separate from the surrounding rock and about 1.5m deep. At this stage the column was ‘felled’. Then there was just the ‘small’ task of rolling them 12 kilometres to the city of Selinunte. No one knows how they achieved this feat, nor the methods for erecting them one on top of the next to build the temples to their gods. It is known, though, that the fluted carving was undertaken once they were in situ, creating the very straight vertical lines.
The city of Selinunte was built on the cliff top with stunning views west across the Mediterranean Sea. We enjoyed wandering around this site, walking through the one partially reerected temple, marvelling at how it was possible to identify all the different parts of this giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. All the temples here had collapsed in various earthquakes over the last 2000 years, and the limestone columns and blocks lie hickeldy pickeldy around the sites of about eight temples. Nearby are the streets and ruined houses of city. People lived and worked here for several hundred years walking on the same cobbles, entering through the same doorways that we wandered through – all 2500 years ago.
The advanced development of the Greek civilisation at this period of history is nowhere more apparent than at the Valley of the Temples near modern day Agrigento. One temple here has survived pretty much in tact for 2500 years, thanks in part to it being adopted and adapted by Christians into a church in the first 100 years after Jesus Christ. This is now a World Heritage site and we had to content ourselves with viewing it only from the outside, along with the many other temples that lie in ruins here.
The Archeological Museum here is filled with items discovered in the various excavations of the old city. I think it is the first time that I have come face to face with 2500 year old Greek vases and I was impressed by their finesse and artistry. Most are decorated in two tone images of gods, animals and everyday scenes.A sign next to one vase explained it was believed to have been decorated by the ‘Edinburgh Painter’. The Scots coming to Sicily so long ago seemed unlikely so I did a quick online search and discovered that this artist’s style and work was first identified by researchers in Edinburgh in the twentieth century from a vase displayed in the National museum there.
A few more days of cycling following the coast south east through vast expanses of polytunnels filled with ripening tomatoes and aubergines brought us to the port of Pozzallo and the ferry to Malta.