All cut up

Just a quick brief update on Jerry and his inguinal hernia.

He saw his GP(local doctor) back at the beginning of May and was referred immediately to a consultant at our local hospital here in Perth who we saw in mid-June. He recommended surgery and placed Jerry on the waiting list for an operation. Jerry was lucky enough to be offered a cancelled appointment (being fit and healthy has some benefits) and so on Thursday this week we walked down the road to Perth Royal Infirmary and checked into Ward 1.

Four hours later, Jerry returned from the operating theatre with a ten centimetre scar in his right groin and the bulging intestines no longer visible beneath his skin. A small mesh has been placed over the split in his stomach muscles that will, hopefully, keep everything in its correct place. Having passed all the required tests post-operation, I was able to bring home to our friends’ home to recuperate. He is pretty sore, but in good spirits, and I am getting lots of practice at looking after him. He’s delighted that he has an excuse to lie on the sofa and watch the tennis at Wimbledon, and Formula one.

Now he just wants to get better for our next cycling adventure…….

Sour Dough update

One of the interesting things about blogging about activities I am learning, is that I discover friends who are already experts in that field. This had been the case with sour dough baking and have been lapping up advice and suggestions from across Europe. Yesterday, I used a Paul Hollywood recipe to make my first loaf, but I now have several other versions to try to see which suits me and the kitchen here at our friends’ house in Perth best.

The dough was a mixture of the flour and water ‘starter’ that has harvested ‘wild’ yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere, strong white flour, water, and a little sugar and salt. Very wet and gooey, kneading it on the oiled work surface proved tricky as it kept on sticking. In the end, I used a combination of olive oil and flour (used alternatively) to keep the dough separated from the marble. After ten mins of stretching (the dough not me) and folding the dough was ready to rest and I had to wait an hour before I could tell whether the magic starter had worked and the dough was rising. I was thrilled to discover that the dough was ballooning up the bowl and four hours later, having doubled in size, it was ready for a quick knead and to be placed in floured cloth lined bowl to contain it in a loaf shape whilst it stood to rise a second time.

Second rise about to commence

I made use of the time by heading out for a walk around the nearby fields and footpaths surrounding Perth with Bobby the dog (we were dog sitting for the weekend), Jerry and some friends visiting for the weekend to look for some cup marked stones.

Back in the kitchen three hours later, the dough had again risen and I tipped it out on to a baking tin, placed it in a hot oven with steam wafting up from a water filled tray in the base and waited. And this is the result …..

The finished bread

The evening tasting session proved popular and comments mostly positive. The bread was full of air, tasted a little sour (this is apparently from the ‘wild’ bacteria in the starter), though could do with being a little less rubbery. My experience from making bread with dried yeast tells me that this may be due to over kneading, so I will be a little less enthusiastic with this next time.

What amazes me, is that it is possible to make a loaf of leavened bread without using brewer’s fresh yeast or dried yeast. It seems like pure magic to me. Apparently, this method of bread making was used up to the middle ages in Europe and is still used to make rye bread in northern Europe today.

I’m not sure that it will translate to being able to use on a bike tour. We don’t have an oven and maintaining the starter in the varying climatic conditions we encounter, and on bumpy roads would be too much of a challenge. So far, we have mostly bought bread, and occasionally I have made Chapatis that don’t require a rising agent. Perhaps I will investigate other unleavened bread that we could make on our next adventure.

​A new journey has begun…..

Not on a bike, but into the mysterious world of sourdough baking. I learnt from our cycle journey that if I want to do something, the best way to do it is to get the support I need and just get on with it.

So this week, after some internet research and a chat with a friend, I created a sour dough starter with just flour and water, and airborne natural yeast. After three days it started bubbling (very exciting) and I’ve fed it each morning with more flour and water. Tomorrow I will make my first ever sour dough loaf.
Well, I have to do something while I’m waiting for my adventure buddy to have an operation!

Back in Perth

We’re  pleased to report that two bikes and a tent (along with a lot of other kit) have arrived safely in Perth from Rome. 

Thank you to everyone who has helped us out along the way, and offered us accommodation and other support. We have been very touched by your generosity, warmth and openheartness. 
Now it’s time to arrange medical treatment for Jerry and plan our next journey. Oh, and Johanna has to find some paid work for a few months.

Journeying North

We left Rome on a warm and sunny evening, the red and black Frecciarossa train speeding us northwards across the Italian countryside to Milan. Looking out of the window at the passing landscape, I was reminded of one of the reasons that I love cycle touring so much. On a bike I get to really experience the environment around me using all my senses. I feel the shape of the land through my body and legs on every turn of my pedals and the gears I choose. My nose picks up the nuances of the aromas and odours of the places we travel through, I hear the wind, the animals, the passing traffic, my wheels rolling on the tarmac, and my eyes are alive with the colours and ever changing world around. On the train, I travel more less on the level, and other than seeing the landscape, I sense only the environment of the train compartment. I am left with only a vague sense of the terrain through which I have travelled. On a bike, I am left with a rich, internal memory map of the world around. I miss my bike. Travelling home without it feels like I have a bit of me missing. It was tough leaving our bikes at the Courier Office in Rome. We had wrapped them up in lots of bubble wrap ready to be boxed for the journey back to Scotland. Now we are just keeping our fingers crossed they arrive safely and we can be reunited.

A sad bon voyage to our faithful steads

Jerry is well. He is finding it a challenge to let me do all the heavy carrying. He has been given a limit of 10kg by the Italian hernia consultant, so coming home he packed just his clothes into one of my large panniers and I carried the rest in the other large pannier and our backpack.

Loaded up and ready to travel

I have the opportunity to repay him for the extra lifting he had to do when my back was sore through the Baltic States in Autumn 2015.

We had looked at various more interesting options to get back to the UK that didn’t involve flying(we try not take planes for environmental reasons), such as travelling through Switzerland on the Bernese Oberland Train, but in the end we decided to opt for simple and as cheap as possible. I discovered a sleeper train that ran from Milan to Paris and we booked two berths in a six berth couchette. Tight and cosy would be my description. We squeezed in with four rather large french guys and spent most of the time lying down. We were woken at the Swiss border for a visit by a dog searching for drugs, and at the French border by Border Police checking our passports. I’m never my best at 5am but managed to squint around the door post for a facial comparison with my passport photo and seemed to pass the test. A guy in the next compartment was not so lucky and gathered up his luggage before being taken off the train for further investigation.

Passing through Paris gave us the opportunity to catch up with our friend Aurelia and her two children, and enjoy so great home French cooking, as well as French Easter Eggs, for a few days. From Paris we took the Eurolines coach to Dover, England, having discovered that it was cheaper to go the whole way by coach, including the ferry voyage, than to pay just the ferry fare from Calais to Dover.

We have arrived in Kent at the perfect time for bluebell filled woods and blossom filled apple orchards. It’s been fun getting out on foot to explore the footpaths with my sister and her two English Springer Spaniels. Jasper is now over fifteen years old, which, my nephew has informed me, is the equivalent of 105 in human years. He still loves getting out and about, but is limited to a few hundred yards.

A short woodland walk with Jasper,

Kester, his younger play mate, is up for five or six mile romps and is still wagging his tail ready for more. Today we walked down around the outer Thames Estuary near Faversham and bumped into a group of birdwatchers carrying giant telescopes and tripods. They were hanging around some brackish ponds behind the high flood bank hoping to see the returning migrants, and they weren’t disappointed. Their spotters’ list included Bearded Tit, Swallows, Sedge warblers as well as a large group of Black tailed Godwits and a marsh harrier. I marvelled at how easy it is to have conversations with people here as I don’t have to translate everything.

New money has appeared in our absence, the one pound coin is no longer round and the five pound notes are now plastic. I’m slowly adapting back to driving on the left of the road and walking on the right. And after a year and a half of spending Euros,  I occasionally convert a pound price to Euros to get a sense of the price of an item. We are so used to carrying our passports and health cards with us everywhere, that it is weird to not have to pick them up every time we leave the house.

I wonder how many other things have changed and how we will get on settling back into ‘every day life’, at least for a while.


Kentish Bluebells


All Roads lead to Rome

Great excitement in the two bikes and a tent ‘household’, we had discovered an open Italian campsite! We had not stayed on a campsite since the beginning of December on the east coast of Spain. Every campsite on Sardinia and Sicily that we passed was well and truly closed with padlocked gates. Now we were homing in on some of the top Italian attractions, like the Amalfi coast, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Naples. Here, several campsites stay open all year round to accommodate tourists, mostly in campervans, and when we were there, mostly German and British. Anyway, our great excitement was the prospect of a shower and a clothes wash. We’d been on the road for over a week since leaving the slopes of Etna and were becoming a bit ‘jumbo-wiffie’. Planning our stay to coincide with a warm, sunny day to best enable clothes drying, we managed to check in at 9.30am which gave us all day for chores.

Do washing. Tick.

Our tent pitched, and with our hand washed clothes weighing heavy on the makeshift washing line, we showered and returned to the tent for a sunny cup of tea. At this point, Jerry let on that he had discovered a lump where his right thigh meets his groin. He’d first noticed it when he showered just before leaving our host on Etna and 600 kilometres later it was still there. He suspected he had developed a hernia whilst doing some heavy, awkward lifting in our final couple of days there, though he had felt nothing at the time. Sure enough, there was a flattish bulge, about 3cm by 5cm under his skin at the top of his groin that wasn’t matched by anything similar on his lefthand side. Getting the code for the campsite wifi, Jerry googled for more information. He was not in any pain, and had no discomfort until after we’d proded about, of course. A inguinal hernia seemed the most likely diagnosis, where intestines or bowel protrude through a split in the muscle wall. He also discovered that there was a possibility of it becoming ‘strangulated’, a serious complication of the gut becoming blocked. This would be a medical emergency and require immediate surgery.

We each had our different responses. I was a bit disbelieving and found myself minimising the issue and being rather unsympathetic. Jerry became very sensitive to every twinge and gurgle, imagining the worst. His immediate desire was to get on a plane home.

Despite all this, we ended the day standing on the nearby sandy beach watching the largest sun I have ever seen set behind the crenulated Amalfi coastline, before heading back to our tent for a giant portion of pasta, beans and sauce.

Sunset over the Amalfi coast

The next day, putting my scepticism to one side, I tried to concentrate on soothing Jerry. I suggested we might talk with one of our medical friends back home to get a professional view. Never one to immediately accept support, Jerry was keen to have the day to think about it.

Smelling sweetly of our purple shampoo gel, that also doubles as a clothes washing agent, we set off for Salerno, the nearest town, to buy food and a road map of mainland Italy. We’d been managing just with my phone app since leaving Sicily but we both missed having a map on my handlebar bag to examine. The road was flat and straight with fast traffic and as we entered the city and the volume of vehicles increased, I started a list of Italian ‘rules’ of the road tinged with a hint of sarcasm based on the activities of drivers around us and shouted them.out to Jerry as we rode along:

1. If someone calls, speak to them immediately whilst driving.
2. Texting is allowable on a straight piece of road even if it means you are not looking where you are going.
3. Children may stand in the footwell of the front passenger seat.
4. Always reverse out of a parking space into the stream of traffic.
5. Open your door then check to see if anything is coming.
6. If the parking space is not big enough to parallel park, drive in facing the kerb.
7. If there is no parking space, double park.
8. Hoot your horn if the car in front does not start moving within a quarter of a second of the traffic lights changing.
9. Hoot your horn if there is a cyclist in front of you.
10. Decide where you want to go, go there, then see if anyone hoots at you.
11. Remonstrate loudly, with arm movements if someone impedes your free passage.
12. Give someone an indignant and very hard stare if they remonstrate at you.

The list grew rather long before we located a bookshop, supermarket and bank, acquired our purchase and fresh supply of cash, and headed back out of town towards the Amalfi coast.

Steep to and rugged, the 50 kilometre long Amalfi coast is famous for its picturesque, cliff hugging villages and winding, scenic road. It is arguably one of the most beautiful and thrilling driving routes in the world. Consequently, it is also rather busy. Luckily for us, the Italians consider March to be the off season and so the road was only moderately busy. We tootled along climbing and descending, following the road around curves and tight switchbacks. The Tyrrhenian sea glistened beneath us and the lemon grove covered, terraced slopes rose steeply above us. Pulling into a layby, we stopped to admire the peaks high rising up from the terraces.

The Amalfi coast road

Several speedy, sporty cyclists passed us coming in the opposite direction and we shared enthusiastic waves and received many encouraging thumbs up. Coming around a lefthand bend we came across a queue of parked cars and, after passing a couple, it dawned on us that they had not stopped to admire the view but were waiting for a signal to pass some hidden blockage up ahead on the road. We tucked in behind a black Fiat Panda and took the opportunity to rehydrate and snack on a biscuit. Ten minutes later we were still waiting. Eventually, a stream of motorscooters appeared around the bend ahead leading a long line of buses and cars. A guy up ahead in a fluorescent jacket chatted into a handheld radio and then reversed his hand held paddle from red to green and we were off. Some 300 metres further down the road, we passed the aftermath of a road traffic accident. A car wrapped in a grey cover, a scooter looking rather the worse for wear, and police and rescue crews staring into a ravine on the landward side of the road with concerned looks. It was the first of three accidents we saw that day. All of them involving cars and scooters. Luckily, we didn’t become a fourth.

Whilst most of the road rises and falls in short sections, there is one long and steady climb up past the village of Positano. We set our speed to ‘nice and steady’ and plodded away for thirty minutes climbing up twisting roads past pastel coloured houses. Starting to sweat and pant a little, we stopped by a small waterfall for a drink. In a pool at its base, a small group of Mallard duck chatted away to each other as they paddled around in the shallows. We stood and watched for a while before recommencing our upward grind. Actually, for the most part, the gradient was one on which we could turn our pedals without having to really push our bikes up hill. Round the next corner, we arrived at the summit viewpoint and a layby full of a coach party of excited, young, Chinese tourists. Vendors with small stalls were doing good business selling souvenirs, lemon granita (sorbet), and fresh orange juice. We leant our bikes against a wall and soaked in the vista down across Positano and back along the coast we had cycled.

Looking back along the Amalfi coast beyond Positano

The Amalfi road held one more delight for us as we climbed up another short rise into the centre of the peninsula, our first view of the bay of Naples and one of the most deadly volcanoes in the world, Vesuvius.

View across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius

Unlike Etna, if this one started erupting, we would cycle away as fast as possible.

The next four days were a whirlwind of sightseeing and hernia contemplation. Jerry celebrated his birthday with a visit to the summit crater of Vesuvius and a trip to the local Carrefour for ‘goodies’: asparagus, cake, strawberries, beer, wine and hazelnut cream filled Easter eggs. At birth, both of us managed to avoid the fasting of Lent. I arrived the day before, Shrove Tuesday where traditionally in the UK we gorge ourselves with pancakes. Jerry arrived on Easter Sunday and consequently loves Easter egg chocolate. After the excitement of an erupting Etna, with red, hot lava and old craters to explore, the Vesuvius crater was a bit of a let down. Just a few very small steaming fumaroles. Having paid €10 each to walk the short trail to the summit, we took advantage of the opportunity to have a guide to tell us about the history, geology and geomorphology of this infamous volcano. The last eruption was in 1944 and prior to then Vesuvius had erupted roughly every twenty years. The longer it goes without erupting, the bigger the next eruption will be. In 79AD the volcano had not erupted for 800 years and the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum were unaware that they were living in the shadow of an active volcano.

We called my GP friend, M. She was very helpful and Jerry felt much calmer and reassured by their conversation. We discussed other possible causes of such a lump, the main one being an inflamed lymph node, and whether cycling was likely to aggravate the situation. M recommended that we arrange to see a doctor in Italy to confirm our diagnosis. Jerry slept well that night, while I mused on how we might arrange a consultation with a doctor.

Pompeii, Herculaneum and the small farming Villa Regina with its onsite museum provided a stunning insight into Roman life. I was amazed by the size of Pompeii, I had never imagined that the whole city was available to visit. To wander around the streets and ruined buildings (shops, houses, villas, temples, theatres, amphitheatre) of a city that had died in just 24 hours, was fascinating. It was like a 3D map. Some houses are named after their last owners or residents, others after items, mosaics or frescos found in the property at the time of excavation. The city was looted of anything easily excavated from the ten metres of volcanic ash that fell here. In the last two hundred years, more systematic excavation has taken place. I am curious about what the archaeologists did with all the ash they excavated but, despite internet searches in English and Italian, I have yet to find the answer. Most poignant at the site, are the plaster molds of some of human and animal victims of the eruption. People who died, either from suffocation or from the intense heat, upward of 300°C, as the volcanic ash column collapsed on to the city. The heat caused the tendons to rapidly contract giving the bodies a contorted and pained appearance. In reality, and thankfully, death would have been instantaneous.

Villa Regina dog

We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the out of town farmhouse and museum at Villa Regina. The interpretation was almost exclusively in Italian, but with our increasing familiarity with the language and a bit of help from Google Translate, we muddled our way through, discovering about vineyards, crops, olive groves and life in a Roman farming villa. New vines have been planted in the burnt out root holes left by the vines that had been growing at the time of the disaster. One room of the villa was dedicated to the storage of wine in huge amphora sunk up to their necks in soil.

Herculaneum was spared from the ash of the first phase of the eruption by the prevailing wind blowing the last column away from the city. It bought the residents valuable time to evacuate. However, the collapsing ash column set off a mud and pyroclast avalanche that thundered down on the city covering it in 26 metres of debris that set solid like concrete. It lay forgotten for sixteen centuries before a chance discovery of a marble floor by a man digging a new well. In the 18th century, the site was accessed by tunnels and many of the most appealing and valuable items removed. Less than a quarter of the ancient city has now been fully excavated. The rest lies under the modern city of Ercolano. The ruins here are taller and more complete. Some buildings are two stories, still with their tiles on the roof. Some mosaic floors and wet plaster painted murals remain in situ and, at times,  give the impression that the owner has just popped out for a loaf of bread.

Herculaneum street

Many of the treasures discovered at the two cities, and other excavated sites, have made their way to the National Archeological Museum in Naples. Leaving our tent and bikes at the campsite in Pompeii, we took the Circumvesuviana train into the heart of Naples, and took advantage of the first Sunday of the month free opening to visit. Mosaics, frescos, and everyday pots, pans and glasswear are on display along with a rich collection of marble sculptures. But for me, the most striking image was of a shy, young couple. Terentius Neo, a baker and his wife, lived and worked in Pompeii and had their image painted into a fresco at their villa. It is the only known portrait of residents of the city.

The Pompeii bakers

Back on Sicily, we had heard that the only Italian city to rival Palermo for its dangerous drivers was Naples. We were headed for Rome and our route lay across this very city. I poured over the map looking at various options. The easiest, from a navigation perspective, was to follow the coast. The roads would be busy, but then they would be busy anywhere, this is a densely populated area.

We set off into the Pompeii traffic shortly after rush hour. We knew it was likely to be an exhausting day watching the movements of all the vehicles around us and gave ourselves just the task of safely reaching the other side of Naples. Today, the most alarming drivers on the road, particularly in queues of traffic, were the scooter drivers. They weave their way through traffic, overtaking and undertaking, appearing suddenly on our shoulders then swerving across in front of us to take another line. To me, they seem to have a death wish driving up the inside of lorries, but that day, thankfully, we saw no more accidents. The roads into Naples were mostly tarmac with small sections of bumpy cobbles and, luckily for us, there were roadworks on the one fast road we had to take that slowed everything down to a crawl. We arrived in the centre of the city and the impressive port side castle around lunchtime and ate our lunch overlooking a small marina of expensive looking yachts. I mused on how many amazing places there must be to sail into in the Mediterranean.

After lunch, the roads were generally quieter, but were mostly cobbles. Bumpy, bumpy riding and by evening Jerry reported that his lump had become much harder.

Our guide in Vesuvius had told us about the volcano that most threatened Naples and that has a lot of thermal and sulphur activity. She’d also mentioned that it had an all year campsite in the crater. It sounded a great place to hang out and explore. Unfortunately, due to me losing two screws on the bumpy roads out of the clips on a front panier and needing to stop to replace them, it started raining heavily just after we checked in and we before we had the tent up. I went off to the loo while Jerry sheltered in a nearby building. Eventually, after about an hour, the rain eased off and we were able to get pitched and sorted out. A faint sulphurous odour wafted through the tent. With our newly acquired, bright pink umbrella deployed (we found it in a bin at Paestum Greek temples) we set off to explore the steam and mud. Whilst the campsite side of the crater is grassy and green with tall trees, the other side is a large, creamy, white moonscape. Nothing grews there other than sulphur crystals and a strange green bacteria that can cope with temperatures up to 90°C.

Johanna and grewing sulphur crystals

In the centre of the moonscape, hot mud bubbles away and the ground sounds hollow when you jump on it. A group of teenage French school kids gave us plenty of opportunity to experience this phenomenon. Most spectacular are the jets of sulphurous steam that shoot upwards out of small holes in the crust. This short video gives you a flavour.

Volcana Solfatara video

The road to Rome over the next few days was fairly dull from a cycling perspective, lots of long straight roads with ribbon development and traffic. We amused ourselves with trying spot interesting things to share with each other. We saw our first Italian buffalo and signs announcing our arrival in Buffalo Mozzarella country. There were a few picturesque towns, one Gaeta, claiming to be the birthplace of Giovanni (John) Cabot, the first European to find Nova Scotia.

I also was in touch with our soon to be hosts in Rome, Stephen, and his italian wife, Antonella. Stephen, a cousin of our Scottish friend Rachel, had offered us a place to stay from which to explore the city. Now we had an even bigger ask. Could they arrange a doctor’s appointment for Jerry? They pulled out all the stops and, in a typically Italian way, arranged an appointment with a hernia consultant through a friend of a friend. He agreed to fit Jerry in before another patient on the day after we arrived.

Via Appia Antica

We chose an old Roman Road, the Via Appia Antica to enter the city and passed our 19,000km just as we started on the route. Despite being off our food with a tummy bug, we enjoyed the traffic free route and the sense of following in the footsteps of over two thousand years of other travellers. We followed Stephen’s instructions for getting across the city, through the city walls, along the length of the old Roman jousting circus, crossing the Tiber and arriving in Vatican City with St Peter’s Basilica. From there it was an easy ride along one of the few cycle paths to their apartment.

The next afternoon, Stephen drove us out past the 1960 Olympic Stadium to Ospedale San Filippo Neri. After locating the entrance to the clinic, and paying the consultation fee, we didn’t have to wait long to be led through to Dr Luca Lepre. A few coughs and prods later he diagnosed Jerry with a large inguinal hernia.

Jerry’s Italian diagnosis

The ‘good’ news is, that because of its size it is unlikely to become strangulated. The ‘bad’ news is that it is likely to become bigger. In Italy, Dr Lepre would have put Jerry straight on to his operating list. He advised Jerry to not do any heavy lifting or high impact exercise. No lifting bikes and paniers and no riding on cobbles. By the evening, we had pretty much accepted that Jerry’s cycle tour was over until he got the hole fixed. After another day’s deliberation, some discussion with friends back home, and Jerry agreeing to continue our cycle tour once he is better, I decided to return to the UK with him rather than cycling back there on my own and meeting up again in Scotland. We are both heart broken.

This week has been spent throwing out kit that has reached the end of its useful life; packing up our bikes and heavy kit to be couriered back to Scotland; arranging our own travel back via trains and buses; sightseeing in Rome; and, most importantly of all, eating loads of gelati (ice cream).

Delicious Gelati

We’ll see those of you who stay in Perth around the end of April and one or two of you en route.


Etna etcetera….

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You know the feeling, you get behind with something, and the more you get behind, the harder it becomes to catch up. This is exactly where I am with our blog. So to catch up to our current position just … Continue reading

Malta Mysteries

Malta is the most densely populated island in Europe after the small City State of Monaco. Filled with people and traffic, Valletta, its capital, is only quiet between two and five o’clock in the morning, even in the middle of a thunderstorm. We discovered this on our first night on the island when, arriving on the ferry just after midnight in the rain, we had the bright idea to camp in a city park until dawn. With flashes of lightening highlighting the shapes of the buildings and massive fortifications surrounding the city, we cycled along the dockside and up into the old town. I had identified three possible places we might camp from satellite images with the idea that we could cycle round to them all and choose the best. In the event, just as we were approaching the first, thunder clapped directly overhead and the sky turned on its tap, hitting us with a torrent of heavy rain drops. We took shelter under the arches of an old shopping arcade. The roads ran with water, and the drains were quickly overloaded. ‘Wait five minutes’, a phrase from Jerry’s sailing days, came to mind, and sure enough, in five minutes the rain had eased a little but we weren’t up for a tour of the cities parks. It was tempting to spend the night in the dryness of the arcade, but we knew we would be very cold by morning, and it was very visible alongside the main drag out of town. No, better to be tucked away in our tent in a dark corner of a park. I ‘generously’ volunteered Jerry to go out and explore the options whilst I stood and looked after the bikes. Ten minutes later he returned with news that the gates of the main park nearby were locked. However, he reported, adjacent to it there was a sloping, triangle of land with trees that was dark and looked quiet with no paths. It was sandwiched between two roads and on its lower side there were a couple of bushes providing a dark spot shaded from the bright street lights. It looked possible. We grabbed the opportunity, pushed our bikes down the road and across the short grass under the trees and found a place to pitch the tent. The process of pitching and unpacking is so familiar to us now that we were easily able to accomplish it in the dark with no torches to attract anyone’s attention. So about twenty minutes later, at 2am we were snuggled in our sleeping bags in the dry and relative warm of our tent. I set the alarm on my phone for 6am and then worked on relaxing sufficiently that I could dozel off. Lots of mindfulness must have done the trick because three and a half hours later I came to, scrunched down the bottom of the tent with Jerry passing comment about the number of vehicles he’d heard driving around since 5am. The rain had stopped falling and now there were just large drips falling off the leaves of the trees above. We heard a car pull up on the road below us and reverse into a car parking space. It was time to get moving. Packing up was accomplished in silence and we were soon pushing our bikes up the hill into the centre of Valletta watching dawn creep over the island to the east.

Early dawn in Valletta, Malta

We were decidedly jaded. I think it’s not as easy to do these mad things in our fifties than it was in our twenties. Then again, I never camped out in a capital city in my twenties.

The biggest excitement in coming to Malta was meeting up for a week’s holiday with our friend Andy from Scotland. About the time we were draining the dregs of a large cup of coffee, he was checking in at Edinburgh airport ready for his three hour flight. We just had the small matter of locating a map and cycling 20 kilometres across the north coast of the island to meet him at the apartment we had booked.

Cycling on Malta has many challenges and few joys. Although the distances are short, the roads are in extremely poor condition with lots of potholes and sunken drain covers, most of which seemed to be right in our path. The other obstacle, thrown in at random intervals, were two metre wide drain covers with tyre width slots aligned in our direction of travel. Avoiding all these wheel buckling, cyclist unmounting impediments required cycling out into the path of motor vehicles – and there are a lot of them on Malta. Every road had a continuous stream even at 9.30am on a Sunday morning. The Maltese drive on the left, something that, after twenty months on the righthandside of the road, no longer came naturally. We had to frequently remind each other to ‘ride on the left’, particularly when we turned out of T junctions. And then there are the limestone hills. Ridges of limestone run north – south across the island and the roads, following old cart tracks, have been built straight up them. Most of the gradients were 10% (1 in 10) or close and with our loaded bikes we were in bottom gear and pushing hard, our heart rates maxing out. We had to stop halfway up the final ascent to catch our breath and let our heart rates fall to something more normal before attempting the final push up to the roundabout on the outskirts of Mellieha, the village in which we had chosen to stay.

Malta is packed full of activities to entice the tourist and I emerged from a trip to the tourist office in Valletta, with a two inch thick pile of leaflets encouraging us to visit everything from Playmobil land, and state of the art audio visual experiences to 5000 year old stone temples and dramatic sea caves. After meeting up with Andy at our apartment for the week, we did much sifting and reading and decided to experience places that would give us a sense of the history of the islands and their landscapes. 

The stone temples at Hagar Qim are almost the oldest known buildings in the world, predating the Egyptian Pyramids by about 1000 years. Approaching from the modern visitor centre, their golden limestone outline is overshadowed by the two huge, white tent structures that have been erected to protect them from the elements, making it difficult to get a sense of their size and shape. Closer to, their form becomes more apparent. Large slabs of limestone have been stood side by side on their ends to create walls. Square holes cut in the centre of slabs create windows and doors, and the floor is compacted earth. Inside the building, a stone slab has been laid across to blocks creating an altar. 

Inside the 5000 year old Hagar Qim Temple

The stone corbeled roof has long since collapsed or the stones removed to be used in some other later building. The people who built these……

Okay, that is as far as I got with writing my blog on Malta whilst in a hostel in Catania, on the east side of Sicily in the middle of February. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay on Malta and catching up with Andy. We did a lot of sightseeing, a bit of walking and some great sunshine relaxing. We managed to avoid all the European Union leaders whose summit in Valletta’ coincided with our trip. Malta has the presidency of the Union for six months – it may turn out to be a historical six months. Gozo, an island adjacent to the mainland of Malta, is much quieter and we had a sunny day’s walking there with Andy just before he left. We liked it so much we went back with our bikes for a day. We cycled over to the far end of the island to see a large limestone arch called the Azure Window.

The Azure Window before it collapsed

It was a beautiful spot and very popular with the locals on a Sunday afternoon out. About a month later, I went on to the Guardian website to catch up with news from home. One of the headlines on the International News page was ‘Azure Window’ collapses. A storm had swept both the arch and its supporting column into the sea. Our night there was memorable for another reason. We camped up on some rough land away from the sea and, after supper, settled down for a quiet night’s sleep in calm conditions. At 11pm we were both awoken by the wind harshly buffeting our tent. We had little shelter where we had pitched and the tent was starting to collapse in on us. I went out into the gale to see if there was more shelter further down into a nearby valley. Nothing to be found. The last thing we wanted was a damaged tent, so after a few more minutes, we decided to strike camp and walk back down to the car park as we felt sure there would be some shelter there. Luckily, the moon was almost full so we had good light to see by though we took care not to trip on the rough grassland and steep stony track. Down at the empty car park, we wandered around in the strong wind trying various spots. We found a few behind bluffs that were reasonably sheltered at ground level but more than a foot off the ground the full blast of the wind hit us again. There was some hope behind a hip high bush and we tried to pitch the tent, but it was impossible for only one of us to hold it still while the other pegged it out, so we aborted this attempt and went over to try our luck behind a small chapel. There was a small amount of shelter, but not enough space to pitch our tent. It is not often on our trip that we have been completely stumped, but this was one of those times. It was 2am, and predicted to rain around 4am. We sat down dejected on the sandy soil. Staying still would only mean we got cold, so we decided to start walking with our loaded bikes back up the hill away from the coast. This way, at least, we would stay warm. It was Jerry’s idea, and he hoped we might find somewhere more sheltered away from the coast.  So we began to trudge up the steep hill, the moon still lighting our path. After a few miles, we reached a village and it became apparent that we would not find a camp spot in the dark. I’d previously downloaded the ferry timetable back to Malta, and on checking this, noticed that the ferries ran all night. That meant the terminal building would be open all night. At last, some hope of shelter. Walking, rather than cycling (for warmth and safety because we were very tired) we made our way all eight miles back along quiet, empty roads, the only time we saw them like this on our whole trip to Malta. Around 3am, just after leaving Victoria, the chief town on Gozo, small trucks started to pass us, carrying vegetables harvested the previous day in the fields. They were heading for the 3.30am ferry, but beyond that, we do not know their destination. We discovered something of island life that we never would have seen had we been tucked up snug in our tent.

We had one more sleepless night on Malta and that was our last night on the island. We had to check in for the ferry at 4am. Again, being thrifty, we decided not to spend the money on accommodation. Instead, we hung out in Valletta, cooked our supper on the steps of the National Library, and then took up residence in the city’s McDonalds that stayed open until midnight.

Jerry cooking supper on the steps of Malta’s National Library

The manager, on hearing we were waiting for the ferry, invited us to stay until the staff finished up at 1.30am. So by the time we had walked down to the ferry terminal we had just two hours to hang around before the building opened. I dozeled on my haunches in a sheltered corner while Jerry paced about to stay warm. I hope that is the last of our ‘all nighters’ for awhile. 

Just in case you are in any doubt, we enjoyed our time on Malta. We toured around in a car that Andy had hired for about €35 for the whole week, visiting fishing harbours with colourful boats, sea arches, the baroque buildings of the ancient capital Medina, and bagging another highest point in a country. We ate out several times, once with the locals in Valletta and a couple of times at a small, very British-like tea room in the village where we were staying. The Maltese food is a fusion of Arabic, Italian and British. So pasta, cous cous and potatoes, though not all at the same time.

They are very interesting islands that lie on the boundary of the European and African tectonic plates and well worth a winter visit. I think they would be far to crowded for me in the summer season.

Good friends, good company and good food

Sicilian Delights

‘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 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.

Saltpans and Salt

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.

A carved column still waiting to be felled

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.

Reconstructed Greek temple at Selinunte

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.

Greek temple at Agrigento

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 Greek vase

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.

Polytunnel city


Sicilian Bogies

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!