Wednesday, 10 April 2013

wild Sicilia

Our first night back in the tent is in a grove of lemon trees just outside Cefalu.  The ride along the coast has been fairly uneventful but the views of the mountains climbing up from the shore have been wonderful.  It's holiday time, the roads are quiet.  On the coast we come to a swathe of holiday villages - huge estates of holiday homes in fenced compounds.  At first it seems quite ugly, but at least everything is low-level.  We stop at a cafe to fill up with water for the night.  It's 4pm and the streets are deserted but gradually as the sun begins to lower more and more people emerge from these estates to take an ice-cream or a coffee, play the slot machine in the bar, or buy a lottery ticket.  We finally shuffle off along the back road to look for a spot to camp. Sunset is about 7.30 pm so we can't camp too early for risk of being discovered but at the same time we want some light to cook.  In our lemon grove we are only overlooked by a rare passing train.
Cefalu is a pleasant town squeezed into the small space between the mountains and sea.  The narrow streets lead to a pretty piazza in front of the main church.  The sun is blazing and we can't believe how hot it is.  The town features in Cinema Paradiso, but I struggle to identify any familiar places.  Only afterwards do I wonder if there's an actual cinema in the town.  We are in search of parts for the bikes and the tourist office sends us off to a scooter shop - the fools might just have been trying to get rid of us.  Down at the sea we munch our sandwiches and  a steady stream of visitors amble down to the quayside in search of shelter from the wind.  From here we take a road inland climbing into one of the national parks.  As we pedal under one of the huge autostrada bridges I finally recognise something from the opening scenes in Cinema Paradiso - the tall concrete structure represents the changing modernising world in contrast to the Sicilia of yesteryear.  

It's not long before we are high up above the coast.  Our road climbs steadily for two days as we slowly ascend into the Madonie mountains - the biggest after Etna on the island.  We start to get a feel for the interior as we pass through a succession of hilltop towns, perched on defendable hilltops overlooking the farmland below.  We get a sense of the origins of Sicilia - of the warring factions that controlled the different parts of the island.  The history reads like a Who's Who of European empires: Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans, Spanish....

We are happy to find that our trip to Tunisia at the end of winter has paid off.  Now, at the beginning of April the weather is warm and the wildflowers are in abundance.  The land is a vibrant green.  Later we are told how the landscape is transformed in the summer heat - made unrecognisable in the harsh dry conditions.  But now our eyes can relax and feel soothed by the lush vegetation.  The days are sunny and hot and the nights are the warmest we've had since we left Poland.  We soon get into a rhythm of cycling in the morning to a town where we can buy our food, then take a long lunch before riding on in the mid-afternoon siesta while the roads are still quiet.  We are still amazed at how everything seems to come to a standstill at 1pm.  If we ride into a town between 1 and 4 it often feels like a ghost town - shop shutters are down, no people around, no cars.  Then towards the end of the day we start to look around for a camping spot.  A lot of land is cultivated and often fenced and locked to keep people out, but not everywhere.  We also realise that few farmers are actually living in their farmhouses - at day's end most seem to drive back to the town in their Fiat Panda.  (It is obligatory for farmers to drive old Fiat Pandas.)  We find some really nice camping pitches and on our second night Gayle has already spotted Etna in the distance.
The weirdest phenomenon we come across is the closed road that is not closed.  Whilst signs proclaim our chosen road closed, we are told by locals that the road is in fact passable.  It seems that road repairs take time here.  So we find ourselves on exceptionally quiet routes, used only by locals, where the road has fallen away in places, or cracked and shifted like a writhing snake.  These roads are good ones for wild camping.  Then one morning we come to a sign that says "Totally Closed".  A farmer confirms it.  But then we wave down another car, and a woman tells us in a broad Brooklyn accent, that we might be able to get through if we push our bikes. She is our age, dressed in black, with black hair and black sunglasses.  She looks and sounds like the stereotypical mobster's moll.  This is undoubtedly because she is one.  However, she seems trustworthy and we take the chance.  She turns out to be right.  The road is totally closed but we can carry our bikes and bags over the landslide saving ourselves a massive detour.  The joy of cycling.