Our Sicily Bike Tour

Trip Start May 03, 2007
Trip End Aug 22, 2007

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Western Sicily Bike Tour- 7 days
A seven day journey through the western part of Sicily has turned out to be one of the most beautiful and challenging parts of this journey. I am sitting atop the last hotel in Sicily, as yesterday was the last cycling day. The terraza overlooks the cities of both Monreale and Palermo, and we have been invited to sit up here as long as necessary to sun and write- Bellisimo!!!
I want to preface this account by commenting on the history of Sicily, which is unique to any other island. Sicily's history dates back to the Bronze Age, which is before 1200 BC, when the Elymians arrived and settled in the West. The Greeks then conquered this area and built the temple of Segesta. Without going into too much detail, the history of the island includes the settling of and later destruction of various ethnic groups, including: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Byzantines, Arogonese, Spanish and Albanians. The remarkable thing about this is that all these cultures were maintained within the island. When looking at the people who live here, I see redheads with freckles, black hair people with the white skin of the Irish, blond hair and blue eyes and dark skin with curly black hair! Truly an amazing conglomeration of both ethnicity and culture has blended into this island, offering couscous in one town and black olives in another!
Here is a concise day by day account of our experiences, both good and bad...
Scopello is a seaside town that sits above the Mediterranean. Because the season had not yet started, we were alone in the large, open, white on white property that sat on top of the Mediterranean, overlooking deep blue water. We met Dario, our tour "guide"; He gave us all our route paperwork for each day of the tour, his phone number and wished us luck! This really gave me an anxious feeling, since the reality that we were "on our own" really set in. We met the cousin of one of our New Jersey friends, Gaspar Giordano. His charming restaurant in Scopello was a perfect place for our first dinner.  The guide suggested leaving by 8:30 the next morning and so we retired early.
Our first ride was to the town of Erice- about 65 km away. We left on time prepared for the ride to Erice. I was alerted on the guide by a phrase "the last 12 km of this ride are challenging"- I didn't pay too much attention, figuring we would be ok.
The trip was beautiful, following the guide through winding roads, mostly used by farmers and shepherds. The vegetation, vineyards, olive trees and sun were continuous. We stopped in Segesta to see the best preserved Greek ruins in the world. An Amphitheater and Greek Temple were breathtaking (See pictures). Five hours later, as we approached Erice, the 12 km climb became a reality- the ascent was 2250 feet of vertical height and 5 to 9 degrees of grade for the entire 12 km. As I was fighting to get up this hill, I said to Steve this f%#@ing climb better be worth it!! We continued to coil around curves one after another for what seemed like an eternity.
...And then- Erice! What a city- sitting one half mile above the rest of the world, with narrow cobbled streets, alleyways filled with sun and flowers, shopkeepers selling ceramics, pastries and marzipan. We collapsed into our small hotel on one of these streets, recuperated and went out to find a panoramic sunset- mission accomplished, and our first day completed. (Pictures attached).
The sun was out again and the ride was fantastic. Kilometer after kilometer of vineyards and olive groves. Marsala is no longer just a one horse (sweet after dinner) wine country anymore. The wine growers have planted chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, red varietals called Nero d'Avola (to the devil) that has catapulted Marsala into the big leagues of wine making. The last 5 kilometers take you along the water and low and behold we came across an international competition of kite surfing. There were ramps and conical tunnels where the surfers would launch themselves into the air doing an increasingly difficult number of twists and somersaults. What a spectacle at the end of a long ride.
After passing major league salt mills we were hungry and happened along a restaurant called "Eubes", a name that goes back to the Greek heritage of this region. We took off our bike shoes and entered an unassuming restaurant with a feeling of age and accomplishment. The owner took care of us and we quickly realized that we had stumbled onto a gold mine. Has anyone ever heard of sweet and sour tuna?? The owner gave Karen his lunch of steamed vegetable stew after she expressed an interest in a vegetarian appetizer. This offering was not on the menu and is made daily for the owner who is way too big. The pasta was with tuna, eggplant and zucchini, the pasta with sardines and fennel were all unbelievable. The owner says that he is a well known food critic in Italy and says that he writes for all the major food magazines. Can someone Google Siro      and see if he is bullshiting us. He then offered us a taste of 60 year old Marsala. WOW!!! 
Our hotel was the site of a Sicilian wedding and the preparations were in full speed as we arrived. The hotel is a large country home of some very rich family from the 1800's whose children could no longer afford the taxes and they sold it to the hotel chain. The hotel added adobe white cement huts scattered along the acres of grounds leading away from the main house. We hung out our sweat soaked clothing on the line outside our hut and took a well deserved nap.
Leaving Marsala in the morning was slightly alarming to us because the sky looked threatening. We had extra clothes packed in 2 knapsacks and hustled our way out of town quickly. The route led us into some beautiful winding roads used by farmers and shepherds, and we had to stop several times to let the flocks of sheep or cattle pass through. How Charming!! Then the rain started. These beautiful roads became muddied with the dung from the animals we had just let pass.... Guess what that did to us?? You got it! We became human dung carriers all the way to Selinunte. This was quickly becoming the worst day of our trip and maybe the worst day of our lives together. My interest in ruins decreased dramatically as my goals became to get done with this ASAP!!  We kept shouting encouragement as the other wanted to quit and we pressed on as long as our body temperatures would permit. We stopped at a restaurant in Castelvetrano and called the hotel owner in Selinunte, Massimo. He drove to our rescue, picked us up with our bikes and got us to our hotel quickly. We had completed 80% of the ride and felt good to be out of the rain and dung saturated clothing. Upon arrival at the hotel we took off our clothes and knapsacks and they went immediately into the clothes washer. The hot shower that night was a gift from God and lasted for hours!
At dinner that night, the man at the next table was an Australian, Evardo. He was on a 6 month journey through Sicily, his birthplace that he left at 2 years old to live in Australia ever since. As we shared fresh baked sweet ricotta ravioli and drank grappa, he told us about a huge Tango festival that was taking place at a nearby hotel, which he was participating in. "What? In this sleepy little beach town"? He swore that if we showed up, we would be amazed. So, off we went at 1:30 AM to the Grand Hotel Selinunte- what a night! There were about 150 attendees in their best Tango outfits. The energy, expertise and level of interest were electrifying. Evardo was on the floor the entire night showing us his moves. (See pictures). The ruins were missed, but the Tango experience was a great substitute!! 
The weather had improved so we got out of Dodge early on Sunday morning, hoping that the weather would hold up for the entire trip. The scenery was very different as we headed inland into Southeastern Sicily. Sea scenes gave way to rolling hills which were fully planted at this time of year.
We stopped for lunch in Partanna and went up to the second floor of an ancient building on the main street in the town. We dined exquisitely on smoked salmon wrapped around a stuffing made of small and large shrimp, white fish and pineapple. Pistachio encrusted swordfish and ravioli filled with fish in a light tomato sauce. The only other table occupied in the restaurant was for 22 diners celebrating the baptism of a child in their family. Black suits and long black dresses in one table and 2 American cyclists in the other table. Auguri for the child and for our great lunch.
The directions that we followed took us almost always on roads that were infrequently used by cars. Thus, we often had to stop and make sure that the quite complex instructions were being adhered to if we wanted to arrive at our next destination. When we stopped we often had a local farmer on a tractor or small car stop to see if we needed help. One time, the farmer on a Vespa took us 4 kilometers out of his way to get us back on the correct road. Thus, when we stopped at the junction with Poggioreale(a town that underwent mandatory abandonment after an earthquake devastated the town in 1968) we again had a well-meaning Sicilian stop his car. We are on a road in the countryside leading to nowhere. The man in the passenger seat gets out of the car and said "You English??" The man was 65 years old, had big hair from the 70's, large aviator sunglasses, a diamond encrusted cross around his neck and rings on every finger. When we said we were Americans he asked us if we listened to Howard Stern. "You know Sal the stockbroka, dat's my son". This was one of the defining examples of just how small this world has become. He offered to buy us drinks in the next town because he said "I'd buy youz something here but there ain't nothing on this road". Vinny has a restaurant in Deer Park, Long Island and he comes to Sicily once a year to buy the wine for the restaurant. You can't make this stuff up.
Leaving Vinny to take our next turn we had the single most frightening experience our trip. Maybe we should have had the drink with Vinny in the town in the wrong direction. Out of nowhere came 2 guard dogs. We had passed literally a hundred dogs on chains prior to this but these dogs were unchained. The larger one attacked Steve and bit him in the upper outer left thigh, penetrating his bike shorts, his skin and into the muscle and fat below. Not good. The dogs retreated after the bite and we continued on until we arrived at Contessa Entellina, which is an organic farm on the top of another challenging hill. How Steve continued to peddle with a hole in his thigh is beyond me, but that's my Stevie! We met Allesandra & Paolo, she a Russian and he a Venetian who fell in love and moved to Sicily to direct this charming biologic bed and breakfast farmhouse Rocca dei Capperi (see attached picture). They were able to contact the dog owner, who guaranteed that the dog was in good health and that we should not be alarmed. GEE, THANKS! We contacted our tour guide, Dario as well- he is following up on getting the dog off the route so that there are no more victims.
Our remaining days of riding were as beautiful as those previously mentioned. There were no more dog bites and we had one more day of rain which really did us in. (It turns out that this June has been the third wettest in the history of Sicily)!  We found an excellent olive oil producing farm and bought some of their stock in Piana degli Albanesi. Today, we drove here to Monreale (just outside of Palermo) and have been enjoying the best sweet ricotta cannolis ever!! A wonderful end to this piece of  our journey.
The forecast for Stromboli is not good at all- cold and rain. For this reason we regrettably have had to abort the scuba trip and are getting on a boat tonight for Naples. Once there, we will drive to a villa in Rome for a few days to regroup, do some yoga and prepare for the trip to Roses, Spain. Internet connection over this last week has been a horror and we look forward to being able to get back in touch with the world! We hope you enjoy this blog as for us; it was a great reminiscence of the last week. Please take care everybody and we will be back in touch soon!
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