LITI: Electric Eroica

Fri 26 – Mon 29 May

I’m spending the last few days of my trip with friends in Siena. Naturally they are big into cycling and are in fact planning a trip to Sicily soon, so my missives are especially relevant. I also get to bore them with my entire collection of photographs from the trip, which you, dear reader, have at least been spared.

After all that cycling I have the legs to climb Siena’s famous Torre del Mangia and enjoy the views of the Piazza del Campo below.

This is a chance to contemplate the trip I’m about to take on the bike in the glorious ‘Chiantishire’ countryside, so-called because of the number of British ex-pats living there.

The deal is I get to ride my friends’ electric bike as long as I take their little boy on the back.

I’m a little nervous at first. Party because I’ve never ridden a bike with a child on the back and party because I’m not used to electric bikes.

With a little negotiation I get let off having to cycle in traffic with him on the back and it’s only when we hit a strada bianca (literally a white or unmetalled road) that I get to try out both bike and boy together.

I realise this isn’t too bad at all. The electric assist has me speeding past my friends on the uphill sections in a way I could never manage on any other bike. (They’re both quite a lot fitter than me).

In fact I can see why they bought an electric bike for touring as well as getting around town. Siena and its surrounding countryside is by no means flat. And their boy is not getting any lighter.

My prejudices around electric bikes being only for lazy people are completely quashed. In fact they can be considered the future. For me, as I get older and my legs start to go, and for everyone for whom cycling can seem too strenuous, too much effort, or simply interfering with their sartorial (and olfactory) elegance.

It’s quite hot and a stop for refreshments is required. This is when I realise we are on the route of the world-famous Eroica, a vintage bike race held every year on the Strade Bianche of Tuscany.

I wouldn’t want to be a driver here. There are too many signs to take in within 100 metres of a junction. Information overload!

We eventually reach Murlo, which has a wonderful restaurant with wonderful food and a view you would think only a millionaire could afford.

The ride home is a little more direct on main roads and it is now quite hot. Thankfully the electric assist spares me the worst of getting overheated.

And so to home. Leaving Pisa in 30 degree sunshine and arriving in Bristol in 16 degree rain and fog leaves me wondering why I bothered coming back! But suffice to say I am glad of my trip and already I am looking forward to my next adventure.

LITI: Travel and Contemplation

Thu 25 May

On the train to Siena I take in the views and think about my time in Sicily. 

A brooding Etna

In places, the Sicilians seem to have made an effort to be environmentally friendly but, as is so often the case, they’ve given up when it gets too hard. 

The aforementioned vegetarian /vegan restaurants are a sign that there are enlightened people living in Siracusa as I doubt these places would survive on tourist trade alone. 

The idea of using water fountains  and asking for tap water seems an alien concept in this part of the world. This could be partly because the tap water tastes terrible (it’s rather sulphurous presumably because of the volcanic activity around here). However the I find the obsession with water bottled in single-use plastic rather overwhelming. Pleasingly I do spot one place where you can fill your bottle with water (presumably filtered) for a small price. 

 

As with most urban areas in the world the traffic is awful. On the island of Ortigia, which is essentially the old city of Siracusa, there is some effort to limit car traffic in the main tourist areas, but for the most part it seems you can bring your car over both bridges onto the island, drive round the edge of it, then find somewhere, somehow to park. Pointless I say! (Unless your access needs are genuinely essential). 

The volume of motor traffic makes the city particularly uncomfortable for walking. You are either penned in behind barriers or mixing with motor traffic. Where there is some provision made for walking it tends to be somothered in parked cars. Worse still (and my biggest bugbear) people regularly park across pedestrian crossings. I can only say I’d hate to navigate Siracusa in a wheelchair or with a white stick. 

As for cycling there is scant provision. Although I see evidence of a failed bike sharing scheme, its failure can only be explained by the awful conditions for cycling. 

The only real separated bike path I see in Siracusa is the one one leading to the railway path we cycled on the last day of the tour. Even then you have to fight your way through motor traffic to reach it. 

In general, whether walking or cycling, drivers will tolerate you ‘sharing’ the road with them, but you have to be very confident and assertive (as typical of most Italian cities). 

I definitely prefer the old streets of Ortigia as they generally too narrow for cars or else restricted by the authorities The exception to this are the noisy scooters, which are often, but not always, driven alarmingly fast. 

The streets of Siracusa are generally kept very clean but there are no obvious places for recycling bins or any indication of how waste is dealt with, whether coming from the street or from restaurants and hotels. 

I notice there are are very few supermarkets in town (compared to northern Italy) and those that are here are very small. I’m not a big fan of supermarkets but I do acknowledge that at times they can be very handy. On the other hand, as mentioned in an earlier post, Ortigia does have a fantastic street market and it has many small independent shops, though it is hard to find a small alimentari (general store) so I’ve no idea where the locals go to buy a tin of beans…

LITI: Siracusa is my Oyster 

Sun 21 – Wed 24 May 

Only I won’t be eating one. 

The next few days are for relaxation off the bike and enjoying the sights (and food) of Siracusa. 

Cannoli – can’t say I’m a big fan
The Ear of Dionysius
Greek amphitheatre
Roman amphitheatre
Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime exterior
Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime interior
Typical side street, Ortigia
Castello Maniace
Temple of Apollo
Museo Archeologico
Basilica di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro
Catacombs of Santa Lucia

Siracusa is blessed with a surprisingly large selection of vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Here’s some examples from Moon and Olivia Natural Bistrot:

LITI: Oil and Art

Sat 20 May

This morning we are joined by a new guide who takes us up and down an old railway line following the coast.

They have made imaginative use of the old overhead electric catinery by adding lighting to the route.

A sculpture trail keeps us entertained along the way, though not all of it is complete, one having been destroyed by the weather and another, a bronze statue originally intended for Colonal Gadaffi, having been stolen the week before. To be honest, I’m more interested in the views.

We end the trail short at (yet another) disused tuna processing facility. We can see the oil refineries of Mellili beyond.

Our guide tells us the oil facilities were built in the 1990s to help solve unemployment and many people were drawn to Siracusa from the countryside to work for up to three times the wages they were earning before.

This created a mini-boom with the population of Siracusa exploding and the need for building new homes very quickly. This led to a massive development of hastily built apartment blocks on the edge of town, with very few facilities (shops, schools, doctors, etc) to support them.

This may have been fine in the short term when people had money, but in recent years the refineries have gone into decline and the people are now suffering the associated social problems. The condition of some of the buildings reflects this. We are told the restoration of the old railway line was funded to add an amenity for walking and cycling in the area.

All well and good. But why the art trail, some of us ask. Surely it is important to sort the basic needs of the locals first? A recreational path is good, but as evidenced by the condition of the artworks, the locals are not taking any sort of ownership and therefore any care of them.

The tour returns to town and we are treated once again to the narrow streets of Ortigia where we take a look inside the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia with a fine Carravaggio painting of her interment, above the alter. The reverent silence is only broken by the call (from above it seems) of “No photo!”  I think I’d rather put up with the irritation of the flash from people’s cameras than this.

We follow this with a trip to the Duomo built on the site of the Temple of Athena, the original Greek columns still in evidence and still helping to hold up the structure which has been adapted and added to by every invading force up to the Spanish and their flamboyant Baroque style.

Where a statue of the Virgin Mary now sits in the Baroque facade, once sat Athena. That’s a history to be marvelled at.

Next we slip down the hill to the waters edge and take a look at Arethusa fountain. If you follow the link you’ll find the legend, like most, does not end happily.

A tour around the edges of the island takes us to the main market for our lunch stop. Before we eat, we take a look at the stalls and their wares. This is a market for the locals with fruit, veg, cheese, fish, spices and hardware on sale, but it is tourist-friendly too.

We eat at an excellent deli where I have a panino with caponata (fried sweet peppers) and pecorino cheese. Buonissimo!

As the market shuts down for the afternoon the deli slowly expands its sitting area. On a tightly packed island you have to use the space as effectively as possible.

That’s it for the Sicilia part of my cycling adventures. We return to the hotel to drop our bikes and spend the rest of the day enjoying the sights before one final meal at the tip of the island of Ortigia. After the success of my mini PowePoint presentation earlier in the week I’m persuaded to give a brief speech of thanks to Beppe and Paolo. 

LITI: Views on Views

Fri 19 May

At breakfast we are greeted by the hotel’s night porter who turns out to be something of a mathematical charmer. 

We enjoy a long steady climb out of Noto and near the top we come to a beautifully adorned bridge. 

The photos bely the reality of the vicious dog at one end that, not for the first time, Paulo has to keep at bay while we pass. 

At the top of the climb we stop for a rest, where a couple of locals turn up on their tractor to use a public water fountain. 

It’s the first time I’ve seen one of these anywhere on the tour. Even here most people seem to have been so brainwashed into drinking bottled water that the concept of filling up a reusable bottle has almost been lost!

One thing the Exodus operators themselves need to look at is the amount (and cost) of bottled water they use for keeping we guests hydrated. Is there an alternative to this? Could Beppe carry a large water tank on the back of the van instead? If so are there health implications to consider?

Another stop at the top of the next climb gives us views of Etna on one side and cows on the other. This gives rise to discussion about there not being much in the way of livestock in this part of Sicily. 

Unfortunately the photos fail to show either Etna or the cows so you’ll just have to take my word for it on this occasion.

Our next view comes as a complete surprise, though any geologist will have spotted that we are in limestone country and therefore anything is possible. 

It’s a pity the coffee shop is closed. With a full car park and all the bicycles, the owners are missing a trick. 

What goes up must come down (as physicists are want to say). And so we do, along the best hairpin road of the tour. 

The views are fantastic. We stop at a viewing point half way down. 

Again, the photo belies the truth. Just underneath the viewing platform someone has decided to dump and burn their rubbish. 

It seems to me, especially here, there are too many people who just don’t care about the environment beyond their front door and that “it’s someone else’s job” to deal with their mess. This can only be to the detriment of all. 

I think I prefer the inland areas as they are much more unspoiled than by the coast, where the communal bin areas are strewn with plastic bottles and other debris for at least 100m either side. 

If Sicily could just have a little tidy up from time to time the place would be a paradise!

We get our first view of Siracusa rather unnervingly from a road that is slowly collapsing into the sea.

Dinner is in the old town on the island of Ortega, in a fish restaurant which thankfully gives me a tasty veggie option of ravioli. 

This is followed by a wander around narrow lanes of the old town which open up to the main square with the magnificent duomo, made famous by the film Malèna in 2000. 

LITI: Notorious in Noto

Thu 18 May

A short ride takes us to the Vendicari nature reserve and a quick stop for a refreshing granita mandorle which is crushed ice flavoured with ground almonds, including bits of skin. Authentic and delicious. 

In the Vendicari reserve itself we do some bird watching and with the help of one of the gang, being a full on ‘birder’ complete with binoculars, we spot, amongst other things Little Egrets. 


The reserve also contains a ruined tuna processing factory. It went through many incarnations to survive as a fish processing plant, but was eventually finished off by over-fishing in the local area. I hope people have learned from this.

On the way out of the reserve we join an unpleasantly busy main road for a few km, but before this I spot a disused railway line which follows parallel to the road. Perfect potential for an alternative cycling and walking route. Now for me to contact the Sicilian equivalent of Sustrans to have a word…

Soon we turn off the main road over the railway onto a dusty track, what Paolo describes as a strada bianca presumably to make it sound more romantic. Actually with our thin wheels it’s something of a gravelly pot-holed nightmare. And not much less busy with cars than the main road. 

We soon learn why. Our lunch stop is at a rustic yet beautiful restaurant at a spot on a rocky outcrop set back from the sea. The food speaks for itself and it’s nice to see Beppe have a day off from preparing lunch. 

After lunch we reluctantly return along the strada bianca and back to the main road. A side turn takes us alongside groves of olives, almonds, oranges and lemons. Paulo uses this as an opportunity for a quick Italian lesson where he calls out “Albero Olivo; Mandorlo; Arancio; Limone” and we reply the same in turn. 

After a modest climb we find ourselves in Noto, the Baroque splendour of which is overwhelming. A gelato is definitely required. 


Supper consists of pizza (classic vegetariano in my case) and plenty of red wine topped off with a glass limoncello, kindly paid for by one of the gang. This was supposed to followed by a gentle walk through the town and maybe a nightcap at a bar near the hotel. But Noto had other plans for us. 

Mid-May happens to be the time of the Infiorato flower festival where a whole street is decorated with flowerheads to make many colourful designs. 

In order to prepare the flowerheads the town puts on a big party to jolly everyone along. The festivities include dancing along to a DJ, trombone and trumpet playing very loud regge. After a few glasses of wine we couldn’t help joining in. 

As well as this photo, there is also video footage taken of our dancing prowess. So please come back later in case I manage to secure the evidence.

The boxes of flowerheads look beautiful, but I’m not so sure they’re that good at sorting out what gets left over. 

Note the flower stalks all mixed in with the (rather unnecessary in my view) plastic wrapping. Will that lot get composted I wonder?

LITI: Plastic-not-so-Fantastic 

Wed 17 May

Today’s ride is a circular ride taking us to the southernmost point in Europe, Isole Delle Correnti.

We leave the Agriturismo to visit a nearby tomato farm which also grows yellow watermelon. All this is done under plastic and in grow bags, with the earth covered in plastic sheeting to keep the weeds out. The results are very tasty. 

Most of today’s ride leaves us cycling through a sea of plastic poly tunnels. I can understand this system is efficient and provides farmers with a good income. But it doesn’t look great. And what will happen to all that plastic as it slowly degrades? Is there a better way? Would a sea of glass houses be any better?

We have our first incident of the trip. Thankfully minor, one of the gang grazes her knee after stopping awkwardly. Beppe is very funny in his impersonation of an ambulance before taking on the serious work of applying a bandage. 

Next up we visit Isola Delle Correnti (and thankfully not the Cape of Ants). 

Being at the most southerly point of Europe, it is hard to think we are even further south than Tunis in North Africa. We take a quick swim in the sea before heading for lunch in Marzamemi. 

This corner of Sicily is noted for its ancient ruins. So far we’ve seen very few, but today we’re treated to more modern ruins including a broken bridge, which we cross anyway. 


Marzamemi is a delightful fishing village. 

Back at the Agriturismo I manage a swim, we have another tasty meal starting with a variety of freshly baked bread then followed by a delicious risotto (a big improvement on the plate of lettuce).

LITI: Punctures and Lightning

Tue 16 May

Today starts with a long descent to Scicli, home of my favourite TV detective, Inspector Montalbano.

Unfortunately we don’t get time to visit all the locations used in Scicli, but I’m pleased to take a coffee in the very same spot as Il Commissario and his colleagues (whilst no doubt complaining about their women folk).

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Soon we hit the coast, but not before I speed over a railway level crossing and cause a blow out. No damage done, but I have to walk a couple of miles before I’m rescued by Beppe and the van.

Lunch is well timed as we sit under the awnings of an English themed cafe, sheltering from a cracking thunderstorm. Beppe puts on one of his special lunches and then fixes my puncture with some help (or not) from Paulo the guide.

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The ideal mid-life crisis bike.

With the rain gone, we head along the coast where signs repeatedly warm us of the twin menaces of sand on the road and cycle tourists.

As we cycle through a bird reserve towards our Agritourismo accommodation the clouds loom dark again and fork lighting can be seen in the hills. Thankfully the heavens don’t open until we reach our accommodation.

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Agriturismi are working farms where the buildings have been converted to accommodate tourists (in quite some style in this case) where we are fed using local produce.

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The evening meal goes well with a shared antipasto with enough for the veggie contingent, followed by the ‘primo piatto’ a delicious pasta in a simple but tasty tomato sauce. But then, for we veggies, the chef has run out of ideas by the time we get to the ‘secondo piatto’. The non veggies get a meat cutlet with a fennel and lettuce salad. We just get the salad.

So after giving the waiter time to come back with something a bit more interesting (he doesn’t), I politely burst into the kitchen and ask them in my best Italian if they did. My reply was an omelette. A total cliché, but it brought the salad out quite nicely. A small victory for veggie kind.

At dinner we also play ‘guess the guide’s age’. After one of the gang casually asks Paulo how old he is, our guide decides to have some fun. So he gets everyone to write their guess, along with their name and puts them in a jar. Between courses I decide to put some statistics together and draw a graph representing the mean, mode and median values which all come out at about 56. 

[Please come back later, when I hope to add a photo of this from one of the other guests]

My improvised PowerPoint presentation goes down well. I haven’t had this much fun with numbers since Jonny Ball graced my childhood TV screen. 
And the answer? Paulo goes through the lower numbers shaking hands with the guessers: “You my friend”. But as they get higher “You not my friend” and a stern look. And so confirms my pet theory that cyclists always look younger than they are: he’s 62. 

Also at dinner we discover it’s been raining non-stop back in southern England. So we mustn’t grumble.

LITI: Hills and Thrills

Mon 15 May

Thus begins my organised cycling holiday with Exodus who take an ethical approach to their trips by only using local operators, accommodation and restaurants, who in turn use local suppliers, which keeps more of my money in the local area. 

Our guides are Paolo and Beppe (Giuseppe). Beppe appears to be the boss, probably the owner/employee of the local operator. He drives the van with our luggage and keeps us topped up with food and water throughout the day. Paolo is our on-bike guide, leading the group along the route and showing us the sights. 

I’m going to enjoy trying my Italian on them and learning by my mistakes!

We start with a quick briefing and bike tryout. Everyone gives their height on booking and a bike is selected and set up for them in advance. All our bikes are black hybrids, except the one selected for me turns out to be too small and is swapped for sporty red Ducatti. But this has fewer, higher gears. 

It takes most of the morning to get the saddle height right and I struggle up the hills. This is also partly due to my lack of training but mainly it’s due to getting the height right. TIP: bring your own Allen keys rather than having to wait for the van!

We’re in the hills of south east Sicily between our first hotel stop at Palazzolo Acriede and our second stop at Modica. The spring flowers are out in the unfettered meadows and road verges, and the fields of corn and olive groves seem to reflect a way of life seemingly unchanged for centuries. 

For lunch Beppe prepares a meal of cheeses, cold meats (not for me ta), delicious fresh tomatoes and other salads in the shade of a chocolate outlet in San Giovani. Very tasty.

In Ragusa Ibla I find an opticians to replace my broken sunglasses.  I am pleased to have a conversation with the shop keeper entirely in Italian and even remember to ask for a receipt. The sunglasses cost €30 though, so they’d better last.

Ragusa Ibla is stunning. There is Baroque archtechture everywhere (this is Spanish Bourbon influence from the eighteenth century) and because the town is built over several peaks there are several surprise views too.

After descending from Ragusa Ibla a long steady climb takes us to Modica.  Paolo bursts into song near summit, which gives power to his legs and I can’t keep up all of a sudden. 

Modica is similarly stunning. While taking in the view we are met by a fleet of vintage Fiat Cinquecento, the drivers of whom are only too happy to have their photo taken. 


As people who know me are well aware, I’m not a big fan of cars for reasons that are fairly obvious to those that regularly co-exist with them from the saddle of a bicycle. However, I also understand they are a necessary evil for a lot of people, mainly because for the last 90 years we’ve structured our society around them.

But why are they made so big these days? With all the resources this takes? Yes, cars now are more efficient than their mid 20th century counterparts. But can we not go back to the smaller scale and simplicity of the early British Mini or Italian Cinquecento?

And so you find my grudging affection for these simple, modest little vehicles, that certainly gave freedom for the masses (at least for a while). 

Tonight we get to stay in a boutique hotel next to the railway station. The hotel is subtly themed on railways. I almost hoped for a Hornby Railways set to play with in my room. 

The evening meal is out at a family run restaurant called Osteria dei Sapori Perduti (literally ‘lost tastes’). We even get chauffeured there by the proprietor in his 1974 Fiat Panorama.

LITI: Trains, planes and automobiles… and a ferry

Sun 14 May

Awaking refreshed at about 6am somewhere around Naples I spend the morning gazing at the views: mountains on one side and the sea on the other, interrupted only by the occasional short tunnel.

The night train does not even have a coffee bar, however on asking the guard he is able to supply a package which when squeezed and shaken for a few minutes gives you a decently warm espresso.

I’m not against innovative technology but no one has thought here about what happens to the clever heat gel and plastic wrapping after the coffee has been drunk. Now that would be innovative

Then the best bit. On leaving Villa San Giovanni station the train is shunted onto the ferry coach by coach while the passengers remain in their seats. This involves moving backwards and forwards until all the coaches are lined up at the far end of the ferry.

Hopefully the following photos tell the story, though for me the experience is puzzling. How can on earth does the ship’s captain line up the rail tracks so precisely? (There’s a clue later).

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The ferry arrving
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A train unloading from the ferry
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Crossing the threshold
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Rolling through the ferry
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Stepping off the carriage
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Secured carriage
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The bow door closing
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Up the stairs to enjoy the sea air
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Leaving the dock
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Enjoying the sea air
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Looking towards the ‘toe’ of Italy
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Approaching Messina
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Docking at Messina
And that’s how they do it.

The rest of the journey is along the coast of the Ionian Sea taking in views of the ‘toenail’ of Italy and a steaming Mount Etna.

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A quick tourist bus trip gives me a sense of Catania whilst I kill time waiting for the rest of the group to arrive from Gatwick.

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A quick bus journey takes me to the airport where I dine on a fantastic slice of mushroom pizza before meeting the Exodus Holidays (more on them tomorrow) guide. Or so I think. I’m not on his list. Not a good start. I’m going to end up sleeping in the stables and riding the spare bike with dodgy gears and wobbly wheels.

Turns out he’s the guide for the walking holiday. Our guide turns up, but only in the nick of time.

An hour’s journey to the hotel and a drink on the terrace gives me chance to get to know some of my fellow travellers. But there’s no late finish. Up at 7.30 for breakfast and to try out our bikes.