Cycling in Sicily: My two-wheeled holiday on Italy's iconic island
Sicily isn't famous for cycling (yet), but its south and west coasts prove perfect for a holiday spin...
I'm feeling very uneasy...
Three thousand stony-faced heads are staring at me. Some peek out from a shadowy cave, others from behind almond trees. Some are contorted, piled high, and slathered in blood-red paint. All are disembodied, unblinking, and silent. Admittedly, the heads are silent because they are chiselled from stone, but it's still disconcerting.
I'm in the Enchanted Castle (prolocosciaccaterme.com/en/castello-incantato; €5), a surreal museum garden on the slopes of Monte Kronio, near the town of Sciacca in western Sicily. The heads, each about 30cm high, were carved by an eccentric local artist, Filippo Bentivegna, who, after suffering a violent attack, dedicated his life to sculpting this ghoulish gallery - and insisted that he be addressed as 'Your Excellency, Philip of the heads'.
It's just one of the surprises in store over the course of a 240km cycle along Sicily's shimmering west and south coast - from the port town of Trapani to Agrigento's Valley of the Temples (left).
Synonymous with Mount Etna and the mafia, Sicily isn't well-known for cycling (unlike, say Majorca or Lanzarote). I'm travelling with 10 friends, and I suspect that the relatively rare sight of a group of cyclists accounts for the curious glances we receive from drivers (or maybe it's just my ill-fitting Lycra).
The island is nudging its way towards bike tourism, however - thanks to the SIBIT project (medinbike.eu), a loose network of byways, main roads and converted railway lines that weaves its way through a roster of Mediterranean landmarks.
Although we've just cycled out of Trapani, I'm starting to wonder if we haven't been magically transported to the Netherlands: up ahead are clusters of red-topped, sandy-coloured traditional windmills. They sit on a vast, shallow carpet of salt pools - salt has been harvested here since antiquity. The grid symmetry of the flat pools in the foreground is gently counterpointed by the jagged mountains of the three Egadi Islands behind them.
Sicily is a medley of influences - including Roman, Norman and Spanish - and the fishing town of Mazara del Vallo reflects aspects of the island's intricate history. A little disoriented by the sharp smell from the harbour's trawlers and the town's knotty streets, I ask a man outside a shop for directions to our accommodation.
His name is Karim, and he looks at the address on my crumpled piece of paper and offers to walk me - while giving me a guided tour along the way. My apartment is in La Casbah, historically the town's Arab district. La Casbah is illuminated in vibrant reds and blues, decorated with vases and murals, and the street names are in both Italian and Arabic.
Mazara del Vallo has one of the highest percentages of immigrants in Italy, and Karim is part of that narrative: his parents immigrated from Tunisia and he was born here. But Karim lives in Germany, it turns out - he's just here on holiday.
On the way to Selinunte, a ruined Greek city with a timeless gaze over the Mediterranean, we briefly divert inland. Veering from the coast, pistachio trees and vineyards give way to olive trees and orange groves. We stop at Cavi di Cusa, the quarry that supplied the mustard-yellow stone - transported by slaves - for Selinunte's temples. The quarry has an eerie, abandoned feel that is only enhanced by the spectacle of two enormous carved columns that seem perpetually on the brink of being extracted.
As we rack up the kilometres, we get a surprising insight into Sicily's drivers. They're fast but, contrary to my expectations, mainly patient. They speak a horn-tooting language that I start to grasp. Depending on the context and the pressure a driver applies, a horn toot can signal a greeting, a warning, or a scolding.
The most exasperating part of cycling in Sicily isn't the drivers - it's the illegal dumping. Sicily is an astoundingly beautiful island, but fly-tipping is endemic. Discarded bottles, bags, and even fridges frequently speckle the roadsides. Sporadically signposted and generally flat, the SIBIT seems to encapsulate Sicily's innately ramshackle feel: the route's greenway sections, for example, are often overgrown with scrub and they pass sprawling, dilapidated railway stations as forgotten as the trains that once passed.
An unforgettable part of Sicily's gilded tapestry is the warmth of the locals. When we arrive at B&B Conte Luna (contelunasciacca.com; doubles from €53) in Sciacca, the smiling owner, Giuseppe, excitedly shakes hands with all 11 of us and enthusiastically shows us around his jasmine-scented house. The next morning, after a breakfast of pistachio croissants and citrus ring cake, he earnestly thanks us and shakes hands with all 11 again before we leave for Realmonte.
On our final stage, from Realmonte to San Leone, just outside Agrigento, we see what looks like a colossal white staircase rising out of the sea. It's the Scala dei Turchi, a dazzling cliff made of marl and limestone rock. From the road above, the sea looks like it's streaked with lines of royal blue, turquoise and mint.
Down on the beach, we go for a swim before ascending the snow-white staircase. It's an easy, gradual climb. The surface of the cliff is strikingly smooth, and the sea has sculpted the rock into elaborate terraces. We find a comfortable 'step' of the stairs on which to sit and watch as the pumpkin-coloured sun sets like a pool of fire on the Mediterranean.
Enthralling landscapes, rampant hospitality, and delectable cuisine: Sicily makes you a heady offer you can't refuse.
Go back to Boomerang
In Marinella di Selinunte, the unfussy Ristorante Boomerang (no website) doesn't concern itself with menus - you get the fish caught that day. Seven courses of cod, red mullet, sole, sardines, squid, prawns, and langoustine materialised at my table, with a dry white wine from Marsala, for €25. available.)
In the valley
Just outside ugly, modern Agrigento is the majestic Valley of the Temples (valleyofthetemples.com; €10). Surrounded by a lush almond forest and dominated by the Temple of Concordia, the sprawling Greek ruin is Sicily's biggest tourist attraction and was once the fourth largest city in the world.
Yes, we can-oli
Sicily's signature dessert is cannoli, which sees whipped, creamy ricotta wrapped in finger-length tubular shells of fried pastry dough festooned with icing sugar. The protruding ricotta is adorned with pistachio nuts, chocolate sprinkles or a slice of strawberry. You must eat it with your fingers!
Brendan flew from Dublin to Palermo as a guest of Ryanair (ryanair.com). Ryanair flies from Dublin to Palermo twice weekly (Sundays and Wednesdays) from March to October. Falcone-Borsellino Airport, named in 1992 in honour of two anti-mafia judges assassinated by the Mob, is 35km from Palermo.
What to pack
Bring a water bottle, bike light, hi-vis jacket, a buff or bandana, dry bags or plastic bags for inside the panniers, bungee cords to secure items on the carrier, cycling shorts and gloves. Plan your route carefully.
For bike hire in Trapani, you can visit trapanirentpoint.it
Where to stay
Brendan stayed in apartments, B&Bs, and hotels during his cycle. Stay in the sleek Hotel Costazzurra (hotelcostazzurra.it) in San Leone, where doubles start from €69, and book into the spa for a well-earned massage.
For more info on the area, see visitsicily.info/en