Thursday, October 31, 2013

Struggling with Logistics: Cycle touring in the Interior of Sicily

Sicily's interior has so many treasures both natural and historic that it should be a perfect destination for a cycling tour. The roads are magnificent and largely free of traffic.  The terrain is mountainous, but the distances between towns are good. Gord and I are however struggling to find routes that have accommodation in the places where we need it. There are areas in Sicily without any options. Unlike Greece and Spain we are not seeing signs for rooms or being approached by locals with offers. We are also frustrated that even though it is low season the deals offered in the tourist places along the coast are certainly not available in the interior. Wild camping with a tent, like our friends the Sloths, would work much better. We loved our ride across Sicily between Palermo and Agrigento but to truly get lost on the back roads of Sicily we will have to bring a tent next time.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Food in Sicily

One of the real pleasures of travelling in Italy is the food, especially after a day of cycling. Within Italy Sicily is reknowned for it's unique cuisine, which mixes elements from the various groups that have occupied this land.

In Cefalu we tried a Margherita pasta served with a sauce of tomatoes, pine nuts, raisins, garlic and roasted bread crumbs. It was sweet and nutty and our number one favorite dish. Some of our other favourites have just been simple tomatoe, basil and ricotta sauces made wih the freshest ingredients.

Last night we opted for pizza and the pistachio, prosciutto, Gorgonzola combination was divine. When we get home we are going to break it to our housemate David that the pottery kiln is now a pizza oven.

I have already mentioned my love for cannoli and now Gord is raving about encountering the original fig newton.  In addition to dried fig, the filling included pine nuts, raisins and candied citrus.  Gelatto continues to be an important part of each day with new flavours like cinnamon and mandorla (a local fruit) to try. We found out a few days after writing this that mandorla is the Italian word for Almond.

When we are not eating we have been exploring the medieval core of Agrigento and the unesco designated Valley of the Temples below the city.

Spaghetti con salsa di Sicilia
Inspired by Cefalu

·         olive oil
·         4 cloves of garlic, peeled and very finely sliced
·         2 big handfuls of pine nuts
·         A big handful of raisins
·         12 salted anchovy fillets
·         3 heaping tablespoons tomato purée
·         a large wineglass of red wine
·         1 3/4 cups stale bread crumbs
·         1 pound dried margherita pasta

1.      Puree in food processor raisins and tomato puree or use a hand blender in the pot.
2.      Heat a pan, add 6 tablespoons of olive oil, then add your garlic and fry slowly with the anchovies. As it begins to melt, add the pine nuts, raisin mixture.
3.      Add the wine and stir in well. Leave to simmer on a medium heat for 3 minutes. The sauce should be quite thick, like tomato sauce, but if you think it needs thinning down, add a little water.
4.      Heat a little olive oil in a separate pan, add the bread crumbs and fry until toasted, crunchy, and golden. Leave to cool on paper towels.
5.      Meanwhile, cook your pasta in boiling salted water according to the package instructions. Drain and mix with the sauce.
6.      Check the seasoning and divide onto 4 plates, twizzling the pasta with tongs as you go. Serve sprinkled with the bread crumbs..

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Giro de Cannoli

The best part of cycling in Sicily other than the scenery is the fuel. And not just any fuel, we are talking Cannoli! These little sweeties are my new reason for living. Mamma Mia. When we asked about gelatto our host in Corleone suggested Cannoli. I had heard the word mentioned in a number of Robert de Nero films but I wasn't even sure if it was savoury or sweet. Well let me tell you it is sweeeeeet! After two days of sampling a statistically significant number of cannoli we feel confident in recommending this dessert to the world. It may also reverse the steady weight loss that we both have been experiencing so far on this trip. We are buying so many that we just hit two different bars in this town to make it look more reasonable, but I think the locals are on to us.
Vicki start researching recipes now and you could be the Canadian Cannoli Queen. They are composed of deep fried dough shells filled with a sweetened ricotta ambrosia. Oh they are good!

We are staying in a small town called Bivona. Our host Francesca took us down to see her family's small olive oil processing plant.  It was a wonderful tour and now we are carrying a glass bottle of fantastic green gold.

We are in a lovely part of Sicily.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Corleone: trying to shake off its bad rep

We cycled up from Palermo into Sicily's beautiful interior. It was lovely to finally get beyond the traffic and burbs of the big city. The interior of the island is surprisingly green, with areas of deep forests and impressive mountains and ridges. It is also heavily farmed and the orchards of ripe persimmons were beautiful.

We are staying in Corleone, a town made infamous by the Godfather. In reality, Corleone was the home town to many of the most notorious mafia bosses, including Jack Dragna, Giuseppe Morello, Michael Navarra, Luiciano Leggio, Leoluca Bagarella, Salvadore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. According to Wikipedia , the local mafia clan, the Corleonesi, led the Mafia in the 1980s and 1990s, and were the most violent and ruthless Mafia clan ever to take control of the organization.
The mayor of Corleone recently issued a public apology for all the suffering caused by the town's Mafia sons. Although there is now an Anti Mafia museum and tourist shops that sell anti mafia t-Shirts, 80% of businesses in Sicily still pay the Mafia for "protection".

Friday, October 25, 2013

Palermo: A city of Contrasts

 After one night in the charming seaside city of Cefalu we cycled along the coast to Palermo. We have spent the last two days exploring this diverse city. Palermo is simultaneously gritty and magnificent, and the transitions between can be shockingly quick. Some parts of the city look like Paris, but a few blocks away you could be in a medina in North Africa.  It was reputedly the most important city in Europe in the 12th century, but more recent periods have been less kind.

The interiors of the cathedral in neighbouring Monreale as well as the Cappella Palatina are covered with glittering mosaics of jaw dropping beauty.  The Arab influence in these Norman structures is also facinating.

Palermo is also a great destination for goths and zombie movie fans. Here they can visit the Cappucine monastery housing "mummified" human remains.  From 1599 until about 1920, bodies of the deceased were processed in some manner and then propped up, fully clothed, to gaze at the curious public for the rest of eternity.  The result are the remains of 8,000 individuals, lined up along corridors that you can walk along.  The bodies are clothed in period dress, including military uniforms, suit jackets, and long gowns.  The girls, clad in frilly dresses and bonnets, look like macabre dolls hung on the walls. At certain moments I felt like I was on the set for Michael Jackson's Thriller video, but this was no set. 

Dining has been a great pleasure in Sicily.  The Arab influence is apparent in this sphere as well, with very positive results.  It also helps that Sicily is sub-tropical, making a variety of fruits and vegetables available for much of the year. And yes Gayle and John we tried the Gelatto at Brioscia and told the young woman there that our English friends insisted this alone was a reason to come to Sicily. We were not disappointed.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The two ways up Stromboli

Gord: Another item ticked off the bucket list: climb an active volcano and watch it erupt at night. Last night we went up Stromboli as part of a small guided group (guides are required to go to the summit). It’s about a 3,000 foot climb which we did at a leisurely pace. We arrived at the three active craters at sunset and the fireworks began. During the one and a half hours that we spent on the top we saw perhaps 20 eruptions, a spectacle that even our guide was excited about. Each eruption throws a fountain of molten rock 30 to 50 meters in the air, with an accompanying roar like a jet engine. The molten rock cascades down the slope and continues to glow. Between eruptions the smoke of the craters is lit from underneath like a giant stage set for MacBeth. It was a quick and fun descent on a cinder slope lit by the full moon.

Ruth: Part way up it occurred to me that I am afraid of heights. The path was a good one, but the steep slope and drop offs were fuelling my much too active imagination. The views were probably spectacular, but I was focused on the footwear of the person ahead of me. The vertigo diminished when I took my progressive glasses off at the halfway point, and reminded myself that a six year old had made the climb the day before. Step step step, breathe, step step step, breathe. Remember Heather (my conjured lucky charm and guardian angel) is there believing that I can do it. Step Step step breathe. I tried to not imagine the necessary night decent as I climbed up trying to leave my fears behind.

At the top I was completely distracted by the amazing light show. It truly was outstanding. None of our pictures or videos come close to capturing the moment.

The descent, fortunately was in the dark so that I couldn’t see the sea between my feet, 800 meters below. I was so happy to realize that decent was on a different route and we quickly stepped through the soft steep ash back to safety. I made it Heather!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Aeolian Islands: Stumbling into Paradise on Salina

Warning: The contents of this blog could inspire feelings of jealousy and even anger. Proceed with caution.

Ruth: I love islands. Even though I grew up far away from the ocean, as an adult I have become an island woman, living on a large island and spending lots of time in the summer on a smaller one. Gord and I were excited to board the ferry at Milazzo and head out to the Aeolian islands. We expected the islands to be nice but have been surprised by their jaw dropping beauty. 

The Aeolian islands are all of volcanic origin. Some, like Stromboli, are still very active.  In spite  of their small size they all rise out of the ocean to elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. We are spending our first nights on Salina. The greenest of the islands, it is famous for its capers and sweet Malvasia wine. 

Yesterday we climbed up to the top of the larger of the two volcanic cones that make up Salina.  The cone is covered with pine, chestnut and eucalyptus trees, and the view from the top was amazing. Today we cycled to the town of Polara on the other side of the island. It was perhaps the most stunning ride I have ever done. Polara is where the film Il Postino was filmed about twenty years ago.  

Gordon: We had a perfect moment on the return ride.  While we followed the tranquil road as it snaked along the cliffs above the sea, a travelling vegetable sales truck came up behind us.  Apparently for our benefit, he put on a recording of "House of the Rising Sun" at full volume on a PA system as he approached.  The opening chords reverberating in our chest, followed by the balance of the song carried on the wind as the truck outdistanced us, were a magical experience.  

After amazing swims on both sides of the island we have decided to take the names Francesca and Giovanni, tear up our onward plane ticket, and stay here forever.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reggio to Milazzo Sicily

We have broken our uninterrupted  bicycle route with a train and ferry so that we can explore Sicily for our last three weeks in Europe.
We crossed over to Sicily today and then biked up and over the north end to Milazzo, the departure port for ferries to the Aeolian islands. I was not looking forward to this ride and spent the morning grumbling that once again the motorway had the easier route and we had to pedal a longer and higher route. It was a delightful surprise to discover that our route was georgeous. Much greener and more forested than I had expected. We zig zagged up the volcanic ridges covered with umbrella pines until we made it to the top with views down to the sea.
We are staying at a lovely B&B in Milazzo with our own kitchen. Our self-catering is becoming quite an art form. Tonight's dessert was a combination of perfectly fresh pears, marscapone cheese and dark chocolate cookies. Yum.
We have neglected to mention gelato for a while when the weather was poor, but I am happy to report our new discoveries of fig, prickly pear fruit, and pear and ricotta .

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Matera is a place to see! The cave cut homes and rock buildings melt into one another and it is hard to determine where the natural rock  ends and the stone structures begin. The tufa grottos have been cut and modified into homes since the Neolithic age, making it one of the longest continually inhabited places on earth. Since receiving unesco status in the 1990's, Matera has become Basilicata's biggest tourist attraction.

Within living memory, however, this tourist Mecca was the scene of abject poverty and profond human misery.  As described in Carlo Levi's excellent book "Christ Stopped at Eboli", Matera in the 1930's was a desperate place.  Malaria was endemic and the child mortality rate was 50%.  The situation was so embarrassing to the Italian government that in 1950 a law was passed requiring the 30,000 residents of the sassi (the cave area) to move to new accommodation above the ravine.  In the time since many of the formerly dank and crowded cave dwellings have been remodelled into tourist shops, restaurants and guest houses.

It has been 53 days since we left Innsbruck and only 8  of them  have been "rest" days. There really isn't anything restful about rest days because we always stop in places with lots to see and as a result are on our feet the whole time exploring. I am stiff and sore and I am looking forward to sitting on my rump cycling down to the south coast tomorrow. 

We have now cycled over 2500 km in an unbroken line from Innsbruck.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Polignano a Mare to Alberobello: From the Sea up into Trulli land

We left the beautiful Adriatic today and climbed up to Alberobello. it was a short day and we stopped  halfway along our route to see the Grotte de Castellana. I do not like small spaces so this type of spelunking was perfect for me because the caves were airy and big. They even had an elevator to take us back up to ground level.

Alberobello is on the unesco list for it's amazing concentration of Trulli houses. These are dry stone conical houses have been built using the same construction techniques of the prehistoric period. We began to see these dry stone structures a few days ago in the countryside, but here in Alberobello there are well over a thousand of them clustered together in two neighbourhoods. The other thing that is found here in high concentrations is tourists. After a week heading overland with no tourists it is an odd sight.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cerignola - Trani: The Adriatic At Last

We had a beautiful ride through the Puglian countryside today. The majority of grapes and olives produced in Italy are grown in Puglia, and it is harvest time. On one quiet country road we could hear the staccato snipping of grape harvesters as they quickly cut the grapes from the vines. The peach orchards are already turning orange and the colors of fall are arriving.

We made a side trip to the Castel Del Monte, an octagonal castle constructed by Frederick II in the 13th century.  It has UNESCO world heritage designation.

My Dad would love this castle.  It must have been built with astronomy in mind. Frederick II was was known as the Wonder of his Time, for the breadth and depth of his intellectual interests, and no doubt astronomy was one of these.  The castle is located on a hill far from any light pollution and contains an octagonal central courtyard open to the sky.  Perfect for observing the nighttime sky.

From Castel del Monte we rolled down to the Adriatic Sea at Trani.  This is a charming seaside town with a well restored historical centre and an active fishing fleet.  Right beside the sea it also has a stunning 13th century Romanesque cathedral described as "the pearl of Puglian churches".   We were able to get a pilgrim stamp at the cathedral, completing our line from England to the Adriatic, embarkation area for pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  Regrettably, season and civil war preclude us from taking that step this year.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Troia: A Church for Everyone

Ruth: “If God exists; there is only one,” said a local fellow who volunteered to show us all the heretical sculptures in the Troia Cathedral.

When someone just begins to act as an unsolicited guide I am generally wary, but in this case we were delighted by our tour of this exceptional Church. The jewels of this beautiful 11th century Cathedral go well beyond simple Christian heresy. This is a church for all: not just Christians, but for Jews and Moslems. Imagine such a wonderful and inclusive concept and then ponder on the fact that this came to be in the Middle Ages. Christians, Jews and Muslims all contributed to the cost of the construction of this church and their support is reflected in the carvings that adorn it. Stars of David sit beside the symbols of the Koran and Jesus. There are even Sufi carvings included in the mix. What is even more baffling is that somehow the more recent Catholics of Troia did not seek to “cleanse” their cathedral of all it's heretical iconography. As well, they have not hit this Romanesque jewel with baroque renovations.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Santa Maria Capua Vetere to Benevento: Searching for Spartacus

This morning we visited the Amphitheatre in Santa Maria Capua Vetere.  Not only is this an impressive ruin, but it is also where Spartacus trained and launched his rebellion.

 We have followed the Appian way from Rome to Capua. After their defeat in 71 B.C., 6000 of the rebel slaves were crucified, lining the entire distance along the Appian way between Rome and Capua.

When I asked the lady at the ticket booth where to find Signore Spartucus she smiled and gestured towards the amphitheatre, so I began my search there.

Later catching a glimpse of him in the hypogeum (the area under the floor) I was able to capture a fleeting picture.  On seeing the image, Gordon's only comment was “kind of scrawny looking, no wonder he was defeated”