Sunday, June 7, 2009

Messina, Sicily

Friends: I knew I was in Sicily when a couple of teen-aged toughs, would-be Mafiosos acting as if they could do whatever they pleased, brusquely shoved past me to the front of the line at the supermarket checkout, flipped 50 centimes onto the conveyor belt for a can of soda and strutted on out of the place.

They were clones of the two young punks in last year's Italian mafia movie 'Gomorrrah' that won an award at Cannes. Like those nitwits, these guys aren't long for this world if they continue to act with such affront.

Other than that, Sicily hasn't been much different from Sardian except that it has volcanoes and a lot more people. Mt. Etna dominates the eastern end of the island. At over 10,000 feet, it is Europe's largest volcano and also one of the world's most active. It can start spewing or oozing lava at any time.

There are also a scattering of volcanoes on a series of islands to the north of Sicily, some that comprise the entire island. Vulcano is one of the islands. The Aoelians chain of islands is distinctive enough to have been granted World Heritage status. With the volcanoes sitting out in the Mediterranean to my left as I bicycled along the northern coastline of Sicily my thought was transported to my fine times on Hokkaido in Japan where I had similar such scenery to gaze upon as I pedaled along.

Even though Sicily with five million people has three times the population of Sardinia, traffic was surprisingly light along the 164-mile coastal road from Palermo to Messina across the top of the island. I was prepared to head inland and spend an extra day or two getting across Sicily if the coastal traffic was too thick or treacherous. But a four-lane autostrada, frequently mounted on stilts and tunneling through the mountainous terrain, paralleled the coastal road, drawing off enough traffic that route SS131 was almost all mine. It helped too that my ride happened to coincide with the weekend. On Sunday all the towns I passed through were essentially dead and boarded up.

I wasn't the only cyclist enjoying the road. At last I saw an abundance of Italian men in Lycra indulging in their passion. Many rode side by side, loudly chatting. I heard a few go by above my campsite Sunday morning before I got out on the road at 7:40. As I passed through the frequent towns, the cyclists helped me spot the town water spigot, as there'd often by a cyclist or two stopped at it filling their bottles. And if not cyclists, a local filling a few jugs.

Though the garbage collectors had ended their strike a couple days before I arrived on Sicily, not all the dumpsters had been emptied. Many were still surrounded by plastic bags of refuse and the all-too strong stench of baking refuse. It was especially pungent in Palermo, compounded with the smell of rotten fish. The garbage men must have had several days of genuine misery on their return. Even some of the empty dumpsters still gave off a powerfully wretched aroma.

Though the sun is intense, there is cool in the air along the sea. If I had gone into the mountainous interior I would have had an extra good workout. There was still a fair amount of climbing along the coastal road, but not all that many beaches. Few were right along the road. Most were well below it, requiring a steep climb down. I was able to douse myself often enough at town fountains, that I didn't need a full-fledged salty dunk.

Next up is a short ferry across to the foot of Italy. I have 25 days to make it back to Monaco for the Thursday night gala introduction broadcast live across France of the 180 riders participating in this year's Tour. The big question is will Lance receive more boos or cheers. The presentation is always a spectacle. As much effort and creativity is put into as the Super Bowl half-time show.

I scouted out Monaco the day before I took the ferry from Nice to Corsica. The nearest campsite is ten miles away, but a hard ride, high up the ridge that runs along the coast. I can wild camp nearby. It is a little more distant than I'd like to be, but the coast is extremely built up. I am already looking forward to getting back to France and the cheap and easy eating.

Later, George

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