Discovering the Upside of Sicily

August 15, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

It takes about ten corners in Palermo for me to use my horn the first time. During our time in Tunisia we’d forgotten (or blocked out) how terrible the drivers are in Sicily. At least in Tunisia the mayhem had some rhythm – though in some spots it did truly feel dangerous. Here, in Sicily, it’s like no one has ever actually learned how to drive. Getting behind the wheel seems like a matter of buying a car, perhaps reading the first couple of pages in the manual (where are the lights, where do the keys go) and then, well, driving!

Then again, it could just be me and my bad sleep.

Still, after the fourth person turns left in front of me forcing my right hand to grab a mitt-full of brake, I feel the warmth fill my ears and my patience make a break for the nearest café. HOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNNNKKKKKKKKK. Yes you – silver-haired devil driving the snub-nosed Mercedes mini-van. You! You who is driving in a little glass bubble checking out your extra-dark tan, flipped up collar and expensive shades. You! Arrrggghhhhh!!!!!!

“Babe? We’re not in a rush. Take it easy.” The voice is Nita’s and sometimes the words – no, the truth – is the last thing I want to hear. But here we are, in their town and it’s me who’s doing it all wrong. The silver-haired devil in the snub-nosed Mercedes passes, looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. The words over the headset resonate rather than percolate and just like that, the rhythm of chaos settles into my bones and brings a quiet to my brow.

Soon we’re stretching our legs on pristine tarmac towards the northwestern tip of Sicily. Our route for the next few weeks is a northern semi-circle to Morocco via Sicily, Sardegna and Spain – a roundabout route since entry into Morocco through Algeria isn’t possible; the border shared between the two countries has been closed since 1994 due to a disagreement over the Western Sahara. Also, to be honest, the recent raid and subsequent kidnapping and killing of foreign oil workers at In Aménas is just plain frightening. We have one over-arching rule: Two in, two out.

Even the highway in this part of Sicily is beautiful. Perhaps it’s the joy of finding well-kept roads after a month or so of dubious lanes in North Africa, but todays ride is pure happiness. After a couple of hours weaving our way through the lush landscapes, we turn off of the wide, two-lane asphalt and onto small, single-lane roads that meander through the hills and lead us towards tonights camp in San Vito lo Capo.

The landscape has been beautiful today. It’s still early enough for the hills to show-off their green foliage – though the color is turning in the early-summer heat. The roads outside of the towns are quiet, dimly-lit tunnels are frequent and the hilltops are softer than the young ranges to the south; softened by time, the earth rolls like an angry ocean for as far as the eye can see. We follow them upwards past Castellammare del Golfo which stretches itself lazily along the water revealing a truly inspiring view, before crossing their spine and dropping quickly to the brief plain the rushes to the water. This surprising stretch of flat land is barricaded by giant sentinels of rock thrust upward and alone, their only company being the clouds that cling to them. The beauty here is, without exaggeration, supernatural.

In the distance San Vito lo Capo emerges to our right and it’s a beautiful town. A long beach-front welcomes us at the height of the mid-day heat and, unsure of what kind of payment the campsite takes, I walk down main-street in full-gear to find a cash machine. What’s clear, from what I can see through curtains of sweat, is that we’re going to love it here.

Just before the last drop of water is drawn from my body, we’re back on the bikes and heading along the idyllic coastline towards our camp. At the gate to Camping La Pineta we’re met by wonderfully warm hosts who quickly explain everything to us; this place is a far cry from the rough plots and outhouse campsites we’re used to in Canada. Nestled next to one of San Vito Lo Capos most spectacular mountain views, the grounds are extremely well maintained, the facilities are cleaner than many of the hotels we’ve stayed in and the beaches less than five minutes away. We’ve been looking forward to a few days off before catching the ferry to Sardegna and this place is perfect.

We make our way through the grounds looking for a place to set-up camp – past the free showers (with hot water – heaven!), a restaurant and café,  a well-stocked market and even cabins. Quickly though, we find a secluded spot in the shade and it’s not long before we’ve built ourselves a little home for a few days of R&R. Personally, my favorite feature is finally finding a spot to hang the hammock I’ve been dragging around for nearly a year! Still, it’s small and now that it’s hanging I can’t imagine parting with it – what is it about hammocks that make any day feel lazy?

Once we’ve relaxed into our new home we head to the market for some supplies and meet Antonino, a man who’s as warm and welcoming as they come. As we grab a coffee and some food, Antonino freely offers up plenty of smiles and help as we negotiate the labels. The market also has a great selection of local wines and, after perusing the shelves and receiving a suggestion or two, we pick one before Antonino hands us a second bottle as a gift! We’re surprised by the gift but not his generosity – there’s something about Antonino that makes us feel like part of the family instantly.

We spend the night at the tent sharing the wonderful bottle of wine, watching the sun disappear, and grabbing a bite to eat in the restaurant. The food is excellent and within the first few bites we’re unable to comprehend that this is actually a campsite! It’s like nothing we’ve been to before and we both suspect it’s going to spoil us for a while. From the steady stream of locals popping in for dinner, it’s obvious that the food here is no secret. Feeling incredibly happy with our choice of rest-stops, we finish the day off with a night-cap under the stars before crawling into our tent.

Early the next morning we wake to a song that filled my childhood ears. It sounds as if there are a hundred collared doves in the tree outside our tent and the cooing has escalated into a dull roar. It’s a wonderful way to wake up even if it is still a little early for us. Moving slowly, we cook up some boiled eggs with a side of mortadella and a cup of freshly ground coffee – a breakfast of champions for a camp-side start.

The plans for the day are light and we’re happy to have it that way. We spend some time writing and editing photos before walking into San Vito lo Capo to enjoy it’s beaches and wonderful atmosphere. Camping La Pineta is a short walk to the edge of the waterfront and in no time we’re meandering along the fine sand watching kite surfers prepare their kit. The town itself is basked in a glorious golden glow from the sun and, to our back, a single stone sentinel stands watch while a cloud drapes itself over the green spine – a calm back that feeds into a churning mist on this near-side.

We take our time walking the towns streets and take in the relaxing energy; this could be a surf-town just about anywhere else – well if the break was bigger. But it has a vibe that immediately settles us into it’s rhythm which makes us realize how tired we’re feeling. It’s subtle, but it’s growing – and it’s a deep tired that feels like it’s settling into our bones. This time, here in this beautiful place, is a good thing. Perhaps we can hold off the fatigue for a while yet.

As we make our way toward the center of town, people walk and play with their children along the boardwalk, groups of men lean against the walls watching the ladies stroll by and one group of women grab a bicycle made for four – which draws a cheer from the us. With huge smiles, they disappear down the street – everyone here knows San Vito lo Capo a special place. The main part of town is closed to traffic and people mill about stores selling a mix of local and imported wares while African and Indian families have set up the occasional temporary wall of clothes or beach toys for sale along the water.

With the heat now deep in our skin, we retreat to a shady café for a coffee and desert while we continue to watch the day pass along the water. The ornately decorated tables are almost hypnotizing and, at one point, we both realize it would be hard to know if we’ve been here for ten minutes or an hour.

As we make our way back to Camping La Pineta, a spot along the beach calls our name and we sit watching the kite-surfers dart back and forth in the water. It’s quite something to see – it’s a dance of strength, stamina and agility that must be amazing to experience. I think we both have images of trying it – an image that usually ends with a kite floating into space and both our arms still attached. It looks like hard, hard work but also plenty of fun. One day. Maybe.

Back at the campground, we set up shop in the café and begin planning our upcoming route through Sardegna. At some point, Nita decides to practice her Italian – a move that usually starts with trying to explain what we’re doing and giving someone one of our “We.met” cards. Antonino is her target since we’d like to say “Thank you” again for the previous nights bottle of wine. With only a few words spoken, it’s all over. Suddenly, we’re introduced to Alberto and before we know it, the website is up on their computers and there’s a rambunctious review of our travels happening in Italian and broken English. Soon it’s less about where we’ve been and more about where we must go – a conversation that quickly becomes a plan for a road-trip with Alberto at the helm of the campsite van. There’s no option to say no – and nor would we. It’s an awesome opportunity to explore the area with someone who knows it intimately! Nita’s Italian has come a long way during our journey here and the simple act of trying can create wonderful moments – wonderful spaces – for things to happen.

After working in the café for a few hours, Alberto emerges from the dining room to let us know a table is ready for us. We plan to have dinner at the campsite restaurant – partly to support this great place but also because the food here is amazing – but we haven’t arranged anything, so his announcement comes as a bit of a surprise. “You’re getting pizza?” he asks with a wink. Not clueing in immediately, we say we’re not sure which he follows with “Perhaps you should get a pizza.” Ah, got it. “Yes, we’ll have a pizza” and, in what feels like an instant, the most wonderful pizza arrives at our table. Alberto has arranged dinner for us and it’s delicious.

I don’t normally like anchovies but this pizza, covered in anchovies, is the most delicious pizza I’ve ever eaten. No lie. When it’s gone I sincerely want more. Alberto also delivers a bottle of wine from a local producer that’s just as wonderful and, as we sit in a room filled with other diners, Nita and I wonder aloud how we’ve become so fortunate with meeting people like Alberto and Antonino. While it’s circumstances remain mysterious, we are very fortunate.

Finishing up with a small desert and a coffee, we ask for the bill and Alberto returns with a slip of paper that has the word “Free” written on it. It’s too much but our attempts at payment are completely futile. Thanking him again and again, Alberto reminds us that he’ll be taking us around San Vito lo Capo in the morning before we make our way to Trapani to catch our overnight ferry to Sardegna. Back at our tent, the collared doves have settled down for the night and soon enough we’re fast asleep amidst the quiet and darkness of the camp.

After another breakfast of well-cooked eggs, mortadella and coffee, we make our way to the market to meet Alberto for a morning of touring around the area. We’re met by his smiling face along with a new one – Marco, Alberto’s son. Full of curious energy and a warm, giving smile, we can tell instantly that our day with this pair is going to be great.

Hoping in, we make our way toward Riserva Naturale Dello Zingaro. The road – the SP63 – is a winding, glass-like ode to the coastal landscape. Even in this white van we twist our heads around every corner trying desperately to not miss a single view. Around the lush hills, dropping down before clawing it’s way upward on the far-side of the cliffs; it’s not long before the tarmac gives way to gravel and, as we think the views can’t get any better, the road simply stops. We’ve reached the entrance to the park and no cars are permitted.

The park is famous for a beach that sits far down at the base of the cliffs; reachable only by foot, Alberto lets us know it’s about a four-hour hike there and back. With a ferry to catch we don’t have time to make the journey this time but from where we’re standing we can see it nestled cozily against the rock and it is gorgeous.

Our next stop is a close-up view of one of the many fire beacons that line the coast of Sicily. Lone stone towers that sit along the cliffs were once used to notify domestic forces of attacks from the sea. Typically, a fire was lit atop the sighting post which would cause the next tower to light it’s fire – and so on – until a defensive force had been mustered. It’s unbelievably cool to see these things in real life; my LOTR nerdery is almost complete. It’s hard to miss them here – the coast is lined with them and, in every direction, you can see them. It’s quite something.

On the cliffs below, two men are fishing for a days crop and the sea gently rumbles against the rocks. We climb down toward the water but decide not to disturb the fishermen or their potential catches. The water is a wonderful blue and stretches into infinity only to meet an equally perfect sky. We make our way back up the jagged rocks and into the van; now we’re heading west of San Vito lo Capo to a place where locals go to escape the tourists.

After stopping for a brief view of the town, Alberto makes his way down an incredibly rough dirt track that’s made more for tractors than a van. Soon we notice that the white rocks which dot the grass-lined shore are moving. While some are rocks, many of them are sheep which have been herded here for feeding. The sheep-dogs eye us suspiciously but don’t bare their teeth or chase us down like the dogs in Tunisia, and as we pass without interference their temperament becomes downright friendly.

Eventually, when our kidneys can’t take anymore rearranging, we find ourselves at the mouth of a cave and the shores of a small salt-water pool. We’re almost alone here – a woman is laying in her bikini soaking up the days wonderful weather and high up in the cliffs two sport-climbers are on the second leg of an ascent. The quiet here is wonderful – there’s only the sound of the waves lapping the rocks and a distant bell of the sheep making their way toward us.

As the sheep close in, Alberto emerges from the tidal pool with his son and, in his hand, a spike-covered sea-urchin flexes it’s tendrils gently at it’s displeasure with being removed from it’s comfortable home. A delicacy, people from this region often pluck these little guys from the water and split their casing open to eat the soft innards though, looking at him, we have to wonder who (at some point) plucked one of these from the sea and decided to give eating it a shot. After holding our little friend for a while, Marco gently returns him back to his home no worse for wear. The same can’t be said for a hermit crab who catches the fancy of little Marco who decides on the spot to keep him as a pet. However, while Marco’s preoccupied, the little crab makes a break for it and isn’t seen again. Crafty!

On the hill, the car that brought the woman tanning nearby has become an scratching post for a number of passing sheep – and not a gentle scratch at that. The tiny hatchback sways back and forth with each pass much to the relief of the wooly mess. We’re now surrounded by the loud baa-ing and the clang of shepherds bells. We watch as the dogs guide and redirect their flock, waiting patiently for a couple of limping sheep at the back. Once the stragglers have been rounded up, the dogs bolt to the front and lead the sheep on toward greener pastures. 

Our next stop with Alberto is a fish market just on the outskirts of town. It’s incredible to see the wide array of fish harvested from the sea in this region – from squid to swordfish. The owners greet us warmly and after putting in an order for the restaurant Alberto takes us into town for lunch at Belli Freschi, a gelato shop where handmade treats are the order of the day. Walking in through the back door, we’re able to watch Ciccio work his gelato into exactly the right consistency. Our host explains that it’s common for locals to eat a large brioche filled with gelato for lunch, leaving meat and pastas strictly a dinner affair. Amazed at the size of his brioche and gelato treat, we take a moment to enjoy a slightly smaller tasting of Ciccio’s labour.

With our taste-buds happily sated, we return to Camping La Pineta and quickly take up a couple of tables with maps to continue planning our route through Sardegna. Seeing us return with Alberto, Antonino arrives at our table with another surprise in the form of two hip-flasks of Marsala – one sweet and one dry. This local specialty reminds me a lot of sherry – especially the sweet bottle – though the dry is also lovely. Again, we thank Antonino for his generosity which he simply shrugs off with a smile before letting us know that he couldn’t let us leave Sicily without trying it.

Before we set out to Trapani and our overnight ferry to Sardegna, Alberto takes a moment to show us the apartments and cabins that are available for rent here. Indeed, the European model for camping is a far-cry from what we’re used to in western Canada. We often meet people who take their entire vacation at campsites here and in places like La Pineta it’s easy to imagine why. The relative cost is so low when compared to a hotel, you’re able to cook your own food most nights, you can eat out if you want to and the beach is minutes away. It’s fantastic.

We pack up the bikes and say our warm goodbyes to Alberto, Marco and Antonino. They’ve been the most remarkable hosts and San Vito lo Capo has been a highlight of Sicily. With a big wave and plenty of smiles, we make a right hand turn and quickly find ourselves weaving our way back toward the road west. The landscape is stunning. The mountains rise sharply from ground, swapping foothills for plains that run toward the water seemingly uninterrupted by a single bump. It’s an unusual mix of geological features that stops us in our tracks. We don’t often travel in the evening-light and it’s glow on this landscape makes for a breathtaking combination. Even when we make it back to the secondary highways, the views continue to impress; the single-lane roads meander gently along the base of the hills never cutting too deeply into their lush slopes. Northern Sicily is more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.

Eventually the road leads us to Trapani and toward our ferry. In the distance the clouds are billowing and it’s not a question of if it’s going to rain, but rather when. On the outskirts of town we’re feeling confident that the traffic will have settled for the night but soon enough we find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of a traffic jam. There are police waving people through and somehow we’ve managed to arrive on a night that something big is happening in town. On the bright side, the clouds seem to have miraculously vanished – which gives us hope for dry night and calmer seas for our journey to Sardegna.

The location of the ferry has changed recently and Tirrenia has done little to make it’s whereabouts any clearer to the passengers. As we approach the dock, a sign for Cagliari points us away from what looks to be the main port. Down a long gravel road into what looks to be a deserted dock the signs run out and we’re left to assume that this is where we’re supposed to be. Still, there’s no ticket booth or check-in counter as is usual with ferries; even with tickets purchased online we usually have to check-in to get our boarding passes.

Concerned that we need passes, we make our way back toward the main port – which is a mistake. There’s a yachting race in town and the streets are madness. Many roads are closed and the main street we’re heading down is clogged for miles with traffic. Seeing a Tirrenia sign far off in the distance, we find a spot to park and I run ahead to the ticket office. When I get there it’s closed – which means we’re either going to make on the boat with what we have, or we’re not! We pull an exceptional u-turn through the dense traffic (it was!) and soon the mayhem is at our backs once again.

We find a small burger joint along the waterfront and settle in for a few hours of waiting.  The sun is dropping and there’s absolutely nothing by the empty space where our ferry is supposed to dock. The only real excitement comes as a we watch woman approach the bikes and begin playing with things. From where we’re sitting it looks like she’s fiddling with the bags. Jumping out of my seat, I bolt across the street and it’s not until I’m about ten feet away that I notice her friend taking pictures of her! I think the 6’3” bear running full-out across the street scared the heck out of her and she immediately apologizes. I let her know it’s no problem and explain that we need to keep an eye on things but I feel badly for scaring her.

With the sun completely gone we make our way to the dock and (surprise), there’s no boat. There are a few cars and a motorcycle waiting which gives us hope that this is the right spot for the ferry – though after talking to about ten people it’s clear that no-one has a clue what’s going on. We meet Rudiger, who’s riding his motorcycle through Sardegna with his son, Naum, on the back and Wolfgang, a German man who’s touring around Europe for six months in a VW van. Their company makes the time pass quickly even with the incredibly brisk wind that has us all huddling behind a van – a van we think belongs to Wolfgang but actually belongs to someone else completely.

When the conversation turns to the ferry itself we all seem to have different departure times in our minds. As the tickets come out we realize that none of us have the same time, the same kind of ticket or even the same ship! Just as a prisoner transport arrives (also catching the ferry) a man in a hi-vis vest finally appears. He seems to communicate more though a series of furious waves, scowls and grunts which suddenly has everyone turning their vehicles in every direction. With twenty cars now facing in ten different directions the man (now irate) swears heavily in Italian before storming off to a shack.

Finally, the boat arrives and the scene gets no better. Our German friend is sent all the way back into Trapani to get a proper ticket, but when he arrives the computers are down so he’s sent back to the dock in the same condition he left. It doesn’t matter. The irate man waves everyone on regardless.

We’re waved in behind a large transport carrying four speedboats and, halfway up a steep (and slippery) ramp, we’re told to stop while a different irate hi-vis vest-man makes him turn his truck around on the deck! A five point dance around the center of the ship brings him with in inches of taking out someones motorcycle and has us dangling mid-way up the ramp. Soon we’re being yelled at for not willfully allowing ourselves to get run over by the semi and before we know it we’re in a spot away from the action.

As a man ties our bikes down with a rope, an argument breaks out between angry hi-vis vest-man and a driver who’s had enough of the nonsense. It culminates with hi-vis gesticulating manically around his groin before another hi-vis colleague joins in on the action. At this point no-one is actually telling people where to park; there’s simply a circle of hi-vis vest-men yelling at each other while people park themselves. The guy tying my bike down looks at me and smiles as if to say “It’s Friday. This is what it’s like.” It’s mental.

Nita and I bolt upstairs to get away from the arguing and grab a nightcap in the bar. Once again we don’t have a berth, but this bar has plenty of long, plush seats that’ll make a great bed once we’re underway. Other than the colony of angry hi-vis workers below deck, the ferry is so subdued compared to our African experience; we feel immediately relaxed once we’re out of our gear. After a brief visit with Rudiger and Naum, we turn in for the night and sleep remarkably well.

The next morning the light floods in from the windows aboard the ship and around us the bar quickly fills with people hoping to grab a coffee and pastry while they last. As our puffy morning faces slowly return to normal we’re joined again by Rutiger, Naum and Wolfgang for a stroll along the deck outside. Cagliari looks beautiful from the shore and, as we back in towards the dock, a school of men begin tying the ship down with massive ropes. None of us feel rushed to return to the lower decks and the cool morning breeze untethers the last vestiges of stale air from our heads.

It’s a wonderful morning and Sardegna already looks like a dream.


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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by Blake Wickland

    Blake Wickland August 16, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Another great story and beautiful photos from the trip!!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish August 17, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Thanks Blake! Always great to hear from you my friend.

  2. Comment by Beela

    Beela August 16, 2013 at 11:50 am

    You have a way with words…makes me feel like I’m there! Gorgeous landscape. Sicily makes me think of The Godfather for some reason :-)

    Curious what song woke from your childhood woke you up that one morning…something not Italian?


    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish August 17, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Thank you so much Beela – it means a lot that you’d say that! Also, it’s great that you feel like your coming along on the journey! Sicily is *very* Godfather. It was interesting hearing all about the Mafia and their influence on the island – something that has almost zero impact on visitors but a huge impact on locals. Some of the stories are crazy.

      The song of the collared dove! I remember it well but we don’t get in our part of Canada :)

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