Green Hills, Ancient Temples and the Mayhem of Sicilian Streets

May 2, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

Our destination for the next five nights is Antica Masseria Timparuci – a farm house just south of Modica. The trip should take only a few of hours but the traffic along our route is so heavy and the streets so narrow, that with an hour and a half under our belts we still have three hours to go. It’s the reality of riding the coastal routes in Sicily – even in the off-season. There are moments outside of the towns where we get to enjoy an open road and the stunning views of the water that accompany it, but as soon as we hit a town the lanes are little more than a one-way with everyone trying desperately to make it through first.

Adding to the pressure is something we rarely have – a schedule. The location of the farmhouse is difficult to find so the owners uncle, Signore Carmello, has offered to meet us at a traffic circle on the edge of the city. It’s a lovely offer but it has the side-effect of us rushing to make the meeting time of 3pm and that’s never a great feeling. Still, onward we trudge and just outside of Catania, with patience waining, we pass a woman who moves to the right as if to turn in that direction. As I pass, the way she moves strikes me as slightly strange and, as I look back in the side mirror, I see Nita’s bike moving sharply across the road. “WOAH! WOAH!” is what I hear in my headset and when I ask what’s going on Nita replies with “She hit me!”

As I look for a place to turn around on the busy road I begin asking questions “Are you okay? Are you off the bike? Is she still there?” Finally, I find a break to pull a u-turn and find Nita parked on a concrete pad by a store, alone and surprisingly calm. After moving to the far right of the road, the woman decided to turn left, without indicating or checking her mirrors and turned into Nita’s right side. Pulling up next to her, I see her Touratech Zega Pro pannier has a dent in it and scrape marks along its length; I’m amazed she didn’t get knocked off her bike. She’s doing fine – in fact she barely seems fazed at all. Rather, she’s pretty excited that her skills have kept her upright and that panic didn’t take over. I’m happy it isn’t worse and that I too managed to stay calm during the entire incident. We know that keeping our wits about us is an important part of dealing with accidents and remaining effective when dealing with the aftermath.

We pause for a moment to let the adrenaline dissipate and discover something interesting – the dialogue I heard over my headset was completely different from what Nita thought happened! In her mind she screamed, swore and sounded panicked when in reality none of that translated into what I heard. The dialogue in my headset was completely calm and aware of the situation – it just shows that sometimes the perception of the situation can be so different from the reality. Also telling was how Nita’s body just reacted without thought – she swerved and almost squeezed by the car before even processing what was happening. I have to believe that just comes from hours in the saddle.

After two hours of traffic and the love-tap from a strangers bumper, we alter the route to take the highway and it’s a blessing. Once past the western edge of Catania, we’re greeted by Mount Etna in the distance. Having erupted only two weeks ago, the surprisingly snow-draped sides disappear into a cloud of steam that steadily pours from it’s peak. Mount Etna is a beautiful. We stop for some photos before taking some incredibly fun ‘B’ roads through a beautiful inland landscape. The hills are a bright green, sharply pointed and centuries of terracing makes their appearance completely unique compared to anything we’ve yet to see in the world. They’re absolutely jaw-dropping. Soon, with the summer heat, all of these fields and hills will turn a golden yellow and lie in wait for the rains of next winter.

The remaining hours of riding farmland valleys is beautifully relaxing and after crossing a bridge set high above Modica Bassa, we enter town and see a lovely-looking man pointing at us with the most wonderful smile; Signore Carmelo, we presume. We follow him through a number of tiny roads that progressively become smaller and rougher. Down a final lane we pull up to Antica Masseria Timparuci and a simply stunning view of the pastures stretched all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. As he gets out of his car, the still-smiling Carmelo waves his hand towards the water as if to present it to us. Speaking in fluent Italian he lets us know how wonderful the area is, the sights to see and where we can grab a bite – none of which we understand – but somehow it doesn’t matter. His conversation with us may be one-sided but he immediately makes us feel like family and, too often, that magic isn’t present even when the same language is spoken.

Carmelo’s wife, Concetta, appears from around the corner to welcome us and she too is sporting massive smile. Opening the door to our room I discover the root of the smiling; stepping through the door a loud “Buon compleano!” greets me and I see decorations adorning the room! It’s my forty-first birthday and Nita’s arranged a lovely homemade dinner for us in celebration. There are banners hanging from the rafters, some beautiful salami and cheese, a birthday cake in the fridge, two bottles of wine and a huge plate of Concetta’s famous rabbit stew which is absolutely delicious.  We’re not even out of our boots and we’re celebrating. The reason for our 3pm deadline is finally revealed to me!

Carmello and Concetta leave us to settle into the farmhouse and it doesn’t take long – mostly because we’re excited to tuck into the incredible spread that’s been lovingly set on the small table. We take our time with the wonderful dinner, that could easily feed a small army. Heading into the yard to watch the sun drop over the Mediterranean Sea, it’s hard not to fall in love with this place; it’s bleached-white stone walls and small stature make it appear part of the incredible landscape that surrounds it. While we stare into the distance and soak in the remainder of the days heat, we’re invited into Carmelo and Concellas home for a coffee and a chat – which is surprising since there’s little common language to make for any hefty conversation. But the language of a welcoming gesture and a smile can easily help make those barriers disappear. Even in the awkward silences they’ve opened their door to us and we’re very grateful.

With the sun having disappeared long ago, we see lights blinking in the middle of the water and for a moment we wonder if it’s Malta. At ninety miles away it seems unlikely but for now it’s nice to imagine that it is.

The next day, we  take a few hours to scout Modica and pick up some supplies for the cabin – a ride that reveals busy streets and more honking. It seems that this is the only way to drive in Sicily! By the time we’re done, we’re happy to return to our little retreat in the hills and the peace it offers us.

Prior to Nita’s run-in with the bumper west of Messina we had grand plans of daily rides throughout the area, but as the heat of the following day warms us we’re both excited to spend some time lazing by the pool in it’s golden rays. People are sometimes surprised when we don’t ride everyday, but when we’re on the road as long as we’ve been, sometimes the moments when we’re still – not riding, not walking, not bussing, not sight-seeing – are magic and this day is the first in a long time that feels like summer! 

After falling asleep in the sun, we return to the cool stone of the cabin where we discover that the internet is only reachable on the toilet! Setting up an office in the loo provides some giddy laughs and plenty of adolescent jokes but, to be honest, the set-up is pretty comfortable. We send a note to Giorgio mostly out of humour but a little while later he arrives at our home with a new router which allows us to work in places other than the bathroom – but not before we get some pictures of the mobile office.

With a plan to tuck into the remnants of last nights birthday dinner we’re surprised to get a knock at the door and an invite to join the family for Easter dinner. We’re happy to accept and soon enough we’re sitting at a table surrounded by Concetta and Carmello, their niece and nephew (and the farmhouse owners), Giorgio and Pinella. Their daughter Orsola speaks Italian, Spanish and excellent English and gracefully helps us when our rudimentary Italian leaves everyone wondering what the heck it is we’re talking about. She’s spent four months in California for school before returning to Barcelona to finish her PhD and, along the way, she adopted Cali – a cute little dog that was about to be destroyed in the US. Perhaps sensing it had over-stayed it’s welcome in America, the dog that had been deemed “…to difficult to adopt..” turned on the charm and made it’s escape to Sicily in the arms of a loving new owner. Smart dog!

Her younger sister Paola is busily wrangling the other pups that are moving into position for any trace of food that may drop from the plates. Joining them are a number of family friends and the conversation amongst the fifteen or so guests is lively and filled with laughter and smiles. We feel so incredibly lucky to be a part of it.

To be honest, by noon the next day we decide to replace the idea of daily trips with the idea of daily rest. The aching in my elbows is worry-some mostly because it was incapacitating in Calgary and a few days rest will do it a world of good. Also, even with Nita’s skills at keeping the rubber on the road she’s got some aches and pains that this wonderful place is sure to cure. No sooner do we commit to relaxing than there’s a knock at the door. “Dolce?!” It’s the wonderful Carmello and his beautiful smile that somehow reminds me of my father. “Dolce. Dolce.” It’s a little after noon and we follow him back to his place to find all of the guests – plus a few more – sitting around the table.

Easter Sunday has brought more family and friends to their house for a more food and we’ve been invited for desert! Life is good. Orsola’s grandparents have joined the festivities and her grandfather is not only lively, smartly dressed and handsome, he’s also recently joined Facebook much to the amusement of all of us. Even at the mention of it he breaks into a huge smile and starts waving his hands in the air as he tells us about it. Just wonderful. Some oranges make their way to the table and Carmello who has a number of them stacked in front of him suddenly chirps “Aranci! Aranci!” with the wry smile of a young boy who’s up to no good. Again, “Aranci! Aranci! Cu l’avi se cianci” and this time the table breaks out laughing. Orsola tries to translate, but starts laughing too hard to speak before finally letting us know there isn’t really a translation that works for it. It doesn’t even matter – seeing the tears rolling down Carmello’s face is pure joy.

This family is beautiful.

With Pinella’s help, Concella has been cooking and baking non-stop for two days and yet even as we finish our last pastry she still has the energy to start prepping the food for the next meal. She’s a beautifully warm woman whose ability to keep going puts us all to shame. Nita suggests she should have her own cooking show which seems to go over well with the family – and we’d be fortunate to cook half as well as her; there’s nothing that leaves the kitchen that isn’t wonderfully tasty.

The last couple of days in Modica are wonderfully quiet and allows me some time to catch up on bike maintenance while Nita works through cooking our remaining groceries as a parting meal for our hosts. She’s not normally the cook but she’s developed a great palate for cooking camping-style and the result is a tasty mixture of meats and vegetables that we find pretty delicious. It’s hard to say what our hosts think and honestly, if Jamie Oliver can’t make food Italians love, then we’re pretty sure we can’t either! Concella’s cooking is so fantastic we simply hope that the gesture is all that counts. 

The Easter festivities have passed leaving the town quiet; it’s a holiday as we wander it’s streets and only a single caffè adorned with plenty of foosball trophies is open. We take a seat on the street and revel in the quiet that rarely seems to visit the cities and towns of Sicily. Tomorrow we leave for the beautiful hill-top town of Agrigento and the incredible Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) that rests at it’s foot.

We’re in no rush to leave the following morning. Our time nestled in the countryside south of Modica has been wonderful for our spirits and our bodies. The aches and pains are easing and the family we’ve spent the past five days with share a kindness that can only fill their guests with a sense of joy. As we pack the bikes to leave, Orsola, Carmello, Concetta, Pinella and Paola come out to say goodbye – with one final treat in hand – a lemon jello! With some smiles, hugs and a couple of “Aranci! Aranci!” we make our way along the gravel roads that lead us north toward our home for the next few nights.

The roads to Agrigento are stellar. Again, they wind their way inland through the intensely green hills that unfurl like a magnificent hand-woven rug. At the top of one of these hills, we stop for gas and are rewarded with the most amazing view of Etna in the distance. Even the attendant pauses while filling the bike to stare at her, before looking at me with a smile and saying “Bellisima.” If there was a most beautiful location for a gas-station, this would surely be it. Soon, we once again meet up with the water by Gela before the flowing roads take us enticingly close to the water.

When the road finally takes a turn north and once again inland, we’re presented with the most wonderful view of a town cradled securely within the palm of a mountain. Like something out of a story book, it slowly reveals itself as we ride along the valley road and even a few of the ancient temples along it’s base appear before finally arriving at the Colleverde Park Hotel. The staff here are incredibly friendly and, as we unpack the bikes, they show us a spot by the entry to park. The manager tells us they’ll be protected from the winds that have, apparently, knocked other bikes over during the night. While I move the bikes into their cozy little spot, the manager grabs as many bags as he can and huffs them up the three flights to our room! That’s some kind of service – one I wouldn’t wish on anyone!

There’s still plenty of day left and we plan to catch the bus into town for a walkabout. We wait at the bottom of the hill at what appears to be a bus stop but watch haplessly as three buses pass us by in forty minutes. Eventually a driver (who’s already passed us once) wags a finger and points up the hill toward a different stop. As we trudge up the steep grade to the next stop he decides not to wait for us and we wait another twenty minutes for the next bus to appear. We’re in no rush and watching people trying to pull away without rolling back into the car behind them provides ample entertainment while we wait.

Eventually we make it into the town and really, we could have walked – though it’s all up a steep hill and since we’re planning on a day in the Valle dei Templi tomorrow we’re both saving our legs. The city is beautiful and, off the beaten track, are a few caffès with amazing views of the valley below. The condition of the Temple of Concordia is amazing even from this distance and provides a wonderful insight into what the views from this point would have looked like in 440 BC(!). Modern-day Agrigento is a beautifully vibrant city. The streets are filled with people of all ages, street vendors and fantastic architecture. We’re starting to see the mix of cultures that people had told us about along the way – African influences on dress and food, stirred into a pot of Sicilian roots, ancient Greek struggles and Carthaginian rule. It’s fantastic.

The next morning we’re awake quickly and truly excited to get to the Valle dei Templi. We walk to the entry which is a couple of kilometers away and, after parting with €20, we’re free to make our way around the site. Everyone seems to make a bee-line to the Temple of Concordia and it makes sense; if you can only see one temple, it’s spectacular. Built in 440 BC, it was re-purposed into a Christian Basilica in 6th century AD and the addition of twelve arches helped the structure survive the ages far better than it’s counterparts in the valley.

Laying on it’s side behind the temple is a bronze statue of Ikaro Caduto (Icarus Fallen) by Igor Mitoraj which is breathtaking. In fact, we were partly drawn to the valley by photos of his sculptures placed caringly around the site, but unfortunately this single sculpture is all the remains. Getting a photo of it without someone playing with his, ahem, “…parts…” is difficult. There’s a line up of giggling ladies waiting for their chance to have a picture taken in all manner of suggestive positions with his manhood. Maybe they believe it brings good luck? It’s good for a laugh and eventually we get our turn for a couple of photos before being overrun by a fresh gaggle of hopeful tourists hell-bent on groping the poor guy.

The second best preserved site is The Temple of Hera (or Juno Lacinia) on the southeast corner of the valley and its condition is more indicative of it’s years. A group of French students are taking a break on the steps of the site and their excitement is palpable. I can’t imagine a more wonderful way to learn history. As they leave, we’re left in relative solitude and a breathtaking view of the roads that line the valley floor below. As we make our way north towards the bare remnants of the remaining temples the crowds thin even further. Four columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux stand at the western edge of the valley and, while the intact beauty of Concordia may capture the imagination of visitors, it’s this corner of a grand temple that’s become the symbol of the valley and Agrigento itself. This end of the site is practically empty but no less amazing to see and the ruins here aren’t closed-off to the public by fences.

After hours of walking, we head back to the hotel for a rest, before catching a bus (at the right stop this time) into town for dinner at our typically touristic time – it’s only 7pm and no self-respecting Italian would dream of eating this early! Feeling completely full from the days wonderful sights and another beautiful meal, we make our way home along the uneven roads and narrow pathways back to the hotel. We’re knackered and it doesn’t take long for sleep to arrive. Our last day in Agrigento is spent catching up on writing and getting images ready for the site. It’s not a tough job since we’re able to relax on the hotel patio looking out at the valley we explored so thoroughly the day before.

The sun is high in the sky and it’s warmth seems to erase all the days of cold and rain we’ve travelled through so far. We prep the bikes for the quick journey to the Sicilian capital, Palermo and enjoy one last meal at the hotel before turning in. The morning brings with it the realization that we’re heading to our last stop in Sicily on this leg of our trip. Palermo is where we’ll spend a few days getting last-minute supplies and mentally ready for North Africa. We’ll be catching the Grimaldi Lines ferry, Zeus Palace, to Tunisia and our first foray onto African soil.

The road to Palermo is easy and stunning. The tarmac is in great condition which allows us to admire the beautiful countryside as it rushes by us. Considering we’re heading into a capital city, the traffic is light which always makes the day more enjoyable. The green hills occasionally host rows of vines as we pass through the northern wine country and the hours are spent rising and falling through the gentle hills and curves of the region. The traffic begins to thicken as we enter Palermo but it’s still surprisingly light until we’re practically in the center of town. At this point it’s almost gridlock and somewhat reminiscent of Messina – though the drivers there are still the worst we’ve experienced so far. Slowly we weave our way through the traffic as the road takes us through a city that seems very cosmopolitan. Nita mentions that it reminds her of NYC and I have to agree – there’s something about the city that’s captivating.

As we turn onto a main thoroughfare towards the sea we’re met with a view we don’t expect; our ferry to Tunisia, the Zeus Palace, is in dock and loading it’s next group of travellers. Any apprehension or unease we’re feeling seems to instantly dissolve and is replaced with excitement! In just a few short days we’ll be on that ship and heading into completely foreign waters. Pushing our way through a grid-locked roundabout, we finally arrive at the Astoria Palace Hotel and feel a swell of relief and anticipation; it’s our last home in Sicily. For now. After checking in we move our bikes to a parking spot up the steepest ramp I’ve ever seen – we literally have to stand on the pegs to stop from tipping backwards.

The reviews of Palermo are mixed. Some people feel it’s not worth visiting while others feel that it’s melting pot of African and Italian culture is not to be missed. Our first walkabout of the city evokes some of the same complicated feelings we had in Messina – this city is filthy. Garbage lines the streets, unsold produce from street vendors rots in the gutters and dog excrement makes walking a dangerous affair. But, somehow, it’s also a compelling place to visit. The people are friendly and there’s a personality present in the city that feels incredibly unique. The African influence is definitely alive here but perhaps more understated than we expected given the conversations we’ve had with folks before arriving.

After finding a caffè, we take a moment to walk the streets in the city’s core – we’re hoping to find some supplies for the bikes and, possibly arrange a tire change. The TKC-80s still have enough tread on them for Tunisia but if we can change them we will. A sign that seems to be pointing to a BMW Motorrad fills us with hope for a moment, but it’s impossible to find. It turns out the sign is simply a promotion and the dealer is quite a way out of town. Next we look for a motorcycle repair shop and after a couple of false leads we find a cool little shop which is run by a young Sylvester Stallone who doesn’t speak a stitch of English. After about thirty minutes of gesturing and learning some new words for moto-supplies (“gomme” for tires, “spray catena” for chain lube) he lets us know that he can order tires but they wont be in stock before we depart. We leave empty handed but feeling pretty good about getting our needs across and he gives us a great smile as we make our way towards the water.

We walk towards the port to map out our trip to the ferry in the coming days – it’s another one of the little things we do that eases ferry-day stress. Plus, we seem to be obsessed with walking lately! At the entrance to the port we find a security guard who seems surprised we’d think we’re not allowed to enter. With a great smile he waves us through and we take a walk down towards where we saw our ferry an hour before. It’s already gone but it’s dock has been taken by another giant ship unloading trucks bound for businesses around Sicily. Satisfied we’ve got a grip on where we need to go on the day of our departure head back to the hotel and enjoy a great meal despite infrequent visits from a waiter that desperately needs to clean his suit!

The next morning we catch a cab to another tire shop and spend the ride chatting with a really lovely driver. He offers to wait while check if they have what we need but tell him we’ll walk back to the hotel – a decision I regret almost instantly. No sooner is he out of sight than we find out that the shop doesn’t stock anything for us – though the owner does give it a valiant effort. It turns out that the walk around Palermo is incredibly fruitful once again showing me that my initial feeling about a situation can often be totally wrong! Every other place we stop in has something we need – namely a universal plug for leaky wash basins and some hygiene supplies that keep us and our bodies happy on the road.

We take the long way back to the hotel and find a wonderful caffè ten minutes from our home that sports a lovely patio and friendly staff. It’s the little things that make a place feel cozy to us, and this place certainly helps. The kids here are so hip it’s hard not to feel happy to be older – especially as a man who still likes baggy jeans. Everywhere I look I’m left wondering how jeans this tight are put on. Or applied. But somehow they all totally rock the look! On the last leg of our walk back to the hotel we find a motorcycle shop right by our hotel and are fortunate enough to meet two couples who are planning a ride to Tunisia after us. They’ve been a few times before and their excitement about the upcoming adventure helps ease our nerves. In fact, by the time we’re done talking with them all we feel is excitement. People sharing  stories and their love for travel can have a powerful effect on those willing to listen. 

The next two days are mostly spent battling any remaining nerves, drinking caffès and finishing stories for the site. Our ferry leaves for Tunisia at 11:30pm and the hotel lets us keep the room until 6pm which allows us to spend the day baggage-free. Looking for a bank machine that works, we wander toward a street-market in what may be a “seedier” side of town. Once again though, the people are welcoming and we get to enjoy the sights and sounds of this diverse city.  With occasional forays into the sun for a breath of fresh air and a steady throng of models and hairdressers present for a conference, we easily pass the time before finally loading the bikes for the next leg of our journey.

Africa is only a ten hour boat ride away, and we can’t wait.

 

Gallery One | Gallery Two

About

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.

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