So long Sicily…

By the time I got going on the road out of Catania it was about 8AM. I found the signage quite confusing, but after a short detour into an industrial estate I came across a little village where I could get some cash out and buy a few basic things from the supermarket. There were no satisfactory breakfast options there so I pressed on to try and find the main road that would lead me along the east coast heading south. I ended up on a busy road that took me around the airport, and I felt like I was going in circles. At a place not far from the airport there was a traditional Italian bakery, buzzing with activity so I stopped for some breakfast. I locked my bike to a fence out the front, then proceeded into the shop to order some baked savoury thing and a cream croissant (cornetto). The best thing about cycle touring is you can really load up on breakfast. I decided not to sit, because of the legendary table service charges in Italy, so thought it best to keep moving. The pastry was exquisite, easily the best I had in Italy, so it was not hard to see why it was so busy. I stood for a few minutes munching away, then reached into my pocket for the key to my bike. It wasn’t in my regular pocket, so I tried the others. Nope. A wave of panic struck me as I meticulously emptied my pockets, checked every flap and fold in my wallet, then started scanning the ground around me. Oh no. What was I going to do now. I paced up and down inside the shop scanning the floor among the crowds of people, so see if I could spot the key anywhere, then looking up to the counter I saw the man who had served me waving to get my attention. He reached into the glass pastry cabinet and produced my key with a grin. He said something in Italian as he handed it to me, and I just smiled saying “Thank you so much”. Relieved, I headed back to my bike and I was on my way again.

Finishing my breakfast on the bike, as I pedalled away from Catania, I started second guessing my directions. The GPS was telling me my bearing was South West, when really, if I wanted to follow the coast it should be more like South East. Seeing there was no other real option I pressed on, eventually heading due South, but still nowhere in sight of the coast. It seems the road was busier and more inland than the map had indicated, so as the day started to heat up, it became a weary grind along a major road with no interesting scenery to enjoy as trucks whipped past me at speed. Occasionally the variation in terrain led me through some undulating hills, with a glance of the water way over to my left. I could see villages near the coast, but was afraid if I took one of the rough, unsealed roads in that direction I would reach a dead end and have to come back out again anyway.

The time passed slowly until I came to brown coloured sign indicating a left turn towards the coast. I had a good feeling about it, so I got off the main road and followed my intuition. I rode for about 15 minutes down this rough, narrow road until I rounded the corner to find this little oasis. Some small shacks adorned the rocky coast with boats tied up in the water nearby. To the left of the rocks, there was a sandy beach stretching out as far as the eye could see with me people sunning themselves and swimming in the shallows. Eureka! After the monotony of the morning ride, this was bliss. I parked my bike up near a small kiosk, quickly donned my swimming shorts and ran down to the water. The sand was coarse under my feet, but the water was wonderfully refreshing. I paddled around in the small waves for a few minutes, looking back onto the beach and thinking how happy I was to find this secret hideaway. I got out of the water, rinsed off in the shower then sat down at the kiosk to enjoy a lemonade. It was getting into the late morning so I decided to press on.

I got back onto the main road and shortly found myself nearing Augusta. I really didn’t know anything about the place, but it had a regular train service down to Syracusa, then Pozzallo so I picked it out as good destination to stop on the coast. Entering the town, I could see it was more of an industrial place, but also home to some sort of military base. Deciding I’d had enough of cycling on the main road I found the train station, bought a ticket to Syracusa on the next train leaving in an hour so, then went exploring. The main street had a series of small shops leading down to the water where a bridge crossed to the Castello. Always up for checking out a Castello, I followed the signs through an arch in the wall and up the hill. In the area surrounding the Castello, there were a few narrow streets that must have been the old town, but it had seen better days. It was quiet and not much was going on. From this point I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area. I was running low on water, so I stopped at a fountain where an old man was filling bottles. I filled my bidon, and took a sip but it had an odd taste. I thought I’d keep it in case I got desperate. I made a lap around the Castello, which was closed to the public and had a military helicopter displayed out the front. I could see battleships in the harbour from here too, so I figured it may still be used as an operational military building. It was getting onto lunch time, so I rolled back down the hill into town. I came to a fruit and veggie store where I bought the smallest watermelon I could find, still about 3kg! I sat down in the shade of the bus stop, cutting up the fruit into large chunks and devouring it. I managed to eat half, before I felt completely full. It was a perfectly delicious way to take on some extra fluids. I wrapped the remainder and precariously strapped it to rack on the back of my bike under the towel that was spread out still drying from morning swim, then pedalled back to the station.

When I hopped on the train, the two spaces allocated to bikes were already occupied, so the conductor indicated for me to lean my bike up against the wall of the carriage. It was a short trip down to Syracusa, and as we pulled in a German couple, owners of the two touring bikes got up to sort out their luggage. The guy smiled when he saw my bike, and guessed that I was Australian. They were from Munich cycling and camping around Sicily. I told him I had cycled from Catania to Augusta today, but the road was not very good. He had read that, which is way they opted for the train. They were not staying in Syracusa long, but riding out from there to Avolva where they would camp. We said goodbye at the station, wished each other luck and I headed off into Syracusa. For once the station platform led out of the station, onto the street without having to negotiate any stairs!

Syracusa was a nice coastal town. Had I not been sick, I probably could have spent some more time there, but as it was I grabbed a map from the tourist info point and quickly did a circuit around the waterfront, through the town, then back to the station. I managed to find a proper bike shop, probably the first I had seen in Italy, with Bianchi frames displayed proudly in the window. With my makeshift repair to my brake cable, I still had the excess tucked under my pannier bag, so I went in to see if they could cut it for me and put on a cable end. The old man didn’t speak a word of English, but could see what needed to be done. He shuffled off, grabbed his wire cutters and crimp, then fixed it up. Somewhere along the line (on the way to Pompeii I think), I managed to lose one of my gloves, my favourite Roeckl fingerless gloves with gel padding, so I asked him if he had any gloves. Having helped me with the cable, I thought it would be nice to be able to buy something at the shop too. He led me into a back room with several tubs full of gloves, socks and other sundry items. I had a quick rummage through and even though I thought a pair of Bianchi gloves would make a nice souvenir, it’s hard to replace Roeckls, so I passed. In the end, he didn’t ask anything for cutting the cable, he just smiled and gave me a pat on the back.

The train trip to Pozzallo was interesting, as there was no space for my bike (despite me having a ticket for it). I had to pull all the pannier bags off and the conductor found a spot for it in his little private area of the carriage. It was a short trip, but long enough for me to fall asleep and then jump out of my skin when the conductor came through announcing the station. I grabbed all my bags, threw them on the platform, then went back for my bike. The watermelon I had been carrying had now slipped off the back of the rack and was dangling in the towel like a sack. Once everything was back in order I pedalled out of the station in search of the ferry port. I tried booking a ticket on the website, but it crashed so decided to take my chances and buy one when I got there. Signs to the ferry port were in the Italian tradition, vague, but I did manage to find my way without too much trouble. By the time I approached the ticket desk it was about 7:10PM. Plenty of time I thought to get my ticket, then go and find some dinner. The guy at the desk said go to the first window at 7:30PM and if there is space, we will sell you a ticket. Huh? I stood there, gobsmacked for a minute and then saw the other 2 or 3 people hovering around the first window. I told him that their website was broken, but he just repeated the same instruction. This is where I met Nigel. He had been on my train to Pozzallo, although we hadn’t spoken. He was an English guy on a short break to Milan, Rome, Sicily and now Malta. We got chatting and shared our surprise at the ticket sale situation. Nigel already had a reservation, but still needed a ticket apparently. Finally the first window opened, with a face that looked remarkably familiar 😉 We got our tickets, but were told boarding would start in 10 minutes. Lucky I arrived over 2 hours before the ferry was scheduled to leave, rather than getting food first! Despite their warnings, we chanced it and walked over to the only kiosk in sight. The only thing on offer that resembled food was some basic prosciutto or salami sandwiches. Nigel was reluctant, but I decided better eat something now or who knows when I will get to eat again. In the end, he also decided to play it safe. We had a good chat about many things on the ferry, travel, politics, work. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and we had a bit of time to pass. The ferry left late, then arrived late, with no explanation why. Nigel said his taxi driver would probably be angry, and I was thinking of poor Warrick waiting to meet me in Valletta now almost an hour late. Still we eventually arrived. I said good bye to Nigel, and spotted Warrick waiting for me. I was very happy to see him, and apologetic for the delays. Even around midnight the air was still warm, but I had made it to Malta. It was a short trip back to Warrick’s place, where I left my bike with the luggage in the hallway, crept up the stairs to the spare room and flopped into bed.

The emergency room

I had only been asleep for a few hours, when I woke up in a sweat feeling like i was going to be sick. I rushed out of bed and to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details but by the time I crawled back into bed there was nothing of dinner left in my stomach. That was 20 euros down the toilet (literally) I thought to myself. I tried drinking some water, then getting some sleep, but in the hot night air, I couldn’t get comfortable so I sat up on the balcony outside in the wee hours of the morning. I eventually managed some sleep but at about 6am, headache throbbing, guts aching, I headed downstairs to the vending machine to buy some lemonade. I didn’t even manage to put a coin in the slot before I was forced to rush across the street where I was sick again, despite having nothing left to throw up. It had been warm all night, and now with the sun out the day was already heating up. After a few minutes, my body settled down enough to manage a bottle of lemonade, followed by a bottle of water. I’ve had symptoms like this before, although never this severe, when doing 24 hour mountain bike races, so I suspected it was probably heat exhaustion and dehydration. I went back to bed for a few more hours and when everybody was up, I explained to Joe how I was feeling. We had planned to go out together that day, but I told him to go on without me, while I got the hostel to arrange a taxi to take me to the hospital. Knowing I still had a long journey ahead of me I really didn’t want to take any chances.

There was some confusion with the taxi driver, who spoke very little English, when I asked him to take me to the hospital. He wanted to know ‘which’ hospital as there were several in Catania, and I couldn’t communicate that ‘any’ or the ‘closest/nearest’ was where I needed to go. Finally he called one of his colleagues that I was able to get across I was sick and just needed to see a doctor. This caused me to consider what will I do if I get there and no one speaks English? I got to the hospital and spotted a sign for triage. That sounded like the right place so I went inside. There was a waiting room full of people with various ailments with a desk at the back where a nurse stood behind a glass panel. A queue of people where jostling around the desk so I walked up and joined them. As I was waiting the doors flung open where two young guys came in carrying another young guy who was banged up, obviously from a motorcycle accident. The nurse jumped out from behind the desk and shuffled them into a back room, through which I could see many more people with injuries being treated. After some time, with a few people pushing in ahead of me, I managed to get the attention of the nurse behind the desk. Feeling a little like a reanimated corpse, I did my best to say “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor.” She looked at me blankly, helplessly saying “No English”. I thought the situation was hopeless when I remembered the Google translate app I had downloaded to my phone. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and frantically typed in “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor please” and held up my phone with the Italian translation on the screen to the window. He nodded, then got the attention of one of her male colleagues who came out and ushered me to follow him into another building. He spoke a few words of English, enough to understand I was Australian and feeling ill. Almost immediately, he took me in to see a doctor, who also spoke no English. I typed in “I think I may be dehydrated. I feel weak. headache. I’ve had vomiting.” I have no idea how good the translation was, but he seemed to understand. The first guy left me with the doctor who told me to take my shirt off, lie down, then started examining my stomach. After this he told me to sit up and prepared an injection for me. My immediate thought was a jab in the arm, but no, he gestured for me to drop my pants and bend over. Oh boy. I winced as the needle went straight into the left butt cheek. I pull my trousers back up and gingerly sat down again leaning on my right. Then he went for another one. Stand up, bend over, right cheek. Ouch. With my glutes throbbing I certainly wouldn’t be riding a bike today. He told me to lay down on the bed, and I was soon drifting off to sleep. I don’t know how much time had passed but I woke with a start, to see the first guy standing by the bed calling out “Mister!” The doctor was laughing and pointed to my head, to enquire if my headache had subsided. I was feeling very groggy, but better than before. I typed into my phone “I think I’m feeling better now. maybe I just need some more rest?” I showed the doctor my passport, who took down my details, then I thanked him and the first guy lead me out of the building into the court yard. I showed him the card for the hostel and he called me a taxi. As he waited with me, he told me to stay in the shade and said the Sicilian sun should come with a warning!!

I spent the next few hours sleeping it off at the hostel. In the early afternoon, Joe came back to ask how I was getting on. Feeling much better, I decided I would get up to see some of Catania. It was inevitable that I would need to spend another night here, so I may as well see some of the place, hoping that I would be well enough in the morning to move on. After a quick shower, Joe and I headed across the road to the Castello Museum. It was a short walk and indoors so seemed like a good option. The Castello was a very cool 13th century medieval structure surrounded by a moat, that at one time was filled with lava! The museum itself was quite an eclectic collection of items from all over the region, including roman artefacts, sculptures, paintings, armour and some really interesting early Christian wall paintings that had been excavated for display in the museum.

Passing my first test feeling fine, we ventured further afield and wandered into the city centre. Catania is quite a nice old city when you get into the middle of it. There may be some shabby areas surrounding it, but the main piazza with it’s fountain and surrounding buildings is impressive. We explored a few places before sitting down at a cafe for a gelato. We managed to find the Roman theatre too, similar to the ones I had seen in Pompeii, albeit in poorer condition. Bizarrely the surrounding terrace houses that had been constructed in the centuries after the theatre, were build right on top of it, so that they were integrated into the structure. One of the houses, dating back to the 18th century I think, had been restored and was furnished according to the period.

We returned to the hostel, briefly and then headed out to dinner with a couple of the girls from the hostel, April and Yuen. April is from Hong Kong, but has been studying humanities in Denmark. Yuen is from China, but has been studying Greek in Greece. They met on a previous trip and were now holidaying together for a week in Sicily. We wandered up and down the main streets of Catania, until we settled on a little place for dinner offering a range of traditional Sicilian cuisine. The waiter did a pretty good job explaining the menu to us in English and for once I was confident that I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered. However, when the meals came I still ended up with the fish instead of risotto! It didn’t matter though, it was still delicious and I traded part of my fish for a taste of April’s risotto anyway. We finished off with a beautiful pistachio gelato, then walked back to hostel. As Joe was getting up early to catch the early ferry to Malta and I was planning to make an early start on the bike, we said our goodbyes and turned in for the night. After the drama of the night before, it was hard to believe I had still managed to pack in a fun filled day feeling fine, but I had learned my lesson not to push myself too hard. Tomorrow I would be back on the bike to explore more of Sicily as I headed south for the ferry to Malta.

Trains on boats and new found friends

I descended the hill into Minori and found the tourist information office. Most of the town was still fixed on the football match that would dictate Italy’s world cup campaign. I could hear the cries from the windows of houses and restaurants as I passed. The lady recommended a place to me called the Hotel Europa. She said, its near the road, not anything fancy, but cheap. Sounded perfect for me. She gave me a postcard with this colourful, pristine depiction of an idealistic holiday resort. It may have looked like that once upon a time, but now it was looking a bit tired. As I approached the building, this little old lady approached me and started beaconing me to come in. Pointing and waving he hand like she really meant business, while muttering something in Italian I couldn’t comprehend. I got of my bike and walked it into the foyer of the building, with the little old lady fussing over me, pointing at where I might rest it. There was another lady at the counter, probably in her forties with thick curly hair and think rimmed glasses who cried out in a shrill loud voice “HELLO! You want a room?” I got checked in and parked my bike in a little room of the dining hall, then made my way up the stairs to my room. A group of four Italians were playing cards on the balcony and we exchanged a quick “Ciao!” as I passed. Heading back to the main town square, it seemed appropriate to dine at the Café Europa for dinner, while I sat surveying the activity of the waterfront, before retiring to bed.

The next day, I woke to the sound of traffic so clear, it was like it was in the room with me. I had a quick shower, then headed downstairs for breakfast. The duo from the night before were putting on a scene reminiscent of Fawlty Towers with the younger woman barking out “Mama!” and the old lady muttering in Italian before shuffling off to take care of the latest errand. There were a number of hotel guests around in the dining hall, and it became clear that the younger woman at the hotel had one one volume for her voice. At one point she came over to give me the Wi-Fi password for the hotel, and with her head leaning over my should proceeded to belt out more orders to “Mama!” and carry on a passionate tirade with another customer. I winced as the sound pounded into my left ear while trying not to laugh out loud at the spectacle.

Eventually I packed my things, checked out and said goodbye to Minori. With the extra distance I had done the day before, today would be a very easy ride. The next village was Maori, another quiet little place set among the hills. The road was still quite busy and now i started to see a few more lycra clad cyclists that i had seen the day before. one of them came up behind me and passed on a team sky Pinarello. I sat on his wheel and he asked me where I was from. I told him “Australia. Just like Richie Porte. You’re riding his bike.” we chatted for a few minutes before he said he had to stop now and go to work. Not bad to have a quick blast down the Amalfi coast before heading off to work at 11AM I thought! I passed a big group of people on scooters who were parked at one of the turnouts taking pictures. When I called out “Ciao!” as I went by there was an enthusiastic roar of “Ciao!” followed by cheers which put a smile on my face.

My guidebook warned me that the roads coming into Salerno would be confusing. It was the end of the little coastal villages and hello to a big port city. My first thought was to catch the ferry from Salerno to Sicily (or even Malta if possible). I managed to find my way across the lanes of traffic and follow the road that ran along the water front, hoping that the ferry terminal would be pretty obvious, or there would be some information point there. I continued along this way for a while, until I saw a sign for the passenger ferry. That must be it, I thought but as I pulled in to have a closer look, there was not much there and the sign was for smaller ferries to Sorrento and Amalfi coast. So then I decided to follow the signs to the tourist information centre, but after a while they just disappeared. The first sent me down the water front, which I kept following, until I reached the end of the pavement and ended up on the road heading out of town. So I gave up on the phantom information centre and the ferry and went looking for the train station. Train stations are generally big and easy to find. When I got there, the next train to Catania was leaving in 20 minutes. From Catania, I would need to make my way to Pozzallo where the ferry to Malta would leave on Friday. With my bike, the conductor told me to get on the last carriage where I left it precariously in the doorway and locked it to a hand rail. Since my reservation was for another carriage, I just found a seat wherever.

The train had these little compartments with 4 seats facing one another, like a modern version of the Hogwarts Express. I found a cabin where a couple were sitting, and sat down. They guy was sleeping and the girl was reading a book, so I got my laptop out. After a little while, the guy woke up and I noticed that they were signing to another. Always keen to meet new people, I got out my notebook and introduced myself. “Hi. My name is Phil and I’m from Australia. What’s your name? Where are you from?” The girl’s eyes lit up as she grabbed my notebook and replied “Hi Phil from Australia! We are from Hawaii! Misella and Bryce.” We carried on the conversation for a while passing my notebook back and forth. Misella has been here since April with Bryce just joining her. They will spend 2 months touring around Europe together. In July they will be camping with other deaf Europeans in the UK. It was lots of fun and I enjoyed getting to know them, and sharing some of my stories.

Suddenly there was a commotion with the engine driving the train being removed, and some of the carriages being disconnected. We all jumped out of the cabin to investigate. Then I realised what was happening, the train carriages had been shunted onto a ferry and we were going to sail across to Sicily. I did wonder how we would get there, whether there was a bridge or something. Then I spotted another guy in the carriage and called out to him. He was excited to hear someone else speaking English. He introduced himself as Joe from Bristol, and I introduced him to Misella and Bryce.

Once the train was secured on the ferry, we were free to roam about so the four of us went exploring. We made out way out the back where we could see the water, then another passenger told us we could access the upper deck, so we headed up there. On the upper deck it was quite windy, but we had a great view as we came into Messina. The ferry trip was very brief, so we had to jump back onto the train, but we watched with interest as the engine was reconnected and then coupled to the other carriages. Joe came and joined us in out little cabin, and we went on chatting, passing notes to one another. Bryce and Misella were getting off one stop before Joe and I who were going to Catania. We waved them good bye and exchanged details so we could keep in touch.

Joe was booked into a hostel in Catania. Since it was late, and I had nothing arranged, I decided I would make a reservation there too. That way we could keep each other company (and I wouldn’t get lost, hopefully). The hostel was a short walk from the station, and despite the cryptic directions we made our way there. It helps that it is located directly opposite an enormous Medieval castle! When we checked in we were both surprised at how nice, new and clean it was for the price. We dropped off our bags in the room, set up our beds and headed to the restaurant next door for dinner.

With the rush to get the train, I had skipped lunch. We shared some nibbles on the train, biscotti, prociutto and Misella even gave us some of her delicious homemade strawberry jam, but I was still pretty hungry. At the restaurant, a band was playing and it was packed, so we had to sit inside. It was good really, because we had a great view of the band, particularly the drummer. They played a mix of Italian songs, then some in English – lots of the Police and other classics of that era. The pizza and salad that I ordered was great, but too much to finish. We hung around for another song or two before heading back up to the hostel. It had been another great day, meeting more great people but I was ready for bed!