We have just completed our first adventure in Sicily, travelling from Trapani in the west to Taormina in the east, over 11 beautiful days.
As we meandered through the ever changing seascape and landscape, we were awash with the colours and smells of early Spring; an absolute abundance of wild flowers of differing shapes, textures, colours and fragrances laid out the path before us each day, making the experience of our travels even more spectacular.
When we designed our Sicily cycling tour over a year ago, we always knew we needed to take in the very Best of Sicily, which for us means traversing across the island – this is because the diversity of landscape, culture, food and wine from the west to the east is pronounced, and to really gain a sense of the layers of Sicilian architecture, culture, landscape and history, we wanted to provide our guests with this diverse experience and deeper sense of appreciation of this magical island. We believe we have achieved that.
The Riding – From West to East
Wow, is all you can say, day after day on our cycling tour of Sicily.
The riding is nothing short of superb. Starting on day 1 with a short and sharp ascent to a historic Roman town with stunning vistas on every hairpin corner, and riding through its cobblestoned streets which are shrouded in mist for more than half of the year, set the tone for the days ahead. Pure magic.
Each day there is something different to see, and with plenty of elevation, there is time to take it all in – as each rider finds their rhythm on the consistent, but not difficult climbs.
Our ride journey took us down into rugged ravines and up past 2000 year old Greek temples. We navigated through quiet towns, marvelled at the beautiful architecture and the incredible engineering, with some towns ‘just hanging on’ the side of yet another rugged hill. We rode close to the sea, with the soft spray of the small waves kissing us gently as we rolled by. We saw and stopped for the shepherds moving their flocks of sheep and goats from one pasture to the next in the island’s inner agricultural heart, which is still so ‘far away from it all’ and so untouched by tourism. We rolled past countless olive trees, vineyards and ancient villa’s transformed into rustic guesthouses, yet still with the perfume of nonna’s kitchen surrounding us at each corner. We rolled around the outside of a small island, with the road at the water’s edge, and into grand piazza’s of a town with an architectural and cultural history dating back to 5000 BC.
We sampled a range of beautiful flavours on the road and a diverse set of roadside experiences, with the highlight being a simple pasta of fava e piselli (broad beans and peas) that were grown in our host’s garden and made into a dish of pure goodness by his wife.
Beautifully rustic and authentically Sicilian.
The 2 Sides of Cultural Diversity
Sicily has seen an exceptional number of civilisations occupy and control its land, with each leaving their mark and together, leaving a very interesting mix of architectural styles, customs, behaviours, language, cuisine and ingredients.
From the heavily Arabic influences still seen and felt in the west to the dominance of the Spanish in the architecture and style of the east, and to all the influences in-between from the Greeks to the French and of course, the Romans, this really is a land of diversity and wonder.
It’s also the powerhouse industries of the past, particularly the salt from Trapani and Marsala, the fortified wines of Marsala that were exported to England, the Mediterranean and Arabic influences of olive oil soap making, the Spanish influences with chocolate production, through to the production of olive oil over the centuries for multiple uses, that have all shaped the lifestyle and culture for Sicilian people – or for the people of west Sicily vs the people of east Sicily – a cultural division that is self-pronounced across the island, yet which is not competitive, but rather reflects an appreciation for each other’s strengths and differences – born from their land.
Yet, with all of its history, it’s the resurgence of artisans over recent years who are keeping the flame of craftsmanship alive and strong, that is really bringing out the true heart of Sicily for us all to enjoy today. Across our Sicily cycling tours, we bring out some of the best of these experiences for our riding and non-riding guests to enjoy, including a visit to a small laboratory which continues the tradition of making ‘carrettieri’, the old Sicilian horse-drawn carts with their elaborate painting that adorned them. The graphics and pictures tell the famous story of Orlando and Angelica from the 1500’s and continue to tell the story today of the fusion of how art, culture, history and tradition come together in bella Sicilia.
Palermo vs Catania
As the two major cities representing east and west, there is not only a stark difference in style, architecture and lifestyle between Palermo & Catania, and their surrounding provinces, but also a celebrated rivalry.
As we traverse the island and engage with the locals on our cycling tours of Sicily, this rivalry becomes evident in the way certain dishes are prepared, particularly Caponata, the typical and traditional dish of Sicilian cuisine that stems from rural traditions. The version from Palermo is the simplest and most classic version, with eggplant (the Palermo violet, of course), green olives, onion, celery, capers, oil, salt, vinegar and sugar the main ingredients vs the Catania version, which is distinguished by its predominance of eggplant and tomato, combined with pine nuts and fresh basil. Then there are a whole range of versions in-between from Agrigento to Trapani, with the inclusion of small green peppers through to the addition of raisins and almonds – all reflecting the influence of varying cultures on the style of cooking.
The differences between Palermo and Catania – or from west to east – are also reflected in the styles of painting and colours used, with Palermo predominantly yellow and Catania, red; in the architecture and landmarks – with Palermo boasting the Norman Palace and Zisa Museum of Islamic Art, and Catania boasting baroque architecture and Roman ruins as part of its UNESCO world heritage listing; and in the people and culture – as one of our guides near Trapani affirmed – “here in the west, we are more lively, loud and Arabic in the way we come together, and in the east, they are more sophisticated and European”….as he danced around in a little, fun dance.
The Food and Wine Journey
As with all of our Italian cycling tours, there is a cibo and vino adventure that goes hand in hand with each of our programs, and this becomes even more pronounced in a region as diverse as Sicily.
The food of Sicily is definitely one of the most exciting surprises, with a strong use of local seafood in the coastal areas and veal, chicken and other meat dishes inland, and with a wide variety of locally grown ingredients such as capers from Salina, pistachios from Bronte, oranges from Ribera, lemons from Siracusa, almonds from Avola and of course, the huge variety of olives, vegetables, herbs, olive oils and fresh produce grown across the island, from Trapani to Agrigento and up to Mount Etna. The flavours that are created are often quite unlike Italian dishes from the mainland, with differing spices more associated with African and Moroccan cuisine, and grain products such as cous cous featuring as part of the mix.
The highlight of many of our meals were the mixed and shared antipasti, where we created the opportunity for guests to try a range of new and different tastes, and also appreciate the incredible produce from across the various sub-regions.
Of course, this was always accompanied by some of the many grape varieties in Sicily that guests hadn’t heard of before, and were excited to try; from Grillo to Catarratto and Carricante in the whites, and moving into the reds to include Nerello Mascalese, Frappato & Etna Rosso. We enjoyed a range of these and other delicious wines across our dining experiences and after dinner, there was the inclusion of a range of delicious Sicilian amari, liqueurs and digestives – made from typical Sicilian ingredients of fichi d’India (or prickly pears), finocchietto selvatico (or wild fennel), limoncello (of course) and an orange based amaro from Mount Etna, which was delizioso!
Then there was Etna
And then there was the mythical mountain.
The first glimpse was seen by guests a few days earlier at sunrise and a few hundred km’s away, and then our non-riders saw it adorned with its snow-capped peak on a clear blue sunny day on their way to Pantalica.
However, it was only towards the end of our tour that all had the chance to really experience and enjoy it. As we got closer to the final days of our Sicily cycling tour and the day we were to ride Etna, we made a decision to switch days to give ourselves the chance of having the best weather possible for our ascent. Although we did have a small amount of drizzle on the way up, the atmospheric mist drifting past us made the experience ethereal, and as we pushed up past the lava fields, the hardy plants and trees which have made it their home, provided the brightest contrast of colour, against the black of the lava. It is a very unique and magical landscape.
Regrouping at the top for a quick panino and bonus cannolo, it was time to descend another route down and on a different side of the mountain, past another set of lava fields with beautiful white birch trees and the delightful surprise of dry roads and a clear sky. It was beautiful to see the elation of all the riders after successfully reaching the top, and enjoying the open and picturesque descent.
Our non-riding partners enjoyed their own magical experience of Etna, with a hike across its craters, guided by a volcanologist, and an up-close experience of the colours and contrasts of its superb lava fields. As they walked across the crushed lava, they learned about Etna’s bubbly volcanic personality, which by all accounts is continually active but not particularly threatening, and is the reason why this giant beauty will continue to be enjoyed by us all for many years to come.
Our Best of Sicily cycling tour is a true Italian adventure, both on and off the bike, and is like no other, with the Sicilian story made so unique, by its varied and diverse history. If you would like to join our next Sicilian adventure and have any questions, please click here to send us an email.