I have had an interest in Sicily for since childhood thanks in part to some of my family having grown up with the Italian community in Innisfail North Queensland which had a strong connection to Etna region Sicily. An opportunity presented itself recently to make a small visit.
First order of business was some lunch before leaving the airport. This is a great start.
I can still remember some of the Italian I was taught as a young child before starting school despite never really using it. That is the age to learn a language I think. I studied German at high school and remember nothing of it. People told me it will be difficult if I do not know some Italian but I live in Japan and cannot speak the language so how hard could this be.
Boarding a plane with mostly all Italians was comical. Every culture has it’s quirky nature, none more so than Australia, but I am always amused how the Italians cannot form an orderly queue be it at a shop or service counter everyone will push in so the boarding gate had four different lines all pushing in front of each other. I like to board last, flying is such a miserable experience why get on sooner than you have to.
Coming into Catania I was surprised to see the amount of air pollution in the countryside, there were fires visible burning everywhere much like you see in a developing country. I would find out more on this later. I was staying in Taormina which is a beautiful little tourist town dating back to Greek times perched up on a hill over the ocean. It is simply lovely.
I had arranged to rent a motorcycle for four days and like in Spain just previous it had not been easy to find anyone interested in my business on the southern side of the island. There are a few rental shops listed in Catania, the city I arrived at. I made enquiries in advance with them but zero responses, I made a booking with one via their online booking site but no response. I had already learnt not to use that rentalmotorbike.com company after the trouble with them so I ended up contacting Central Italy Motorcycle Tours, a company based elsewhere in Italy but whom run tours to Sicily and who were able to rent me a BMW F700 and a helmet and a jacket.
I took the train over to Catania the morning I had booked the bike for. I had planned a ride that would have me stay over night elsewhere the first day to expand the areas I would be able to see beyond just day trips. Very confusing street layout did not match Google maps but a friendly police man guided me. When I found the office no one was there due to a mix up with the dates but the agent arrived in about an hour and in the meantime I had an bite to eat and watched Italian parking wondering what the thought process was there. Everyone parks so close, often touching. I watched people push the cars in front and behind them into the other cars using their bumpers so they could get out of the parking spot. Beautiful new cars all with their bumpers scratched and dented and torn on every car… Of course people also double park everywhere blocking in cars and much waving of arms is done by the poor person trapped but who probably does the same themselves.
It was good to have a light lunch and coffee when I did so then I need not look for anything once riding and would be able to recoup some of the lost time. I got a very easy exit from Catania not making any wrong turns and was on the expressway within 5 minutes thanks to good road directions from Lorenzo from CIMT.
I had forgotten my usual brand of ear plugs but fortunately always carry both foam and silicon type for blocking noise on planes and in hotels so once out of town got them out and looked the F700. Seems like it has been gathering dust for some time but it was running fine and everything was easy to operate so I set off into Sicily! I had no real must ride roads in Sicily, just look around and explore.
My first day I took country roads to see the baroque town of Ragusa mainly because I had seen it featured in a popular series of tv movies about the fictional police Inspector Montalbano and indeed the old town is lovely just like it appears on the small screen. I should have used a longer lens to capture the same sort of framing video uses, as usual a standard near 35mm type focal length pushes everything back despite this supposedly being close to natural field of view. The view over the old town walking around was superb.
I could have spent the afternoon walking around Ragusa looking at places used in the movies but by the same token I know those to be fictional stories which also come from another time, the childhood of the author Andrea Camilleri and so it was nice to see the town then leave before I spoiled any of the illusion created in his books or movies.
I took a easy route to Ragusa getting used to the BMW F700 and Sicilian drivers who are perhaps the most aggressive I have encountered. First thing I noted was everyone was driving as fast as possible. As usual I try to keep up with the flow for safety as being slow and annoying aggressive drivers is very dangerous for a rider, even in ‘Speed kills’ Australia I have had cars try run me off the road because they perceived I was holding them up a few km per hour (both times on the multi lane M1 and both times women) so I did not want to test riding radically below the flow here lest I get clipped but the speed was at most times as fast as their vehicle can go (140kph in 70kph urban zones the norm) just too reckless for me.
Back on the bike from Ragusa I ignored the GPS and took minor roads to be able to slow down and enjoy the countryside. Then unexpectedly the sea in a beautiful shade of blue appeared before me.
I was riding to Agrigento to see the valley of the temples archeological site but since it was just a small detour I had to visit the another site from the movies along the way in a small seaside town. You either know this scene very well or not at all
From there I took some nice curvy farming roads along the coast in what seemed like the heart of the tomato growing region for a while. I was following a slow farm truck and feeling relaxed so was in no hurry to pass and this turned out to be a blessing as a little further on around a blind corner a load of tomatoes had spilled and squished all over the road and if I had arrived to that at anything more than a very slow pace it might have been a problem as very slippery.
Have you ever had similar sort of thing when you think should I pass or not and decide no rush then over the next crest comes a highway patrol checking speeds or road works that had no warning signs. I try more now to keep my pace down when possible as I figure you only get those sort of breaks a few times and I have already been handed quite a number of them.
Riding west then on mostly undivided fast roads I found the oncoming cars will pull out to pass on corners and blind crest hills or pull out to pass and drive straight at you forcing you to brake suddenly or get onto the outer edge of the road. The roads are in poor state of repair too with various small detours around damaged sections often unsealed which made much of the tar dusty and low grip for a motorcycle. I had the ABS cut in heavy twice and no doubt saved me both times from a front wheel lockup as I had to brake hard to avoid being taken out by impatient drivers swerving into my lane.
In Thailand drivers will pull out and you need to move over however it is rather different situation there. First of all there are 1000’s of small 125cc bikes on the roads which have been built incorporating a wide sealed section adjacent to the lane itself specifically for riders. So it is accepted that the road is sort of 4 lanes for bikers and when a car needs to pass riders move to the outside bike lane section if not already there since the low capacity scooters often are travelling slow and off the main lane already. In Indonesia they have a variation just for riders with an unwritten rule that riders can pull out to pass with oncoming bikes who will move over splitting the lane for each other so two lanes become four if you follow me. Both of those scared me at first but you get to know how it works and everyone is actually fairly courteous to each other, especially Indonesia where people don’t cut corners and they allow everyone to merge seamlessly.
This on the other had was not like that, just a few guys being impatient, too many espresso coffees perhaps haha. Next day I was on the F700 early and with the first people to enter the valley of the temples site which was a good move being able to see the place before the crowds would arrive.
Then I rode over to the northern side of Sicily. Some highway to begin with but it was only partly constructed. It was not a new highway but work seemed to have been abandoned every 10 km or so. Eventually I could leave the highway to enjoy the very beautiful countryside.
Very scenic however the roads became quite poor in parts. Nice in small sections like in the photo below but either side of this the tar was buckled and twisted with sunken sections forcing me back to 2nd gear slow and 1st gear up on the pegs off road riding at times with road buckles as big as a metre with a dirt side track where the road has fallen away down the mountain, just seems to be neglected as do the town in these mountains.
People seem very poor collecting fire wood tied to the roof of beaten up cars, the streets and buildings were crumbling and lots of fires burning around the place reminded me of a towns in developing countries such as Philippines not Italy one of the members of the Eurozone.
Down from the mountains I rode along the coast to another movie location, Cefalu the town that the highly acclaimed Italian movie Cinema Paradiso was set in. It was Saturday and the place was packed with people for weekend lunch, a total grid lock with everyone beeping their horn and nobody able to move. I was not too surprised but it was shame as it was really warm and I was starting to bake in the traffic and in the end I just gave up on getting to the beach as it was too busy anyway and decided to ride along the coast road more and see what it was like and indeed it was a lovely ride.
In all the excitement of the traffic jam I forgot to get petrol, well I saw a couple of gas stations but they were unmanned type where you need to insert money into a machine then you get that much in fuel and I wanted the option to fill up rather than top up or put more in the machine than needed. Well being weekend not many gas stations were open as I had read was the case in Italy so I ended up on reserve and had no choice but to use one of the unmanned pumps. The machine took my first 20 euro note and I got nothing. I then watched a guy come and use the pump fine so I carefully did same as him and got fuel the second time round and ended up with near a full tank so set off back into the mountains.
This time the roads were a mixture, the seaside seemed to have wealthy houses and there was this super sized ramp (below) and a expensive road up the mountain for a while but which later deteriorated to one lane with half finished road cuttings and a tunnel that had obviously not seen work in years. Someone got themselves a fancy driveway it seems and then perhaps the money for the rest of the road was misplaced.
I rode on making my way back to the southern side of Sicily via the mountains all the way. Roads were poor at times but not atrocious like in the morning. The countryside was so lush and green, I was not expecting such beautiful rolling hills. Many interesting small towns perched on top of the higher ridges or peaks. A couple of poor looking towns I passed through had no shops open. People were selling produce in one from cars scattered about in the main part of town. I wanted to get something to eat but was simply not able to find anything.
No such thing as a 7/11 nor any cafes or bakeries and no supermarkets either. So different to my base in Japan where there is always a convenience store even in the smallest communities that has all the basics as well as bakery and meals and of course vending machines with hot coffee can be found in a forest in middle of nowhere in Japan. I was going to get a packed lunch from the hotel and wished now I had done so but oh well I had been sampling far too much of the Italian red wine so could do to skip some calories.
Two road signs that they could save a lot of money by not using as nobody pays any heed to speed limits or no passing.
Other mountain towns were nice and tidy, obviously with different economics at work.
Coming down the southern side of the mountains the road picked up in quality and I found some other bikers perhaps up from Catania but they were riding at break neck speed so I let them go and continued on route SS120 which I had been on for most of the day. It turned into a decent riding road along the base of the eastern side of Mt Etna. But I was feeling rather weary by now as the clock approached 7pm. It had been a very long day near to 12 hours and I was glad to take the toll road for the last bit back to Taormina then somehow not get lost in the spaghetti type crazy tangle of road leading up to the town itself. A huge day of riding.
The hotel staff were worried about me not coming back last night (I left all my things there except change of clothes) which was sweet and they could not believe I had ridden all the places I told them about in two days but Australians are use to covering long distances. The next day I was unsure what to do. I had two more rides planned. But the condition of the roads yesterday did not inspire me to try the routes I had in my GPS. Perhaps I made a poor choice of roads but they were routes listed on bestbikingroads.com for Sicily not just randomly picked. The scenery was great but I felt less inclined this day to take on the challenge of the odd car playing chicken with me and the slippery road surfaces.
Need to be 100% alert to ride in this environment and it was a day that I was not feeling up to the task having been travelling already a few weeks at this point. I must be getting old as I ended up just leaving the F700 in the garage for the day. But rather than lying around I decided to try hike up the mountain. I usually do a exercise routine daily when at home and travelling I miss this which I find has the effect to invigorate. It didn’t look so far from the ocean but it really got the heart pumping with a constant high gradient climb.
The reward at the top besides better fitness was a great view.
Of course what did I find but another nice restaurant so I over a long lunch with views of Mt Etna I put back the calories I had just walked off. Leaving the hotel the next morning was a challenge as it had an extremely steep drive way. I don’t know the gradient but it was probably about 30 degrees at the lower section and then it gets almost too steep to walk up and steps had been cut into the middle of the road – that’s mighty steep and would be close to the famous Baldwin St in New Zealand with is cliff face like 38 degrees (below)
Low down the BMW F700 was not so easy to ride. I stalled it a few times at lights or in traffic jams at low speed. Not sure if the gearing was taller than I expected or the engine lacked sufficient torque at low rpms but low speed it did not work so well for me so I was slipping the clutch like mad to not stall the bike on the climb as I wanted to keep a slow but steady drive up the hill hoping like hell nothing would come the other way as it was very narrow but two way lane servicing a couple of hotels perched on the edge of the cliff. But it was all good and so Mt Etna here we come.
Came across this lone sign when riding up to the roads that circle Mt Etna indicating the connection between the region of Etna to Tully and Innisfail in Queensland Australia.
The roads around Mt Etna are quite good. The top was busy with cars but otherwise great riding.
It was a warm morning down low but very cold at the top with patches of snow and I was not equipped to ride in temperatures that low. I felt the cold seep in and chill me to the bone and knew I should get back down sooner rather than later. I had a terrific ride down the western slopes on the best roads I had experienced yet, a series of sweeping curves that descended over 2000 metres with amazing views. The road had been built on top of one of the more recent lava flows, possibly from the 80’s and so I was riding this superbly surveyed modern road through this alien like black rock landscape. I wish I had used my action cam to record it as my photos of this part are rubbish.
I had to stop once down to about 500 metres and stomp my feet and bit and stand in the sun 10 minutes to get some warmth back into my body. The weather in general had been fine but much milder than what I expected. The days did reach the average of about 25 degrees but only briefly during middle of the day spending most of the time around 20 or lower which is cool for me and in higher areas it was like cold for me.
I decided to take the back roads around Mt Etna and then into Catania and return the F700. I had been generously offered the bike until late that night or the next day to make up for the delay day one but it was too far to go to other areas I would like to have seen or ridden. With hindsight I could have done two nights away and ridden further afield but I was happy enough to just have a easy time. Catania was a challenge to ride into but I got behind a lunatic in a white Alfa and just followed the path he cut through intersections where traffic lights seem to be mainly for decoration and before long was in the area not far from the bike rental office thus I arrived back much easier than it might have been.
The BMW F700 was I think a good motorcycle to have on the rough roads. It was lightly damped with non adjustable suspension which was a bit floaty at high speed but fine on all those chopped up sections. The 19 inch front wheel gives a slow turn in less precise compared to a regular 17 inch on say the Kawasaki Versys 650 which otherwise is a very similar motorcycle to the F700. Same sort of power as the Versys, 75hp from a parallel twin engine.
The ergonomics felt about the same, the F700 has a wider and flatter seat which did not work quite so well for me but otherwise similar upright roomy ride as the Versys. The screen fitted offered some wind deflection and not excessive turbulence. Better than the Vstrom, about the same as the Versys and not as good as the MT-09. The analogue gauges had small readouts and needing to wear glasses for reading I find it impossible to see clearly small indications but I did not need to obey speed limits so this proved no problem. Really had nothing to complain about with the bike, was glad it had ABS. Besides the badge I can not tell much difference to a Versys so felt quite at home on the F700.
I spent the late afternoon in Catania. From the piazza you can make out there once was a grand boulevard with beautiful buildings in some century past but now everything is plastered in graffiti, dirty and rather ugly. Perhaps I was removed from the real Sicily in Taormina, a pretty town full of tourists but then it was a very nice experience staying there, I felt relaxed, was eating wonderful albeit slightly over priced food every day and got perhaps the Sicily of my dreams instead of the real one but after wanting to visit for so long that was not such a bad thing.
This article was originally posted to Motorcycle Paradise Blog in June 2016.