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Cycling to Africa - Part 22 – Inferno to Palermo

10:08 22nd August 2013 By Pavel Trcala

This time Pavel makes his way through the Mafia homeland on his odyssey. 

Nowhere to hide in the heat

Nowhere to hide in the heat

Night in the mobile home was comfortable, if hot.  In the morning I bought the necessary

ingredients and Marian, although originally from the Netherlands, made a full English breakfast. Great!  And we had to say goodbye – the unwritten rule of my trip was to bike and discover – allowing a maximum of one night in one place. In addition, I only had two days to the departure of the ferry to Africa and I wanted to see western Sicily.

There was a trail to Scopello along the northern coast from San Vito. The problem was that it went through a nature reserve with no asphalt road. My Scott road bike has already survived some rough terrain, but apparently no vehicles – not even bicycles – were allowed in the reservation. I tried to get information, but no one wanted to tell me details about such trivial thing as the road. I began slowly to understand Sicily. The locals are very suspicious when you ask them about anything. We cannot forget that this – and in fact not only this – region of Italy is intermingled with organized crime the same way the Thames water under Tower Bridge is mixed with the ocean water. It is impossible to point to a certain part of the river and say this is seawater and this water is the river- it is all brackish.  Similarly, in Sicily it is probably difficult to say – this business is linked to the Mafia and this one is not.

People said that the entrance to the natural reserve would be controlled, so I decided that I would rather not risk the chance to come there and have to turn back.  Instead, I would make the long way round on the paved road. According to my rule not to backtrack on the same road, for a few miles I hitched a ride with a van to the turn-off of the road into the mountains, which I noticed the day before.  Even though there was a no entry sign for cars, the road was very wide and paved. I couldn’t understand why the road was unused.  Despite the no entry sign, there was one car and one motorcycle that passed me. The climb was hell up the mountain without trees and without any possibility to hide from the sun.

When I got to the pass, I understood why the road was not being unused.  Contrary to the information on my map, the asphalt ended just there.  What followed was not gravel, nor dirt road, just loose rock.  Combining slow riding and walking and imagining how awesome it would be if I had a mountain bike, I survived this unplanned off-road section.  Then a descent towards the sea followed by another climb and so on, just like on a big mountain swing. But paved!

A Sign of Pilgrimage



Above the town of Castellammare I stopped for a sandwich and saw a promotional flyer for a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. “Hm, I’ve never been there,” I thought. “Sometimes I should go there, after all, it’s a famous pilgrimage place.” In these reflections I met a family, who lived in Washington in the same area where as I used to live. They explained to me that almost everyone in this area has relatives in America. This was confirmed by the owner of the travel agency where I dropped into later on. The agent told me that travel arrangements for visiting relatives in America is one of its main income sources.  Although he did not know about ferries from the Pantelleria island..

Despite the killing heat, I pedalled further east along the coast of Sicily and saw with my own eyes what other travellers had warned me about:  the coast of Sicily is not as pretty as the coast of Corsica or Sardinia. But I really did not expect such a big difference.  Yes, perhaps God did not give Sicily so many beautiful beaches, but certainly the island is not ugly. So far I had only seen a tiny part of Sicily but had managed to  see a lot of trash- garbage everywhere- on the roads, in ditches, in the parking lots, in city streets.

As I pedalled, I saw some white structures on the rocks in the distance. There I could swim, I thought. This resort certainly was past its best days, but was in an interesting location  – on a cliff above the sea and had no beach. The only access to water was via a super steep path. After a nap in the company of the Russian youth in the shade next to the tennis courts, I resolved to descend to the water. The final plunge was interesting – down a waterslide into the sea.  I stretched the swimming relatively far away along the cliffs.

Bricklayer on a carbon bike

A Sicilian bricklayer and his carbon bike

A Sicilian bricklayer and his carbon bike

When I started again in the direction to Palermo, temperatures were not so murderous anymore. As I rode closer and closer to Palermo, everywhere there was more and more garbage. Suddenly the narrow strip between the cliffs and the sea had to squeeze an airport, a four lane highway, a railway and the main road that I was biking on. At one bridge I saw a dead bird and an old gun. In a ravine under the motorway bridge I noticed a strange group of men climbing to the mountains. “That is interesting, people here certainly do not go trekking in the mountains,” I thought.

Later, I accidentally came across a book about the mafia and eventually read more of them.  One book described that in this area above the town Isola delle Femmine there is a ravine that led to a former munitions warehouse of Italian Navy and NATO.  According to the reports, this is the place, from which came the bombs for various attacks, such against one of the main anti-mafia investigators Giovanni Falcone. However, when I passed over this bridge, I knew nothing about these things.  I only noticed some guys in the ravine.

Maybe now I can understand how that this bricklayer, with whom I pedalled for several kilometres, had the best handmade carbon bike with a price tag similar to a passenger car. Are bricklayers so well paid? As I learned later, in Sicily and throughout Italy many people live double lives. I do not know if this was the case. Anyway, this bricklayer seemed to be a nice guy.

Just like South America

When I approached Palermo, the sun was setting over the horizon. The traffic thickened and it became clear that I was about to enter a huge metropolis. Unlike in northern Italy, where I would prefer to avoid cities, Palermo attracted me. I wanted to experience the genius loci of this sinful city. And what is more – I wanted to, ideally in its centre, spend the night.

The first stop I made on the beach of Mondello. All around were old large luxury villas which reminded me of Pasadena, California.  One beach bar was very busy, so I biked there. It was the time of day, when all go out to be seen.  Everybody was perfectly dressed up in the best clothes, with the best make-up on and if they did not come in a Ferrari, at least in a Bavarian sports car. Only I was on the bike and in a sweaty cycling jersey. I met two sailors who worked on ferries from Sicily. “The ferry from Pantelleria to Tunis was cancelled,

“you have to go directly from Trapani.”  So my plan to go to Africa through the lesser-known island of Pantelleria just died. The only connection was from Trapani two days later.

I biked to the centre of Palermo along on a dark coastal road around really luxurious villas. Although I drove into town quite late, the streets were very lively. Going down the big boulevards I arrived in the city and I felt totally like in Buenos Aires. “Europe is great “, I thought.” Everyone can for a few pounds fly with Ryanair to Sicily and experience South America virtually with everything that belongs to it. ”

Near the beautiful theatre building I had a dinner and found accommodation. The owner of the restaurant showed me his carbon bike and personally walked me several blocks away, where his acquaintance  had a hostel. “Before, it was not possible to walk on streets in the evenings, there were robberies and murders, especially because of drugs. ” “And now, what is the role of the mafia today?”, I asked. Similarly, as many times later, the response was cautious:” The mafia is still strong, but tourist would not notice it too much, it affects more companies and entrepreneurs. “And what that meantI was to learn the following day.


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