Today’s ride is a 92 kilometre circuit to Noto, a historic Sicilian town, famous for having more churches per square kilometre than anywhere in Italy.
It begins in the cool early morning at our B&B outside Ispica in south-western Sicily. We take a quiet back lane two kilometres through olive groves to the beach road, turn left and cycle with the Mediterranean on our right and pastel-painted Casas on our left. There’s a gentle breeze and the Council workers are out whippersnipping the undergrowth. For a few kilometres, we feel back home in Australia with frangapani blooming and eucalypt trees dusty and tall by the roadside. A plant that looks suspiciously like wattle crowds the footpath. At any moment, I’m expecting to see a flattened cane toad on the road.
No, just a hedgehog.
In one village, a enterprising local is cultivating a small vineyard in sand. The plants looks green and robust. Cathie and I enter into a debate as to which country is directly to our right, across the sea. I suggest Lebanon or somewhere in the Middle East, she lumps for Tunisia. In fact, we’re both wrong. It’s Libya, although Cathie is out by only a few hundred kilometres. I’m out by... well, let’s just say that for the rest of the trip, I won’t be offering suggestions for the correct direction.
The next ten kilometres are lovely, with easy cycling beside the beach, counting the number of ‘closed for the season’ pizzerias. It’s seems as if every fifth householder has erected a temporary building at the front, put up a ‘restaurant’ sign, and hoped for the best.
My reverie is disturbed by a familiar growl, as five Ford Cobra convertibles bully past us. It’s the fourth time we’ve seen them in Sicily. They all have Swiss number plates and fancy racing-stripe paintjobs. I've dubbed them 'the wanker bankers.' The thought comes to me that, as they pass, each driver probably looks at me and thinks, I’d much rather be in the car than on a bike. And, of course, as they rumble into the distance, I think, I’d much rather be on a bike than in a car. Such is life.
Two ever-present roadside plants in this part of Sicily are bamboo and cactus. The bamboo grows to a tremendous height and regularly sways across the road shoulder, so we’re constantly ducking and weaving. Sicilian drivers have a pleasant habit of lightly tooting the horn, warning us of their approach.
At Pachino, we stop at a cafe for two croissants, filled with ricotta washed down with cappuccini. The cost... four Euro. The road now heads north between vineyards, lemon or pear groves and hundreds of ramshackle hothouses, fifty metres long and three metres high, ripe with tomatoes. It’s fun looking through the torn sides and spying all that fruit. Last night we’d eaten our share of pomodoros in a beachside restaurant. They taste as good as they look.
On one flat section, an old guy on a scooter passes. I can’t resist, I pedal as fast as Craig, my bicycle, will go and draft him for a kilometre. The old man looks in the rear-mirror, mystified. If only I had my road bike here.
The road gets busy and climbs steadily towards the old town of Noto, well-known for its 18th Century buildings, many in the Baroque style. Cathie and I ride slowly through the cobblestone streets. The most distinguishing feature of Baroque on the houses seems to be ornate wrought-iron railings. The churches, of which there are simply too many to visit, are all of a uniform colour which would be described by the Dulux Advertising Department as either Italian Wheatfield or Sicilian Honeycomb. We stop at an Enoteca for lunch and eat bruschetta (there’s those tomatoes again) and local cheese drizzled in honey. Yep, Sicilian Honeycomb it is.
After lunch, we wander the alleyways. ‘Now is that the Church of Santa Caterina? Santa Chiara? Santa Maria della Scala? Santa Maria del Gesu? Or Santa Maria del Carmelo?’
The best time for riding on the roads in Italy is during the 1pm to 3pm siesta. We cycle home with the wind at our backs for most of the journey. Back near the beach, we stop at a seaside bar. Everyone is slumbering in beach chairs, bottles of Heineken stacked on the tables. We have a celebratory cafe crema before heading home to our B&B. On hearing that we've cycled all the way to Noto and back, the kindly owner presents Cathie with a gift of an ornamental horse and carriage in a plastic cube.