Cycling Sicily: our adventure crossing the island
You may be amazed by how many ways you can be cycling Sicily: along the coastal roads, which are seasonally crowded with vacationers and lovers of the sea; advancing among the archaeological sites that dot the island; travelling from one place described in a travel guide to another. Or you can choose to be led by the hand by those who live in Sicily, by those who know its most hidden corners, by those who want to show you the beating - and unknown - heart of this land that is too often tormented and forgotten.
- Cycling Sicily and its heart
- Salemi and Gibellina
- Farewell Belice
- Cycling Sicily up and downhill
- Castles and enchanted valleys
- The climb towards the climb towards Enna
- Enna, water and mud of our itinerary cycling Sicily
- The last effort towards Catania
- On the Etna Volcano by bicycle
- On the Trinacria Bike Trail
- Crossing the Nebrodi
- The Madonie and the sea
- Palermo and the end of our trip cycling Sicily
Cycling Sicily and its heart
Before this trip across the island on two wheels, I had already had the opportunity to be cycling Sicily on my first real long adventure on the saddle in 2007. At the time, we had only ridden our steel horses in the westernmost part of the island, dedicating ourselves with amazement to what the road gave us, day after day. Despite the years of pedalling around the world, the wonder of discovery continually given by a bike trip is always the same and even in Sicily, this has proved to be, as always, a faithful companion.
After leaving Palermo with a transfer, our Sicily by bike begins in Trapani, a seaside town where once the bluefin tuna fishing was practised with the mattanza method. From the characteristic historic centre, the Sicily Divide runs along the natural reserve of the salt pans of Trapani and Paceco, 1000 hectares of territory managed by the WWF where the white gold is collected and the numerous species of passing migratory birds are protected. In the right months, on this cycle path, you are greeted by huge hills of shimmering salt that dazzle the view and invite you to photography. Trapani remains behind while he arrives at Paceco, which slightly anticipates the invaded Baiata. Soon we find ourselves pedalling in places forgotten by civilization, breathing dust in the dirt sections and tar in the hints of asphalt.
This trip cycling in Sicily begins to deprive itself of the attention of the tourist, who does not arrive here, to show the true essence of the hinterland tormented by depopulation, forgetfulness and the devastation of the 1968 earthquake. The Belice valley opens up in front of our wheels after crossing the Rubino lake and arriving in Vita.
Vita, a wonderful word that has become the toponym of a town that, after the earthquake, has turned into a place of death and devastation. Today in Vita, the smallest town in the province of Trapani by extension, still live more than a thousand people, but the original historic centre and the Mother Church, symbols of this Belice community, no longer exist. On secondary roads, where only a few cars venture every day, we rediscover the pleasure of shared travel by encouraging ourselves on the most difficult climbs and enjoying the moments of the sunset together, with a smile on our already tired faces.
Salemi and Gibellina
When the sun goes down we find ourselves at the Salemi castle after having attacked it from behind, from an unexpected and steep road. Salemi, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, surrounded by vineyards and silver olive trees, enjoys a privileged view from the slopes of Monte delle Rose and the cycle traveller can only stop for a moment to sigh before resuming the journey to get off the hill. Gibellina is a few kilometres away, but to reach it we will find ourselves crossing the Grande river and trying our hand at a fun dirt road in the countryside. Gibellina Nuova was born after 1968, the year in which the earthquakes razed the old town to the ground. Over the years, the streets of the new town have become an open-air museum, while the place where old Gibellina was located has been transformed into a gigantic work of land art called Cretto di Burri. A large immaculate labyrinth designed by Alberto Burri between 1984 and 1989 with the rubble of the disappeared village, in eternal memory of the earthquake and its victims. Curious to know that Marco Paolini also found in the Cretto the ideal place for his theatrical show I-TIGI Canto per Ustica, about the 1980 Ustica massacre.
After visiting and riding the maze of white corridors, we continue our journey in Sicily by bicycle to the other ghost towns of Salaparuta Vecchia and Poggioreale, real heaps of debris left to bask in the oblivion of an Italy that does not remember more.
Among enchanting landscapes, dusty off-road vehicles and werewolf cubs rescued from the sad fate of asphyxiation in a jute sack, we find ourselves crossing the Belice river just before passing Montevago and Santa Margherita del Belice and camping in total darkness.At the dawn of the third day of our cycling Sicily trip, after a cool ride at dawn on the shores of Lake Arancio, we face the intense ascent to Sambuca, another village among the most beautiful in Italy, to conquer one of the tasty Minni di Virgini, a typical and super energetic dessert.
At the exit from Sambuca, those who love to travel the old abandoned railways by bicycle will certainly have an unexpected surprise: the dirt road winds its way through the hills in an idyllic setting made of stone bridges, fresh streams and late blooms. The battered but extremely fun descent to San Carlo is the icing on the cake. In the village, there are no refreshments, but a pool full of clear water in which to immerse yourself to cool off in the torrid days of late summer. The old railway continues and enchants us with a bridge that rises majestically above the crystalline course of the Sosio river. Below us, besides the river, a citrus grove full of gifts. Burgio, with its baronial castle, welcomes us silently: like many Sicilian villages visited by bicycle, it has suffered the phenomenon of depopulation, but it does not give up, it is resilient. To the rare patrons, it offers three different museums: a first for lovers of the genre dedicated to mummies, a second for ceramics for handicraft enthusiasts and a third for devotees dedicated to Frà Andrea da Burgio. The Belice valley, that large area of the Sicilian territory included between the provinces of Trapani, Agrigento and Palermo, remains motionless behind the cyclists, but the memory of the events experienced certainly made a dent in the hearts and those smiles, those tired faces and that destruction encountered on the road will never be forgotten.
Cycling Sicily up and downhill
From little Burgio the journey through the Sicilian hinterland by bicycle continues between effort, sweat and enchantment: the hills rounded by the wind and stripped by the summer heat that spares nothing or anyone, the impervious dirt roads, the twilights in the saddle towards destinations hidden from the darkness, the feelings of freedom and happiness intensified by the warm breath of the wind in the evening.
A crazy descent through the glimpses of the Sicilian land leads to the lake of Magazzolo, but the certainty of having finished the daily pains is illusory: a series of ramps that confuse and stun you in the direction of Santo Stefano Quisquina. A grandmother and her granddaughter widen their dark eyes trying to define which strange creatures can tackle the absurd slopes where they live by bicycle. Santo Stefano (Santu Stèfanu Cuschina in Sicilian) rises at 732 m, in an amphitheatre of slightly higher peaks, but still imposing in their majesty. A beer, or maybe two, are great to replenish the salts left in the 20% on the road and the joy of the arrival of the stage compensates for the efforts to get up here. The town is a new starting point and the strip of asphalt is still uphill.
Those who have time can decide to deviate from the Sicily Divide route towards the picturesque Andromeda theatre or towards the Hermitage of Santa Rosalia alla Quisquina, at 986 m above sea level, at the foot of the homonymous mountain. The others will continue up to 1000 meters above sea level, skirting the outline of Mount Cammarata, a small paradise for bikers. Cammarata and San Giovanni Gemini are particular villages: two distinct municipalities, but the second an enclave of the first.
Castles and enchanted valleys
From San Giovanni Gemini the asphalt descends drastically to the course of the Platani River, but any traveller, at this point of their adventure cycling Sicily, would understand that each descent is a prelude to a subsequent ascent. The rumba begins again from the stream. The beaten earth and the ineffable slopes are the minefields in which we find ourselves fighting. The stones are the enemy grenades to avoid at all costs if you do not want to be thrown off. A cycle traveller never knows what awaits him around the next bend and this mystery is the sugar that allows the legs to move forward. I really think so when Mussomeli appears with his castle camouflaged in the rock on which it was built. An enchanting sight. A fortress, difficult to conquer. An unparalleled panoramic point in the surroundings. A place to visit. Mussomeli, however, is only the introduction of a best seller that is yet to arrive. From the locality a dreamlike valley extends, where the rocky shapes praise dragons, goblins and fictional characters, teasing that Peter Pan that lives in each of us. The valley culminates with the arrival in Montedoro, a small town in the province of Caltanisetta built where nothing and nothing meet, an ideal stopping point given the presence of a particular widespread hotel born in an old school.
The climb towards the climb towards Enna
Visiting the hinterland of Sicily by bicycle, after a hot summer, is equivalent to immersing yourself in a barren and arid environment where yellow and brown are the prevailing colours. Along the road that connects Montedoro to Serradifalco, the horizon always appears the same, insistent, almost monotonous. As the crow flies, the villages are 6 km away, but to connect them it is necessary to travel a double distance. Serradifalco rises above the Soprano lake, an ornithological conservation area. Legend has it that the town is so-called due to the presence of a cliff located near the town and because the area was once populated by numerous hawks. In the surroundings of Serradifalco olive groves, vines, figs and almond trees show the agricultural vocation of these places unknown to mass tourism. You pedal in solitude, travelling with your mind beyond every hump, further and further, towards something you do not know. San Cataldo anticipates Caltanisetta, nicknamed the world capital of sulfur, capital of the free municipal consortium of the same name. During the 1930s Caltanisetta experienced a period of cultural ferment, but after the war, it was hit by a strong crisis that led to a re-evaluation of economic priorities. Today Caltanisetta is a lively and pleasant city to be discovered slowly, pedalling from church to church, from square to square until you find yourself tasting the culinary specialities (and there are many!) in one of the gastronomy in the centre. The pedal expedition in the unknown Sicily takes adventurers to cross the Salso and Morello rivers before taking the climb to a particular place known as Borgo Cascino. This town, built during the Fascist period at the behest of Mussolini as part of the agrarian reform project that was to lead to a repopulation of rural areas, is an anachronistic, isolated, silent village, picturesque in its own way. The plaques of the rural school and the colonization body of the Sicilian large estates evoke the past by transmitting a sense of sweet uneasiness. Enna is only 15 km away, but we will remember the "ascent towards the ascent" to the city, between wheelies of the asphalt reduced to a sieve by the neglect of atmospheric agents and the shooting of nearby hunters, we will remember it for a long time. And then, after the climb for the climb, you find yourself facing the real climb and if the day just passed has led you to overcome hundreds of meters in altitude, the challenge will be far from obvious.
Enna, water and mud of our itinerary cycling Sicily
Enna is a wonderful city where the imposing castle dominates the town and its surroundings. Located at 931 m above the Dittaino valley, the city boasts the imposing castle of Lombardy, the Porta di Janniscuru, the cathedral and other churches such as the one dedicated to the Holy Spirit which belonged to an ancient Byzantine complex. From Enna, the Sicily Divide route suddenly descends to the foot of the perched Calascibetta, the opposite one. Dirt tracks and memories of asphalt flow slowly under our tires, introducing us, meter after meter, into new unforgettable scenarios. The hinterland of Sicily by bicycle leads us to Leonforte, the town of the Granfonte, a Baroque-Renaissance style fountain with 24 bronze spouts from which freshwater gushes, a real boon for cycle travellers thirsty from the island heat. Not far from Leonforte rises Assoro with the remains of the Valguarnera castle and, in the valley below, what remains of the old Dittaino - Leonforte railway line closed in 1959. Agira is not that far away, but before reaching it you cycle along a rural cart track. Agira, collected and lively, stands on the ancient site of the Greek Agyrion and boasts at least three good reasons to be visited: the presence of the most archaic aron in Europe, the remains of the fortress and the Canadian military cemetery, with the victims of World War II from Canada. Between Agira and Regalbuto runs fun and pleasant track to tackle by bike in normal conditions. In case of rain, the road that runs along the Lake of Pozzillo turns into a real ordeal of mud and water, an insidious and not so obvious obstacle to overcome. During the clearest days behind the town, you are amazed to admire the unmistakable shape of Etna that watches over the entire island.
The last effort towards Catania
While cycling Sicily we're never out of surprises. Pedalling from hill to hill, from dirt to dirt, you realize that the journey on the island is never the same or boring. From Regalbuto, the pyramid of the most active volcano in Europe, a UNESCO heritage site, begins to dominate the scene with its slopes dotted with craters and the villages clinging to the mountain. Centuripe, which from above resembles a starfish or a man lying with his arms and legs open, has countless archaeological attractions starting with the museum, the mausoleum and the thermal baths of the imperial era. In the central square, lively and full of clubs, it is pleasant to sit in the sun to taste an almond or mulberry granita.
Catania, the arrival point of the Sicily Divide, is not far, but before reaching it you have to overcome the dirt roads and the heights of Paternò where unfortunately environmental education is not always at home (unfortunately you will find piles of garbage abandoned on the edge of the city or in the surrounding countryside). Catania, frenetic and fascinating, was founded 729 years before the birth of Christ and is still today one of the pearls of Sicily, with the historic centre sponsored by UNESCO for its late Baroque beauties. Our crossing of Sicily by bicycle along the Sicily Divide route ends in front of the elephant in Piazza Duomo, one of the symbols of the city. Before leaving for home or continuing the journey by bike, Catania deserves to be visited in depth.
On the Etna Volcano by bicycle
From the beating heart of the city of the composer Vincenzo Bellini, you can decide to tackle the climb to Mount Etna, at times busy and not very pleasant, or rely on public transport and ask to be able to take the bike onboard the bus that connects the bus station every morning to the Sapienza refuge. The cost of the trip is cheap, but it is not guaranteed that the driver will accept to take you to Etna by also loading your bicycle... this, in theory, depends on the overcrowding of the period. Once you reach almost 2000 meters of the famous reference point for hikers and travellers, you can get on your bicycle again to go down two hairpin bends to Contrada la Nave and immerse yourself in the unusual and wonderful nature of the volcano. The trip to Sicily by bike can then continue north by pushing the tires on the lava of ancient or more recent eruptions. The path of the Pista Altomontana Etnea faces the perimeter of Etna while staying at a high altitude and allowing cyclists to stop in one of the many bivouacs on the itinerary. The summit area of Etna dominates this unexpected spectacle of Nature that is difficult to forget, in a landscape that is nothing short of lunar, kilometres are milled over small craters, mouths, caves and forest shelters. The night at Timparossa, after leaving the Dammusi pass behind us, is icy, but the pleasant company of Daniele, the warmth of the burning stove and the starry sky convey a sense of accommodating inner peace. Daniele, a volcanological guide from Lingluaglossa, knows Etna and this part of Sicily like the back of his hand and advises us to continue our adventure cycling Sicily by bicycle following a part of the Trinacria Bike Trail that goes west, on the Nebrodi and the Madonie. From Timparossa we reach the Brunek refuge and with it the asphalt. A steep serpentine of tar descends to Linguaglossa, the town of our formidable guide friend, the town where we greet King Etna and its spectacular trails. Before leaving, it is a must to taste a dessert with almond paste or the typical sausage with wild fennel.
On the Trinacria Bike Trail
Following the directions of Daniele, who unfortunately cannot come with us, we proceed on the old Linguaglossa - Castiglione di Sicilia railway, among wild blackberry bushes, olive trees and hazelnuts. The dirt road leads us to cross, once again, an authentic Sicily on the bike, with its slowness and versatility, still turns out to be the perfect means for our exploration purpose. Castiglione, included in the circuit of the most beautiful villages in Italy, is dominated by U Cannizzu, a well-preserved tower dating back to a period between the 12th and 14th centuries. Not far from the inhabited centre, and from the course of the Alcantara river known for its suggestive gorge, you can go along the bucolic country lanes to admire the Cuba of Santa Domenica, an early Christian chapel with a Latin cross embellished by the presence of a dome. From the place of worship, the road to Mojo Alcantara is not so demanding and you can soon stop in a bar or a deli for a culinary break. From the town begins the ascent towards Roccella Valdemone and the Argimusco plateau riding among hazelnuts and chestnuts, isolated houses and enchanting views. In the place where Nebrodi and Peloritani meet, there is a plateau dotted with enormous boulders of the most disparate shapes. The area, over which a veil of mystery hovers, would seem to have been shaped only by the incessant action of the wind and not by that of man. Reaching the plateau in the sunset light has an anachronistic and bewitching flavour. From the highest part of the plain, the view can sweep 360 ° up to the summit of Etna which, in the clearest nights, is tinged with the shades of red and orange typical of magma.
Crossing the Nebrodi
A trip cycling Sicily cannot be considered complete if it does not also cross the Sicilian Apennines. Floresta is the gateway to Nebrodi Park, a mountain range within the island's Apennines. From the town, for about 50 km you will not find real refreshments, but only a small café. Floresta is therefore the right location to refuel before diving on the paths of the Nebrodi in search of some specimens of black pig, an Italian native breed of these areas. The crossing of the Nebrodi by bike can be quite challenging if faced with luggage and if the tires continue to puncture under the blows of the rough terrain. From the saddle, we see some shy black pig with offspring in tow and we keep away from them. The path that crosses the natural park follows the Sentiero Italia and remains at altitudes between 1300 and 1650 meters passing through the Dagara fork and reaching the highest point at the height of the Serra Pignataro. The path is almost entirely unpaved and, after the highest brow and having also skirted two lakes - the Biviere and the Maulazzo - it leaves the beaten earth to return to asphalt at the height of the Femmina Morta fork, at 1524 meters, in the municipality of Cesarò. The descent to the town is relaxing and offers very pleasant views, especially in the last hours of the day. For those wishing to tackle the entire crossing of the Nebrodi by bike from the Femmina Morta fork, you could continue off-road, maintaining the altitude and pedalling in the woods. In case of rain, however, it is best to avoid it! Troina, Cerami, Nicosia. A secondary road forces cycle travellers to challenge the prohibitive slopes of the Sicilian countryside in a concert of unexpected lamentations and worries. In Sperlinga, a sigh of relief is finally breathed when the slopes soften and the bulk of the rock castle appears obstructing much of the horizon. Sperlinga, defined as a royal rock-dwelling, is inhabited only by 698 inhabitants. Robert Capa, in 1943, took one of his most famous photos on the liberation of Sicily after the allies landed just 3 km from Sperlinga in the locality of Ponte Capostrà, the one where the elderly farmer shows the way to a young American soldier. That intense period strengthened the great photographer's conviction about war: "A hell that men made for themselves." From Sperlinga the trip to Sicily by bicycle moves quickly to the slopes of Gangi, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy (like Sperlinga!), a town between Nebrodi and Madonie.
The Madonie and the sea
In Gangi, which is already in the province of Palermo, we deviate drastically north towards Geraci Siculo, a town located in the naturalistic area of the Madonie. This nature reserve, which has its highest peak in Pizzo Carbonara, is characterized by the presence of over half of the island's endemic plant species. Castelbuono, originally inhabited by the Sicans and Isnello, follow one another among the suggestive hills of the Sicilian hinterland by bicycle, in a sparsely inhabited area rich in peculiarities. In the Piano Battaglia area in the municipality of Isnello for example, given the total absence of light pollution, the astronomical park of the Madonie was established. From the small town, our route cycling Sicily reaches Collesano, home to the museum dedicated to the Targa Florio car race - a cycling route was also created from the competition - before descending headlong to the sea of Campofelice di Roccella.
Palermo and the end of our trip cycling Sicily
To conclude our itinerary in Sicily by bicycle, we could not have chosen a different destination from Palermo. The last stage of the long journey on the island takes us along an unexpected old railway before Termini Imerese, in a bar chatting with a group of Sicilian fishermen, in colourful seaside villages, in a bakery to buy kilos of sfincione, in the outskirts of the city to regret the heaps of abandoned garbage and on the fascinating seafront of the historic centre of Palermo to savour the warm brackish air. The lesser-known Sicilian hinterland bike adventure ends in front of one last almond granita and a giant cannoli before reloading the bikes on the ferry and returning home. Cycling Sicily: a must-do for every cycle traveller!
- The Belice Valley
- The Cretto di Burri
- Sambuca and its dessert, Minni di Virgini
- The old railways
- Etna by bike
- The Argimusco upland
- Crossing Nebrodi and Madonie by bike
- Gangi, Sperlinga and Italy's most beautiful villages
- A sfincione in Bagheria
- How much does it cost to sleep in Sicily? Along the itinerary there are rather cheap accommodation of a good standard, but also campsites and more expensive hotels.
- Where can I stay in Sicily? Our stages were: Gibellina, Santa Margherita del Belice, Santo Stefano Quisquina, Montedoro, Enna, Regalbuto, Catania, Rifugio Timparossa, altopiano dell'Argimusco, Cesarò, Gangi, Campofelice di Roccella e Palermo. If you'd like more freedom, you can check out an apartment on AirBnB.
- What can I eat in Sicily?The Sicilian food and wine tradition leaves you speechless for variety and flavors. During a bike trip in Sicily you will absolutely have to taste: GLI arancini (or LE arancinE, depending on the city), bomba, cartocciata, granita with brioches, Sicilian cannoli, freshly caught seafood, pasta alla norma, pistachio pasta, horse meat and onion (I could go on for hours to list what to eat in Sicily, but you need some surprise, right?). In the area some of the typical products are: pistachios from Bronte, sfincioni from Bagheria, Minni di Virgini from Sambuca. Don't forget to taste the local wine and beers too.
- Where can I eat while cycling Sicily? Wherever you decide to stop in Sicily, you'll be all right! In Palermo we can suggest giving a try of Osteria mangia e bevi to taste some sicilian specialties.
ITA - Ho 32 anni e sono piemontese, anche se da qualche anno vivo e lavoro in Lombardia. Dopo un inizio da totale inesperto in questo campo, mi sono avvicinato al mondo dei cicloviaggi e della bicicletta sempre più. Oggi posso definirmi "cicloviaggiatore", e assieme all'altra mia passione - il videomaking - non mi fermerei mai! Cyclo ergo sum, pedalo quindi sono, per cercare di capire perché andare in bici sia così bello, terapeutico, ricco... E ogni volta che provo a capirlo, non ce la faccio, e sono costretto a ripartire sui pedali!