Chapter three

Day14 Sunday 14th Dec

Siracusa to Agrigento

It’s a beautiful day, mostly blue sky, a light breeze and a cheery 15 degrees. Siracusa, on the East Coast like Hobart is in Tasmania, seems very quiet this Sunday morning. Perhaps everyone is in one of the 18 churches, 1 cathedral, 1 basilica and one santuario (whatever that is) within the few square kilometres of the old city boundaries. Everywhere you stand here, you are within 50 metres of a church, and very impressive most of them are too.

A few old guys skipped Mass and went fishing instead, using those extremely long rods that are the only type we have seen in Italy. They have a minimum of 6 sections and most slide back inside the next one down until the rod compacts from 6 metres to one metre for transport (in the Fiat).

Our continental breakfast was not flash so put a couple of cakes and biscuits in my pockets for later.

On the edge of the old city are located the remains of the previous occupant’s entertainment precinct, ie amphitheatres, temples etc. After a quick look, we also watched the enthralling methods employed to squeeze another fishing boat into an impossibly small gap between other boats. It involved a lot of advice from people on the dock, some of which seemed to be associated with the boat driver’s heritage.

The drive out along the cross-country westward road was slow, averaging no more than 25 kilometres an hour due to the narrow, tortuously winding road, back-tracking, railway line and bridge crossing every few hundred metres. This is s red road on the map, which suggests an 80k average. Not so. By late morning we have arrived at the famous Greek amphitheatre we have seen on the telly, situated on top of a hill in the burbs of Plazzolo Acreide. The breeze cut to the bone and this will probably be my memory of the place.

The countryside is rocky and fences, houses and outbuildings are all made of stone. We are in real country now, where there are no buildings visible for sometimes minutes at a time, although the road is dry-wall stone most of the way.

Despite being so far south, and therefore close to the Equator, there are snow warning signs in places along the roads in the high country

Caltagirone, quite a large city (as all the ones with the big writing are) finally arrives in the windscreen, but as Italy is closed on Sunday, there will be no lunch for us. Lucky I pinched those cakes.

It had taken 5 hours with stops to cover 122 Ks, but the next 100 to Agrigento via Gelo was over in less than 2, including stopping to refuel, including the car ($32). That makes a total of $100 to drive from Rome, half way around Sicilia.

We are now on the South Coast, like where Melbourne is situated in Australia. The first hotel we saw is called Hotel Della Valle, (it means pub in the valley) referring to the string of ancient temples on the hills around here.

It’s not exactly value for money, given the 4-Star tariff at $110, with an internet that doesn’t work, no parking, no bar, no shower and no restaurant on Sunday night. The few other guests all seemed to be heavy smokers and the smell of smoking through the corridor was a bit off-putting. Both they and the smell were gone the next morning.

The hotel is actually two 5 storey buildings set in extensive gardens, high on the hills overlooking the ocean. In spite of its shortcomings, the waiter / cook / barman was very professional and he had an easy night, for in this whole complex, we were close to being the only guests.

Our new friend, Simon (for we had plenty of time for chat) not only secured our drinks, but cooked up our pizzas and waited the table as well. We were the only guests in the dining room.

The room was as standard as you would expect with the ubiquitous bidet a feature we could do without. The bath had a hand held shower rose on a flexible pipe with no-where to hang it, so you have to hold it with one hand and do the rest of the business with the other. Maybe the absence of a proper designated shower is a sign you are in a 4-star.

The Romans were big on bathing, but they haven’t learned much in the past 2,000 years. I could write a chapter on Italian bathrooms.

Day15 Monday 15th Dec

Agrigento Castelvetrano Trapani

Leaving our “4-Star Hotel” I am once again struck by the magnificent road construction in Italy, especially the long road bridges across the valleys. The drive into town yesterday was like low level flying past the 6th floor of a cliff face of residential buildings. As we left town on the same bridge way which is at least 4 kilometres long and hundreds of feet in the air, we could look in the windows of 6th floor apartments which were themselves on the side of cliff faces.

We continued our westward trek along what would be the Nullabor Plain if we were in Australia to Castelvetrano which is situated about where Kalgoolie is in relation to Perth, inland from both south and west coasts.

One of the surprises so far is finding Australian Gum trees planted along the southern roads and autostrada of Scilia. They are growing on both sides of these roads for hundreds of kilometres, not just a few, but seemingly planted there as hardly wind breaks. Some of them have trunks more than a foot in diameter so they were not just plonked there last week.

One thing the Italians must have a love for is bridgework. Aside from the huge structure on the entrance to Agrigento, we have driven across now maybe a dozen 200 foot high stretching across quite large valleys. They really are impressive.

The soil is rocky on this southern coast with white ridges up to 2000 foot high inland from the coast road striking a contrast against the often red soil. Grapes grow well in this dry climate, which for the most part is relatively warm, although we will take their word for it.

The Italians drive fast on the Autostrada although you don’t need skill to press the accelerator. It’s when we come to the two-way roads (on the map, they’re red) that the shortcomings in their ability come to the surface. I have had some fun in setting up the power-challenged diesel box to a cruise between 90 and 110 and using Australian timing, slipping past the Mercs and BMW’s only to have them pull out again in frustration to blast pass me one more time.

They have never had to learn how to move through traffic using other than brute power and heavy breaking. The average Aussie driver could run rings around them on the two-ways.

Trapani is situated about where Broome is in Australia, and it is like any other big city, with one difference. The beautiful beach that stretches for miles along the northern coast seems totally worthless. There are no holiday apartments, no restaurants, vast overgrown vacant blocks and the space that is used is taken up by industry. The beach was as good as any you would see, but it could have been on the edge of a desert.

This photo is a stone cutting business on the beach front, one of many such industrial sites.

We had no desire to spend another night in a big city, so we headed further along the beach a few Ks to a little town called Bonagia and pulled up outside the only life we could see, a large restaurant with a few people inside. Small boats were tied to short jetties across the road from the restaurant and the beach hidden under a metre thick blanket of dark seaweed.

It had a distinctive but not totally off putting smell, very salty shall we say.

The $28 lunch was superb, so much so, that we made a booking for dinner.

We took the waiter’s advice and made our way to a B&B, which turned out to have the coldest room in Sicilia, the walls being smooth stone that will not warm up until June 2009, despite the valiant attempt by the exhausted heater.

After a little rest, we went for a drive before dinner and stumbled over one of the most spectacular roads and views we have seen. The road outside our door led to a motor racing track to the top of a 3500 foot mountain called Erice. The village on top has been the scene of many dark battles and dastardly deeds and the castle had a real atmosphere, but perhaps it was just the gathering gloom of night.

It was getting dark and the photos turned out very well I think, they do not really do justice to the panorama.

Heading east across the top tomorrow, to make it to the capital, Palermo at least.

Day16 Tuesday 16th Dec

Trapani to Palermo

One thing I have noticed about Italy, the power points do not have on/off switches. And another, the toilets (in the Trapani region at least) do not have cisterns. You just turn the handle for as long as you think.

Julie has had the flu for the last 4 or 5 days and generously offered to share it with me. From first light she has been coughing like an old Kingswood on a frosty morning and the rattle sounds like someone cleaning out drain pipes with a steel hammer.

Leaving our cold room in Bonagia the air is crisp and clear, the sky as blue as a Townsville winter. We are trekking through the Valderice area and the first sight to make us pull over for a closer look is a mountain being carved into brilliant white blocks of marble. This is in such stark contrast to the brown plowed fields and green rolling hills

A little further down the red road we came across another picture perfect town called  Castellammare in the gulf of the same name.

Boat builders and maintenance men were doing their thing on the foreshore as many generations had done with nary a tourist to mar the view. One could easily believe a couple of centuries had slipped away.

We were brought back to reality in a small café where we had coffee. The music re-asserted itself, American rap-crap. This has been a disappointment a few times when the atmosphere of some otherwise beauty spot was despoiled with American music culture, mostly from radio stations.

It didn’t take us long to get out of there and re-establish a rapport with the stones and the water.

We could spend a week here too, what a beautiful little town, but we must press on for Palermo.

The capital is huge and all the surrounding towns have been absorbed and high rise buildings straddle the choking autostrada for 20 kilometres. We do not stop or even deviate from the through road. Palermo sits about where Darwin is in Australia and the road runs east right across the top of Sicilia. By pressing on now, we will arrive in a much smaller town Cefalu’, which, we have been told is a very nice place.

We arrive, but Italy is closed for lunch. This seems to happen every day. Just as we get into town, they close the doors and go home. I needed to play the cambio game again, but the banks don’t re-open until 2.45pm (they close again at 4).

To distract us from this inconvenience, we look for a hotel and whoever told us this was a nice place got it wrong. It is another beautiful town.

The old town area has the usual cobbled streets and hundreds of tiny shops but the water’s edge was just like the one we had seen earlier this morning. And we were staying the night.

In this town water front property really does mean waterfront. The waves lap right up to the buildings.

A problem in Sicilia has been accommodation that is close to being right, sort of OK, but not really that good.

Our luck was to change tonight as we booked into the aptly named Cefalu’Tourist Hotel, un-ashamedly set up to look after foreign tourists. Like most hotels here, it is all but shut down for the winter, but all the ingredients were there and working.

The beach was literally across the road and our balcony was in front, the town centre a 10 minute stroll, the beautiful Italian girl on the desk and the manager were both very helpful and cheerful with it.

And Interent was no problem, YFY or broadband, take your pick. Free, as it should be. A far cry from the so called 4 star where the interent connection did not usually work and when it did, they charge you to download your email, or the one in Giandini Naxos that was worried out terrorists so they don’t have one at all.

What a pleasure to have someone say “no problem” to most requests.

Even the shower was a reasonable size and worked without cautious poking and prodding, not to forget the heating air-conditioner that actually warmed the room.

For dinner we went to Lily’s, a small pizzeria we came across on our stroll through town and they gave us a box to take the rest home. Dinner with wine $21.50.

One interesting thing I had seen something similar before, but can’t remember where, was a stream flowing through the town, but it had been completely built over.

Upon hearing the sound of running water, and plenty of it, I walked down some stairs which turned around under the building on the street front, and there was a small stream with pools and crossings and access for people to collect water which was coming out of ornate pipes that had been inserted into the stream further up under one to the buildings.

9pm back at the hotel, they made us coffee and wrapped our left over pizza in foil so we could take it with us tomorrow. The $70 fare included another excellent breakfast. Good value especially when we read the summer rate is $180 a night.

We could spend a week here.

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