Robert Seeney Photography Touring Motorbike » Photography Biking Nottingham East Midlands

Europe Part 19 – Sicily in Flames

‘By fire be purged’ – Ragnaros, Blackrock Mountain

Mount Etna, 2002/3 eruption site, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

It isn’t so much the stunning scenery and the awesome rides that make the memories on a trip like this. Of course, you will see the Pyrenees, Nordkapp, the Alps in your minds eye but the real memories, the ones that make your hair stand on end and you can feel yourself back in that moment are the ones where the going got tough. This will be a long post full of tales of amazing food, a rich culture, a world class guy named Marco, Mount Etna, bike repairs and the day I rode through fire.

It is so easy to embellish travel tales and to make them seem more ‘adventurous’ in a world where everyone competes to be more extreme/gather more favour than the next person. I try not to do that in these blogs and this post will be no different but I can imagine how some of the things I am about to write may be met with a degree of scepticism.

View from Marco’s balcony, iPhone panorama

With my youth being spent watching every mafia related film that came out (Godfather, Goodfellas and so forth) I was both intrigued and excited by Sicily. Leaving the ferry and heading straight into the manic streets of Palermo during rush hour wasn’t for the faint of heart. My previous experience in the tunnels of Genoa had given me a healthy respect for the Italians unhealthy respect of traffic lights and general safety.

I’m sure there are road regulations in Sicily. I’m pretty sure no one is following them. Red lights seem to mean either ‘have a rest for a bit if you want’ or ‘you’re in a hurry, just go anyway’. The same applies to green lights. Palermo is a very big city with multiple lanes criss crossing for numerous exits. The sat nav was in a spin, I was in a spin but eventually I found myself on the right road to an apartment I had booked.

I seemed to be at the right place but with tower blocks on all sides, I couldn’t get any form of bearing or visual clue on exactly where the apartment was. A quick call to Marco and he was on his way down to me. 20 minutes later, the bike is parked in the underground garage and I’m on the 12th floor overlooking one of the suburbs of Palermo. I’ll say bits about Marco throughout the blog but to sum it up, he is an amazing host, an outstanding cook, a genuinely friendly guy and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude in going several extra miles in helping me sort out the problems that I faced in Sicily. Marco, I’m sure you will read this – thank you.

Street, Palermo, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Palermo is quite a fantastic place and is unspoilt. Apart from one small area, the streets remain true to their history – bristling with locals and small shops. It is a wonderful place to walk around, free of the corporatisation that I saw in most other cities with the same old shops and designer outlets gnawing on the bones of a cities past. In fact, all of Sicily is like this – genuine and authentic.

The food, cakes and coffee in Sicily are a league apart from other places I have visited, including other areas of Italy. Produce caught that morning, cakes prepared only hours previously, coffee made in true ‘artisan’ fashion. It’s a wonderful place to just eat, drink and sit and watch the city go about its business. With a smattering of buildings such as the Cathedral and smaller churches and the opera house there is a reasonable amount to see architecturally but, unlike most other cities, that isn’t what Palermo is about. Staying with Marco for 5 days gave me the chance to live in the suburbs, eat with locals and just live life. Wonderful.

Piazza, Palermo, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I’d pre-booked my bike in for new tyres and a service in Sicily and the following day, I dropped the bike off and struck up a conversation with the only english speaking guy in the garage, Claudio. His english was broken but was a thousand times better than my Italian and he offered me a lift back to the Apartment. Throughout the trip, people were always helpful – perhaps recognising that being a solo traveller you didn’t have the resources that regular tourists have. In a world where the media portrays the world as a dangerous place with ‘others’ not to be trusted, it’s amazing to get out there and find out that actually, it isn’t like that at all. Sure, there are ‘bad’ people out there but 99% of people aren’t like that. Listen to travellers from all over the globe – they all say the same thing.

Mondello, iPhone panorama

Chatting away in the car, Claudio asked me about my plans for Sicily. I didn’t really have any – I’d learned in the early weeks to just go where my nose takes me rather than to plan too heavily. He talked about Marsala, Trapani, Erice, Cefalu and then he asked me if I wanted to go to Mondello. I said ‘sure’ and to my surprise he swung the car around in the road and headed for Mondello. With visits to his partner’s brothers restaurant, an ice cream parlour and a tour of the main street and houses he gave me the lowdown on Mondello and Sicilian life. I remember he pointed out one impressive house which belonged to a lady solicitor he knew. I jokingly said ‘amazing house, if she’s not married you’ll have to introduce me to her!’ He turned to me, deadly serious and said ‘she’s single, we can go round tonight!’. I laughed and after a few seconds realised he wasn’t joking. Awkward moment that.

Mondello, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I spent the afternoon at Mondello when Claudio returned to work. It’s a truly beautiful place with green and blue seas that gently lap into a hemispherical cove. Mountains to the rear which creates a wind break and a jaw dropping view of an island in the bay. It’s hot, filled with restaurants and coffee and cake shops and small bars. In the midst of it all is a restaurant on  pier which looks as though it has been transported from a Victorian seaside town and then imbued with Italian essence. It shouldn’t work but bizarrely it does. This is a place where locals hang out, families spend their weekends and the rich launch their boats from. I returned to Mondello for a full day during my trip just to relax and eat and walk. It’s how the seaside should be and was vaguely reminiscent of my own childhood seaside holidays to North Wales.

Mondello beach, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

With the bike in the garage, I got the bus back from Mondello. So did everyone else and because of a breakdown, everyone was trying to fit on the bus I wanted to get on. I managed to get in and stood by the front doors. If you’ve ever followed a car with a dog in the back , seen the car brake and the dog hit the back widows with its nose and mouth splayed on the glass with an amazed look in its eyes, you will have a reasonable impression of my 30 minute journey. Trying to balance not being compressed to death by the automatic doors whilst stopping the small lady in front of me whacking me in the nethers with her elbow was a full time job. Self preservation kicked in and I got off a few stops before I needed to with my nethers thankfully intact.

I ate at the local restaurant that night. Wonderful meal, eating on the pavement chatting to the locals. The owner was very young and we talked for a while about the trip and my impressions of Italy. The meal was so good, I ate there the following night too – just pasta dishes but mouth watering none the less. They didn’t know me from Adam and when I came to pay on the second night, I realised I’d left my wallet in the room and I was short on money to pay the bill. I said ‘I’ll be back in 5 minutes’ expecting that they thought I was doing a runner. ‘No problem’ the waiter said.

Arriving back, I sat down and pulled out my wallet and pulled out a note. The waiter refused the payment, told me that the owner was putting it on the house and gave me a chocolate dessert and a glass of wine. I was genuinely touched at the trust and then the hospitality. I doubt I would get the same treatment in the UK. In the warm night air, head swimming from the wine and a full tum, I sat back, watched the cars go past, saw the families laughing while they ate pizza and smiled. Evenings don’t get much more perfect than that.

Cefalu, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Cefalu is a coastal town in the North of Sicily, about an hour on the train from Palermo.  It’s more of a tourist destination but with it still being low season, I didn’t see too many. The vast array of restaurants and eateries in the town were considerably more expensive than Palermo as you might expect and so I spent my time wandering the streets and sitting on the bay. It’s very pretty with a cooling wind which was a welcome relief as the temperature was climbing ever higher.

It was while sat on the bay with my toes dangling in the water that my phone vibrated. I’d booked a ferry to Genoa and the text told me it was cancelled and that I needed to re-book. After several calls to their booking line I realised that my lack of Italian was not going to make a re-booking possible. A call to Marco and he spoke to them for me, re-booked the ferry and agreed for me to stay at his place for another night. I was happy with this – I was enjoying my stay in Sicily and it gave me an extra day to explore. Given that I had booked accommodation just outside Genoa as the boat was due in late, I had to re-organise that – all of it done with a few emails and minimal fuss. That’s where the internet really shines.

Yum, iPhone

With my bike back and Claudio having provided a brilliant translation service because of a few issues I was all set to get to Mount Etna. Only problem was that my tyres had not arrived and with the Anakee’s being down to the tread wear markers I was in a bit of a jam. Claudio managed to find a garage on the other side of Palermo that had some trail riders in stock and I followed him over. This garage was on a patch of land just off a fast 4 lane highway. A quick check on forums about the tyres confirmed all was OK and so they fitted them but also found that the wheel weights were way out of line. No wonder I had found the handling odd as I came through Sardinia.

I remember sitting on the bike after the tyres were fitted and looking at the highway. No run up to it, standing start into 50mph and then a right turn onto two multi lane roundabouts according to the sat nav. I ran my finger down the tyre – smooth and slippery (for those who don’t know, new motorbike tyres need a few hundred miles of running in to get rid of lubricants used in the manufacturing process and so extra care is needed). I waited for ages for a gap, none appeared and so I nailed it, held my breath and other than one slight slip on the roundabout I got back to the apartment. So hot, sweat running down my back – I was glad to get the bike in the garage and strip back to shorts and sit on the balcony, chatting with Marco and his other guests – two young girls from the North of Italy who were staying for exams at the local school. At this point I had 2 days left in Sicily with my plan being to ride to Etna the following day and then have an easier day the following day since I had to catch the 10pm ferry to genoa.

View towards the summit of Mount Etna, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The ride to Etna takes several hours and so I took the main roads which cut through the landscape. With rolling valleys and hills it was reminiscent of Tuscany but less fertile. Roads were elevated in places and with winds whipping across the low hills, it made for a nervy time on some stretches. Traffic was light however and I made good progress. A few hours later and I could see Etna off to my left in the distance. Given the low hills that make up Sicily, Etna towers above everything else – black and foreboding. I did wonder if it was the inspiration for Mount Doom. Even though I could see Etna, I couldn’t seem to get closer on the main highways and gave up on the sat-nav since it seemed to be taking me to Catania – one of the major tourist areas. If in doubt, ask a truck driver at a petrol station. With a waving of hands, arms and pointing in various directions it all seemed so simple.

A few miles later and I was on a dead ended dirt road in the back of beyond. It took another hour to get to Etna from there with the roads becoming increasingly clogged with local traffic, ever reducing speed limits (down to 10mph at one point) and very slow progress. It is hard work going up a steady incline in first gear for the best part of an hour. Add in the heat and concentration needed to stop people killing you and I was mightily relieved when I left the small villages behind and began the ascent to the base station. It’s a very twisty road and its the first time that you see the lava fields – huge expanses of what appears to be mud from a distance but is actually solidified lava. As you climb ever higher, the foothills fall away and you are floating above Sicily. Etna has a commanding view of the island from her elevated home in the clouds. Once you reach the base camp and look back down the mountain, you can see why an eruption is devastating – there is only one place for the lava to go….straight down into the population below.

Mount Etna, Eruption Site, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

It is expensive to go any further than the base camp and it’s a ‘2 tier’ system. You can go up one level on the cable car and then you can go up a further level to the eruption sites by the use of the off-road vehicles. You could walk up but that would take hours and I didn’t have the time (and it is a hell of a climb).I pondered for quite some time about whether to go up – eventually reluctantly handing over the equivalent of 3 days budget. Not every day you get to go on a volcano I reasoned to myself.

Stepping into the cable car I thought ‘it’s a bit windy up here’. A few minutes later and I was clinging to the rail inside the car, my feet splayed out in the corners of the chairs to steady myself. With the cable car going from side to side on a huge angle and the wind whipping around, it wasn’t the most pleasant of journeys. When you can hear the gears crunching as you go past a pylon and the whole car jerks and swings sideways and then abruptly stops you do tend to wonder if it has just broken down or whether you are about to plummet to your death. If you are a bit hesitant about cable cars, trust me, you won’t like this one.

A group of us got into the all terrain vehicles – I expected these to be really cool but I sat there thinking I could have ridden up it on the bike. The tour was interesting with a geologist explaining the history of the eruptions and the perma-frost which lies just below the surface. You can actually dig a few centimetres down and pull out snow and ice.

The photos show what Etna is like far better than my words can describe it. It is windswept to the point you have to lean into the wind and gasp for breath if you inadvertently open your mouth at the wrong time. As a place, it is cold, barren, bleak and utterly devoid of life. You get a real sense of ‘lifelessness’ up there – it is a very eerie feeling and an uncomfortable one. Returning to the base camp, through the clouds with people around and some colour in the scenery it feels as though you have returned from another world. It’s odd, it feels as though a weight is lifted from you when you come down from that place.

Older eruption site, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I took a different route back from Etna as I wanted to ride through the smaller towns rather than the highways. I rode down the mountain on single tracks and then took minor roads for quite a few miles through villages and towns before eventually arriving at a larger town whose name escapes me. With cobbled streets and run down buildings I began to feel a bit edgy. With people hanging around on street corners staring at the bike, I became more and more lost – the sat-nav gave up as I entered ever narrower streets and a frustrating one way system that I ended up going around several times. The place was eerily quiet, little traffic and few road signs but with a maze of alleyways and dead-ends. I arrived at one of these dead-ends and was playing with the sat-nav when I saw a group of young men standing outside a few caravans that were parked on waste land. They pointed at me and then started to move forwards. Maybe they were coming to say hello but I got out of there sharpish, looking backwards every few moments to make sure I wasn’t being followed. The remainder of the journey was pleasant once I found may way out and I returned to the main highways.

Unfortunately I took the wrong turn into Palermo and ended up on a 4 lane highway running through a run down suburb. I say 4 lanes, they were actually carrying 5 or even 6 cars abreast in slow moving traffic. Hawkers were moving amongst the cars, no one was giving way. I was tired, boiling alive in my gear and the traffic stretched for miles. It’s at those moments you have a little word with yourself much like I had done when exhausted in the Pyrenees and in the tunnels in Genoa. Reminding myself that I was on a big bike with a lot of presence, I told myself to be pushy and ride like the locals. My head went up, I pushed in front of cars and blocked any chance of people slipping past me. With the occasional stare, a few nods towards drivers and a hefty use of the throttle, I filtered through the traffic without incident. May not sound like much to experienced riders but I felt great at the end of it. I remember my old instructor Ken having a ‘word’ with a car driver who had cut me up once on a lesson. That car driver backed down – maybe I learnt it from him, who knows.

Eruption Site, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

A cold shower was a welcome relief and with a homemade meal prepared by Marco, it was yet another wonderful evening. Marco had brough fresh produce from the markets that day and then cooked using traditional recipes with his own twists. Amazing flavours and textures and that wonderful  spirit lifting feeling you get off home cooked food packed with goodness. Thanks again Marco.

I was due to catch the 11pm ferry the following evening and so I had a single ‘light’ day to see a few more places. The salt flats of Marsala, Trapani and the mountain town of Erice were on a vague circular route that would lead me down to the Southern Coast and then back up the Western coast. Seemed to be a light day of travel so I pushed the air con temperature right down in the bedroom and drifted to sleep.

Marco’s meal, iPhone

I woke early, just before 5.30, slipped out of bed enjoying the cold tingle of the air con on my skin. It felt very hot in the kitchen and I was already sweating by the time I had made a coffee. As I opened the balcony door I was hit with a blast of heat which was just like opening an oven door. Maybe I was still cold from the air con I mused to myself. A few moments sat outside and I was really hot. I had no idea what the temperature was but it was already high – it felt as though it was already a midday heat.

Maybe inexperience, probably naivety but I pushed this to the back of my mind, geared up and went down to the bike, Sweat was pouring off me before I even left the garage and I was relieved to get out on the highway and feel some wind on my face. It was a very hot wind though and as I rode around the coast past Isola de la Femme the winds really picked up, pushing the bike around and throwing debris into the air. Having faced the winds in Zaragoza (see earlier post) I reasoned that it was a windy day and I would go a few more miles and just see how it went. With the bike moving from one lane to another on the coast road, I checked my route and then decided to head away from the coast and pick up the inland highway to get some shelter. It didn’t help and as I pushed on, my speed steadily dropping because it was getting harder to steer the bike, I should have realised it was time to turn back. Maybe because of the experience in Zaragoza and knowing the effects of wind (and my dislike of it), I continued on.

There was surprisingly little traffic on the roads and at one point I was heading through the open hills with nothing for miles around. I saw the suspension bridge in the distance and made a plan to drop the speed right down and proceed with caution. No wind on the suspension bridge of note and so I rolled on with the throttle and then a gust took me so I leaned into it. Gusts normally last a second or two, you lean, bike corrects itself, you carry on. This didn’t. The gust just kept going, I leaned further, i was now being pushed on to the hard shoulder. Gust kept pushing, I hit the brakes, I then hit the crash barriers but managed not to drop the bike. The gust stopped abruptly. I got off the bike, pulled off my sweat lined helmet and ripped off my jacket. The temperature was so high, I was dripping. No damage to the bike other than a hero scrape on the crash bars. No cars, no sound other than the wind. The wind had pushed me 40 feet sideways with me at a full lean. That’s a hell of a gust.

ATV’s on Etna, fashions not dead

I dropped my speed, leaned into the wind when it came and an hour later made it to the South Coast and pulled in at a petrol station with a small cafeteria attached. Now this place was straight outof every De Niro and Pacino movie. Dimly lit, a group of guys sat at a table – one guy dressed in shirt and trousers, the others in sports wear. I did a double take, they didn’t look at me. A coffee, a cake and I went outside, pulling my gear off and sitting there wondering why it was so hot. I guzzled the coffee, 2 bottles of water and a can by the time I left. I remember looking down at the temperature gauge on my bike just after I left this place and took the road for Marsala – 46 degrees. I pulled back over and unzipped the jacket to the navel despite my brain telling me that I would dehydrate faster with hot air following over me. Brain might have been telling me that but my body was overheating already.

It was a slow road round the Southern Coast with local traffic and dusty highways – debris was all over the place and the wind was whipping it up and throwing it around. I don’t recall how long it took to reach Marsala but I was feeling distinctly unwell when I got there and if I am quite honest, I was feeling anxious. I’d stopped sweating and my throat was like cardboard – looking up to the sky was painful, the heat was just crushing and as soon as I took off the helmet I wilted. All energy went and I found it a real effort to get from the bike to the entrance of the salt flats visitor centre.

Marsala Salt Flats, 48 degrees at this point, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The lady at the desk pointed at the bike and said ‘moto?’, I nodded. She shook her head and in broken English asked me where I had come from. ‘Palermo’, she shook her head again. It took a few moments for me to understand her but in a nutshell she told me to go back immediately because of the storm. A storm to me (at that point) was rain, wind and gales. As I would find out later that day, it is a ‘Scirocco’ storm that comes from Africa bringing hurricane level winds and temperatures in the 50’s. What I had ridden through that morning was the leading edge of it.

Problem was that I had no energy and was already dehydrated. I spent an hour at their small restaurant in the shade, downing litres of water and lemonade. I felt somewhat better after the hour but I could tell I was roasting inside. The prospect of putting my gear back on wasn’t pleasant and as I stood at the bike I considered riding without anything but my helmet. I didn’t, figuring that with everyone off the roads because of the storm, if I came off then I needed as much protection as I could get. With every vent open, the jacket almost completely open and a bottle of water poured over my head, I stuck my bonce back in the helmet and headed back on to the road.

My plan was simple, frequent stops whenever I needed them. I had bought lots of water and would just buy more when needed. I rejoined the main highway rather than my intended coastal route to Trapani and figured that I would see how it goes. I was OK for time, it was only before lunch and even though I had to catch the evening ferry I had seven hours to get back, shower, pack and then ride across the city.

The Sicilian landscape is predominantly dry because of the year round lack of rainfall and temperature which makes the scrub like a tinderbox. I first started to see small wildfires a few miles after leaving Marsala – small flickers of orange behind the tree-line and the smell of smoke. Nothing major but it spurred me on to keep moving, stopping only briefly every 20 minutes or so to take on more water.The winds were high again and so all my concentration was on relaxing my grip on the bars and letting the bike do the work for me. I had just passed a rest stop when I hit the brakes, came to an emergency stop and leapt off the bike. I just about got the helmet off before I threw up, retching violently and doubled over at the side of the road. I’m no Doctor but i knew this was the onset of heat stroke or exhaustion. I downed more water, got back on the bike and within a few miles I saw the sign for Erice. Given that it was close and I wasn’t feeling well, I pulled off the highway and climbed the mountain. The winds were not as bad and it was  cooler – presumably because of the altitude. A quick time check showed that progress was good and I could rest here for a little while and re-hydrate.

Erice Main Square, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Erice is an old town atop a mountain with stunning views down to the plains and hills. Given that I had little energy, I had a casual walk around with a water bottle attached to my lips. I’m sure that the buildings within the town need a proper viewing but given how I felt, I spent the bulk of my time in the shade and drinking. As I sat there, watching a couple eat ice cream I had the first whiff of really bad body odour. Now, I can stand the smell of sweat but this was something else – I smelt bad, really bad.

Hauling myself back to the bike, deep breath and then back down the hill and on to the minor roads. Only an hour to go I reckoned – maybe 90 minutes if I stopped frequently and took it extra steady. The winds were not as strong and I was grateful – my shoulders already ached from hours of being tense. There were more fires in the scrub though and there was a constant smell of smoke coming under my visor. I had part closed the visor as the heat form the air was too much to take on my face and particularly my eyes.

Progress was steady, a few stops to drink and I felt a lot more focussed. I rejoined the main highway that lead to Isola de la Femme and the sign said Isola 5 miles, Palermo 20 miles. I was almost there and breathed a sign of relief. What happened next is that defining moment I talked about at the beginning of this blog.

As you approach Isola on the main highway there is a long sweeping right hand curve on the highway so that you cannot see what is coming. I had seen the smoke from some distance away and as we got closer, I saw the brake lights come on from the cars in front. As I rounded the bend I could see the full picture. The road was on fire, both sides of the road were on fire, winds were whipping across the road and carrying pieces of burning scrub into the air. The air was filled with this burning scrub, bits of branches and god knows what else. No way of stopping, nowhere to turn off, no choice but to go through it. Branches, most of them on fire were strewn across both carriageways. Left, right, left, moving on the bars, dabbing the back brake and I managed to avoid them all – one of the advantages of two wheels. The cars weren’t so lucky as they rode straight over the flames and debris. There were some cars abandoned on the sides of the road, already burnt out.

View from Erice, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I was focussed so intently on the road ahead and weaving the bike that I didn’t see the tank bag catch fire. A piece of burning branch had landed on top which i knocked off in a heartbeat and (to my retrospective amazement) I even managed to keep the bike upright. Despite my skills at avoiding the flames and extinguishing my tank bag, my jacket was open and embers had fallen into the jacket and I felt the burning on my right shoulder blade and on my neck. I was lucky, the jacket didn’t ignite but it could have been so much worse.

I saw the car in front of me trying to weave through the debris but to no avail. The explosion was really loud as his tyre blew out and he skidded to the side of the road. Checking my rear view mirrors I could see the fire trucks coming and up ahead on the opposite side I could see that the traffic had stopped and was being directed off the highway by a lone policeman. Then we were through it and the winds died, the road wasn’t burning and I wasn’t riding a firestorm.

I was remarkably composed as I pulled back into the garage at Marco’s, left my gear next to the bike and packed my panniers. All I had to do now was shower, eat and pack the stuff I had in the room. Plenty of time since it was only 6pm. I closed the garage, headed upstairs and sat with Marco for a while. All of Sicily was in shut down, planes had been grounded since the morning, water planes hadn’t been able to fly because the winds were too strong. Much of the island had wildfires and most motorways were closed. Various schools had been evacuated. As we sat on the balcony and I relayed my days tale to him, the first fires started appearing on the hill next to the apartment and close to the castle

Fires at the edge of Palermo, iPhone video still

These fires spring up in an instant and then streak across the tinderbox brush in seconds. To give an idea, the flames above appeared in a brief moment and within a few minutes had reached the green trees at the bottom of the photo. Frighteningly fast and it occurred to me that we were only half a mile from those trees.

I went into the bathroom, no lights. Turned on the shower, no water. I stunk. Came back out to the living room and we both realised the power was off. Nothing for it but to sit back down, watch the fires and pray they did’t get closer. the water planes started to appear, dropping water on the mountain and near the castle although it did seem as though the place was ablaze. I packed my stuff in my room and headed back down to the bike figuring that I needed to use my time wisely. No lift…12 flights down in horrendous heat. Get to the garage door and it is electrically operated. It’s at these moments you ask yourself why that didn’t register when the power went off. At this point it’s 7pm, I can’t get to my bike, I haven’t showered and I have to check in on the ferry in 2 hours time. I walk back up the 12 flights, sweating like a pig, Marco has left to go back to his own place but said he will call later.

Marco returned at around 8pm, the building is in darkness and there is still no power. I move all my gear out of the room for a second time and pile it downstairs by the garage doors. The doors are too heavy to lift so he takes me to the coffee shop down the road. Our building and the towers next to it are the only ones in darkness. The electricity company confirms to him that the power cables have been damaged by fire as they run over the hill that was on fire and are currently being worked on but there is no estimate of time. I begin to wonder whether I will ever get off Sicily as I watch the hands of the clock in the coffee shop relentlessly move onwards. I would love to say I was calm and composed but I wasn’t. I had no idea what to do, my ferry sailed shortly, I was exhausted from the day and I saw no solutions. Marco remained calm. We returned to the garage, sat down by the doors and waited. It’s 9pm. I should have checked in to the ferry by now.

View as you arrive in Palermo, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

We could hear the noise above of people laughing and shouting and see the flicker of torches being shone out of windows. I don’t know what floor the bottle came from but it hit me straight on the top of my head, knocked me sideways and as I picked myself up I looked at my hand and saw blood. Amazing that when the lights go off, the idiots come out. We moved into Marco’s car, he was on the phone to his wife (no doubt apologising for baby sitting me) and I sat there nursing my head. Sitting in darkness with just the light from Marco’s phone, occasionally talking, occasionally silent. Then a flicker from the lights and the whole place is lit. We leapt from the car, get to the garage and press the button, the door begins to lift and then the power goes off again and we are back in darkness with a door that has opened a few inches. This happens a few times over the next 20 minutes. It’s past 10pm, Marco rings the ferry company. They agree that I can get there at any time up to the point of departure at 11pm. It’s 20 minutes drive away though – Marco agrees that if we somehow manage to get the door open, then he will lead me to the ferry port. I sat there with my back pressed against the garage door and a head ache developing from where the bottle hit.

No more flickers of lights until 2230 when the whole building lit up. We hit the button, I practically combat rolled under the door, stuffing bits into panniers, tank bags, pockets while pulling gear on. I’m part dressed, helmet isn’t even strapped up as we set off across Palermo round back roads that only Marco would know. I just blindly followed, past one set of lights, moving lanes without shoulder checking  just to keep up – if I lose sight of him, I’m in real trouble. We arrive at the ferry, he quickly talks to the security guard. He bids me farewell, I follow the security guards direction and pull up at the boat. I pull my helmet off, wave my ticket and the guy looks at me and says ‘no, not this one, down there’. It’s now 5 to 11.

Down to the next ferry, pull up and practically skid to a halt. Guy confirms its for Genoa but says I need to have my ticket stamped back at the office…..which is right by the security guard on the way in…..I jump on the bike and decide to turn around on the ramp leading to the ferry. Yeah, that was never going to happen, as I turned the bars, the bike lost traction, the weight shifted and over we went. A resounding thunk of my helmet on the metal ramp and the horrible scrape of the bike crash bars and panniers sliding down to the concrete. He helps me to pick the bike up, I race back to the office and the woman at the desk gives me a look to say ‘this will not be quick’. I push the paper under her nose, she pauses, what seems like an hour goes by and she pulls out a small stamp, casually rolls it on my ticket and passes it back to me.

I made it on to the ferry. I was still sat at the back of the bike checking for damage and pulling out clothing as we left harbour – the crew let me stay down there for a while. They either took pity on me or saw I was in a fairly volatile mood! Up to decks and I grabbed a water from the bar area – the look of people as they smelt me though was obvious. That and the blood on my head probably gave them pause for thought. There was just the one shower on the boat It was on an upper deck, was in poor condition and had several cigarette ends in the tray. The hot tap was broken off and so I had an ice cold shower. I stayed in there for a while, scrubbing myself twice over until the shivers became uncontrollable. It’s the best shower I have ever had.

I found a row of seats, folded up my fleece top under my head and never moved during the night. I didn’t even dribble like on previous ferries which was a plus.

Genoa Bound, the morning after the day before, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Footnote

I started this post by talking about memories and what happens when the going gets tough. The memories of Sicily are still vivid with me today. No fear and not even a tinge of ‘I could have died or been hurt’ but a sense of being alive. It’s moments like these in our lives that are the ones that define us and that we will remember until the final breath we draw. Having reflected on it, I don’t think it’s because it was ‘exciting’ or ‘dare-devilish’ that made it such a memory. It’s because it was it basic, raw and the chips were down and you just have to get on and do it with what you have available. Our regular lives, out of necessity, are planned and sterile and in that, we lose ourselves to the humdrum. I had thought of talking about ‘how you return to normal life when you have had any experience like this’ but then I realised it should be ‘how do you return to this when you have experienced normal life’

Whilst I wouldn’t choose to have a day like I did and I would never have set off that morning if I’d have known there was a scirocco storm, it does light a spark inside you. Travel is good, motorbikes are good but challenging yourself, feeling alive, making the most of your time and realising you can do it is the most important thing. I think that’s what this whole trip was about for me. Feeling alive.

I am greatly inspired, whether rightly or wrongly, by the journey of Chris McCandless and he talked of not having to be strong but to feel strong

‘how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind, deaf stone alone with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head’ 

 I’m certainly not in the league of Chris and other adventurers but this day in Sicily was my mini blind stone.

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