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Riding Sicily’s ancient graves


Flavia brought us around Syracusa the way a New York City bike messenger might try and scare off a newbie. “We go to the Amphitheater, okay?” she said as she pulled up. As soon as we’d answered, she flew out onto the four lane road—busy with scooters, cars and minis, and darted directly in front of a bus. Rick and I both flinched. Without a change in expression, the bus driver slowed down and swerved out of her way.

I looked at Rick with raised eyebrows and we followed, trying to keep more with traffic. We could hardly keep up. Flavia flew through the streets, cutting into back alleyways that ended in long flights of crowded steps or over embankments to busy roads. All this in Italy, where their drivers are notorious for their quick driving and bumper car mentality—cutting across traffic for a three lane change to make a turn, yelling out an open window the whole time.

Rick shorcutting through Syracusa

At first Rick and I would wait to let a bus or pedestrian or speeding car go before following, but that just pissed everyone off. Flavia was annoyed at waiting for us, sure, but so were the drivers. It made things dangerous. Cars expected to be cut off. If you stopped, they were already swerving to the lane you should have just moved from. A problem if you haven’t moved.

“We couldn’t do this in the U.S.,” I said to Flavia when we stopped. “People there don’t even use their blinkers.” Even when Syracusans switched lanes to get out of our way, or to make a four-land turn, they used their blinkers. Sure, it was usually as they began to swerve, but there was always that moment’s notice.

“You don’t use blinkers?” she accused. “Oh my God. Crazy.”

So when Flavia cut in front of a car, we’d cut in front.

We’d met Flavia the day before. Coming from Catania, where we’d flown in, we’d ridden two days over May mountains of blooming tropical flowers and fruiting trees. Our first night on the road we camped on lava rock cliffs near Bruccoli, the sound of the Mediterranean pounding spray against the tent fly. Our view that night was a sweeping bay to Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano and one of its most active. With numerous vents covering the mountainside, searing cones can form at any moment to shoot car-sized lava clusters hundreds of feet in the air. Not only do people ski on this volcano in the winter, but hundreds of thousands of people live in towns that surround these vents. These towns are constantly struggling against nature, covered in lava and ash only to be rebuilt again. As the sun set, we watched Etna’s steady stretch of smoke pour across the horizon in white, orange, purple, then black.

During the days, we grabbed lemons and oranges from roadside trees and stopped for homemade pasta. Just before sunset on our second day, we pulled into Syracusa. We were on the northern outskirts, looking over the cliffs for beach access to camp.

“You mountain bikers?” Flavia asked in broken English.

We were on our mountain bikes, wearing mountain bike clothes, and towing an off-road trailer (taking turns.) There was a language barrier though, and we were at fault, so we smiled and said yes. Besides, with long curly red-brown hair, green eyes, and freckles on her nose, Rick and I had both noticed her as she passed us. We were glad she’d turned around.

“I mountain bike too,” she said, almost bouncing. Mountain bikers, she would tell us, are rare in Sicily. “You looking for camping?” she asked.

She told us of a place on the point, a few hundred yards away. “But is not very nice. You should camp at Fontana Bianca. Very pretty. White beaches and very pretty.”

We looked around us. To the south, the outskirts of a city we hadn’t seen yet, an elegant wall of stucco white and beige Mediterranean buildings, the hint of tight winding streets and intricate ironwork windowboxes; but to the north, a view of factories and processing plants scarring the coast—a black smoke haze.

“Where is it?”

“South. About an hour.”

Perfect.

Flavia told us she was in a mountain biking club. “Call me tomorrow,” she said. “I can show you Syracusa. Then mountain bike the day later. I see if my friends want to come.”

Rick and Flavia at a Syracusa restaurant

Our plan had been to bike around the circumference of the island, alternating road slick tires to mountain biking studs, keeping mostly to the cattle and farming trails we’d seen maps of—six hundred miles of coastline. This meant as much as twice that over wandering trails of steep varying terrain, all in twenty days. Not a big deal, but it certainly meant no three-plus night stay starting the second day. Fortunately Rick and I have a similar traveling style. “Sure,” we said. A trip is never meant to go as planned. If it does, then you have done something wrong. You have missed it all.

Flavia was excited to show her city, as she should be. If you know your Roman History, which I didn’t until her tour, you know about Syracusa. It was the most important port of Sicily, serving as a capital for whichever forces were there. At the time, Sicily was located between the great powers of Carthage and Rome, at the center of Mediterranean trading routes. When both sovereignties became powerful at the same time, their borders touched on Sicily. This led to the Punic Wars, three devastating wars spanning a hundred years. It destroyed Carthage and devastated Rome.

Beyond Carthage and Rome though, it was fought for and controlled by the Saracens and Vandals of Northern Africa, the Normans and Argons of Western Europe, and before any of them it was settled by the Greeks. Sicilians wear this diversity in their food, architecture, language, and culture. They wear it also on their faces, as Flavia did. With dark olive skin, you might have thought her a mix of Italian and Turkish, or possibly Greek.

Riding bikes and sneaking in childhood-known back entrances we saw the city— the Greek Theater, the Roman Amphitheater, carved from a stone hill to seat 15,000, and the mythic Ear of Dionysus, a deep cavern mined for limestone when religion became myth. We rode along the ancient city walls, eighteen miles around the old city interrupted only by sea and castle. We went into the cool catacombs, burial tombs of the persecuted that rest below city streets. We saw relics built over relics, cities on cities, churches built on the ruins of mosques, mosques on the ruins of churches, each burned or demolished to make room for the new victor.

We ended the day buying Flavia wine and dinner at a small Ortygian restaurant backed into a pedestrian-sized pathway. Ortygia is a small island on the coast attached by only two canal-spanning bridges, it is the original city center of Syracusa. The streetcurved cobblestone paths parallel narrow roads built when carts and horses were the only form of transportation—perfect for bikes and scooters, harrowing (and challengingly fun) with speeding cars.

The restaurant was the only one on a path of apartment entrances, its tables crowding the path in red and white checkered tablecloths. Flavia introduced us to Penne alla Norma, Sicily’s famous dish of eggplant tomato sauce over pasta. We ate well and cheap and drank too much wine.

When Flavia showed up to bike the next day, she was wearing short shorts, tennis sneakers and a tight t-shirt covering a bikini top. No helmet, no gloves, and shocks that needed a tune so badly she might as well have not had them. We’d also learned that Flavia was seventeen. 

“Should we bring helmets?” Rick asked quietly when we grabbed our stuff from the tent.

“Nah,” I said. “I doubt this’ll be much.”

Flavia carrying her bike up la Cava Grande

The approach to La Cava Grande was by road. We traveled through Avola, a small coastal city with a single mainstreet, and grabbed some food from a local market. From there we headed ten miles into the Iblei Mountains.

Sicily’s mountains are not extremely high, but they make up for that in steepness. This causes all the roads to curve and curl up the side like a group of Sicilians on a three hour lunch break, slowed by the sun. Flavia struggled, reassuring us toward an easy mountain bike ride. The sun was high and hot, blacktop sucking rubber and pulling sweat from our foreheads. The hot earth smelled of dirt and sunbaked land.

There were few trees to sit under and most of the road was exposed to the sun. Rick and I stopped under a lemon tree at the edge of a vineyard to squeeze some juice into our water bottles. “I wish I hadn’t switched my slicks for studs,” I joked to Rick while we waited for Flavia.

The Sicilian mountains are filled with a history newer than the Greeks and Cathagians. Pillboxes pock the landscape. We stopped and climbed into one buried in an impenetrable cliff, accessed only from a rock scurry below, and we sat where the machine gun would have been. The view was broad—long rolling hills to Avola, the soft sea beyond a valley filled with vineyards and orchards of olives, oranges, lemons, almonds, and eggplant.

In World War II General Patton landed a force of 478,000 near here. Devastated by the attack, Italy surrendered weeks later. That defeat forced the Germans to split their Russian front to guard the West, spreading their forces too thin. It is considered a major turning point to the war. These little mountains.

The mountaintop swelled in arid yellowness, pocked with scrubbrush and polished white stone. Or so it looked before we made it over the rise. La Cava Grande dropped a chasm a thousand feet quick in sheer limestone cliffs and thick brush steeps. Directly below us, a switchback was cut in footworn volcanic stone steps. The switchback was forty-five degrees to begin and the steps, anywhere from ankle to waist high, bubbled and crumbled from the cooling of the lava and the subsequent affects of sun, foot, wind and rain. They twisted and turned even within themselves. The trail was meant as a footpath, and not your grandmother’s footpath at that. On top of that, I found out later that this gorge was once used as a burial ground. Thousand year old tombs have been found throughout the valley floor.

Rick and I looked down the first stretch, then at Flavia, then at each other, and laughed.

“What do you think?” Flavia asked.

La Cava Grande

I considered my gear. On the flight into Catania a few days before, the hydraulic tube for my front brake had snapped. I’d gone to four mountain biking shops that first day and only one person had ever even seen hydraulic brakelines. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I saw someone with those once. You’re not going to find that part here.” He’d sold me a V-brake that loosened five miles later and refused to stay tight the rest of the trip. It had been dangerous dodging cars, but I knew it would be ridiculous to try this missing a brake.

Rick blinked long and then looked at me. “If we stop to think about this there’s no way we’re doing it,” he said.

“Let’s go,” I shrugged; a tone telling him that I would back down only if he would.

At least it’s the front brake and not the rear one, I reasoned to myself.

Rick shrugged, then dropped off the edge. I followed.

The steps left us standing on pedals, leaning back for tireburned thighs and ass, trying not to go over the handlebars, always readjusting and never pedaling, always relying on our brakes. The wrong tumble cold mean a face full of rock, or even a quick fall off a high ledge. We stopped occasionally to take turns in the lead so we could all experience everything, seeing each other ahead as well as frontrunning the new trail. Flavia carried her bike some but smiled wide the whole way.

As for me, I was fairly green too. I’d just learned to drop down flights of constructed steps a month or so before, so my smile grew as the steps did—steps occasionally as high as my waist. So I sped up, letting my back brake go a bit more.

Three quarters of the way down the slope began washing to the gorge floor. I took another turn in the lead, pushing myself to go faster. The steps became smaller, ankle to shin high, so I barreled down, surrounded in the sound of rattling metal and hot air pushing. My muscles pulsed faster than I could flex them on my own, tensing with each impact of tire to rock. My arms searched the best route, beads of sweat forming and dripping to evaporate before they hit the sunhot rock.

Grinning so wide my cheeks must have covered my eyes, I didn’t see the step until I was on it. Waist high like some of the others, this one caught me off guard, near a corner with nothing but a drop-off into thorny bush steeps ahead. I jammed on my brakes, even the front one which pulled emptiness as the lever pressed with futility into the handlebar. The back tire squealed in effort as I left the step flying. I landed front tire only and tried to put the back tire down with my weight. It landed recoverably to the side but then was tripped on a root. I put a foot out for balance but was going too fast. Sideways over the next step, bike and I flipped, head first. With my legs a tangled mess around the bike, I put my hands out in front of me. I rolled as the rocks tore at my arms, legs and torso. The jagged edges of decomposing rock broke through my clothes, pulled at flesh. Head first, arms up to cover, I tumbled three or four times, crashing into the embankment.

I lay on the ground for a moment, my bike on top of me, a leg caught in the frame.

Rick going dowwwwn

Above my head a cropping of scrubbrush lined the earthen wall. The scrubbrush, a skeletal ball fighting to bud in green, stretched in the sun above my face.

I did the check, toes to head in my mind, to make sure I was okay to move. Nothing big broken, no blood squirting or pooled. I crawled from beneath my bike, pushing at it with my legs. The heat of the sun, the desert dry air, breezeless, now all more apparent. I needed water, and shade. I knew I was hurt. My skin boiled from below as well as above. I looked around for shade. My skin itched in heat and my stomach was empty with pain and recent fear—the moment after fight or flight when your body simply wants to cower and sleep.

To my side, high grasses reached out and shaded a few inches of the trail. I pushed my body over to it with my legs, holding my left wrist with my right. Blood began pressing through my shorts and shirt and trickled down my arm and leg; slowly though, so I knew there were no large cuts. I looked down, arms dripping red and covered in pebble and dirt, and pulled up my shirt to reveal the rest, a rockrash mess of bloody scrapes and strawberries. A few days later, sitting with Flavia’s family to a six course meal, starting with octopus caught on a spear by her father, I would have trouble keeping from picking at my arm, still pulling gravel out of my skin three days later.

But it was my wrist that hurt. I’d put it forward to keep my unhelmetted head from striking the ground and it had instead, three or four times. A month later it would need arthroscopic surgery to remove scar tissue from the joint to loosen flexibility.

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