Dancing with danger wasn’t why I’d booked my trip to Sicily, in fact, danger of some sort was exactly what I was escaping – but having lava-skied down Mount Etna in gale force winds the day before, I thought I’d better keep my adrenaline pumping.
I’d taken an early morning train an hour down the East coast from Catania to Syracuse, which my Lonely Planet guide had promised to be quite the treat.
More than any other city, Syracuse encapsulates Sicily’s timeless beauty. Ancient Greek ruins rise out of lush citrus orchards, cafe tables spill onto dazzling baroque piazzas, and honey-hued medieval lanes lead down to the sparkling blue sea.
And it was a treat – one that I enjoyed thoroughly that morning as I wandered around a fleamarket under the shade of a dozen olive trees.
Mercatino delle pucli
It wasn’t even seven thirty in the morning but the sun was warming me up nicely as I sat at a corner café in a small piazza with a macchiato in hand watching the commotion at el mercato delle pulci.
Nobody does fleamarkets like the Italians do.
The way they barter and haggle is a theatrical performance worthy of a standing ovation; arms fly high, voices hit new octaves, there’s laughter, there’s drama and sometimes there’s tears.
Stall owners and punters sing back and forth to each other with stern faces and mischievous frowns sharing a beautifully melodic exchange of offers and rejections until finally a deal is made.
Then there’s more singing and more waving arms but there’s a change in rhythm and the mood lifts. Heads tilt back with raucous laughter and everybody’s smiling.
After my coffee and bicscotti, I wandered around the market for an hour or so admiring the tables piled high with chintz and tat, feeling very much a part of the canorous stories that were unfolding around me.
Syracuse to Avola
On my way back to the apartment I noticed a bicycle rental shop so I popped in to enquire about rates and the next minute I found myself sat on a saddle with a ninety kilometre round trip mapped out.
I was heading south from Syracuse down the coast to Avola, inland and uphill to Noto and then back to Syracuse along the main road. Google Maps had no qualms with the plan and neither did I, so off I went on my two wheeled wonder, cycling through the busy city streets.
There were honking horns, waving arms and angry faces. Italian words I hadn’t heard before were being shouted from car windows and I’m pretty sure they weren’t wishing me a good morning.
I pedalled on amongst the morning chaos with caution, taking my chances at roundabouts, darting through crossings and remembering to use the right hand side of the road. And within twenty minutes or so I’d left the city behind and was cycling along the coast.
I had the whole of Via Maddalena to myself.
A long strip of tarmac just inches away from the glistening, deep blue Mediterranean waters with nobody to share it with but the occasional fisherman, stood calf-deep wading in the waters or heading out on a rowing boat for the morning catch.
I cycled along feeling blissfully content, listening to the sound of water splashing against rocks and smiling as the fresh sea breeze filled my hungry lungs.
Avola to Noto
After twenty minutes or so, my route to Avola turned away from the coastline and down deserted country lanes while Paolo Conte serenade me with vieni via con mi on repeat.
Rows of dark green conifers were standing tall, casting their long shadows out across the chartreuse grass below. Bright yellow fields of rapeseed and sunflowers stood out beneath the clear blue skies. And sparkling sapphire trickled under bridges with edges that turned silver in light of a golden sun that was making its way to the top of the sky.
I tootled along taking in the sights, the smells and the vivid colours around me for another forty minutes before hurtling down a small slope and onto the promenade at Avola.
The beach at Avola was nothing out of the ordinary, but it had sand and it had sea and that was all I needed for a nice little pit-stop. So I locked my bicycle up against the railings and made my way to the sand, picking up a pistachio flavoured ice cream on the way.
I walked barefoot along the shoreline letting the frothy waters swirl around my toes and sat on the sand watching my thoughts drift out to sea. After an hour resting my calves, the midday sun was beginning to sizzle my shoulders and it was time to move on.
Noto to Syracuse
The route inland along the SS115 was a little less serene and a little more precarious than those quaint and narrow lanes I’d tootled along that morning.
Cars and mopeds were whizzing past me around winding bends and blind corners at serious speed and my heart was in my mouth. But a few hair-raising hours later, me and my lobster pink shoulders had made it to Noto.
Noto is an architectural supermodel, a baroque belle so gorgeous you might mistake it for a film set. Dashing at any time of the day, it’s especially hypnotic in the early evening, when the red-gold buildings seem to glow with a soft inner light.
I’d walked my bicycle up the steep hill and into Noto in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t need to wait until the evening to see its magic; it was worth every single death-dodging moment on those roads to get there.
Dubbed the “Stone Garden” by Cesare Brandi, Noto is packed with grand buildings and elegant churches with rococo style interiors. It’s a pastel shaded paradise full ornate statues and sculptures; every cobble on the ground is polished and every building is a masterpiece.
I left my bicycle in the shade of the almond trees that lined Corso Vittorio Emanuele and made my way on foot under L’Arco di Trionfo to my Sicilian fairytale.
I glided over the pristine cobbles and dipped in and out of the churches. I wandered around the cathedral and the town hall and soaked up every little bit of Noto that I could before the sun began to set and it was time to get going again.
The forty kilometres back to Syracuse was possibly the scariest part of the adventure and it turned out the E45 was more of a motorway than a road really, but fear kept me pedalling and Paolo kept me singing and I made it back to safety before the sky turned black.
Good luck my baby
I dream of you