Neale Bayly begins another adventure as he returns to Europe with Dennis Gage and his son Sam to explore the wonders of Sicily.
As the night train rattles, shakes and rolls south toward Sicily, I lay back on my bunk half closing my eyes, listening to the sound track of the metal wheels on their metal tracks. Relaxing, the offbeat music begins resonating in my senses, as the ticking of the clock and the passage of time melt into the Italian dusk. Outside, the endless landscape slides by, as houses, trees and buildings next to the track become a horizontal blur, while objects on the burnt orange horizon float past like boats on a tranquil sea.
Different sounds mean different things. The high-pitched squeal of another train passing in an urgent rush or the various clicking noises as we change tracks in a town or city. The thunderous roar when we pass through long tunnels is accompanied by sudden washes of shadow that cover us. Rolling onward into the night, we are traveling in a sleeper cab that hasn’t changed since I rode this rail as an 11-year-old schoolboy.
Drifting in and out of a mechanical dream world filled with images from the Moto Guzzi factory we have just left behind on Lake Como, the ancient island of Sicily calls. Surrounded by pastel, azure seas, its clear blue skyline is dominated by the active volcanic Mt. Etna boiling, snarling and spewing smoke 11,000 feet above the sleepy towns and villages that seem to have somehow stopped the hands of time.
Our trusty Moto Guzzis prepared to take us on an amazing adventure through the picturesqe landscape and over the winding roads the ancient island has to offer.
Below Etna, in the town of Catania, three new Moto Guzzi’s, and four days of adventure in the soft golden light that bathes the gently worn countryside await. Tracing their motorcycle lineage back to 1921, the thought of the mechanical experience from the air-cooled, transverse V-Twin engines becomes one with the clanking and roaring of the night train as sleep finally comes.
Waking to a Sicilian sunrise across the Tyrrhenian Sea and gazing out of the train window in a semi-dreamlike state, the rugged coastline is sprinkled with beautiful haciendas impossibly perched on rocky outcrops in the morning water. Suddenly, to the metallic screech of powerful brakes, we pull into Catania and head out to find our motorcycles. I am traveling with Dennis Gage and his young son, Sam, and I get to see Sicily reflected in the constant smile of a 17-year-old who is having the time of his life.
This average looking fish market offered some interesting characters
with some rich singing and a very photogentic, well-dressed
Catania has been in the population business for 17 centuries, and the Cathedral dominates the town center. Standing magnificent, stoic and proud, immaculately carved angels look down on sinners and saints without discrimination. With a free afternoon, I chose to wander the crowded streets, linger at the outdoor cafes, and watch the fabric of Sicilian life being woven in front of me. A stroll through the fish market assaults the senses from the myriad of multicolored fish to the constant musical heckling from one fish seller to another: Suddenly, a spontaneous outburst of deep, rich baritone singing springs from the lips of another and fills the air. Then, an 84-year-old man in an immaculate suit sees my camera and strikes a pose. The sparkle in his eye rivals the light that dances and shines across the Mediterranean, and makes me wonder what mysteries he could tell me from this ancient island if we shared a common language.
Warm sun, even warmer people, strong coffee and a slow, deliberate dinner of multiple mouth-watering courses calls to us like the Sirens of Anthemoessa as Jason and his Argonauts sailed by. But as soon as my Moto Guzzi Griso jumps to life the following morning, with the rocking cadence so familiar to long-time aficionados of this historic brand, like Orpheus’ song, the call of the road, takes over. Diving into the sea of madness that doubles for city driving in Sicily, a quick check in my mirror shows Dennis on his Breva 1100 and Sam on a 750 Nevada in tight formation, so I gun the big twin for Taormina.
Clearing Cantania under a near cloudless sky, one lone cloud accompanies us, sailing across its open blue sea before stalling out against the slopes of Mt. Etna. The countryside is a lively mix of vibrant yellow flowers, pale pink cherry blossoms, and deep green evergreen trees scattered on the borders of hillside farms. As the most amazing contrast to our Italian hosts’ laid-back welcoming nature in pedestrian mode, it is quickly apparent that we need to watch out when they get behind the wheel of an automobile. They’re reckless! Fighting for every available square inch of empty tarmac like Roman gladiators in quest for glory, our first few miles are somewhat stressful as both Dennis and I attempt to protect Sam. He doesn’t seem fazed and rides with an air of confidence and ability belying his youth, so perhaps we are more worried for ourselves?
Reminiscent of California’s A1A, the sight of the Mediterranean to our side soon takes away our fears, as the warmth of the sun and the gentle countryside with its run down farm houses melding into the hillsides brings calm. A couple of hours into the ride, rock towers loom up ahead as Mt. Etna fades into our mirrors, the steep rocky hillsides filling with houses and hotels clinging to the sheer, craggy sides. Looking like a sea of smiling faces with their windows facing the
The Moto Guzzis eat up the narrow winding roads like it’s nothing, and all the while we enjoy the historic landscapes that surround us.
sparkling Mediterranean, I am in the Griso’s sweet spot at 4000 rpm. This equates to 70 mph, a speed that seems to suit Dennis and Sam. Having ridden and traveled together on a number of occasions, we need only the basic amount of communication to signal our intentions, and the tone is set for the next four days riding.
Riding up to Castel Mola is a fascinating challenge, as we seem to ride right through Sicilian life along the narrow, winding road. Climbing for a good half hour, it is hard to maintain focus as competing views of the Mediterranean to the one side and Mt. Etna standing proud against the clear blue sky threaten to divert our attention for a split second too long. Weaned on European traffic conditions, brushing past people, dogs, cars and bicycles is built into my subconscious motorcycle skill set, but it is a challenge for Dennis and Sam and arriving at the castle and parking on the cobblestones is an obvious relief. Quickly ensconced in an outdoor café with a breathtaking panoramic view back to mainland Italy, the tension is soon gone as we relax in the warm sunshine.
Before long we are threading our way through narrow cobble streets enjoying an abundance of arts and crafts on display to tempt the many tourists who visit what is quoted as one of the most beautiful places in Italy. Basking in warm sunshine, sucked into the lazy pace of life, one thing quickly becomes clear, this motorcycle adventure is never going to break any distance records. So in this vein we meander around in a calm, contented state, seemingly unable to pull ourselves away from these centuries old streets and buildings.
Thankfully, our cameraman breaks the spell as we pile back on the bikes and head on down the mountain and back to sea level. Twisting, turning, and squeezing our way through small villages, shops opening onto the street, we set a course for the interior of Sicily. Sometimes we ride over large stones, old, square and rippled as we pass under archways and through these narrow old streets. Occasionally, opening up into some small town square, we watch kids playing soccer, old men in drab olive suits talking with animated hand gestures, their furrowed, craggy faces as worn and timeless as the land we travel through. And always Mt. Etna: Never far from view, we are essentially riding around the base as we decide on the ancient town of Rendozza for our first night on Sicily.
Rendozza doesn’t disappoint by thrilling us with its large cathedral. We are soon chatting it up with a local police officer, and making new friends who seem very interested by the Americans in brightly colored leathers riding Italian motorcycles. A thriving town with its 13th Century cathedral, we rode through the old tight stone streets, meandering around and back on each other like a rabbit warren, as the fading sun sets the ancient stone on fire. At the controls of the Griso, I was happy to be on a bike with a nice upright riding position and comfortable seat as I gazed around at the endless stream of architectural wonders gliding through my visor.
Climbing out of Rendozza into another cloudless Sicilian day, the old guys in their suits were out early, jawing and gesticulating. It was, of course, a battle for pole position at every traffic light, but before long we had cleared town and were entering a near deserted valley filled with clean air, vibrant colors and occasional farmhouses. Various livestock grazed on the greenest grass imaginable, and our old friend Etna put the icing on top of the perfect view. Small villages tucked into the side of the hills and cliffs, with steep, narrow, brick-lined roads breaking up the serpentine country roads when we briefly rejoined civilization. Out there in the rural center of Sicily the towns were very quiet, with few signs of life, unlike the manic circus we had left behind in Rendozza. Riding through occasional fields of brilliant yellow flowers and hedgerows of pink cheery blossoms, I started thinking about where I had left my car at the airport. Yanking me back to some sort of reality, it opened up an interesting inner dialogue about how “in the moment” I had so quickly become since landing in Italy.
Riding through Sicily on a bright red Guzzi is as close to the Zen moment we all crave from motorcycle travel as I rode on into right now: the next hairpin turn, the next magnificent vista, and the next gear change. Of course, I think of my son Patrick and can only hope, like Dennis and Sam, I will be riding with him one day through some foreign land. Later, stopping to chat with various locals, struggling through some crazy exchanges with smiles and sign language at the gas station, I am reminded why you have to travel with happiness in your heart. The world is nothing more than a mirror of our feelings.
And in that vein, the Griso ran like a charm as we rolled and climbed up into some heavily forested mountain roads, the spring sunshine not quite strong enough yet to melt the snow that lay on the side of the road. And then, nearly as quickly as we have entered this near alpine world, we had dropped back down once more on the other side of Sicily and were back at sea level heading for the next time magnet masquerading as a sea side town, Cefalu. Picking up the Autostrada, it was time to let our long legged two wheeled friends strut their stuff. Built at a cost of over $750 million, construction of the 181-km road started in 1969. Thirty-three-feet wide, this billiard table smooth, three-lane road floats along 20 feet in the air, as it passed over numerous viaducts and through multiple tunnels following the coastline from Messina to Palermo. At close to 80 mph, the speed limit is the highest in Europe, after the Autobahn, but we didn’t exploit this too much as the ride was too perfect to hurry.
Arriving in Cefalu our travel plans hit fly paper, and hours later lingering on the waterfront watching a small boat ply its way across the still water through a brilliant, golden sunset, I realized we weren’t going any further on this day. Finding pleasant accommodations and a wonderful multi-course dinner at a local restaurant, we learned about the town we had spent the afternoon wandering around from our gracious host. Surrounded by a Roman Wall, the town of Cefalu dates back to 400 BC and lays 75 km from Palermo. Walled in by the Madonie Mountains and butting up to the Tyrrhenian Sea, its medieval town center and narrow winding streets have warmth and charm that will stay burned in my memory banks forever.
Waking to find Cefalu transformed into a gigantic live market, we threaded our way through a vibrant throng of people and out toward the interior of Sicily. Wanting to make a little time, we settled into the ride and enjoyed the feeling of once more stepping back in time as the countryside became dominated by farming and agriculture. The weather was perfect, the roads lightly trafficked, and after a few photo opportunities, we reached our planned destination, Agrigento. Having done some research on this before our trip, we had decided to spend some time here, and we could have spent more. Heading in to explore the Valley of the Temples just outside town, we learned the site was founded way back in 582 BC. Featuring a small amphitheatre, auditoria, and a number of temples from as early as 450BC it is a stunning and
fascinating place to get lost in. Strolling through the vast area, we passed through small olive groves and among almond trees as we enjoyed the Temples of Juno, Dioscuri, and Concord, as well as the large telemons standing majestic and proud under the perfect blue sky.
Tearing ourselves away, we headed slightly inland when the next adventure presented itself. Blasting into the dirty, industrial town of Gela, I spotted a damsel in distress beside the highway on a small moped. Out of gas, I did the gentlemanly thing and pushed her to a gas station. Looking like something out of the pages of a fashion magazine, Florianna took a quick ride on my Griso, before leaving me to nurse a broken heart as she zipped off into the busy traffic. Musing on what might have been, we rode into the early evening before taking some cool accommodation outside of Enna, before stumbling into a warm, crowded pizza restaurant for a big feed.
Leaving our comfortable hotel, we made our way around the outside of an old racetrack with the balcony of Sicily above the city of Enna as the last jewel in our travel crown. It was the day we were to return the bikes to Catania and return to our respective lives. Before that though, the Castello di Lombardia, built by Frederick II in 1233, was high on the list of top tourist attractions, and the challenging Sicilian roads provided nonstop motorcycle stimulation as we made our way to this last destination. On arrival we parked and walked, enjoying
stunning views across the fertile landscape to our old friend Mt. Etna, still visible on the distant horizon. Lulled in again by the warm air and gentle pace of life, thankfully Dennis was thinking and snapped us all in to shape, which got us back on the road.
Dropping down the crazy, twisting, tumbling road we picked up some nearly empty highway and got to twist the throttles once more. It had been a magical few days. Good company, a trusty steed, and a historic island packed with surprises and adventures at every turn. We had picked a perfect time of year to travel before the summer crowds and the summer heat. Adding the quintessential Italian motorcycles to the mix, which so comfortably blended in with the country that we traveled, has made sure this will go down as one of my top ten motorcycle rides ever.