Ride into the sunset

Western Sicily is where the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome collide. Jamie Buckley cycles through the rugged mountains and crumbling hilltop towns of this historic region
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The Independent Travel

It was not an encouraging start. As our plane touched down at Palermo airport, the heavens opened. The skies ignited with lightning and thunder shook the ground. Great - Zeus himself (or was it Jupiter?) had chosen to visit his old stomping ground the same week that my girlfriend and I had planned a cycling holiday.

It was not an encouraging start. As our plane touched down at Palermo airport, the heavens opened. The skies ignited with lightning and thunder shook the ground. Great - Zeus himself (or was it Jupiter?) had chosen to visit his old stomping ground the same week that my girlfriend and I had planned a cycling holiday.

The driver, who was transferring us to Scopello in the north-west of the island for our first night, was upbeat. "It will all blow out tomorrow and will be perfect for cycling," he said. "Not too hot and not too humid. You'll see." Spring and autumn are the best times for a cycling tour of Sicily, as during the summer temperatures rarely dip below 40C. We had opted for September envisaging the countryside free of the summer hordes and vineyards buzzing with activity in the late harvest sun.

We awoke on our first morning to find that, as predicted, the storm had blown itself out, but not before keeping us up most of the night. As I say, it wasn't an encouraging start. We were given maps and guide notes, and shown our bikes - the trusty steeds that would transport us some 140 miles over the next four days. We decided to look round Scopello before setting off - which took all of three minutes. Then we were on our way to Erice, free of our luggage, which was being transferred between our hotels on each leg of the trip.

Our fitness levels were tested pretty early on. There were no gentle downhill meanders along leafy B-roads; no graceful riverside sojourns followed by mildly boozy lunches. The very first morning we found ourselves clinging to the rocky carapace of one of Sicily's most precipitous mountains. This was not the "hill" our guide notes had euphemistically described. And it went on like this for quite a few miles, earning me the kind of looks that read: "I thought you said this was for beginners to intermediates."

After another 20 miles of cycling, up hill and down dale, we arrived at the hilltop town of Erice, a 13th-century monastic hideaway that now houses, of all things, a nuclear research facility. We took the shuttle option up the 500m climb to the town - well, there's no point in overdoing it on the first day. At the top we were rewarded with a friendly welcome, as well as stunning views back over the hills we had just climbed, and across to the dark, hulking shadows of the Eladi islands just off the westernmost tip of Sicily. That night in Erice left us with a strange taste in our mouths - the result of a local speciality made of sardines, garlic, herbs and raisins. Hmm.

The following morning we freewheeled back down to the foot of the town to join the road that would take us the 40 miles to Marsala. The relief lines on the map held no nasty surprises today; it was downhill all the way to the coast, and through glorious countryside to boot. We weaved through a network of flat, fertile fields, stopping for the occasional tomato that was ripening on the ground, vaguely following the rivers that flowed to the sea. We passed through a hinterland of salt lakes, where the roadsides were heaped with great mounds of that once-coveted commodity, and on to the city of Marsala, the birthplace of another highly prized item. The town itself, despite its Baroque churches and its vecchio centro, seemed bereft of the colour that defines its wholly decent wine. It has a wonderful western aspect seemingly ignored by town planners and local entrepreneurs. Along the palm-fringed seafront were none of the bars and restaurants that would be found elsewhere in the Med, just old folk enjoying each other's company and young Marsalistas impressing their school chums on their scooters. Somehow I felt that Marsala was not making the most of herself.

The next day we had another gentle, if rather long, ride to Selinunte, a Homeric pilgrimage of our Victorian forebears and home to honey-coloured Greek ruins that have faced out towards the Mediterranean for centuries. A further 55 miles of beautiful, rolling countryside lay between us and the ruins; this was real wine-growing territory, scattered with vineyards and olive groves. Every set of pickers we passed seemed intent on sustaining us with bunches of grapes to last our journey; so much so that I confess we had to ditch some of them en route. Making slow but steady progress along the agricultural backroads, there was little to occupy our minds save for trying to dodge the beetles, crickets and lizards that crept, leapt and slithered away from our oncoming tyres. The temperature was just right - it was as if autumn had arrived and no one had told Sicily. But then, geographically, the island feels more like a satellite of North Africa than a far-flung outpost of the Brussels Collectorate.

The descent towards Selinunte from the plains held nothing but freewheeling joy and expectation. I had seen friends' photos of the acropolis and temples, but was awestruck when face to face with them. These structures were built by Hellenic colonials, rebuilt by the Carthaginians, rocked and shattered by centuries of earthquakes and teased up by the enlightened Romanticists. Facing south towards North Africa, high on a cliff, the town must have been something of a New York of its day. Nowadays, though, it is mercifully bereft of tacky visitors' centres and the mind is free to contemplate its towering dilapidation.

The shore of modern Selinunte offers great beaches and provided the kind of backdrop that we had been looking for in Marsala. Plus, its restaurants offered wood-fired pizzas (with a liberal grating of botargo, dried tuna roe which has a salty punch), gingham tablecloths and cheap carafes of house red. All was right with the world.

The final day's cycling held a magnificent prize at the end - the chance to spend a night at one of the island's agroturismo B&Bs - but not before another 40-mile ride into the hills that surround Corleone. However, even after just three days we were already beginning to find the climbs easier. The only real traffic we came across was a flock of sheep - I believe they had right of way so we tailed them for a few miles before being waved on.

The town of Poggioreale stuck out on the side of a distant hill, and as we approached we could see the damage that had been done to this once-thriving town that had lain empty, save for inquisitive tourists, since January 1968. On the 13th day of that month, an earthquake devastated the town. The inhabitants left to rebuild their lives further down the valley and buried their dead in what must surely be one of the most beautiful graveyards anywhere. Walking round this ghost town, you can gaze up through the shattered ruins into bathrooms with twisted water pipes, and churches with frescoes crumbling from the ceilings. There is something macabre about visiting such a place, though, so we paid our respects and moved on, further into the heart of Corleone country.

We were on our last legs when a farmer came by in his tractor and offered us a lift. After he had taken us a few miles down the road, he stopped at his farm and invited us in for a much-needed guzzle of water then bid us buon viaggio. As the sun dipped behind the hills, we finally rounded a bend in the rocky road and spied (on another hilltop, would you believe it) our final destination.

Later, at journey's end, we sat outside with a beer and looked out over the countryside with its rolling prairies of sun-burnt grass - we could have been in Colorado. The evening meal had come entirely from produce farmed in the local area - cheese, aubergines, tomatoes, chicken - and you could taste the difference. The memories of all those hills finally melted away to be replaced by feelings of exhaustion and achievement, and a very full tummy.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

Ryanair flies from Stansted to Palermo (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).

GETTING AROUND

Hooked on Cycling (01501 744727; www.hookedoncycling.co.uk) organises cycling tours in Western Sicily from £595, including accommodation, transfers and bike rental but not flights.

STAYING THERE

La Pensione Tavernetta (00 39 09 24 54 1129; www.scopellonline.com/latavernetta) in Scopello has doubles from €70 (£50), with breakfast.

Hotel Elimo (00 39 09 23 86 9377; www.charmerelax.it) in Erice has doubles from €129 (£92), with breakfast.

Villa Favorita (00 39 09 23 98 9100; www.villafavorita.com) in Marsala has doubles from €75 (£54), with breakfast.

Hotel Alceste (00 39 09 24 46 184; www.hotelalceste.it) in Marinella di Selinunte has doubles from €70 (£50), with breakfast.

Rocca dei Capperi (00 39 32 00 41 9717; www.roccadeicapperi.com) in Contessa Entellina offers doubles from €35 (£25,) with breakfast.

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