Day 6: I have come to love Sicilia for many reasons, but singularly because the sun sheds its inhibitions and bursts forth upon the scorched earth like one of those roasted garlic-induced farts that produce feelings of pride and shame simultaneously. It streams forth like a flag in the 45 km wind that is whipping the trees outside of Baglio Vecchio like they are nothing but shreds of sensitive documents in a parking lot.
Praise to Allah (as the land we blow around in is more Arabian than Italian) we find ourselves and the wind in one directional accord. Riding against it would be harder than getting a dirty South resident to admit they’re really not that racist — hard, but not impossible, I suppose.
After a swim and a short vintage car tour, we hit the road again like long haul semi truck drivers without all the Big Gulps full of Mountain Don’t, I mean Dew. The wind propelled us like cardboard bike tourists on zombie apocalypse-style deserted roads that roll from fertile river valleys to hilltops and back. In such an insistent wind, we found ourselves enjoying a blissfully surreal non sequitur. Like:
You: Did you know there is such thing as an immortal jellyfish???
Me: And also, I am cresting this here hill and I didn’t pedal once. Crazy.
And so it went, until our nervous systems were strung out from the constant gale and we were ready to get the hell off our bikes. A short break at Bar Olimpia (a mandatory stop for ExperiencePlus! clients — and we never passed up a chance to gorge) revived us. We left with bellies full of lemon, Nutella and pistachio gelato and a bag of mini cannoli.
And then, it was time to navigate the chaotic Sicilian beehive — this one larger and clogged with traffic — to find our hotel. Main route? Pft. We soon found ourselves pointed straight uphill, squeezing around corners just wide enough for our steadily creeping selves and the scooters that came barreling around blind, ancient corners every minute or so. Cars wouldn’t stand a chance in the kind of streets designed for walking with arms open, dragging fingers on both walls at once.
Eventually, we arrived on top to find our surprisingly modern hotel. We cut up fresh tomatoes, peppers and ficodindia (“Figs of India” aka prickly pears) from an Ortofrutta (fruit & veggie stand), local salami and fragrant sheep’s milk cheese. We opened a container of caponata (a tangy-sweet Sicilian cold eggplant salad traditionally made with whatever was leftover from the garden — often, some combination of olives, capers, onions, pine nuts, basil, tomato and garlic). Add some mustard for dipping, a hunk of thick, chewy bread and some meaty red Nero D’Avola wine and presto! Dinner is served.
Day 7: One cappuccino and one espresso macchiato at breakfast had become the norm — and this was not the day to break tradition. Sciacca, at a whopping 60 m (197 feet) above sea level is 14 miles and 2,917 feet of climbing from Caltabellotta (our next destination). Even so we slept in, leaving just in time for the sun to rip its clothes off like an oiled body builder and shine like there was no tomorrow.
I had already started sweating the day before when I thought about climbing. And the sun beat down happily as we inched along past rock outcroppings dotted with cactus and still-green weeds like a hanging garden. Whirling wind farms lined the ridge and soon we were up there with them. We stopped to taste oranges hanging over a gate on the roadside (most orchards are locked up tighter than the Catholic Church’s secrets). It was tart and unripe, but throwing our rejected oranges on the road and watching speeding Fiat Pandas obliterate them sweetened the deal.
Tart oranges were soon a bittersweet memory once we discovered another roadside treasure: almonds. Fields of olives soon interspersed with almond trees and we stopped to swiftly and secretly gather a whole pocketful while farmer Giuseppe looked on from his tractor.
At the top of the pass — just after a rural scene which included geese, sheep, barking dogs and red and green Hankey the Christmas poo Fiat Pandas — we got all caveman and busted through the inner and outer shells of our edible treasure. The sun-cured heart was soft and sweet in the nose and mouth.
Encrusted in salt from sweating and hungrier than a whole gymnasium of newborn babies, we arrived in Caltabellotta by mid-afternoon. The “witching hour” of closed up everything was present, so we decided to keep climbing. We crested the spine for a bird’s-eye of the thrilling, beautiful jumble that is Cataviddotta — the Sicilian name for this ancient place, captured by Romans in 99 BC. Like many ancient cities, its roads twist about maddeningly, with little more rumination than was given to the premise of “50 Shades of Gray.” It would be — as always — a fight to the death before we found our B&B.
But first, we followed the road as it curved up and behind the stony mountain top knobs above town. At this juncture, I will allow the reader to experience the magical end to our day’s journey, just as I did (stick with me, it’s worth it)…
At 8 p.m., we ambled up the street to M.A.T.E.S for a fantastic gastronomical journey. The owners of this charming restaurant whose walls were bright shades of peach and yellow decorated with farm equipment from years gone by were a family (they also own the B&B we crashed at). One of the sons — Giuseppe — met us (amused) at the B&B hours before. I ran into mom trying to find the B&B (chef hat on above a warm smile, a smudged apron tied around her matronly frame) and the other son, Leonardo and their father, Felice (which translates literally to “happy”) served us dinner. This dinner started with a generous vial of bright green, pungent olive oil pressed two days ago by Felice himself. Bread soaked in this liquid scorches the throat and melts the heart like those three little words a girl can’t help but want to hear 🙂
And then, course 1 (antipasto) : A liter of local, spicy Nero D’Avola. A frittatta with eggplant, onions and zucchini (the only American breakfast food ever seen in this country, served as an appetizer). Freshly marinated red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, salami piccante, salted ricotta cheese, just-brined green olives, grilled eggplant and caponata.
Course one (primo piatto): A delicate, colorful saffron risotto with red peppers and zucchini. A plate of ricotta cheese so fresh it melted on the tongue like the words “that guy just gave me a million dollars.” Lastly handmade pasta with eggplant and fragrant sausage.
Course two (secondo piatto): Baked, succulent pork, roasted potatoes with rosemary and garlic and an impossibly tender beef slowly cooked in red wine.
To finish it all off, the large party of Swiss folks (one of whom had a birthday) shared the love and gave us two pieces of lemon cake. We filled all the cracks with a house grappa made from Nero D’Avola grapes — it was strong enough to peel the smiles off all four presidents at Mt. Rushmore. I can still feel it ripping my throat apart as I write this.
And then we fell face down in our beds without a care in the world except: what’s for breakfast?