Ragusa: 36°55’33″N 14°44’26″E
Leaving the Valley of Temples and heading southwest along the coast road took us through a couple of towns that we’d considered staying in for the winter. In the end we were happy we decided to look further afield. Licata Marina is a popular spot with cruisers over-wintering in Sicily. I can’t speak for the marina, but the town has a grittiness that is simultaneously intriguing and off-putting.
There’s a certain chaos to driving in Sicily, and it fully manifests itself in urban areas in the busy morning hours. Licata teems with life and drivers dodge scooters, delivery trucks, municipal busses, other cars, and of course humans. The ebb and flow of near-miss traffic is surprisingly well tolerated by local pedestrians. It is a symbiosis borne of decades of evolution.
People drive like they live in Italy – proximally and passionately. Speed limits are for foreigners, stop signs for the tiresome, and line markings made for straddling. All this is better experienced in your personal beater, not a nearly new rental car. But we had full insurance and a surprisingly nippy Fiat Panda. A car built for the job.
Trash lining the roads faded as we climbed the hills towards the ancient city of Ragusa. Bucolic sights, cows, fields being ploughed, and distant vistas over the south coast lifted our spirits. The folds and curves of the land make for deep canyons and vertiginous cliffs. Ragusa perches on two knolls. The old city spreads expansively around the cathedral and university. The new town sweeps out, west towards the highway traversing a ridge.
Our cottage for the night was lovely. A short set of steps led up to the main living/dining area. An alcove with two single beds gave way to another set of stairs, the bathroom on the landing, and then the master bedroom at the top of the house.
Rain from the south brought warmth and humidity to our evening stroll. Late in the tourist season and with universities closed for Covid, the old town felt forsaken. We found a couple of markets open and bought some nosh, along with the best eight-euro bottle of wine obtainable. Dinner was simple, but antipasti makes everything better.
Mount Etna: 37°36’32″N 15°01’20″E
Driving around Sicily is slower than you’d expect. Distances don’t look far on the map, but speeds are (laughably) ‘limited’ to 50km/hr on most roads. Roads that have enough twists and turns to deter overtaking. And, well, you may as well enjoy the ride since it’s going to take as long as it takes.
Our original goal after Ragusa was Syracuse. We paused at the Cavagrande del Cassibile, Sicily’s answer to the Grand Canyon. An impressively deep gash in the bluff, we ended up walking the rim instead of venturing down. There were two reasons for this. The first was a dirt road with deep potholes and an unknown number of tire eating rocks on the way to the parking lot. The second, at our alternative entry point, was geological work that closed the trails for fear of braining a hiker with loose rock samples. On our walk, we were joined by a mature dachshund who’d taken a fancy to Marlon. Carol named her Olivia.
Time caught up with us and prioritizing a visit to Mount Etna we bypassed Syracuse and headed north to Nicolosi, 700m up the side of the mountain. Sotto il Vulcano is a charming bed and breakfast run by Antonella and Salvo. Started almost 20 years ago, Sotto was one of the first B&Bs in the area. Now there is plenty of choice in and around the town. Wandering through Nicolosi, we got the impression that it catered to deep-pocketed clientele. Plenty of expensive restaurants and fancy looking villas lined the north end’s streets.
We had hoped to reach Etna’s summit, but she had other ideas. About a week ago she started burping steam and smoke, so the mountain’s managers decided to suspend all trips to the top. Instead, we woke at a civilized hour and breakfasted heartily at Salvo’s well-laid table. The drive to the mid-station is steady and well paved. The grade looks like a US National Forest Service 6% standard, like on Mount Hood. Plenty of cyclists made the climb alongside us. Given that the temperature had dropped a full 10oC at the mid-station, I thought most of them looked under dressed. Having cycled up Mount Hood to Timberline Lodge one June, I learned first-hand what it’s like descending in freezing weather wearing nothing but spandex. Pure brass monkeys! More experienced riders had brought windbreakers with them for the ride down. Lesson learned.
Gangi: 37°47’51″N 14°12’19″E
Voted the most beautiful village in Italy in 2014, buying a home in Gangi might be as cheap as 1 Euro. Yes, the local council has sold derelict and abandoned properties in the area for less than the price of an espresso. Conditions of sale in such schemes typically include a minimal investment, usually around 15,000 to 30,000 euros, with repairs completed within a couple of years.
Gangi is really beautiful. The real estate promotion seems to be paying off. Our newly renovated one-bedroom apartment was very clean and comfortable. Our hostess met us and for the first time we jumped through a couple of viral hoops that included signing up for a Sicilian health department Covid-19 contact tracing app. As you might expect the app was designed for holiday makers flying into Sicily, not cruisers sailing in from Corsica. Having typed N/A as many times as I could, I submitted our information, satisfied our paperwork requirement, then quietly deleted the app.
As the sun set, some of the elderly full-time residents gathered near the church and bantered in the warmth of golden hour. Then, unexpectedly, there was the squeal of small children. Lots of them. Running and playing as the daylight waned and the air quickly cooled off. Children are, I believe, a sign of hope for these fading communities.