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OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 55 - 60

OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 55 - 60

DAY 55 Chiramonte Gulfi – Agromonte – Caza Grazie – Realmonte

With the fuel lines doing what they should, and the bikes running so much more smoothly, we head for the town of Chiaramonte Gulfi where we are due to meet our Sicilian supplier of our cherry tomatoes that we call Tomorosso. Cresting a hill, the town is laid out before us – terracotta tiles cascading down the hillside all jumbled on top of each to create a terracotta collage the sort of which would make for a damn difficult jig saw puzzle picture.

We arrive at the factory, guided by the smell of cooking tomatoes and park up outside.  We wait for a minute as the bikes tick and cool gently in the sun and are suddenly greeted by the President of the company, Carmelo (what a coincidence – he must be someone’s Uncle – two Uncle Carmelo’s in one day. We are blessed) who gives us the biggest of smiles and raises his hands aloft as if offering thanks to the heavens for our arrival. We’ve met before – he has not a word of English and our Italian is pretty rudimentary. He clasps my hands and then turns to Annie and has to sit down for a minute as he contemplates the distances we’ve travelled on these two old machines.

“Whoof, Ooof, Whoof. Mama Mia, Santa Christa ” he sighs, fanning himself as he perches on the edge of the stone wall in the shade of a huge olive tree that graces the yard. We chat some in gestures and ask about an old friend of ours, Gaetano Amato, who was such an inspiration to us and taught us so much about life, love, friendship and the true meaning of companionship.

“Mi dispiace che sia morto.” We are told.

He may no longer be with us but we won’t forget what he taught us.

The factory is a buzz with activity and we are shown around by Georgio, Carmelo’s son and now the big tomato in the place and Erika, our usual contact. It is huge and way larger than either of us ever imagined and we chat much about our relationship and how long we’ve been working together – over 25 years we calculate. We go for lunch and Georgio shows us a photo of us with our motorbikes on his phone which amazes us and delights Georgio. It’s from his friend, Marko, who we met whilst waiting for the shit show of a ferry to bring us from Greece to Italy. We’d ended up on the docks for a few hours with some other bikers – a couple from London and a lot from Sicily. As is customary, we all got talking and mentioned we were coming to Chiramonte Gulfi which turned out to be where the Sicilians were largely from.  Some of them had taken snaps of us and our bikes and Marko had simply said his friend worked at the place and we’d wondered at the time if anyone would remember. What Marko hadn’t told us was that his friend effectively owned and ran the business.

Georgio’s phone rarely stops ringing and our conversation is frequently interrupted with another hurried conversation gabbled into the glass rectangle before being shut off and another mouthful of pasta taken. I ask Marko if he can guess how many times my phone has rung in the last 55 days or so since we left the UK.

“Thousands!” He says, gesticulating at his phone as it rings yet again.  He shuts it off and looks at me, expectantly.

“Less than 10.” I tell him, somewhat smugly.

He can’t believe it and asks how that is possible. We are fortunate in having a brilliant team back at Olives HQ who don’t need me blathering away to them from afar, so they pretty much leave us alone. As a result, I rarely get a call from the office at all. Oh, and I’m an anti social curmudgeonly bastard to boot, so no one ever rings me anyway. Either way, my phone stays silent pretty much the whole time which really does suit me fine.

On the other hand, Annie has got some weird setting between her phone and her crash helmet which means that, as we are riding along, Annie’s phone will take it upon itself to ring a random number from the ones stored in her phone. As she’s had this phone number for some time she has a fair few contacts dating back years and years so a number of these calls result in very bemused conversations with a contact from 15 plus years ago, who we might have met once on holiday and promised we’d keep in touch, but obviously never did, trying to fathom who we are and why we’ve rung them. Try as we might, we can’t find the setting so if you’ve had a missed call from someone you have absolutely no recollection of, it might have been Annie. And we really must meet up again soon – it’s been too long.

Riding across Sicily to our next assignment we are struck, once again, by the harsh beauty of the landscape and just how comprehensively trashed with trash it is – it really is both a mystery as why anyone would ever think that some sort of mythical ‘Rubbish Fairy’ will descend from somewhere where Rubbish Fairies hail from and clean up after them (Why would they? They’re a rubbish fairy, after all) or that, by some kind of hand of god incident, all the litter would be sucked up and disappeared to some never never land of dirty yogurt pots, used nappies, bald tyres, discarded tissues, divans and, alarmingly, a Moses Basket complete with blanket and mini mattress. It beggars belief and raises both hackles and alarms for the future.

All of this is contrasted by the estate we went to next. Some serious wealth in not just money but talent, style, interior design, attention to detail and colour science have all been used to best effect in creating one of the best found set of industrial premises I’ve ever set foot anywhere near. Astonishingly tight, taut, polished, presented and, Oh…. Just… SO.

I am always in awe, and incredibly admiring (but also envious), when I see places done with such panache – a world away from the rubbish strewn roads beyond the estate fences – calm, professional, dedicated and (vulgar but honest moment approaching) kind of horny in a teenagerly excited sort of a way. Everything straining at the buttons, strapped tight, made up to perfection and dressed to impress such that it cannot fail to induce le petite mort on whosoever draws up the drive.

Everyone we met was absolutely on it – the energetic and enthusiastic manager who greeted and hosted us, the owners, the agronomist who took us through the issues of climate and unearthed some real insights for us – everyone was so helpful and pleased about we were doing – couldn’t fail to be impressed and delighted – in equal measure.

Leaving there on a cloud of solid nines we went to the place we’d booked for the night. Here’s how it was described (names of actual places changed to protect us):

Located within X km of X and X km of X, Casa Toss Pit provides rooms with air conditioning and a private bathroom in XXX. With mountain views, this accommodation offers a patio. There is a restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine.

All units are equipped with a desk and a flat-screen TV. Featuring a private bathroom with a bidet and a hair dryer, all units come with bed linen and towels.

Buffet and Italian breakfast options with local specialities, fresh pastries and pancakes are available daily. There is a snack bar, and packed lunches are also available.

We are well used to online booking platforms and their somewhat misleading and overly generous descriptions but this one took the biscuit, biscuit packet, bag and souvenir embossed tin with plastic trays in the shape of different biscuits and shat on it.

Comprehensively. Massively. Completely and wholeheartedly. In fact, if you wanted to find the culprit for all the crap on the roads of Sicily I reckon you wouldn’t have to go far from here to be able to point a pointy finger and declare with gravitas, “Ti accuso!” and be far from actuality.

The entire description was utter crap. Patio? My arse. Mediterranean Cuisine? Shit on a puppy. Bed Linen & Towels? Don’t even go there – I have way more rude stuff that is entirely apposite and to the point of almost forensic detail but politeness and decorum suggests I refrain lest we offend someone.

We slept in our sleeping bags. On the floor. The following morning we shuffled and prodded our “Buffet and Italian breakfast with local specialities, fresh pastries and pancakes” and moved off sharpish before anything bit, stabbed or leapt at us. If ever you are travelling the SSxxx near XXX and see a sign for XXX please ignore it, move on and go somewhere else. Anywhere.


DAY 56 Realmonte – Sciacca – Corleone – Trappeto

We were heartily relieved to leave our over night stop behind and, like we say, if ever you have the good fortune to be on the road between Realmonte and Sciacca don’t stop at anywhere with Sofia in the name. Just to be on the safe side.

Riding, as we do, from one stop to the next, each twist and bend opening up a new vista and fresh view of the world we are travelling in and across, we are often lost to our own thoughts about each building experience and what we are learning as we move. Sometimes, at the end of a day; the daily routines of closing one day and preparing for the next, as one must when travelling as we are; we softly chat and mull over the sights, sounds and smells of the miles ridden that day. The way the scenery changes, builds, dips and moulds; the changes in temperature as you ascend around hairpins of switchbacks and crest a view the sight of which is so remarkable that it removes the very air from your lungs and leaves you gulping to refill as you descend around more switch-backing roads towards yet another horizon.

I chat about this to Annie and about how to describe Sicily – particularly the landscape we have been riding across for the last 50 miles or so. Annie says,

“It’s a bit like the Yorkshire Dales or Lake District” which, I must accept, is certainly one way to describe it.

However, for me, it was as if a Primary School teacher had asked a Key Stage 1, Year 2 class of 6 and 7 year olds to create a fantastical model of a mythical land that couldn’t ever actually really exist. And to do this by covering a large table with those square trays that eggs get packed in for caterers and, having turned them upside down so the textured, rougher side was facing up, take a large rubber mallet or two and randomly smash the eggy uppy cuppy bits to leave some smashed and some standing, then cover the whole thing in glue, throw sand over it and sprinkle it with grass cuttings and moss and add some cows, sheep and goats. Preferably with at least some, if not all, placed precipitously and about to fall off a half smashed eggy uppy cuppy dimple. That is what I saw. Once I’d explained that to Annie she absolutely got the description and decided that was absolutely the right way of looking it and the Lake District and Yorkshire comparisons were obviously way off and of course it looked like smashed up egg trays.

We were headed for Sciacca (Shacka as in Chaka Khan) where we had arranged to meet up with the company that produces oil for the Balsamic folks we had met way back on Day 6 or 7 just outside Modena in N Italy which now seems like an age ago.

Betti and Loredana are waiting for us and we go into the office and chat.  It is a stark and sobering conversation which I won’t relate in full here as it forms part of the 5 Questions recorded elsewhere. Suffice it to say that these two ladies, both under 40, have some of the bleakest experiences to share with us and we leave there feeling a bit raw and not quite believing what we had heard.

A snippet: the houses and dwellings in Sciacca no longer have running water as it is so scarce. They have standpipes in the street and are able to collect their water once or twice a week. Think on that. Going to a standpipe on, say, a Monday and collecting all the water you need to last you and your family until Thursday or Friday of that same week – if not longer. All the water to cook with, make tea, wash yourself and your family and children with, to flush the toilet with, to water your plants or simply clean your teeth. Fights over water are a daily occurrence. And it is not even Summer yet.

Our route takes us through the town of Corleone – a name that seems somehow familiar although neither of us can imagine why. I get a little anxious about the route and concentrate a little too hard on the map for a moment and ride straight down a one way street against the flow of traffic coming the other way.  I am made to understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am going the wrong way. I am also going the wrong way, it seems, about making friends in this town and the scowls and finger wags bring to mind why the name of the town is so familiar which makes me even more anxious to find the right road out of town. Which, for the next 20 minutes or so, proves to be more of a challenge than either Annie or I enjoy. To my certain knowledge we went past the same bar at least 6 times – the first time we kind of got away with it, even though we were travelling the wrong way down the street, the second time was when we managed to turn around and go the right way down the street, the other 4 times we seemed to approach it from a different direction each time and each time we did, the various customers who had originally been mainly seated inside, were now outside watching us with ever increasing interest which wasn’t exactly paternal and seemed a bit more godfatherly to us.

Corleone is a beautiful town. We spent way more time than planned there and at least one of us needed a change of underpants on finally seeing it shrink in our rear mirrors. We scuttled onwards with a few glances to see if the townsfolk had decided to chase after us with pitchforks, anvils, mallets or spades but they all must have returned to the bar and decided we weren’t worth the hassle. I’m not honestly sure if I’m relieved or disappointed by that – it might have been nice to arouse some action.

DAY 57 Trappeto

Small sea side town to the west of Palermo. Wandered about, bumped into street furniture. Ate a meal or two. Slept. 

Annie said this: Spent much of the day planning the next steps back on the mainland, plotting routes and rest stops. Weather beginning to heat up but still thankfully cool. Did writing and decoupage this afternoon. Dined in the other place on the sea front. Trappeto is a slightly tired little town but has its appeal in a shabby kind of way.  A bit like Giles.

DAY 58-59 Palermo – Naples – Rieti

After discovering how ferry travel could be, we’d booked our return to the mainland using the same ferry line – the one with the swans, geese and fez wearers.  Once more, we arrived at the dock and were ushered from one set of liveried staff to another until the last one; tall, slim, darkly handsome and with brooding eyes; did the most amazing thing. Asking for a passport, he looked at it, consulted his phone, passed his phone to an equally liveried colleague (who just happened to be grooming a goose in readiness) and began fiddling energetically with his crotch whilst fixing Annie with eyes that were more breeding than brooding.

I heard a little something in my hat – Annie, transfixed by the crotch thing, had clearly fallen into the eyes and was now struck by some sort of seizure for I heard all sorts of snorting and whistling. More crotchy manhandling went on before, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, from his nether regions spewed a long curly stream of confetti in one continuous curl like he was relieving himself of paper onto the quayside.  This impressed me some but Annie was in raptures at the very sight – I could tell this from the appreciative gasps coming from her and directly into my helmet. She gurgled some more and seeing Annie’s beaming grin he lifted his shirt and revealed his equipment to the pair of us.

This turned out to be a really natty On The Buses style ticket machine slung really low around his waist necessitating a degree of fiddling and he clearly took a great deal of pleasure in making theatre from it. I could tell Annie was wistfully wondering whether such a tool could be put to good use for an afternoon of decoupage or some such.

Anyhow, without even getting off the bikes we had our on-board Passports To Loveliness in hand and were ushered boat wards to collect the customary goose or two. Once again, we were waved to the front of the waiting cars and wafted up the ramp into the bowels to be met, as before, by smiling crew who made us feel welcome and secure. Everything was as gorgeous as before and we spent a cosy night with the swans, geese and a kitten or two for good measure.

Disembarkation was just as lovely and we rolled off into the Sunday morning sun of Naples and headed north. Then south. Then east, west, north, a bit south and then finally north-ish. Navigational systems are fallible. They are also belligerent, vindictive and mischievous. This particular morning, ours had decided to develop a bi-polar disorder of such schizophrenic madness that it decided to take us directly through a pedestrianised Sunday Market along cobbled avenues with stalls on either side so close I could have dressed myself head to toe in various Italian chic outfits and installed a complete set of knock off Luis Futon (yes, that was the label) luggage without stopping or even leaving my seat.

Whilst Sunday shoppers edged out of the way and stall holders shouted at us, we apologetically responded,

“Mi Dispace, Siamo Inglesi e stupidi!”

Which roughly means,

“I am so, so sorry, We are English and complete morons.”

Delivered with a smile, it at least made a few smile back in agreement.

After a while, being patriotic and, not wishing to bring bad feelings towards future Brits who might find themselves in the same situation, we changed this to,

“Togliti di mezzo! Siamo Tedeschi!”

Which means:

“Get out of the way! We are German.”

This had precisely the desired effect. The street cleared and we had free passage although it did evoke a fair amount of we can only assume was abuse yelled at us from behind the now empty stalls. It dawned on us that the reason the street cleared was so they could all go and fetch pitchforks, anvils, mallets, spades and other implements of damage with which to inflict severe pain.

Now, smartly dressed in our new chicness of hastily snatched clothes complete with Luis Futon luggage, we were disguised as respectable Neopolitans so we did as they did, hurled abuse at everybody, leant on the horn, tore down the middle of the road (the white line is exceedingly useful here as this gives you a direct path to aim for) and hurtled our way to the edge of the city and into the countryside whilst checking the rear views for any chasing mobs. I think it is safe to say that we did a good enough job of becoming Neopolitan to get away with it and we saw a few thumbs up gestures as we headed out of town. We even had a few conversations at traffic lights with locals intrigued at either our bravery of riding in Naples or stupidity. Either way, we had a lovely Sunday Morning ride.

As we did so, we reflected on the various cities and places of interest these bikes have been ridden through on this trip and others over the years. To name drop a few: Istanbul, Allepo, Damascus, Amman, Cairo, Aswan, Amalfi Coast, Palermo, Naples (more times that is possibly good for us although the German ruse seemed to work OK), Kotor, Dubrovnik, Berat, Yeovil and more besides. The rule is always to aim for the piece of tarmac that someone else is on and never, ever, ever stop. The reason for this is that everyone else is also aiming for the piece of tarmac you are on. If you stop, you are doomed and the game ends. I once hesitated in a small town in Egypt somewhere along the Nile and was taken out by a donkey carrying a huge mound of sugar cane. For some reason, I assumed it would also stop. It didn’t and came ambling on without even looking up knocking me and bike to the ground leaving me with an interesting view of the underside of a very male donkey.  At least I had my visor down otherwise… well, I leave it to your imagination although you’d probably prefer it if I hadn’t because you have that picture in your mind now. Not nice, is it?

That experience delivered a very valuable lesson:  Stay at home. Don’t go anywhere. And never on a motorbike.

Well, where’s the fun in that? We’ve ignored it completely and, largely, had a ball.

DAY 60 Rieti – Radda in Chianti

Whilst our early morning ride through the back streets of Naples had been fun the weather as we drew northwards wasn’t. We were headed for Rieti, around 250km north of Naples and west of Rome. As the road led us towards our destination, the landscape became greener and more agricultural with vines and the odd olive grove dotted in amongst the rolling countryside. The skies darkened and the first spots of rain began to fall with us still having 100km to go.

Riding in the rain is OK if you have all the right gear but we had made some choices when selecting our clothing for the trip and wet weather stuff was where we’d compromised a tad too much. I prefer not to ride in full on biking boots as they are too heavy and bulky for walking when not riding. Instead, I wear a pair of army Jungle Boots which are fab in the jungle as they have holes in to let the water out.  These holes also let water in which, on rain soaked roads, have the same properties as a sponge and actively seem to suck water in meaning that after a mile or so of rainy roads, both feet are soaking. Our waterproof trousers are anything but and within 3 miles both feet are wet and there is an increasingly damp feeling in my crotch as the rain creeps in. This is not as pleasant as I’ve made it sound and reluctantly, we take shelter in a roadside café. The rain gets heavier and we are joined by another rider. An Italian with wonky eyes but a pleasant smile and friendly words. He reassures us that the rain will stop soon and dry up completely within the hour. He drinks his coffee and sets off into the rain and we wait.

The café owner turns on the lights as the skies become darker and the rain gets even heavier – it’s now bouncing off the tarmac of the forecourt and creating puddles the size of Lake Windermere. It continues. Eventually, we decide we can wait no longer. The rain is so heavy that all I can hear in my hat is it pounding on Annie’s helmet and she must have the same. We dribble off and hunker damply into the saddles and weave our wet way onwards.

We emerge from the gloom and rain just as we arrive on the outskirts of our destination town and, hoping the navigation system would behave itself, follow the directions to the peaceful looking hotel we’d booked. The blurb said the hotel had a small restaurant and we were looking forward to a quiet meal and a glass of something.

Arriving outside it was clearly the place pictured on the website but peaceful it wasn’t. The ramp down to the main door was full of people of all ages smoking, drinking, shouting, laughing and generally having a fine old time – all dressed in Sunday Bests and obviously now outside some serious quantities of alcohol. We must have looked confused as well as wet, bedraggled and not overly joyful as we caused the throng to fall silent as they, almost as one, turned and watched us slop down the slope, rain squelching from the holes in my boots in such a quantity that it began to run down the slope in front of me staining the pale flagstones and creating a dark sort of 'path of shame' to walk down.

We used to live in a small village with a pub in the next village called The Boot. Shortly after moving there we decided to give it a try. Walking into the bar of The Boot is a singular experience and one we never repeated. It was a lovely sunny day outside and we’d walked the mile or so from one village to the next where The Boot nestled gently on the single street through the village. Confidently, we opened the door and stepped inside. Sunny outside. Very definitely not sunny inside. If it was July on one side of the door it was December on the other. It was like a scene from the Wicker Man. The place fell silent and all heads turned and stared – in fact, the only light in the place was the whites of eyes gazing at us and catching the sun that was doing it’s best to come through the single window.  All we could see was what looked like a sea of white marbles bobbing in gloomy soup. I think there might have been a crudely drawn pentangle on the floor with what looked like the entrails of an animal slaughtered in some sort of ritual. We didn’t wait to find out. I think I might have pretended to be German and we beat a hasty retreat.

That’s how it felt arriving at our supposedly peaceful Italian hotel. Us soaked to the skin, everyone else in Sunday Best in glorious sun, full of booze and wondering why we were wet. OK, so there wasn’t a pentangle in sight and no animals seemed to have died but it did feel a bit wicker for a second or two.

Then, it all brightened up, people smiled, went back to their jollity and ignored the two wet English dribbling down the slope. We checked in, hung everything up to dry and got a bit Italian by getting outside some wine and sat in the sun. The wonky eyed rider was right. The rain had stopped.

1 comment

  • Thank you for sharing your frank and honest experiences – we have been eating your olives for years and you have made us think about where they come from and the impact climate change is having on the ordinary people who provide us with them through you! I would love to do some of what you both have done but am not a biker or as brave – maybe some of it in a car?? Looking forward to you putting all these diary entries into a book?

    - Catherine

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