Last night's campsite was just what we needed. Free camping is fun, but it comes with a slightly tiring set of challenges: lack of bathrooms, showers, sinks, garbage cans, and most importantly: the assurance that we belong there. Hotels are a little fancy for our tastes and they require dramatically shifting our budget and daily habits (we usually can't fire up our cook stove in a hotel room!). Only slightly more than free and much easier than staying indoors, campsites are still "just right" for us at this stage of our adventure.
We made the most of our stay, setting up early to putter around, packing up late (no need to rush, we're allowed to be here!) and enjoying a chat with a couple of Polish campers who also happened to have our same tent, though theirs was much cleaner! Unhurriedly cooking a hot breakfast of muesli while sipping a cup of tea was a nice start to the day. At the late hour of 10PM (we've been getting up around 5-6 and leaving by 7 these days) we rolled out of camp and headed through Catania.
Unlike Messina, which I found to be busy and unwelcoming, I thought Catania was friendly, vibrant, and full of life. Thankfully we rode through on a Sunday morning so traffic was at a manageable level. Men sold chestnuts on every street corner, roasted fresh in tall smoking coal ovens; bustling fish shops displayed their bug eyed catches of the day. Colorful laundry hung like flags from every balcony. It seemed we were constantly passing through clouds of delicious smells ranging from pastry to fruit to cheese, but we didn't stop until we saw this and did a double take:
Crispy golden chickens stuffed with onions and red bell peppers roasted away on several spits, filling the air with the most irresistible aroma. There was no question about it, we were stopping. We leaned our bikes up and headed inside, receiving a warm welcome from all the shop workers who had seen us drooling in the road. Before we could even order, we were greeted with smiles and a million questions about our bicycle trip.
Everyone was so friendly, from the burly roasting men, to the talkative woman working the cash register (it is her dream to visit America!). We bought a whole chicken and an overflowing tray of roasted french fries. Since we had just finished a grocery run less than a half an hour earlier, this was definitely a "splurge". We used our dear friends Ingrid and Yves' donation money (as if they haven't been generous enough already!). Thank you so much guys! We thought you would approve of our edible purchase :-)
We stood by our bikes for a good ten minutes shoveling the fries into our mouths, all the while marveling at how it was even possible that something could taste so good. By some miracle, we forced ourselves to save the chicken for lunchtime and took to the road with full tummies.
Leaving Catania, we were stuck on congested highways that didn't clear up until we finally passed "Etnopolis" ("the LARGEST shopping center in ITALY!"). Finally all the shoppers dispersed and we were able to breath a sigh of relief when it was just us and the green landscape. We were so glad we decided to head inland, escaping the busy coastal towns.
Suddenly we were in the middle of nowhere. Farms lined both sides of the road, gracing our views with fields of purple cauliflowers and feathery fennel plants. We saw one family harvesting olives together, and passed a man herding his goats from one field to another. Renegade goats climbed rock walls lining the road so they could munch on olive branches instead of following the rest of their friends.
We stopped for lunch by an abandoned building by the side of the road and removed the roasted chicken from one of our panniers. While Tyler took his turn tearing it apart like a hyena, I decided it was time to try one of the prickly pears from cactuses lining the roadsides everywhere around here.
With a pocket knife, I carefully scraped the pokey nubbins off the outside, and cut it off the main cactus before bringing it over to where Tyler was. I took a bite of the mushy pink-orange fruit and deemed it slightly sweet but mostly tasteless and full of hard seeds. I'm not sure if mine was the correct method of prickly-pear consumption, but the whole experience was fairly uneventful until I realized I had several minuscule spikes from the pear sticking in my finger and even one or two in my lips, despite my efforts to remove them beforehand!
I was mid-excavation (cactus spike removal) when a passing road cyclist decked out in vibrant spandex attire stopped right in front of us and said, without missing a beat, "How y'all doin'? You doin' okay? You need anything? Your bikes are alright?" He spoke clearly, with a slight southern drawl and a warm authoritative tone, reminiscent of a friendly, morally-upstanding neighborhood police officer on his nightly rounds.
We could not have been more surprised to hear such an obviously American greeting in the middle of the Sicilian countryside. It took a second or two for us to change gears and realize we could actually communicate! As it turned out, the kind man, Dr. Mike (from Nashville, TN), was finishing up a weekend cycle tour around the island with his pal Ziggy (who rolled up seconds later). They are stationed on a US military base near Catania, and have been cycling these roads for almost five years.
After a nice conversation including some routing advice, Dr. Mike left us with his phone number and the assurance that if we needed anything —if we got hurt, lost, broken-down, etc —he would hop in his car and come to our aid. Overcome with the unending kindness of strangers, we shook hands and parted ways. Thank you so much, Dr. Mike!
Riding on, we followed our new, highly recommended route in the direction of the town of Bronte, admiring the lovely scenery. As the sun was rapidly disappearing behind the mountains, Tyler found a easily openable farmer's gate and we wheeled into a secluded part of pasture. Tyler made camp while I cooked a quick, hearty potato soup. It was downright cold, so we bundled up and snuggled to keep warm in the shadows of the moonlight over Mt. Etna.