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  • Mark Smith

When in Rome…or Sicily

Now that I think about it, one doesn’t tend to associate Sicilians with outdoor activities such as hiking, camping or mountaineering. This should have been a warning to me last June, when I set off from Palermo on a bike trip around western Sicily, my satchels packed tight with tent, sleeping bag, mattress and all the usual junk.

Before leaving Paris, I might also have asked myself why there are so few campgrounds in Sicily, and why the only campgrounds that do exist are found on or near the beach. I actually do recall scratching my head about this question as I pored over Google maps. But once you’ve scratched it for a while without result, you go on to the next thing. Che sera sera, as they say.

Books, the Internet and other such references contain oceans of valuable information on every subject under the sun, but nothing teaches you faster than first-hand experience. I rediscovered this fact on Day 1 of my trip, when 80 kilometers along the scorching coast road delivered me to Scopello, an ancient fishing village of immeasurable charm, beauty and one campground, called Camping Ciauli, spread across a parched hillside a couple miles south of town. Managed by a jovial Sicilian fellow who has clearly eaten more than his share of pasta over the years, the campground offers a relaxed atmosphere and a few thin oak trees, whose meager shade campers are well advised to occupy without further ado.

The sun rises early at Camping Ciauli in the month of June. If you’re not a morning person, you soon become one, as no breathing creature can tolerate the furnace that a tent becomes under the Sicilian sun. So I crawled out, put things in order and headed down to the open-air terrace that serves as Ciauli’s social center, bar and fast-food restaurant, where Fabio, the manager and pasta expert, recommended strongly against my plan for the day. “You can no walk in Zingaro today,” he said, chuckling heartily. “Is too late. Is too hot. Is no possible.” One thing was certain: It wasn’t possible for Fabio.

Sicilian home delivery. Who said they aren't organized?

But I’d come this far to see the Zingaro Nature Reserve, an untouched stretch of rocky coastline with hidden coves full of turquoise water, reachable only by foot, and see it I would, and without much trouble. One need only prepare for the day with plenty of water, food, sunblock and a hat, and the impossible becomes the possible.

A second night in the furnace made one thing clear. There wouldn’t be a third. Why risk heat stroke and mosquito attack when charming and inexpensive hostels are as prevalent here as pizza?

You will have guessed the rest of the story. From Camping Ciauli onward, my camp gear would constitute 10 pounds of dead weight of no utility other than to boost my stamina or contribute to my ultimate physical failure. I couldn’t figure out which until I got near Selinunte, the ancient Greek city 150 kilometers down the coast, where temperatures had climbed to an intolerable degree, and where the intensity of the sun now seemed uncanny and dangerous.

Fabio’s words echoed in my brain diabolically. “Is too late!” His raucous laugh rang out. “Is no possible!”

The cathedral of Cefalu, whose construction began in 1131

My eyes rolled and legs turned involuntarily as endless rows of Marsala vines filed past. A lake of mercury quivered enticingly on the road ahead. The thick white layer of sunscreen I’d smeared on my forearms now ran thin, revealing sheets of tiny crimson blisters. I was going to have to take action. This could not continue.

Providentially, an ice cream parlor appeared beside the road. Large shade trees sheltered a dozen tables huddled around a bubbling fountain. I climbed off the bike and plopped down in the darkest corner I could find. As I sat waiting, several construction workers came down the steps and barked a few words at the owner inside before sitting down. The mustachioed proprietor soon appeared with a tray of gelato-stuffed buns the size of double-deck hamburgers, which the workers grabbed and began manipulating with remarkable aplomb. This was not their first ice-cream sandwich. Rather, they flipped the colorful burgers like magicians, and lapped at their middles just in time to avoid dripping. The exercise appeared to bring them little joy. They were just doing what was necessary to parry the terrible inferno.

“I’ll have one of those,” I told the waiter, who lifted his finger in the air and turned heel like a matador. I was about to be accommodated. Nothing else mattered.

The Greeks snagged some prime beachfront property in Selinunte, but things eventually fell apart.

A vocabulary of a mere 100 words was plenty to make friends at a local bar in the charming town of Mazara del Vallo.

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