Cycling in Western Sicily: how to explore the Mediterranean island's culture by bike

Boasting thousands of years of history and invading armies, the remote west coast of Sicily now attracts inspired travellers to its vast wealth of cultural sites. Martin Symington explores on two wheels...

8 mins

So, who on earth were the Elymians? Every visitor to the fabled ruins of Segesta probably asks themselves this question at some point. For me it was at first sight of a massive temple from the saddle of my bike as I pedalled across the Sicilian hinterland. Rows of Doric columns, glowing amber in afternoon sunlight, exerted an almost unnervingly powerful presence. The grandeur was enhanced by a solitary setting surrounded by fields freckled with grain, and thickets of spiky agave.

Classical Greek, you’d think. Not so. Archaeologists reckon this temple was built in the fifth century BC by these mysterious Elymians who first settled Sicily’s far west in the bronze age. Their script has still not been deciphered, nor do we know what gods they worshipped, although it’s pretty obvious from whom they borrowed the Doric architectural style.

Were they survivors from the Fall of Troy, as legend has it, whose adventures Virgil recounted in The Aeneid? I’ll buy that, I told myself. The builders of this astonishing temple had to be heroes – mythological or otherwise.

From the temple I scrambled a rocky path up Mount Barbaro to an empty amphitheatre gouged out of the summit. Second century BC, this one, by which time Segesta was part of the Roman Empire. I gazed over an endless swathe of Sicily’s wild west: from the fortified harbour of Castellammare del Golfo where I had started my cycling tour that morning, to the untamed mountains of the interior and the coastal plains whose fringes I would pedal around over the coming days.

Trapani’s sea wall and skyline at sunset; the city was a crucial port for Mediterranean traffic – and armies – for over 2,000 years (Alamy)

From up here the edge of the Mediterranean’s largest island appeared immeasurably far-flung. Nevertheless, for two-or-three thousand years it seems to have been on everybody’s route to somewhere. For the next few days though, it was my final destination as I explored the island’s western reaches – remote for most Sicilians, let alone for mainland Italians – in search of the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs and even Normans who’d invaded and then settled.

A self-guided bike tour around Sicily

I was touring western Sicily by electric bike, the easy way to cycle. An e-bike is similar to a push bike, except that it is fitted with a small electric motor. I had to make some effort – the almost-silent motor only kicks in while you are pedalling. But with four levels of ‘assist’ to choose from, the exertion was reduced enough to be able to savour my surroundings, even when riding uphill. I have always been more hiker than biker, but e-cycling had converted me from two legs to two wheels. A means to discover western Sicily at a comfortable pace, in a way perfect for feeling close to the region.

I followed an intriguing self-guided itinerary, with the region’s richly textured history and culture unravelling among classical sites, fishing harbours and nature reserves. And byroads would weave me into heartlands painted from an entrancing palette: rolling vineyards, unfenced fields pimpled with yellow melons, and pomegranate orchards hung with crimson fruit like big Christmas baubles.

Daily rides varied from short-and-sweet to a little-more -taxing-and-sweet. I was booked into an assortment of small hotels in coastal towns, and rural ‘agriturismo’ farmhouses, with my bags transferred between them by taxi while I cycled. At the end of each day I just had to unclip the batteries from the bikes and plug them into the wall to re-charge overnight.
“Your bicycle has brought you to a real Sicilian home” effused Giuseppe Pizzitola, welcoming me to the embrace of Baglio Pocoroba. His family’s dun-coloured farmhouse near Segesta encloses an inner courtyard surrounded by 35 hectares of zippino vines, olives and apricots. He meant for me to feel like a personal guest, which is exactly what I did over home-cooked supper with a jug of Giuseppe’s zippino white wine.

Exquisite carvings line the interior ceiling of the 14th century Chiesa Madre (Alamy)

In the corner stood a vintage gramophone and radio. “In the same place where my grandfather used to listen to Mussolini,” said Giuseppe, quickly spitting “Fascista! The dictator hated Sicilians,” in case I had read any suggestion of approval into his memory.

I was discovering, by degrees, how complex the relationship is between the once-independent Kingdom of Sicily and the rest of Italy. For sure I was finding much of Italy here – not least that family deep-rootedness and the sense of regional individuality itself. However, I did not have to look far for hints of other identities.

The further west I pedalled, the more north African the feel. Sandy villages of cubic houses, palm trees, church towers sharpened like minarets and kilim rugs on restaurant floors. Reaching Trapani, the regional capital, I streamed along boulevards lined with baroque palazzi, down to a harbour round a sickle-shaped sandy spit and the tangled streets of a Moorish centro storico. Here I dined al fresco on a bowl of pesce alla Trapanese – a swordfish and saffron-spiced couscous, a sharp, soupy variant of dishes I remember from Tunis and Tangiers.

None of which should have surprised me, really. North Africa is only 160 kilometres across the sea, with waves of invaders and settlers – Carthaginians, Arabs – having arrived over the centuries. It is said that on a clear day you can see Cap Bon in Tunisia from the ramparts of Erice, the medieval town perched on a towering crag above Trapani. I spent two nights in the port, so that I could swing by cable car 750 giddy metres up for a day in Erice. The neighbouring continent was not quite visible, although there was a fabulous view over the white-capped Mediterranean, milky silhouettes of the humped Egadi islands, and a mosaic of shapes glittering along the coastline like shards of shattered mirror.

Spectacular view from Erice (Alamy)

Erice is so ancient that Virgil refers to it (as ‘Eryx’) in The Aeneid, as the mountain peak from where Acestes, a Sicilian leader of Trojan descent, spied enemy ships. This, of course, feeds into the origin myth about those elusive Elymians, the supposed founders. Over the centuries, its eyrie-like position has provided natural defences for Sicily’s numerous later invaders – Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Normans and so on. To a background of competing peals and chimes I wove through medieval lanes and stone staircases connecting tiny piazzas. Churches and castles seem to grow out of rock.

I sucked in my breath at the sculpted buttermilk stone of the Duomo interior and climbed the spiralling 108 steps up the medieval campanile. I ducked into the 14th-century Chiesa Madre, startled at its brilliant white whorls and Norman spirals.

A lighter moment arrived on the parapets of Castello di Venere. A guide, explaining to a British family how the castle was a stronghold after the Normans conquest, morphed into earnest discourse on the exploits of King Roger II of Sicily. Cue, howls of laughter. “King Roger!” spluttered the father, in tears of mirth at the Monty Pythonesque absurdity of the name.

Dionysian discovery

Back on the bike heading southwards next morning, I had pale pink flamingos for company, pedalling along embankments dividing the salt pans – those mosaics I had seen glinting from the mountaintop. The flats between Trapani and Marsala are famed for producing Italy’s most exclusive and expensive salt. Cycling through, allowed me to drink in the glassy expanses dotted with dazzling giant cones like snowdrifts, and red-roofed windmills that could be Dutch. Every now and again I’d stop to inhale the salty air and listen to the stillness, broken only by the beating of wings.

Phoenicians first constructed pans on Sicily’s west coast some 2,700 years ago, on a scale far greater than the cottage industries now harvesting pricey crystals for today’s chic tables. Salt was once so prized that there are sturdy stone watchtowers like chess pieces, built to guard against raiding barbary pirates.

A restored windmill used for salt production outside Trapani (Alamy)

A restored windmill used for salt production outside Trapani (Alamy)

On a clear day, the views from Erice’s Castello di Venere reach the San Vito Lo Capo to the north and the Saline di Trapani to the south (Alamy)

On a clear day, the views from Erice’s Castello di Venere reach the San Vito Lo Capo to the north and the Saline di Trapani to the south (Alamy)

At Saline di Stagnone (‘big pool’), I chained up my bike to hop on a small tourist launch and putter across the shallow lagoon to Mozia island. Paths meander through the untamed ruins of a Phoenician settlement first excavated here in 1902 by British amateur archaeologist Joseph Whitaker. The island was a serene and magical place to watch colours dancing on the water as evening faded from pomegranate to apricot.

Whitaker was a trader in Marsala, the sweet fortified wine which had a brief heyday as a substitute for port and Madeira. Sources of those tipples favoured by the British had been interrupted by the Napoleonic wars. A British community thrived for a while in the eponymous town, although I could find scant evidence of them on the marble-paved piazzas overhung with balconied baroque buildings. However, strictly in the interests of research, I dutifully sampled various of the wines. The surprise was that a lot of the Marsala that locals keep for themselves is dry – served chilled as an aperitif or with antipasti.

Mazara del Vallo, another half day’s cycle southwards, looked and felt the most North African. Arabs who invaded in the 9th century constructed a great port here and the town still has one of the largest tuna-fishing fleets in the Mediterranean. Tunisian immigrants who work the boats bring fresh Arabian flavours to the thousand-year-old Kasbah, as the old town is known. I threaded through a maze of alleys decorated with painted tiles, passing halal butchers and shops selling tagines.

The fishermen of Mazara’s greatest catch is one of the most important classical finds of recent times, trawled from the seabed. I sought out the larger than life-size bronze sculpture known as the Dancing Satyr. It is on display, beautifully spot-lit, in the darkened sanctuary of converted Sant’Egidio church deep in the Kasbah. His rippling muscles and veins are exquisitely detailed while his head is flung back, hair flowing and alabaster eyes alight.

Best guess is that the figure is a 2nd or 3rd century BC Greek bacchanalian satyr enjoying a Dionysian festival. He certainly looks like a fellow in the throes of a wonderful time. However, what amazed me is the story how only the left leg was brought up in a net from a 500-metre seabed in 1997. The following year the same boat, trawling the area again, dragged up the head and torso.

Mazara del Vallo’s Cattedrale del Santissimo Salvatore was built by the Normans in the 11th century (Alamy)

The ruins of Selinunte

On my final day, I skirted a harsher, wilder and neglected coastline of headlands and windswept beaches. In one place I had to carry my bike across a shallow river mouth because the bridge was out of action. The ride felt more remote than anywhere I’d been all week, but ended at one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world.

The ruins of Selinunte are the tumbled remains of a Greek metropolis where once more than 100,000 inhabitants lived, worked, worshipped and fought. Fallen Doric columns lie in immense heaps over two hillsides, with a valley in between plunging down to a cliff-sheltered beach, Lido di Zabbara.

The site area is fenced off and you need a ticket to enter, but after that there is virtually no officialdom. I stretched my legs across this magnificence of space and brilliance of light, clambering over smashed remains of temples, statues and walls – some excavated, some not.

Why is everything in smithereens – unlike, for instance, intact Segesta? Earthquakes have done some damage over the centuries. But mostly it was down to Carthaginian leader Hannibal, who unleashed the devastating destruction of the Greek city in 409BC. Selinunte was never resettled, and two-and-a-half millennia later it remains the largest archaeological site in Europe.

Sicily can feel remote from the rest of Italy, and even for some Sicilians the island’s far west, with its flavours of Africa, is their outer edge. But the point about Selinunte, about Segesta and the coastal towns I had cycled through, is that they remain right in centre of the Mediterranean and its classical culture. A paradox to ponder as I headed home, batteries re-charged in every sense.

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