Dale Says

January 16, 2007

Cycle Sicily on Your Own

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 5:14 pm

With the dollar’s recent decline versus the Euro, there are few travel values left in Western Europe. For adventure travelers willing to go on their own, a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily is still a bargain and a wonderful adventure.

Are you ready for a European bicycle tour, but don’t want to spend a fortune? If so, you might want to consider a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily.

Why Sicily?
Sicily offers a rare and wonderful combination of history, incredible views, warm hospitality and some of the best food on earth. And, if you are enterprising enough to go on your own, a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily can be a rewarding and affordable adventure.

If you enjoy history
Over the past 2,000 years every major Western civilization visited and occupied Sicily. Those influences remain and are evident from a bicycle. Greek temples, Roman cities, Norman and Arabian churches the vestiges of previous cultures are well preserved and accessible.

Incredible views
A bicycle tour offers sweeping views of the Sicilian countryside, including hill towns and coastal villages, vineyards and olive orchards, medieval cities and mosaic cathedrals. Sicily is a land of many cultures and contrasts and the closer one gets the more it can be absorbed. A bicycle offers a front row seat.

People who appreciate you
Sicilians are naturally gracious, a tendency that extends to treatment of their guests, including American tourists. People in smaller towns are especially friendly and helpful. Few small town Sicilians are fluent in English, but they have little difficulty understanding and satisfying your needs. As we cycled through the towns and villages of Sicily, we were greeted by old men who sit on benches, share gossip and opinions and wave at the occasional bicyclists who glide by.

Fantastic food
The food is excellent throughout Sicily, and meals are works of art — occasions to be celebrated and enjoyed. And you can eat as much as you like, guilt-free, after a day on your bicycle. A typical evening meal consists of antipasti, then two main courses (the primi Piatti, which is typically pasta, and secundi Piatti, which can be seafood or shellfish on the coast; or beef, pork or chicken inland. This is followed by the insalata course, which is typically lettuce and whatever vegetables are the freshest, then dessert, which might be cannoli, Â Frutta di Martorana (almond marzipan pastries colored and shaped to resemble real fruit), or gelato (ice cream), which is plentiful and excellent.

An interesting option is to arrange a cooking class along the way, to learn some of the secrets behind Sicily’s wonderful food. We made risotto with Paolo, our host at a bed-and-breakfast in the hills near Countessa Entrellina. “Fresh ingredients are the secret,” he told us. “Fresh vegetables and herbs.” He showed us how to add and reduce broth until the pasta is just about done, then to shake the risotto as it cools. We all helped and preparing the meal was organized chaos, as it should be in Sicily, followed by a triumphant presentation another Sicilian work of art!

Good wine
In addition to great food, Sicilian wines are plentiful, inexpensive, and surprisingly good. The mild Mediterranean climate produces fine grapes, and centuries of practice result in excellent, smooth wines. Sicily’s vintage wines are among the world’s best, and the island’s traditional wines and spirits are famous far beyond its shores. Throughout our ride, local wines were pleasant, full-bodied, and affordable (typically under US$5 per bottle). Sicily also has a wide assortment of excellent dessert wines (including the well-known Marsala wine), and a number of regional liqueurs.

A great value
Sicily is still affordable. With the fall in value of the US dollar versus the euro, there are few reasonably priced vacation destinations left in Western Europe; fortunately, Sicily is still one. Sicily has not yet been “found” by bargain-hunting Americans, and prices are still reasonable. If you can go in the fall, it’s less crowded and even more of a bargain

Our hotel and some restaurants had been arranged by a tour company ahead of time, but we generally saw the bills. Very acceptable rooms in small hotels and B&Bs ran from US$40-80 per night; a full dinner with wine was around US$20 per person.

Should you consider a self-guided tour? The term “self-guided” doesn’t mean you have to bring your own bicycle, and you don’t have to take your gear with you each day. It basically means no guide and no group. It is more flexible, because you can go when it fits your schedule, and can be less expensive (note: check prices with tour companies), because the tour company doesn’t have to accompany you. Tour companies can make arrangements for lodging, meals, and they can furnish bicycles, pannier bags, route directions and maps. And arrangements can be made to have your luggage transported from hotel to hotel each day. All you have to do is follow directions and enjoy the sights.

Self-guided tours could be a viable option if you have your own group (two or more), and at least one of you is good at reading maps and finding your way around new places.

A self-guided tour is probably not the best option if you are traveling by yourself, or if you want the company of others during your ride. There are several bicycle tour companies that operate guided and self-guided tours of Sicily. (See Resource section.)

We chose the self-guided option for schedule and pricing advantages, but left the details and transportation of our luggage up to a tour company. Following the maps and finding our way around each day was part of the adventure, and the sense of accomplishment at the each of the day was gratifying.

When to Go
Fall is a great time to explore Sicily. The weather is warm but generally not hot, summer vacationers are gone, and prices are lower. October is harvest time, with grapes early in the month and olives later. Both are a wonderful sight (and smell) from the saddle of your bicycle. As we rode through the olive orchards in Southern Sicily, we saw families picking olives from olive trees near their homes that are hundreds of years old. We visited a small olive press, where the olives were mashed into a light green pulp, and a thin, steady stream of liquid gold ran into a barrel at the end. A pure, earthy smell hung in the air.

Study the route maps
Sicily is a pretty hilly island, and it’s best to carefully review route descriptions before making a final selection. There are wide variations in terrain in different parts of the island, and it’s best to choose a route that matches your abilities and interests.

A very rewarding experience
There is a sense of solidity in Sicily. This is a land where centuries-old traditions are comforting and satisfying and an important part of life. Family and friends are treasures, and food and meals are part of life to be shared and enjoyed. A bicycle tour in Sicily is not for the weak of body or spirit, but the payoff is worth it. If you are adventurous and can get in decent “hill” bicycling shape, it can be a very rewarding experience.

About the author:
Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer and editor who lives in San Francisco, California. He travels the world riding his bicycle and occasionally writes about his experiences. He can be reached at dalefehringer@hotmail.com

Resources

Several tour companies, including those listed below, organize guided and/or self-guided bicycle tours of Sicily. Hiking tours are also possible (guided or self-guided), and several tour companies offer coach or personally designed tours.

Info on Sicily

www.bestofsicily.com

www.insicily.com>

www.lonelyplanet.com

Tours, Bicycle Tours, Other Info

Alo Italy www.aloitaly.com

Andiamo Adventourswww.andiamoadventours.com

Bed & Breakfast Sicily (www.bed-and-breakfast-sicily.it)

BicyclingWorld.com (www.bicyclingworld.com)

Bike Riders (www.bikeriderstours.com)

Bike Tours Direct (www.biketoursdirect.com)

Biketravel.net (www.biketravel.net)

Ciclismo Classico (www.ciclismoclassico.com)

Cobblestone Tours (www.cobblestonetours.com)

Delicious Italy (www.deliciousitaly.com)

Dolcevitabiketours.com (www.dolcevitabiketours.com)

ExperiencePlus (www.experienceplus.com)

Exodus (http://www.exodus.co.uk)

Flavors of Sicily (www.flavorsofsicily.com)

Info Hub (www.infohub.com)

In Sicily Travel Consultant (www.insicily.com)

International Bicycle Tours, Inc. (www.internationalbicycletours.com)

Irish Cycling Safaris (www.cyclingsafaris.com)

Italian Cooking Vacations (www.cookitaly.com)

Italian Food Forever (www.italianfoodforever.com)

Italy Tour Travel (www.italytourtravel.com)

MacQueen’s Island Tours (www.macqueens.com)

Nichols Expeditions (www.nicholexpeditions.com)

Pedal & Sea Adventures (www.pedalandseaadventures.com)

Research & Escort in Sicily (www.papiro.net)

Siciclando (www.siciclando.com)

Sicily Food Online (www.sicilyfoodonline.it)

Sicilytravel.net (www.sicilytravel.net)

Sicilytrip (www.sicilytrip.com)

SicilyWeb (www.sicilyweb.com)

Travel Innovations (www.travel-innovations.com)

VBT (www.vbt.com)

Wines of Sicily (www.winesofsicily.info)

World Ventures (www.world-ventures.com)

January 12, 2007

A Sense of Holland

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 5:51 pm

Tulipmania
Parallels have been drawn between the dot-com Internet stock frenzy and “tulipmania,” a similar situation in 17th century Holland. In 1634, tulip bulbs became a status symbol for Dutch upper and middle class people, and over the next three years, much of the population engaged in tulip trading. Homes, farms and property were mortgaged to finance the purchase of tulip bulbs, which at times sold for thousands of dollars apiece. Traders began to care less about the flowers than the fortune they might make. Three years later the bubble burst, and bulbs sold for a fraction of what they had a few days earlier. The Dutch economy was shaken to its roots, and while the tulip trade did not disappear, it took years to get back on its feet

We noticed them first from the windows of the bus, as we rode to the start of our bicycle tour near the northern Holland town of Hoorn. Piles of purple and red tulips had been cut and moved to the edges of the flat, green fields. The driver patiently explained them to us.

“They’re tulip blossoms. The growers cut them to divert energy to the bulbs. The bulbs are the valuable part.”

So we sat and stared at what must have been millions of tulip heads, waiting to be turned into compost. We thought how precious they would be back home, and wondered if they were used for anything.

“Some of the growers tried feeding them to their pigs,” the driver said. “But pigs don’t seem to care for them much.” We didn’t know then how much we would connect with those piles of tulips, each in our own way. We took hundreds of photos of them, and jumped in the piles, and threw handfuls in the air.A couple of us made “tulip angels” by lying in the piles and flapping our arms and legs, as though in a pile of snow. Our Christmas cards that year included a photo of us buried in a pile of red blossoms, each of us holding a tulip by the stem in our mouths, like flamenco dancers.

Make Room for Water
The Dutch have always had a love/hate affair with the sea. They rely on it for agriculture and transportation, but they have fought for centuries against its floods, which have wreaked havoc on the land. They have grown to think of water as an adversary, to be collected, contained, and sent back to the sea. Over time, they have worked out a covenant with the sea, which they call “uimte voor water” make room for water.

We rode through headwinds and rain to Kinderdijk, to see the windmills. Only six of us made it all the way; the rest either chickened out and stayed in bed or turned back part way through the day. The six survivors included Joanne, a spunky woman in her 70s, who with her husband, Ted, was a veteran of more than 20 bicycle tours.
As we approached our destination, the windmills emerged through the mist like gigantic electric fans. We were impressed with their magnitude and as we rode closer with the size of their blades. One of them was open to the public, and we went in, feeling like the tourists we were. The entrance was small (about the size of a public elevator). It smelled musty  the smell of dampness. We climbed the steps to the keeper’s quarters, at the midpoint of the blades. There was a small wooden bed, a washbasin, and an arched window. We looked out the window, over the canal, where our windmill and its 18 companions stood as lonely sentries, guarding the polder.
As the giant blade passed our window, its shadow temporarily blocked the light. We felt the power of its movement, gathering force as it sped downward, then pulled back up by centrifugal force and the strength of its hub. We weren’t prepared for the whooshing sound that followed in the wake of the blade’s passage. We stood for a moment in awe of this mighty force. It reminded us of the beautiful, yet terrible struggle of man against nature  a battle the Dutch (and mankind) will likely continue to wage as long as we are around to fight it.

Kukenhof
In the 15th century, Dutch countess Jocoba van Beiren gathered flowers and herbs for cooking in the woods of her estate south of Amsterdam. This pristine place was known as “keukenhof,” or kitchen garden. In 1949, the estate was turned into Keukenhof Gardens, an 80-arce showcase of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other flowering bulbs that flourish in the rich coastal soil near the town of Lisse. The gardens, which consist of six million flowering bulbs, include exhibits, art shows, and a summer flower displayA defining moment of our bicycle tour of Holland came at the end of a long, tiring day of riding. We had pedaled into a cold wind for hours, and the final destination was a place we had heard about, read about, and eagerly looked forward to the famous Keukenhof Gardens.

As we rounded yet another bend, the wind still blowing string, we had to reach a little deeper to keep from turning back. But around this bend, to our surprise, the wind delivered a sweet perfume  a fragrance in the air. Fields of purple hyacinth surrounded us, their bell-shaped buds in bloom, casting their aroma in the air for all who passed by to enjoy. We stopped our bikes and stood inhaling the elixir. It made us forget our freezing hands and aching muscles and made it all worthwhile. Now we could ride on forever if necessary.

At Keukenof, we were enthralled by the colors, made even more vibrant by the grayness of the day. We walked past beautifully mixed plantings of every kind of tulip, which stood in perfect unison: armies of splendidly-cloaked soldiers, tall and proud, their brightly-colored headdresses a perfect symphony of color.

About the author:
Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer, editor, and documentary video producer. He spends his free time exploring the world and occasionally writes about his adventures. Dale lives in San Francisco where he shares office space with his wife, Patty, and cat, Molly. He can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email at dalefehringer@hotmail.com.

January 8, 2007

Women of Amantani

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Travel — Dale @ 12:08 pm

Like the island they live on, the women of Amantani are isolated. Their homes are on an island not much larger than a small U.S. city and the nearest town is four hours away by boat. They seldom leave the island. Like most of the world’s women they raise their children, run their households, and cook and care for their families. In addition, these women also tend the family livestock, work in the fields, and supplement family income by weaving textiles.

To say their lives are difficult is understating the case.

Few Conveniences
The women of Amantani have living conditions that are harsh by western standards. There are no cars, or televisions, or even in-door plumbing (wooden outhouses serve as their bathrooms).

Amantani is a beautiful and peaceful small island in Lake Titicaca, which is in southeast Peru. Lake Titicaca is roughly twice the size of Lake Tahoe, and at 13,000 feet, is the highest navigable lake in the world. Amantani is populated by around 800 families who live in six villages on the basically circular 15-square kilometers island (roughly the size of a small US city). There are two mountain peaks, called Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth), and ancient ruins on the top of both peaks. The hillsides that rise up from the lake are terraced, and planted with wheat, potatoes, and vegetables. Most of the small fields are worked by hand. Stone fences separate the small fields and help contain livestock. Cows, sheep and alpacas graze the hillsides. There are no cars on the island, and no hotels. few small stores sell basic goods, and there is a health clinic and a school. Electricity is limited to a couple of hours each day. Some families on Amantani offer a meal or overnight stay to tourists, arranged through tour guides. Guests typically take food staples (e.g., cooking oil, rice, sugar) as a gift.They run their households without washing machines, microwave ovens, or vacuum cleaners — which wouldn’t be of much use anyway, since electricity is limited to a couple of hours a day. They live in small mud brick houses furnished with a few simple pieces of furniture. Their kitchens are in separate small buildings, and they cook on stone stoves fueled by twigs and sheep dung. The nearest supermarket is four hours away, and shopping is limited to a few basic necessities at tiny neighborhood stores. For the most part, the women of Amantani eat what they grow. The lake provides fish, and they raise vegetables, grain, and livestock for meat. A typical meal consists of soup, rice, potatoes and fried cheese. Colorful Dress
Their dress is colorful and decidedly different from other women in Peru. They wear long black head shawls, which furnish shade and warmth, and long-sleeve white blouses embroidered with images of birds and flowers. They also wear brightly colored pleated skirts, hand-woven belts, and leggings to protect them from the cold. Their clothing is a bright spot on an otherwise colorless island.
Lives of Dignity and Grace
Despite their many responsibilities and few conveniences, the women of Amantani seem happy. They cope with their isolation by developing close relationships with families and friends, and respond to their hard lives with determination and resolution. Despite their hardships and shortages, they lead lives of dignity and grace.
 Note: For photos, go to www.womenof.com

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