Sure, I could find Sicily on a map, I’d seen “The Godfather” and I’ve eaten my fair share of thick, rectangular Sicilian-style pizza. But if “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek said, “The 1928 eruption of this Sicilian volcano buried the village of Mascali,” the correct answer—“What is Mount Etna?”—would not have been on the tip of my tongue.
Etna, which at 10,922 feet is Europe’s tallest active volcano, is the focal point of Edelweiss Bike Travel’s five-day lap around the Italian island of Sicily. You can see the hulking cinder cone, which belches steam and ash and is snowcapped year-round, from the hotel in Catania, where the tour starts and finishes. And, yes, the clockwise tour route does go around Mount Etna, but it’s only visible on the first and last days of the tour. Sicily is almost as big as Massachusetts, so it’s easy to forget you’re on an island.
Added to Edelweiss’ extensive tour catalog for 2016, “Around Mount Etna” is a Ride4Fun tour with five days of riding and stays in three cities. From Catania, a port city sprawled across the foothills of Etna on Sicily’s eastern coast, the route goes southwest across the island for a two-night stay in Agrigento, on the southern coast, and then across the island again for two nights in Cefalù, on the northern coast. Overflowing with travel-brochure scenery, delectable cuisine and old-world charm, Sicily is an ideal place to ride a motorcycle. During the spring and fall when Edelweiss runs this tour (we were there in early November), the climate is mild and mostly dry. And Sicily boasts four mountain ranges and a wonderfully jagged coastline, so roads are rarely flat or straight.
Sicily’s interior is mostly rural, with working fields or pastures on nearly every bit of land not occupied by a village or really big rocks. Humans have been stomping around the island since 12,000 B.C., which has been a hotly contested piece of real estate with innumerable wars and conquests by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Muslims, Normans and the French, and it’s also the birthplace of the Mafia. To transport crops, troops and contraband, Sicilians built a spider’s web of narrow roads that follow the contours of the land, and traffic is minimal.
This tour was a family affair. Our group included a tight-knit pack of three German couples on BMWs, a soft-spoken father and daughter from Australia on matching Hondas, a couple from Boston on a BMW and my wife, Carrie, riding two-up with me on yet another BMW. Guiding us was 16-year Edelweiss veteran Michael Göbel, an easygoing, English-speaking German who entertains guests by strumming his guitar and singing Beatles and John Denver tunes. Michael’s wife, Sabine, who has grown accustomed to him being away from home for weeks at a time, joined him for the first time on this tour, driving the luggage van on transfer days and riding as passenger on other days. Christian, a German fellow on a Ducati (which made him as giddy as a teenager in a Ferrari), was the only unaccompanied person on the tour, but he was so outgoing and friendly—not to mention bilingual—that he became the nucleus of our multinational group.
Most days we played Follow the Leader, with Michael in his high-viz Schuberth helmet leading the charge and the rest of us in tow at various intervals. We stopped for espresso, we stopped to admire views and take photos, we yakked back and forth about this little village or that amazing stretch of road, deepening our appreciation and solidifying our memories. We ate our weight in pasta, pizza and antipasto, washed down with acqua frizzante by day and Sicilian red wine by night. Edelweiss selected nice, comfortable hotels, each with English-speaking staff, an on-site bar/restaurant and free Wi-Fi.
With two “rest” days built into the schedule, one in Agrigento and another in Cefalù, we had the option of a loop ride with Michael, riding on our own or sightseeing. On the Agrigento rest day, most of the group rode with Michael to see the Greek ruins at Selinunte. Carrie and I went off on our own—something that Edelweiss encourages because it gives you a chance to get lost, meet locals and immerse yourself in the culture. Armed with just a map and a destination, we did all three on a 300-mile round-trip ride to Canicattini Bagni, the village where Carrie’s ancestors are from. It was All Saints’ Day, so the town was empty because everyone was at the cemetery honoring loved ones who had passed on—tidying up graves, leaving fresh flowers, sharing memories. We wandered among the tombs and mausoleums, searching for members of Carrie’s family. On the Cefalù rest day, while most of us blitzed the twisties (some of which are part of the legendary Targa Florio road course), Carrie and the Bostonians Diane and Larry stayed in town to explore the old city and hike up to ruins atop the headlands that tower above the city.
History buffs and fans of ancient architecture will love this tour. Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country, and seven of them are in Sicily. We visited four, one of which is Mount Etna. On our first riding day, we stopped at Villa Romana del Casale to see the world’s largest and richest collection of Roman mosaics, which cover the floors of a sprawling, crumbling complex built in the 4th century A.D. Walking distance from our hotel in Agrigento was the Valley of the Temples, which has some of the best-preserved examples of Greek architecture dating to the 5th century B.C. And we visited the Cathedral-Basilica in Cefalù, construction of which began in 1131 when Sicily was part of the Norman Kingdom.
Our final day was the best of the tour. After riding for 40 miles along the northern coast, we turned inland and rode over the Nebrodi Mountains, keeping a keen eye out for wild black pigs. We saw a few hoofing it through the woods, but luckily none decided to cross the road in front of us. After cresting a saddle in the mountains and winding our way down into a wooded valley, we emerged from the forest to see Mount Etna standing proudly before us. It grew larger as we rode closer, and soon we climbed Etna’s northern flanks and rode across a black, barren lava field. We beveled our footpegs on the way up to a popular moto gathering spot for an espresso, and then back down again—through more lava fields—to Catania, where we put our kickstands down for the last time at Villa Paradiso Dell’Etna, the charming hotel where we started the tour. We sat around the patio drinking celebratory beers and telling stories about the tour before taking a hot shower and enjoying a farewell dinner. It was an adventure-filled week that went by too fast.