Piazza Armerina to Caltagirone - Springtime Spin in Sicily 2018 - CycleBlaze

May 26, 2018

Piazza Armerina to Caltagirone

Our room overlooked a small square and as we would come to realize there are few quiet nights in Sicily as Sicilians come alive when it’s coolest, from 7pm to all hours of the night. Luckily, the work of cycling tires us out enough that we can sleep through the racket. Closing the windows would certainly help but it’s getting too warm to do that. 

We heard rustling in the kitchen starting at about 6am and knew that Ettore was busy preparing our breakfast among other things. We emerged into the dining room at 8am to find a full spread waiting for us. It’s a good thing we are cycling because there was some serious eating taking place at this B&B. We did our best to sample a bit of everything: two pecorino’s and a third hard dry cheese, and not just slices..they were huge wedges from which we were to help ourselves. Then there was an entire ricotta cheese...we couldn’t even consider it. There were several types of sausage, prosciutto, ham, breads, rolls, cakes & cookies, fresh cherries, apples and oranges, yogurt and coffee. 

Ettore had invited another friend to drop by for breakfast with us. Pietro was a tall and lean, very fit, former marathon champion of Sicily and he also knew a bit of English. He arrived with a clean casserole dish in hand for Ettore to refill. We then had another round of entertaining conversation in which Ettore took great glee in joking about his friend Luciano’s now dwindling marathoning prowess. Bursting at the seams with humour, he would address David as Davido and grab for the iPad to translate his latest joke. We eventually had to call it quits and head out on today’s adventure.... after pictures were taken. How do you sum up an experience of kindness like that but to say the world needs more Ettore’s.

As we departed the B&B, it was clear on the first pedal stroke that my front tire was flat. David set about remedying it while I went for a stroll to see the inside of the Duomo. 

Street in the old city, Piazza Armerina.
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As I approached the entrance of the Duomo, I passed by the priest in all his regalia sitting outside chatting with a few of his parishioners. I felt a small pang of guilt walking past him and the sign advising women how they should dress when visiting the church as I was all dressed in lycra. Oh well, the priest gave me a nod to go ahead and enter so I did.  

The 18th C Duomo is perched on the hilltop and is visible from afar.
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The ceiling and walls of this 18th C church are all  decorated with blue accents. On close inspection, it is in much need of attention but nevertheless it is beautiful. 

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Piazza Armerina Duomo.
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Looking up inside the dome.
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Blue and white is unusual for a cathedral.
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Piazza Cathedrale.
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I returned to the square where David had just finished fixing my flat tire. The culprit was a small piece of wire from a steel belted car tire that had just poked through the inner tube.

Our plan for today was to visit the Unesco World Heritage site, Villa Romana del Casale which is situated only 5k from Piazza Armerina. Following that we were headed for Caltagirone.

The elaborate villa was built in the 4th century AD and was likely the home of an emperor. Excavations which began in the late 19th century and continue to this day have revealed the largest, richest and most intact collections of Roman mosaics in the world. In fact there are almost 3500 square metres of mosaics. The site was buried by a landslide and was not significantly unearthed until the 20th century which accounts for its excellent condition. Much of what is on display today was revealed by archaeologists work that began in the 1930’s, with further discoveries continuing to this day.

The single story villa is complex and large and features its original baths, a basilica, apartments, service rooms, a central courtyard, and a gymnasium among other rooms. The villa floors are finished in mosaics depicting all aspects of Roman life including love, sport, entertainment and leisure. 

Outside the baths.
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The baths were both cold and hot. There was even a change room.
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The change room.
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Inner courtyard.
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It was fascinating but a bit overwhelming to comprehend the extravagant lifestyle and wealth. Some of the most notable mosaics were the scenes of animal hunting in the corridor of the great hunt showing African animals being captured then dragged and cajoled onto ships which transported them to the Colosseum in Rome for their sporting events, the 10 sporting girls in ‘bikini’ costumes, the bedroom with the erotic scene of a couple embracing, mosaics of birds and wildlife, the fishing cupids in the thermal baths and the almost fairytale images in the children’s room.

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African animals.
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Geometric mosaics adorned the service rooms, such as the kitchen.
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Animals being captured for sport in Rome.
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Yes, even elephants were captured.
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I wonder how many were injured or killed capturing a rhino?
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Bikini Girls
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This is the bedroom with its erotic scene in the centre of the floor.
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By the time we finished touring the roman villa, the sun was high and the heat was starting to build. We rode back uphill 5k to Piazza Armerina and then headed out on the SS117 bis towards Caltagirone. 

One last look at Piazza Armerina.
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The grades on the SS road were gentle and the shoulders were ample which made for smooth riding. Traffic was light as this is not a very populated area of Sicily.  We passed by a massive prickly pear farm en route. That’s ‘ficondindia' in Italian. It seems to me this would be an easy crop to grow as it grows wild all over the island. I haven’t tasted the fruit but am told it is delicious. However, I wouldn’t want the job of harvesting the fruit in July/August. Not only would you swelter in the heat but they’re prickly!

Fields of ficondindia being cultivated for their fruit.
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Prickly pears, just finishing blooming.
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As you can see from these photos, it’s getting warm in Sicily and in this sport, staying properly hydrated is essential. There is no potable water here but bottled water (yes, in plastic bottles) is readily available and cheap. We always start the day with two full bottles of water with a Nuun electrolyte pill in each. This is usually depleted by noon or 1pm and by that time we are on the lookout for a bar or a small market to purchase more liquids. Here in Sicily, Fanta and Coca-cola have turned out to be our first choices, followed by another 2L bottle of water. Neither of us has drank either of these sodas in decades but they are ice cold from the fridge and satisfy our thirst and the need to cool down.

We turned off the SS117 bis onto the SS124 and were treated to some brand spanking new pavement. This is a sure sign that the Giro d’Italia came through here just about 3 weeks ago. Road surface plays a big part in the effort required to cycle and when it’s rough the resistance goes way up. It was heavenly to transition to the new pavement.

Lucky for us, this road had been re-paved for this year's Giro d’Italia.
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The interior of Sicily has a lot of rolling farmland.
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As we neared Caltagirone, we noticed the traffic started to include farm tractors. It’s not so uncommon for us to have tractor races with the smaller ones on the backroads we travel (their speed is often quite similar to ours), but these ones were large and were making good speed on the highway.  

The first crop of hay has been harvested already.
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We headed to our B&B when we arrived in Caltagirone and found ourselves in the midst of the buildup for a parade to celebrate the annual tribute to the Madonna di Conadomini (Virgin Mary) by the local agricultural community, the Rusedda. Hence all the tractors heading we encountered coming into town. This annual festival in her honour has been taking place since 1750. The horse and buggy is not exactly a tractor but a fixture on a farm nevertheless and is paying homage to the Virgin Mary for the benefits received.  We dropped off our bags at the B&B, got cleaned up and headed out to take part in the fun.

On their way to the parade...giddy up!
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Tractors, old and new took part in the parade.
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Tractors, big and small came to take part in the festival.
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Caltagirone is famous for its ceramics since ancient times and for its 142 step staircase of Santa Maria del Monte that was built in 1608. Each lava stone step is decorated with majolica tiles with alternating geometric, floral, animal and decorative motifs. The staircase makes a brilliant stage for floral displays and today it was a display of geraniums in the shape of several huge pink roses. This spectacular display changes throughout the year and just recently as two weeks ago, it was the logo for the Giro d’Italia. Magnifico!

Caltagirone’s geranium display.
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All 142 steps have unique tiles adorning them.
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More tiles on Caltagirone’s staircase.
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Geraniums galore!
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The view took my breath away.
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View from the top of the stairs
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A peek-a-boo view of the blue dome.
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This bride and groom struck the perfect pose for the photographer and I must admit, it almost made me choke up a bit. The entire crowd seemed to enjoy the moment as you could see people smiling and scurrying about to get their own photo.

The perfect swoop-her-off-her-feet moment.
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Calatagirone is world famous for its terra cotta and majolica ceramics. The origins of this art form can be traced back to the 2nd century AD. Currently there are about 80 active ceramics workshops in Caltagirone as well as a museum with over 2500 pieces in it. We were happy to enjoy the ceramics we saw in all the shops along the way and in the city itself.

Ceramic stores proudly display their wares.
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Ceramic tiles adorn buildings.
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The ceramic pine cone is a symbol of Sicily.
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We stopped by a small bar for a pre-dinner drink and found these pink beauties in the cooler. This sparkling wine was bottled in honour of the Giro, whose theme colour is pink. A larger version of this would have been popped open to celebrate the winners of the day, two weeks ago. How exciting that a Canadian, Michael Woods, came in second place after the 198K stage from Cantania to Caltagirone! 

Caltagirone hosted the Giro d’Italia this year.
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Restaurants don’t generally open for service until 8pm and we are inevitably more than ready to eat by then. When you can order food like this pasta, it makes the wait so worthwhile.

The best pasta dish ever.
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Today's ride: 44 km (27 miles)
Total: 512 km (318 miles)

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Scott AndersonNice to see you back home and picking up on this again! I look forward to reading about the rest of the tour. What a wonderful time to see Caltagirone!
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3 years ago
Catherine HastingsI'm loving revisiting Sicily through your eyes! The Villa had just reopened after years of renovation/restoration when I was there (2013?). It was a highlight of the trip and I enjoyed my 2 nights in Pizza Armerina very much. It is a lovely town. But so many of them are!! Catherine.
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3 years ago
Anne MathersTo Scott AndersonSicily has made impressions on us that we could never have known before this. We both thank you for the trail blazing you did there that inspired us to take it on. Just a-mazing!! I’ll continue writing to capture the memories.
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3 years ago
Anne MathersTo Catherine HastingsIt’s my pleasure to share the trip with you, Catherine. Thanks for letting me know you’re reading along.
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3 years ago