After our mud-bath, the Austrian owner of the Torre Salsa site greeted us with the news that we couldn’t camp in their beach section, as the ground was too soft… We didn’t need telling twice, so settled in the main area. The minimum two-day stay (first time we’ve come across this) turned out not to be the issue we thought it might – we spent several days there, just milling about and doing not very much – helped no end by the very friendly cats about. We lost count at a dozen or more. The site also boasts a “Nordic Walking” (a stroll with ski poles and a marketing department) park – yet, strangely, there was no pole rental or instruction or anything similar on offer. A bit of a missed opportunity. So, being the rebels we are, we just ignored the pole bit and wandered for kilometre after kilometre. Along the cliff tops, along the beach, just around and about – all without actually leaving the site apart from a brief foray into town to do some shopping.
At least, that was the original theory. It didn’t quite go so smoothly as that. We tidied the van into “road mode”, and I went to drive off. The handbrake had other ideas, and we stayed resolutely static. A quick curse and fiddle later, and it appeared that the rear brakes had stuck totally on. Nothing for it – on with the overalls, out with the tools, and get mucky. Oddly, that seemed to be all they needed – a good stare. By the time I’d got the van in the air, and the wheels off, all was normal. Go figure. Maybe it was the van repaying me for the mud wrestling? It clearly didn’t feel that was enough revenge, either. We opened the fridge door to get some lunch out – and it wasn’t cold. A bit of experimentation and closer attention revealed that it had died completely when on mains electricity. Gas was its usual lack-lustre self, as was the 12v mode (which only works when the engine’s running). Great.
Still, these are minor hiccups in the grand scheme of life, so we just continued as normal. The fridge is small enough that it doesn’t hold more than a day or two’s worth of stuff anyway, so it’s more of an inconvenience than a major disaster.
Once we left Torre Salsa, we doubled back on ourselves, in search of a couple of sites we’d heard about, back towards Agrigento. The Vulcanelli dei Maccalube were the first. All we knew was their rough location and that they were “small mud volcanoes”. Intriguing, huh? What we eventually found was a slightly moon-scape field of hardened earth – with some damp mud in a few places.
Then we heard the first sound effects. Blollop, bloop, splooodge. As we watched, bubbles appeared in the viscous mud and burst. A wander around revealed several more dramatic craterlets – some throwing mud a good foot or more. By the time we gave up attempting to capture the most dramatic on the camera, we must have spent an hour or two there, giggling like schoolkids at the sight and sound. Very well worth the detour.
And, with that, it was time to head along the coast towards the Greek temples at Selinunte. Arriving at the camp site, we were met by – we assumed – the owner. After a brief greeting in a mix of Italian and German, he grabbed Ellie by the hand and virtually dragged her into the camp site, to demonstrate exactly how the toilets and showers functioned… It turned out that he wasn’t the owner, nor even staff – but a German staying there for the winter. His huge 7.5t truck-based American-style motorhome was complete with a large covered car trailer for his convertible Mercedes SLK – the trailer doubling as a utility room, with the drain hose for a washing machine snaking out from the covers towards the loo block!
Neil and Jenny were already on the site, so another evening was predictably spent laughing over drinks and food, before we all got on our bikes and headed off to the ruins themselves the following morning. Spread over a huge area, the ruined city contains several Doric temples (as at Agrigento and Paestum) in varying stages of identifiability.
There’s also the remains of city walls and residential quarters, together with another temple complex, of a very different and smaller scale. Whilst in there, the four of us got chatting to a Canadian couple, SueAnn and Gordon, who were staying in a B&B just up the road from our campsite. Our campsite had what looked to be a decent restaurant in the front, so we all arranged to meet up there later.
Coming out of the ruins, Ellie & I headed down to the nearby harbour to hit the cash machine – as we re-mounted our bikes, Ellie felt a gentle nudge against her leg, and looked down to see a dog gazing adoringly up at her. A bit on the skinny side, but in otherwise good condition, it was a sort of slightly labradorish mutt, but with huge perky ears seemingly stolen off a passing bat. Not being great fans of feral hounds, we just ignored it and cycled off – with the dog trotting along behind. As we passed one house, a large Alsation launched itself at the gates, barking ferociously – only to be met by “our” dog, giving just as much back. Once we were safely past, battle was disengaged, and station resumed just behind us. We arrived at the campsite, and – yep, the dog was still with us. Through the evening, it kept guard outside the van, and was still there when we returned from the restaurant – very decent pasta for all, washed down with carafes of house red, then back to Neil and Jenny’s van with the Canadians to continue the chat, lubricated by a mixture of various local liqueurs (SueAnn’s protestations that she didn’t actually like them much appeared to be purely for appearances sakes). The dog was still outside the door at bed time, at the start of a night-long vigil which saw it only moving to accompany Ellie to the loo and back in the middle of the night… We’d clearly gained ourselves a new pet, whether we wanted it or not. It was with a mixture of trepidation, relief and disappointment that we opened the door in the morning to find our faithful but unwanted friend had disappeared – presumably chased off at dawn by the site owner.
The road along the coast then took us to Mazara del Vallo, a town with heavy North African and Arabic influences. Wandering through the Kasbah, a maze of narrow streets enlivened by ceramic art all over the walls and even pavements, with the accompaniment of Arabic music and voices wafting gently from all directions, really brought home how close we are here to the Tunisian coast – just a short ferry ride.
We returned to Mazara the following day to continue our explorations, and were rewarded by being able to wander into the cathedral. It’d been locked first time, and seemed to be only open this time for a wedding, with photos being taken on the front step as we followed the florists in through a side entrance. The fish market wasn’t large, but the fish was the freshest we’d seen, with one stallholder demonstrating exactly HOW fresh by picking up a shimmering golden-orange fish with a finger under one gill – the fish responded by giving gentle shivers and wiggles, fins a-flapping in vain.
The western end of Sicily really is a bit sparse for campsites – during November there’s only one between Selinunte and Palermo, so we arrived with an air of expectation to using it as a base for day-trips out. A decent enough site, we were the only occupants the first night there, assuming you don’t count the large numbers of outsized Mosquitoes who seemed to relish the arrival of fresh foreign food. The surroundings of the site were nothing particularly special – a scrubby and gently derelict beach resort (and, yes, more random dogs which followed us back to the van – but this time in much worse condition, one limping badly, the other mangy). Neil and Jenny’s arrival the following night lifted the gloom slightly, and we all piled into our van again for a trip out to Marsala, home of the eponymous fortified wine. Another cracking town, with a primarily 17th century & later heart of piazzas and palazzos. We meandered around for a while, with more extremely fresh fish in the old market – one stall had a couple of octopi in a bucket, together with sea urchins. As we wandered past, the octopi were mounting a fairly determined escape attempt…
A small kiosk was doing brisk business selling sandwiches – yet only had one on the menu. Their boards proclaimed it as a unique classic called “Ca’Meusa”. A quick enquiry revealed it to be a type of sliced beef, known as “Milza” – it looked dark, probably marinated. Mmm. Gotta be worth a try for a couple of Euros, right? It was delicious. Far tastier than I’d ever have thought spleen to be. No, seriously. Spleen. Fortunately, it wasn’t until considerably later that we found this out…
Then, on the edge of town, more salt flats – after Guerande and the echoes of Ellie’s Indian visit to Tuticorin, then Figuera da Foz and the Camargue… These ones had the added benefit of being right on the coast, with small windmills to grind the clumped salt into fine powder, together with brightly painted wooden fishing boats and some islands off shore.
The mozzies at the campsite hadn’t taken long to persuade us that it wasn’t a great lingering base, despite the palm trees, so the road up towards Palermo beckoned, taking us past another Greek temple at Segesta. As we came towards the modern town of Calatafimi-Segesta, we saw signs for what we took to be a Roman Ossuary, just a couple of km up into the hills. I think we might have misunderstood slightly, since we arrived at a Victorian-looking stone obelisk memorial to Garibaldi’s 1860 landing with the “mille” – a thousand volunteer fighters who went on to take Sicily in the first steps towards the unification of the country. As we arrived, the caretaker was just locking up from a large group, and offered to give us a whistle-stop tour of the memorials to those who’d died in one of the first battles after the landing, fought on this spot. A walk through a tree-lined memorial avenue later, and back on towards the temple. We had no intention of actually visiting on this occasion – but the sight of it, almost complete against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, made us want to return before we leave the island.
And so we headed towards Palermo – through scruffy hilltowns renowned as Mafia strongholds, and towards a campsite we’d been warned was difficult to find. We thought we’d somehow excelled ourselves, when we saw signs towards a park of the same name, so after a quick supermarket top-up, we followed them. It turned out just to be a coincidence, and a housing estate with no camping – our actual destination was a chunk further along. On we plodded, through some attractive and lively seaside towns, but in heavy traffic. We sat behind the same cyclist for ages, then finally got the chance to pass him. Shortly after we did so, though, the fridge door burst open – spilling contents everywhere. Whilst we were stopped at the side of the road, chasing mushrooms around the floor, that cyclist pulled up to the driver’s door and asked if we were looking for camping? Yes… “I’m the owner, follow me!”