topics: Lord Nelson, volcanos, Archimedes, history, environment, bicycle safety; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 12–13, 1997

Breakfast: Because we left Catania before first light, no shops or bakeries from which to buy any kind of breakfast were open. This is not recommended for anyone planning to bicycle up a mountain, but sometimes it just happens.

Lunch: For lunch, we were driven up to the top of Bronte (our home for a couple of days), to the St. Marcantonio Casas di Riposo, or St. Marcantonio Rest Home for the Elderly, where we were served by two of the attending nuns. A feast click to view a photograph of penne pasta with tomato sauce, bread, meats, cheeses, salad, and fruit was brought to us in traditionally staggered Italian courses, along with water and local wine — both of which are always served at lunch and dinner. At the end of the luxurious meal came a special treat: real cappuccino. click to view a photograph It was a suitable reward for our hard day's work.

Dinner: Returning to the Casa, we took turns passing between the dinner table and the desk in a nearby office where we participated in our weekly live Chat 'n' Debate with schools following the BikeAbout journey or connecting through CCCNet. Once again, the nuns brought full courses of pasta with tomato sauce, bread, meats, VERY fresh cheeses, salad, fruit, and water and wine. Usually we end up eating very late on Wednesday nights, so tonight we truly felt blessed!

Food of the Day: Pistachio sweets

The Lord Mayor of Bronte sent a special envoy to find us and present us with gifts of traditional (and typical) Sicilian pistachio sweets, called dolci tipici Siciliani. We each received a full box, and were touched by this welcoming and kind gesture of friendship.

Green pistachios are a specialty of Bronte, its main export, and, indeed, a pillar of its economy. However, pistachios are not indigenous to Italy. They were planted in Sicily by the first Arabs to settle in the area at the beginning of the ninth century. One interesting thing about pistachio crops is that the harvest is collected only every other year. When the leaves and flowers of their trees bloom, one year the farmers will pluck them to prevent further growth of the fruit (or nut in this case), and it's not until the following year they let them grow into pistachios.

Word of the Day: Grazie — "thank you"

The town of Bronte welcomed BikeAbout like no other has (to date). This was because andrEa made arrangements beforehand as a result of her meeting in Trieste with Franco Lanza, brother of Antonio Lanza, director of a school in Bronte. The town was ready and waiting for us. Every time we turned around, someone was offering to help us or to give us praise, food, wine, information, or even just a warm smile. We found ourselves saying grazie or "thank you" continuously. We just couldn't say it enough.

People of the Day: Ms. Carmela Avellino and Giusseppe

BikeAbout will forever be thankful to Ms. Carmela Avellino click to view a photograph, the English teacher who assisted us during our presentation for the Scuola Media of Bronte. Ethan used all the Italian he had, and then some, but her help made it that much easier and much more fun. Carmela also sat with us to facilitate lengthy conversations with the "Presidente" or Director of the school, Franco Lanza click to view a photograph, and the Vice Director, Giusseppe. click to view a photograph Giusseppe excitedly made it his personal crusade to educate all of us on the pride of the Sicilian people, and was especially proud himself of Bronte. Both gentlemen were very interested in knowing more about us, but spoke limited English or French.

That said, everyone was eager to help us learn some of the Italian language, especially some variations on the language that are found and used only in Sicily. Carmela also shed some light on the way schools and teachers in Italy work, which we sometimes found very different from what we know in the USA. Lastly, Carmela and Franco investigated various travel arrangements for getting us to Cairo — an unending research project that we could not have easily done ourselves — and Giusseppe helped find a mechanic to make provisional repairs to Corinne's wheel. Again we thank all these friends for their collective effort in making our stay in Bronte so rich and enjoyable.

Place of the Day: Nelson Castle and Estate click to view a photograph

The Castle of Lord Nelson (the same British Admiral Nelson who defeated the French at sea during the Napoleonic Wars), located just outside of Bronte in the town of Maniace, is over 200 years old. The entire estate was purchased from the Nelson family by the Comune di Bronte in the mid 1960s. It is one of a few reminders that, among the many military forces that have occupied and settled in Sicily at one time or another, the British Empire also played a part.

The Nelson Family originally owned 170 million square meters of the area surrounding their estate, but did very little farming themselves — rather, they lived off the work of the local Sicilians. However, as the laws changed over the years, bits and pieces of the land were taken away from the Nelson holdings and given to the people. By the time it was sold to Bronte, the estate measured only 70,000 sq m (83,720 sq yds) including the castle, church, and gardens. click to view a photograph

We visited the ornate, recently built church on the grounds and checked out ruins of the larger original church. The much older original church had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and was only recently found during the restoration of a nearby building. Its foundations now remain as a historical landmark within that building. The families living quarters are currently under renovation but will soon be open to the public with all the original furniture. But the gardens were open for us to stroll through. click to view a photograph We thoroughly enjoyed kicking through the grass and admiring the multi-colored leaves. It was our one taste of autumn, a season we seem to have missed this year while in warmer climates. click to view a photograph

Tech Fact of the Day: Video cameras on Mount Etna

Mount Etna click to view a photograph is an active volcano — one of very few in all of Europe — and erupts frequently (the last big one before our 1997 passage was in 1992). In 1669, an eruption destroyed huge portions of the surrounding Mount Etna area, including Bronte and Catania. In fact, there is one whole side of the mountain that still looks like a moonscape, devoid of all vegetation or signs of life. However, as their history indicates, the Sicilians were undeterred and simply rebuilt their homes and villages — using the black lava rock for bricks and street pavement!

To protect the people of the Mount Etna area from the dangers of another eruption, an observatory was constructed at the top and video cameras were placed at strategic points to give ample warning should lava again pour down the mountain. Either that, or the skiers will yell down the hills! Unfortunately, the observatory was destroyed in an eruption in the 1970s. But the video cameras are still filming. We were told that the Bronte Web site has a page where you can watch the whole thing live. Check it out at

Group Dispatch, November 12–13

picture of Corinne

The eastern coast of Sicily is very rich in ancient and recent history. One of its most famous citizens is the Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes, who was born in Syracuse in 287 BC, where he certainly had a great view of the Mediterranean. Perhaps this, more than the legend, is what sparked his exploration of the properties of water displacement and buoyancy. Legend has it that he discovered what is now called the Law of Archimedes while stepping into a full bath. He realized that the water that ran over the edges equaled in volume the submerged part of his body. According to his law, a body immersed in a fluid loses as much in weight as the weight of an equal volume of the fluid. This principle was a crucial step in the development of the science of metallurgy, or the separating of metals from their ores, the purifying and working of metals into usable forms, and an understanding of the physical nature of metals. Archimedes also gets credit for helping to establish the science of geometry, and for recognizing and using the power of the lever, most notably in the invention of the catapult. This, as well as other weapons he invented, helped keep Sicily free of invading Romans for two years! But it wasn't enough. He died when the Romans entered his city in 212 BC.

But back to BikeAbout! Wednesday morning, at first light, using a different application of the lever — our pedals! — we headed inland from the coastal city of Catania. Franco Lanza, brother of Antonio Lanza of Spin (one of BikeAbout's Italian Internet service provider partners) and the Director of Bronte's Scuola Media Statale "Luigi Castiglione," had asked us to be at his school by 11 a.m. to give a BikeAbout/Internet presentation to his students. We knew this was a tall order since Bronte was almost 50 km (31 mi) away and high up on the slopes of Mount Etna, but we decided to give it our best shot.

About halfway up the first big, big hill out of Catania, andrEa had to stop and pump up her tires. Going up hill with less than full tires is not a good idea, and she was pulling one of the trailers, making it that much more difficult.

Sicilians have never had it easy though, so why should we? Through the constant shifts in invading and ruling empires, Sicily has maintained its own pride and identity, which was continually enhanced by the influx of people from different countries. The handing over of the government to rule by others rarely swayed the locals from their commitment to their own culture and spiritual connection to the land. Unfortunately, and most recently, Sicily was also slammed and shaken at all edges during World War II, when Italy was one of Hitler's allies. Regardless, the people deftly rebuilt. Since this is a place of perseverance, we weren't about to be stopped either.

The roads and highways (without bike lanes!) at first stayed low in Mount Etna's foothills — keeping the terrain hilly but not at an overly insane incline — and graced us with the ever present beauty of her steamy, cloud- and snow-covered immensity. click to view a photograph Our Lonely Planet guide said that if we climbed to the top of Mount Etna, we could actually see hot lava boiling in the craters! But we were on a mission to Bronte, so we didn't have time. We did, however, have to stop for directions andmap orientationn on several occasions. Once we were on the right track, though, we felt we just might make it. School visits are such a treat for us that we didn't want to miss a minute.

The boys went ahead to ensure the timely arrival of at least part of the team. However, shortly after the group split, Corinne's bike stopped moving. For no apparent reason. Upon further inspection, it was clear that her rear tire was badly out of true. This means it wobbled due to extremely loose spokes, and then got stuck on the back fender. andrEa attempted to fix this problem, but without a spoke wrench — which the boys were carrying — it wasn't possible. So andrEa unhooked the rear brakes to make room for the wobble, and they continued to rough it up the mountain . . . funky tire, no rear brakes, and all!

Meanwhile, the boys trekked the rest of the way up the increasingly steep road past a breathtakingly green landscape click to view a photograph of sheep and goats, and citrus, pistachio, and other farms. They arrived in Bronte and then rode around asking for directions to the school. Bronte is a lovely town nestled into the hillside, complete with scenic, winding, STEEP, and narrow roads, which can get confusing when you first arrive. The traffic can also be a challenge, since those fast and furious little Italian cars sure do speed around. Regardless, once they found the school, the boys were anxiously and warmly received. They in turn assured Franco and the staff that the BikeAbout ladies would arrive shortly. Oops.

Without wasting any time, the boys were brought to the Bronte town hall and an assembly of at least 50 teenagers (age 11–13) from the school. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Ethan began his presentation, but it was the first time he had to do it in Italian. The help he received from Ms. Carmela Avellino, the school's English teacher (see the Person of the Day), was of great value. click to view a photograph The Italian phone system and a new Internet provider proved a bit of a challenge for Padraic and Anthony, but soon enough, with the help of Antonio, a local expert, they were on line. click to view a photograph

These students (who confessed to having no fears about living so near to an active volcano) were interested in the possibility of cultural exchange over the Internet, and vowed to follow BikeAbout during its journey, sending us "e-mail postcards" at least once a month! Cool! Plus, they seemed so excited by the Internet experience that they treated Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan like movie stars, asking them for their autographs. click to view a photograph Really!

Meanwhile, by 11 a.m. it was clear that Corinne's tire was just plain dangerous — a certifiable road hazard — and that help was needed. So Corinne called Franco's school, and through a strange and jumbled mixture of Italian and English (Engalian?), left a message with someone that she and andrEa were on the road to Bronte, but were stuck because one of the bikes was broken. It was a little like sending a message in a bottle, so instead of waiting around, the ladies continued to attempt the remaining 15 km to Bronte. Sure enough, however, shortly after school let out (1:30 p.m. in Italy) click to view a photograph, three cars arrived to help get both gals and their bikes to Bronte. And to lunch!

After lunch, we were all taken to an old castle and estate just outside of Bronte, to a town called Maniace to see the old castle of estate of Lord Nelson (see the Place of the Day).

Dinner that night was a delightful mixture of pasta and computer keyboards, because we ate in shifts during our weekly live Chat 'n' Debate. session.

Of course, students participating in the chat asked (and everyone around the world wonders) about the connection between Sicily and the Mafia. We tried to explain that there is obviously much, much more to the people and culture of Sicily. We were glad to share some information about the place that had nothing to do with the Mafioso. This reputation is unfortunate, and simply does not do the area justice. It is also a sore point with Sicilians, "So button yer lip if ya know what's good for ya!"

The following day, we were again catered to by the nuns at the rest home, and once more treated with ample and delightful meals. Since it was very rainy, most of the day was spent on our computers, researching and catching up on various e-mail and Web site necessities. During the one break we took for lunch, however, we were graced with a rainbow for inspiration. click to view a photograph While still trying to find the best route to Egypt, we realized that we needed to be back in Catania that night, and made the quick decision to rush to the train station and catch two separate trains back into town (simce we had sinceuch equipment to fit on only one of the small services). The slow sunset behind the mountain range was a beautiful homage to the wonderful, though short, stay we had in Bronte.

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