Devizes - Malta
Thursday 30th July.
At some inconsiderate early a.m. … a faint rumble disturbs me … Is It An Earthquake! ? - Wide awake! - No, no. Calm down … it’s just that train a coming, rumble, rumble, closer it comes, rrru-oar-shhhwooossshhhrumble, rumble, rumble … I’m tucked in snug behind the screen of the 900, and we’re flying high in the night sky, passing over the ribbon of lights along the coastline of East Sussex, Brighton, Eastbourne and on past Hastings towards distant Dover. Below, the impenetrable ink-black English channel, timeless, bottomless black barrier, like some vast dark pigment installation by that Anish Kapoor. To the south, twinkling lights of France, a beacon in the dark on the other side of the darkness … wooosh and passing over Paris, look, there’s the Eiffel Tower! Gosh, but it looks so cute … and oooh! there’s the Arc de Triomphe … wow, what a dizzyingly bright monument, at the centre of a dark continent. Fly onward, south to the Half-Italienne. Soaring over the deathly cold, wee small hours white peaks of the Alps, emerging into warm, fluorescent orange sunrise … across the hazy Mediterranean sea, descending down from high above Sicily, glide path crossing sparkling sea, to land in Malta outside the San Gwann garage of Mr.Dingli.
Swap 900 for DRZ400sm and ride away into the dusty dry, sun-bleached Maltese hinterland. Dingli on his Scarlet Translap racing ahead, disturbing basking lizards in the road, that scuttle for their lives to the side, away, away from harms way.
We arrive outside the old abandoned Puppy Factory, where all that remains of intensive puppy production is one tired, long suffering St Bernard, Red Setter cross bitch, surrounded by a seething mass of her Disney’esque, cuddly toy, rust red coloured puppies, all and each and every cute little one of ‘em intent upon getting at a teat.
Gaping, broken window pane frames of the old abandoned Puppy Factory, some of them stuffed draught excludingly tight with limp, rust red, dead puppies … holes in the characteristic yellow sandstone walls of Malta, all bunged up with mummified rust red dead puppies …
Kick the DRZ side-stand down, dismount, approach the old abandoned Puppy Factory entrance … Faint rumble, rumble, rumble, rrru-oar-shhhwooossshhhrumble, rumble, rumble …
What the … !
Bah … The Mighty Works of Man - rumbling disturbance to my precious dreamtime …
Toss and turn to try to sink back into comfy dreamland … but no resumption of wacky dream sequence … because now I’m all too wide awake aware of the tantalising aroma of fresh coffee and croissants wafting over the balcony and through the open window into my room from somewhere Oh So Near! … mmmn-uuuagh-rrr
Faint rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble …
What the Feckisthat … ?
Swiftly to the balcony to see Italian train approaching from the east, rumbling along the costal railway line between the hotel and the sea, rumble, rumble … along the very same track to the west that Mr&Mrs Profs GC must have been carried along earlier in the year to be disappointed with Palermo and Sicily.
Casually remember then that again I’m naked, standing on a balcony, overlooking a railway line … and the bright blue sea and whom so ever down below might be looking back up at me … privacy of room 302 again regained swiftly … where all is peaceful calm and nothing at all untoward, until just the minor disturbance of mini-kettle coming to the boil for anicehotcuppatea.
Ahhh, an Englishman abroad … a moment of compositional contemplation and a snap of how pleasant the room with a view turned out o be.
After refreshing Cup of Tea … and dressing decorously, hear approaching rumbling again …
Back out onto the balcony in time to snap at the 08.42 going by.
Shower, towel dry.
Collate my crap in a Big Black Bag stylee.
Lug luggage down to Hotel reception.
Bill paid and I’m about to be gone, notice the free internet access computer, and so seeing, distracted to post a short message to you lot.
Now so. Back to business.
The plan is to go west. Find the SS286, head south east’ish and get to Pozzallo for the 9.30pm ferry to Malta. Ok?
Odometer 73602. 5,271 road miles from Floriana.
Continue west along the fun & games old coast road. Lots of accelerating, braking, cornering then accelerating again, while keeping a look out for the turning south into a valley with a couple of autostradas on stilts crossing the entrance to it, that Mr&Mrs.Dingli had led The half-Italienne and I along to Pollina and Castelbuono and beyond during our Sicilian jaunt upon the Transalps in April, earlier in the year.
Trouble is, almost all of the valleys to the south have autostradas on stilts marching across their entrance - openings … ooops, went up a wrong one. I’ll have to dig deeper into my visual memory to be able to recognize the right one when it comes. Know that if I get as far as Cefalu, then I’ll have gone too far, way past it, have to back track.
Ahhh, but meanwhile, another intriguing coastal town to cruise through. All sorts of colourful pottery on display for passing tourists to purchase. mmmn and somewhere to buy fuel too.
Odometer 73624. 15L fuel, €20.01c.
Friendly Sicilians say ‘Buon Giorno!’
Carry on … dip into another valley that heads to the south with autostradas on stilts crossing its mouth … nah, another wrong’un. But it at least it supplies me with a Supermarket conveniently close to the coast road I’m travelling.
Time to replenish my provisions.
Wander through the supermarket aisles in an ignorant of Italian packaging daze, searching abstractedly for visual clues to the contents of what’s packaged, of the recognisably delicious, or safe to drink, to pop into my trolley.
Find the obvious - mission accomplished, march self and trolley up to the check-out.
Check-out girl looks at me - in my grey shirt, black-tie, dark glasses, black combats and boots, pushing a lightly loaded trolley - as though she thinks I’m some deranged, sweaty, half-arsed throw-back fascist pilgrim … expressive creatures, the Sicilian Check-out Girls.
Advantage of the shopping opportunity taken, survived the withering stares and behind my back giggles of the Sicilian Check-out Girls as I exited into the mad dogs & Englishmen heat of the supermarket car park. Roll trolley up to and besides 900, unload trolley, just like any regular Thursday morning supermarket shopper might do. Stuff purchases of water bottles, a couple of cans of that energy drink, local salami, fresh bread and some bananas into the tank-bag. Return trolley to company of its colleagues. Old couple in a flash-black-air-conditioning-whirring-Mercedes patiently waiting for me to return to the 900, waiting patiently for the parking space where I am. They patiently watch me do the ear-plugs in, the specs off, the helmet on, the specs back on, the gloves on, the swinging the leg over the luggage and sitting astride the 900, the switching the engine on, the pushing off of the centre-stand, the paddle backwards, the manoeuvre to the right, the engage first gear and I’m gone … gone along the road that curls along the coast, offering brief, tempting passing views of small beaches down by the sea. A swim would most definitely be the thing … but probably not so much fun as the relaxed almost an hours worth of fun I have, going with the flow of the tarmac along the northern coast of Sicily … glide around a sweet left-hander and there above, high in the hills, Pollina, the ancient city in the clear blue sky. That must mean that I’m close to, rapidly approaching the left turn to take me south.
I’ve made my way along the undulating coast road to the turn I want to take south (38° 0'53.62"N - 14° 6'14.22"E). Have been along this southbound SS286 road before, led by Mr&Mrs.D., being their wingman, dutiful, responsible second of two in a Transalp convoy, with The Half-Italienne my pillion. Today I’m on my own on my 900. It’s a quiet Thursday midday and there’s hardly any other traffic about, now so, Focus and … Go!
Eight’ish twisty-turny miles to Castelbuono (37°56'9.65"N - 14° 5'33.03"E) covered in 12 minutes … a reasonably respectable journey time for a cautious old fart on a luggage laden twenty-five-year-old motorcycle with a partially worn away front Bridgestone … so it seemed to me, or is eight’ish twisty-turny miles in twelve minutes embarrassingly slow? Bah. No matter, I enjoyed it.
Pause in Castelbuono to drink water, nibble some salami and bread and appreciate being in regular Sicily.
Memory tells me that the next 17 mile section is even more wigglier fun. Head south on the clear road out of town, but soon come up behind, and am comprehensively balked by an artic going as fast as it can through the narrow wiggly bits. No safe way past. Artic driver doing an admirable job of progressing such a big thing sensibly and safely … I’m pondering whether to stop and relax for half an hour, to let artic and car tail-back clear the superb fun & games section, when Artic driver slows on a short straight to wave me by … Return the compliment with a Big Molto Grazie! wave … and I’m away, as Artic driver picks up the pace again before car tail-back can safely follow me. Tee Hee. A clean, grippy, wonderful warm road all to myself for the next sixteen miles. Thank You God(dess) (And Artic Driver).
Volare, oh, oh, cantari, oh, oh, oh, oh.
Flying along 30 miles of clear tarmac, the 900 sings the song of the accelerating, braking, cornering and accelerating again rhythm of the road. Peripheral vision registers glimpses of stunning views flashed by … waves of heat baking the tinder dry, golden brown landscape, under an almost cloudless blue sky.
Some ways after passing through Geraci Siculo, it’s decision time at the cross near Miranti (37°48'56.23"N - 14° 9'14.72"E). I can follow the road to the west where Mr.Dingli led us … or strike out into the unknown on my own …
So, south-east I go on the S120 towards Enna, and almost immediately I have to stop and take a pic to show you lot what intrigues me … The 900 in the foreground, hillside city of Gangi in the background. What admirably adventurous ancient Town planners!
Gawd but this place where I’ve halted is seriously Molto Caldo … a gulp or two more water for me.
phewww! Years ago, a halt such as this would have been a Golden Virginia’d, blue Rizla’d roll-up, lighting-up. But not any more … and one tiny, careless spark or discarded fag butt here and now would instantly kindle a growing flame and … wooof, an un-controllable conflagration!
Carry on responsibly, public spiritedly carefully (y’know, residual result of all of that becoming a sensible parent and supposedly growing up thing).
Carry on riding along fabulous stretches of Sicilian road, the blissfully successful ebb and flow negotiation of which might almost lead me to believe I could be a match for a Great Grand Motorcycling Hero such as The Rossi … or even, dare I say it, a … George Shuttleworth …
Eh-hey, it’s turned out nice again!
And as far as I am concerned, It certainly has on the road to Enna, being a veritable Hoot of fun and games for an old fart on an old 900 … as long as one is wary of the blind bends that could all too suddenly reveal an oncoming white liner or a landslide induced crater in the carriageway.
Under a bridge, the only shade and shelter for many miles around from the merciless heat of the sun.
Tepid refreshments remain thirst quenching. Cicadas ratcheting lethargically nearby as I munch on my bread and salami picnic luncheon. Dash out into the sunlight to place the camera for a self-timer’d pic of self in shadows, staying cool.
Refreshed, ready to carry on. Hardly any other traffic about, roads clear, dry and grippy … Yipeee! Who could ask for very much more? All sorts of attention grabbing bends and curves and small towns passed through on the way towards and then past Enna and on past Piaza Armerina (Home of many cheeky, ancient Roman mosaics … look …
Once that distraction left behind, come to a halt to consult the map. Time to find the S124 left turn that should take me towards Caltagirone, then Grammiche and on down towards Modica and thence to Pozzallo. Carry on for a while and there’s the S124 signpost. Turn left and happily accelerate along a long straight two lane blacktop that starts to rise before me towards a mile or so far off left-hander … that a couple of oncoming cars appear from … by now the 900 is progressing at a fair rate of knots, and sixth sense tells me to keep a sharp eye on the oncoming cars (Don’tcha just love that motorcycling sixth sense!), sure enough, car number two decides to do a lumberingly slow overtake of car number one. Hardly surprisingly, this puts car number two fair and square in the middle of the carriageway that I’m using to go the other way. You are all familiar with those slow motion moments of disbelief. Surely, with the 900 headlight on full beam, they must see me …? No. Of course not. Car number two carries on its imminent collision course towards me. There’s nowhere to go but that two-foot wide strip of tarmac between oncoming blind driver and the edge of the road before tarmac becomes tinder dry rural Sicily.
Instinctive steering and Breath Held.
Then, I’m either still alive and progressing at a fair rate of knots … or I’m in heaven and imagining that I’m still alive and progressing at a fair rate of knots.
What is real? Is this the after-life? Did I survive? Am I really writing all of this for you lot to read … I think so.
If I was still alive in the real world, then instant Incandescent Outrage Kicked In … Grrr and Double Grrr doesn’t do it … Treble Grrr and Damn The Bastards To Hell might just about address my Justifiable Outrage!
TheFeckers … crap, inconsiderate, three quarters asleep, must be dead drunk drivers … Hangin’s waaay too good for ‘em!
And I’m riding along fuming, thinking of terrible revenge and righteous retribution … Grrr, and thinking should I stop and collect some roadside stones, keep them easily accessible from the tank bag, to use as a defensive/offensive measure, to casually toss in the air towards dickhead drivers !
But the trouble is that The Voices sternly assert that I shouldn’t and wouldn't do such an irresponsible thing. That despite the blatant and contemptible disregard, threat to my life and limb, lack of consideration, malicious intention etcetera, etcetera … the possible outcome of stones applied in a ride-by, over the shoulder retribution to the miscreants windscreen … might result in any combination of shock, swerve, collision with another car, death of an innocent third party family of four.
No. I couldn't live with myself.
Carry on Fuming for a few moments more … until the next approaching set of Sicilian corners demand my complete attention.
Life is amazing as it flashes by me and the 900.
More sunshine, then more corners and curves through cool shadowy forest and out into the open to see a huge plume of grey smoke ahead of me and a big helicopter swooping low over flames, dousing them with a great wooosh and splooosh of water.
Odometer 73795. 5,464 road miles from Floriana. 12.4L of fuel, €16.00c.
Arrive in Pozzallo.
Too early to check in for the ferry.
Ride into the centre of town with the intention of photographing documentary evidence, for you cynical, disbelieving lot, of the way Sicilian women ride around on a warm evening.
7.00pm. Find a likely looking camera position spot, stop, heave 900 up onto centre-stand. Camera at the ready … there are scantily clad Sicilian women zipping about on all manner of scooters and mopeds … but first pics are blurred and badly composed, as the pesky digital camera is taking the pics when it decides to not when I press the button! Grrr!
Gradually get the anticipation-button-pressing-time right.
The following snapped between 7.18pm and 7.33pm …
Time now to navigate my way back through the evening throng of Pozzallo people to the Ferry Port, stake my claim to a space aboard the evening sailing of the Maria Dolores.
Just outside of town, Pozzallo docks. Big, wide open tarmac area similar to Rosslare, except for the beached fleet of decommissioned Tuna boats that occupy a substantial portion of the port parking area.
A mass of cars and trucks are waiting for the ferry to Malta. I ride up to the Virtu Ferries ticket booth. Side-stand down, engine off, dismount then heave the 900 up onto the centre-stand. Car drivers and their passengers are milling about; waiting for the Maria Dolores to arrive … old fart on old motorcycle provides a distraction that relieves the tedium of waiting.
“Buona Sera.” Hand my return ticket to the man behind the ticket booth glass. He looks at my ticket, then at a list, then at me, and then says I know not what in Sicilian-Italian.
“MiaScusi, non palarlo Italiano, sono inglese …”
“Ok Sir. Do you have a reservation for this evening’s sailing … I can see no motorcycle on the list booked for tonight’s crossing?”
“er, no reservation, but I do have this open return ticket.”
“Please wait with your motorcycle Sir, and once all of the vehicles with reservations are loaded, we will call you if there is room for you on tonight’s sailing …”
The Half-Italienne phones, sounding mighty distraught, she’s in bits … obviously still grieving the loss of Dennis Vella, she’s just received news of the death, under the wheels of a hit and run driver, of a friends son while he was out riding his bike, and added to that, news of another friend being mugged while away on holiday. All Isabelle wants is to be able to hear my voice, be reassured that I’m safe and well. I do my best to reassure her that I’m Ok, not far away, and will be home soon … (that’s if the bureaucratic blighters will actually let me board the Ferry. Aw, c’mon now, even if completely full of four wheelers, there must easily be enough space remaining on the commodious vehicle deck of the Maria Dolores to accommodate one small motorcycle … eh?). With no sign of the ferry emerging from the deepening twilight enveloping the sea, wait patiently as possible on the quay.
Waiting under the harsh orange sodium lights of the ferry port, there are also other travelers uncertain as to whether or not there will be room enough for them to board the ferry, they being a couple of Brits with large, blingy 4x4’s, stuffed with family stuff that they’ve driven all the way from the UK, en-route to their destination, the starting a new life in a new home on Gozo (the smaller, sister island, a few miles to the north west of Malta). The Head-man of the pair is obviously accustomed to things he organizes going to plan, tonight he is thwarted and peeved at the uncertainty of the situation he finds himself in, awaiting the whim of a foreigner … The Head-man and his partner have valid tickets, but hadn’t reserved places on this evenings crossing either, so they have to wait. As he waits, The Head-man’s peevedness increases. We are in the same boat, or maybe not … we just have to wait and see if we will be or won’t.
What we do see are the lights of the Maria Dolores appearing from the gloom as she glides into port, to come to a graceful halt at the dock. The efficiency of routine operation ensures the ferry is rapidly emptied of its cargo assortment of vehicles and foot passengers … a pause for service vehicles to come and go, then the signal is give to commence loading the mass of cars and trucks waiting to board the ferry to Malta.
Within ten or so minutes they are all aboard … everything has gone quiet … the only ones left on the quay are the 4x4 couple and me.
Cue for me to approach the Virtu Ferries ticket booth, tap on the window; attract the attention of the man within the ticket booth. He looks up at me, a relaxed and totally blank, untroubled expression upon his face.
“Hi, er, scusi, any word yet on if there’s space on board for me and my motorcycle … ?”
“Ah, Si, one moment Sir, I will see …”
Ticket Booth Man reaches across his desk, grasps a two way radio, flicks a switch and speaks undecipherable Sicilian-Italian into the device … crackle-squeak … faint response … crackle-squeak … Ticket Booth Man speaks more undecipherable Sicilian-Italian into the device, then plonks it back on the desk, reaches across his desk, grasps a sheet of paper from a stack, tears off a section and hands it to me … Boarding Pass and ticket for this evenings trip … Hurrrah!
Déjà vu ride the 900 up the ramp to board the aluminum catamaran, Maria Dolores. Get directed to just about the same spot as on the outward crossing. Secure the 900 for the voyage. Check. Ok. Exit and up the steep stairs away from the vehicle deck.
Assorted travelers, Maltese and Tourist Others, all mill about the passenger compartments in the usual confusion of whose sitting with whom and where, and I want a drink and when I get it the coffee is as crap as ever, and as ever served sulkily by a surly yoof who’d much rather not be disturbed by the likes of a Grumpy Old Fart like me whilst She’s busy texting her Significant Other … which reminds me … sms an “Underway from Sicily” to my Significant Other, Her Half-Italienne-ness.
“Buon Viaggio” her reply.
Find a suitable seat and settle down to read some more Climbing Mount Improbable as Maria Dolores gets under way away from Pozzallo.
Before long the soothing motion of crossing the ocean and the heat of the night and the hypnotic hum of the ships engines have me lulled into a gentle state of doziness.
Suddenly awake, as from the pitch black night comes the first hint of journeys end, Malta, a distant line of amber street lights twinkling ahead … closer, closer, no, no ... false alarm, as Maria Dolores speeds past the sodium lights of many brightly lit tankers and empty freighters moored for free in International waters on Herd’s Bank to the north-east of Malta. The Genuine sodium lights of Malta soon begin to glimmer on the horizon, closer and closer they come, then, from the shadows the familiar entrance to The Grand Harbour begins to take shape.
Would all vehicle drivers please report now to the car deck, go to their vehicles, immediately start their engines and proceed to choke on the noxious exhaust fumes produced and confined therein for the next fifteen minutes until we dock and then have to wait a further ten minutes for the car deck exit doors to be opened and the vehicle ramp to be lowered … Thank Yeeew!
The Captain And Crew Of The Maria Dolores Do Hope You Enjoyed Your Voyage With Us And Have A Safe Onward Journey And The Captain And Crew Of The Maria Dolores Look Forward To Seeing You Again Soon Aboard The Maria Dolores.
“Put The Kettle On” texted to Half-Italienne.
Down below, release the 900 from bondage.
Helmet on, engine on, engage first gear, and then gently down the ramp off the ferry.
Maltese customs guys scrutinize the Maltese number plate, and then grudgingly wave me through.
Out of the terminal gate and turn right, along Pinto Wharf, left up Crucifix Hill, past the appreciative pavement audience assembled outside The Tom Bar.
Ride into Floriana, 900 exhaust note echoing off tall limestone buildings along deep canyon streets.
Another left and calmly cruise to a halt outside the Half-Italienne’s half-open door, the very spot where I started from twenty-five days previously.
Odometer 73824 on return to Floriana, 5,493 road miles after setting off from Floriana.
Inside, the tea is brewing and there’s an equally warm welcome from Herself.