Friday, 27 January 2012

In esecuzione le colline di Messina, Sicilia

Great as it was, the hills and running were actually outdone by the food in Sicily. Like most long distance trail runners (well maybe not the fast and/or competitive ones!) I enjoy the fringe benefits of eating loads of food before, during and after a long run. The food provided by my hosts in Sicily was delicious and the healthy quantites at each meal made sure I got myself out of the door a few mornings to create some room for the next amazing lunch or dinner.

Mount Etna, from the plane, towering above a cloudy day for the rest of the Island

That Volcano again

I was in Messina with my better half Clare to visit the family she worked for over 4 years in the 90's as a nanny on the occasion of their youngest's 18th birthday. This is an occasion probably more celebrated in Italy than the UK, whereas we seem to make a bigger deal about the 21st. Anyway, compared to the traditional party this was going to be more "casual". But, casual doesn't mean a meal in a resteraunt or a few drinks around town - it was still a party where some 60 people turned up at the house of the family, socialised, ate, drank (not that much alcohol) and generally made merry. Casual was more a reflection on the dress code and the lack of traditional dancing in the evening. The scale of the food was such that mother had spent the entire day before and morning of the party cooking and preparing food with various assistants including two hired waiters and a kitchen assistant on the day of the party. These efforts certainly weren't wasted on me as part of my first experiance of sicilian cuisene as platter after platter of food arrived throughout the afternoon, I was well stuffed by the time deserts arrived and I'm a big eater.
I was probably still too stuffed to consider more than moderate exercise the next day, so Clare and I explored the town enjoying a great panini, pizza bread - nothing complicated, just great tasting ingreadients prepared well - for lunch and another mini-feast back at the house for dinner.


The view over Messina I'd leave the house to at the start of a run
 With several big meals and a few great nights sleep behind me it was time to see what the local running was like, whilst I still could! I felt dedicedly un-runner-like as I set out, feeling more like a man who'd over-indulged over christmas and new year and was setting out in an attempt to meet a new years resolution of losing a few pounds and getting fit. I headed down the gated drive of this Messina hillside residence with fabulous views and then hit the slight incline through the tunnel and along the Strada Panoramica which curls around the hillsides a few hundred foot above the beachfront. The views were good, but it wasn't a totally glorious route alongside traffic (Italian drivers!), uneven paths (The UK is so good by comparison) and past numerous big street-bins (though we don't believe it were lucky to have weekly or fortnightly residential collections). 2 miles along - at 120' above sea-level - and I finally located a road (Viale Annunziate) which climbed at a decent incline so I could get some hillwork into my run through busy streets. I got about a mile uphill and upto 550ft and then doubled back. A good run, but I figured I could find a more peaceful and challenging route tomorrow - afterall Messina sits on a thin strip of flat and undulating land between the sea and large hills, mountains.

The trails begin

The next day and the sun was shining, it must have been a bit warmer than the previous day as I felt warm with my thin wind-jacket over t-shirt nearly straight away. After the 100ft descent down the drive and street to the Panoramica, it was again through the tunnel and undulating along, this time with an eye for a right turn up the hills. The first attempt failed as after a brief climb the road ended around the corner at a church. But with attempt two I struck gold.

This road was steep by any standards, initially past blocks of flats and a building site of more blocks of flats, then past housing and a substation as I got to the edge of town. Then the quiet road became more of a concrete track before reaching an end. But this time beyond the concrete block I could see sandy and stoney tracks heading up the hill and splitting off in various directions to small properties or abandoned shacks. Trying to keep to the widest trail I was often walking on the loose surface. I made my way upto just over 1000ft above sea-level and stopped to enjoy the view and a small sense of achievement, briefly before heading back enjoying a great descent - only stopping to collect the wind-jacket I'd abandoned halfway up - to be back where I started within the hour covering about 5.5 miles.

Steep sandy trails, not so safe for driving on!
Run 3 and I didn't feel so enthusiastic as I headed out, it was a bit grey and a bit windier than the previous two days. But, I'd decided this would likely be my last chance to get out so I took a bigger window of time to explore further and a camera to get some evidence of my exploits for Clare. I repeated my route of yesterday along the Panoramica, then up the hill and onto the trails. I found the trail and path that took me to 1000' the day before only went a bit higher, so I took a few pics and dropped down along a feint path into another grassy valley. Then I went cross-country through long grass and weird 'italian thistles' (much more forgiving than scottish ones) before tackling another hill in hope of finding an easier path to higher ground.

Moody views from Messina hills (about 1000') to the mainland (Calabria)
 When I topped out I found the ruin of a building and a stoney track which led me slightly downhill to a winding road which promisingly switch-backed up the steep side of this new valley to higher heights, whilst giving me a break from tough off-road ascents. I trod the road steadily uphill around switchbacks very much alone, but for the bark of the occasional dog from a remote household and fewer than a half-dozen cars idling by in 30 minutes. As I got a bit over 1500' and having been out over an hour I took a few pictures and headed back the way I came.

More moody photograhpy
 After setting off the local dogs again (who in turn set off some other dogs across the valley who probably didn't know what they were barking at) I left the road near where I'd joined previously to try and pick a route down the valley so I didn't have to go back via the same route. I knew there was a road away from town to the north of my start point (I'd set out south, then north-west), but it wasn't on a road map I'd looked at so I figured it may not go very far. However I knew it couldn't be more than a couple of miles from here.

From highest point of my run towards Strait of Messina
I'd sighted what looked like a track from the road higher up, but at ground level it was just a dried up water channel, presumably for irrigation. So I ran along side it and lucked out when I found a road. I ran easy downhill for about a mile but then the road ran into nothing more than wasteground until I relocated the dried up water-course. Following this downhill made sense, but the flaw in my plan was that it turned back to take me away from my destination again and then ran out over a valley side - a waterfall had there been any water. I was starting to get the feeling I'd have to track back and would be out here another hour yet, but my stubborn streak pushed me on to find a descent in this area, even if it turned into a fell run-style descent. So this led me to cut back and scramble down a bank of soft, dry mud and abbrasive vegetation which whipped my legs and covered me in brown dust. I shuffled down slowly and eventually was able to get down to level ground finding the best spot for a short jump down to the now much wider, but still empty water channel.
Sicilian and Calabrian hills
It was quite easy running downhill now, although I did wonder if I should actually be running here or if I'd somehow stumbled onto private property. Some reassurance came from an occupied building nearby and I managed to run along the side again as a drop in the bed of the channel meant I couldn't continue that way. Thankfully then came a mud trail alongside the channel until I was able to scramble up onto the driveway of the aforementioned house and onto the road.

I ran down this road meeting the Panoramica and back to my start point and was suprised to find out I been out less than 2 hours and only covered 8.45 miles, it seemed far more eventful than a short run should be. But the stats speak for themselves and I covered nearly 2300' of ascent and descent in these miles, a hilliness comparable to a scramble in the Lake Disrict.

View from high over mountainous Sicily
Once back I showed my pictures to Clare, which turned out to be better than I thought the poor light would have allowed me. The clouds reacting to the the mountainous Sicilian coast and that of nearby Calabria make for very variable lighting and on a cloudy day there are quite frequently patches of strong sunlight breaking through and lighting up patches of the sea. My last remaining peak climb in Sicily was achieved later that day as our hosts drove us out to the top of a nearby peak (pic left) - apparently there is an annual race upto the top of here. I may have to look this up as a road ascent up through forest-wrapped roads, with stunning views over two coasts to the top of an 1130 metre peak from near sea level in about 20k sounds interesting.

Oh, and in case you were wondering the title translates to "Running the hills of Messina, Sicily", if not I blame Bing Translator.


  1. their culture (and food) sometimes leave a lot to be desired of ours. sounds like a great trip in every aspect

  2. Really was, much as I love the UK I could quite happily live in the Med.