The rusty Fiat Uno ahead of me crawls up the narrow road. I wait patiently for the twisting stretch of tarmac to uncurl like a strand of spaghetti hanging from a fork. On my right a sheer rock face, cut away by dynamite and bulldozed to vertical perfection, makes room for the mountain pass. On the left, green trees sprawl down into a deep ravine. You do not want to make an error here, left nor right.
I yank the Vespa’s ear and with a swing of the hips we move to the left, and accelerate. I zip past the Uno, just in time as well, as a flashy Lancia thunders towards us in a cloud of exhaust fumes. ‘Vlam’, my little red Italian Vespa with its Afrikaans nickname (meaning ‘flame’) feels nervous, I can tell. The speedo wobbles past 60 km/h. Indeed, fun on the twisty mountain roads of Sicily come in the shape of many engine sizes.
If Italy resembles a boot on a map, Sicily would be the ball it is kicking. And it has been known as such through the years. Today we know that Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean. But it lays claim to additional historic greatness: For petrol-heads like me, Sicily is synonymous with the oldest and most feared open road race of them all – the Targa Florio.
The Targa celebrated a remarkable birthday of 110 years in 2016. Considering that Karl Benz invented the very first motor car only 20 years prior, in 1886, the idea to have a bunch of new mechanical contraptions with virtually no brakes and less handling chase each other at full tilt on narrow dirt tracks in 1906 was quite extreme.
With the 110 year celebration of this magnificent race looming, I boarded a flight to Palermo, tourist capital and economic hub of Sicily. A rental shop sorted me out with a bright red Vespa. Armed with a road map and backpack, I turned Vlam’s dinky size front wheel East, to find the lost roads of the historical Targa.
Back in 1906 racing was still a novelty. Races on closed, purpose built tracks were still unknown. There was no Grand Prix series as we have today. Any racing had to be done on closed off city and country roads. Gravel roads were originally designed and built for nothing faster than horse drawn carriages.
Vincenzo Florio had the idea to let a group of cars run around a lengthy circular route hastily drawn on a map of Sicily. As a rich businessman with a heartfelt passion for new challenges, the novelty of the race suited him to a tee. With the help of a couple of friends, he designed a 148 km long route in the northern areas of Sicily, following mountainous public roads and taking in a couple of villages. Drivers had to complete three laps to earn the prize money.
The new race was an immediate success. The challenging route, with its many bends and corners, proved to be a tough test for both car and driver. It fast became the race to prove yourself as a driver – and to showcase the prowess of a car. The narrow gravel roads, closed off for normal traffic on race day, proved to be exhausting. The engines of the cars became stronger each year and with that the brakes as well; to survive the Targa Florio you needed the best of both.
In Palermo, I book a room in a hostel for a couple of nights in order to explore more of this medieval port city. The hostel is in the old part of town, near the “Quattro canti” (four singers) square: four statues of singing monks are perched high up on the four opposing balconies overlooking a busy intersection. The streets are narrow alleys filled with washing lines, street cats, and old men sitting on benches waiting for tomorrow. Derelict Vespas and Fiats vie for non-existent parking spaces and a pedestrian avenue hosts a busy flea market.
The time soon comes to leave old town Palermo. I saddle up my red Vespa and head to Cerda, a village set in the hills just East of Palermo. It is here that the base of the Targa was situated a century ago. Since Vincenzo Florio had to use public roads on which to host his new race, the drivers charged through many of the small mountain villages of the area; a factor which raised its romantic appeal (as well as the safety concern).
The roads were not designed for the speeds the motor cars could reach. Road shoulders had no crash barriers to prevent cars from flying off a cliff or into a busy piazza. As cars got faster, the organisers started placing hay stacks on corners, mostly in town centres. Unfortunately the hay stacks were quickly claimed as prized front row seats by townsfolk, quite negating their purpose as safety barriers for spectators.
In true Italian style, things often changed from an organisational point-of-view. The initial Grande loop of 148 km was changed in 1912 to a lap around the entire island – a race of 975 km. Then, in 1915 the Grande route was shortened to 108 km – the Medio. And, just as everyone settled in to this new version, it was cut back to 78 km in the last decades of the race. The name? You have guessed it, the Piccolo. But, despite the changes, every time the route was shortened the amount of laps were increased to keep the race distance to about a day’s worth of racing.
Vlam felt right at home here in the hills behind Cerda. The roads all have a shiny new coat of tarmac and each of the gazillion turns are road marked before you reach it. It is hot for late September, and the 300cc’s of my Vespa sing in a high pitched choir along with the cicadas. It is a weekday, so the roads are empty, and I am able to nip along at 60 km/h imagining myself as a leather clad, goggled driver doing 160 km/h.
It is not much use trying to memorize your route every morning before you set off on the day’s travelling. There are too many twists and turns. Instead, just get on your bike and be guided by the flow of the road, the lie of the land, and the inimitable Italian system of (nearly) non-existent route markers. The Italian road signage system is like mozzarella on a good pizza – you know it is there, you just cannot see it.
It is the last day of my trip on the Targa. In the early morning sun, Vlam handles crisp and nimble as I flick it around the curves, sweeps and bends. Its top speed may be 100 km/h, but here on the back roads of Sicily I hardly reach 70 km/h. The section between Castellano and Collesano are too beautiful to whizz past without a coffee and biscotti break.
In Collesano, I stop at a small street café. Here, I pull the Michelin map from my backpack and spread it open on the wobbly table. With my finger, I trace the blue highway back to Palermo where I will catch the ferry to Naples. From there, I will catch the many flights back to Cape Town. Just below the blue line, I notice a blob of red – the lines of the backroads which squirm and wriggle across the map. I smile. There are still some routes to tame with the Vespa. Until the next adventure …