Sunny Sicily: June 10 2010
Mother Nature has become a bit fickle lately. Weather windows for our 300 mile passage to Sicily opened five days out...then quickly slammed shut just a few days later. This pattern was a bit disheartening due to its repetition. However, May 22 materialized and the weather window remained intact. The first 24-hours would be bumpy but then smooth out for a calm motor the remainder of the way. We were off! But emotions were definitely mixed. Corfu was a great spot where we had simply hoped for a winter community...and came away with roots starting to take hold. Our friends gave us a warm send off but goodbyes do not get any easier (May 21).
We topped up diesel tanks and headed out of Gouvia at 10am (May 22). We ambled along the coast of Corfu, gently motoring until we reached the passage between Paxos and Corfu and into the Ionian Sea. Then the winds started to kick up and kept at it for the rest of the day and night...generally about 25-30 knots. We started with the main sail and the headsail but 9 knots of boat speed feels a bit much to us so the main was reefed...once, twice...bang, blew out a reefing block...and finally three times. We continued with great speed and maintained 8 knots regardless of the small amount of sail that remained. Sadly, the lasagna stayed in the fridge...just a dinner of bagel chips for both of us...and eventually Erin could not even keep that down. The morning dawned with lighter winds but it was a few more hours before the sea state could catch up (May 23). Sails came in as the wind rotated onto the nose but the resulting calm was wonderful. Holy cow - and we saw whales! They were off the port stern...just an arched back here and there and breathing spouts that resembled fountains but what a thrill! With a daylight arrival assured we spent the morning doing laundry, taking showers and filling the water tanks...great to have the watermaker back on track...did we say that already?! Our landfall on the island of Sicily was the large, protected harbor of Siracusa (May 24). At 2pm we were securely anchored in gloppy, black mud with good holding and toasting with an anchor dram (thanks for the ritual Finn and Tove). Amazingly, there were one, two, three...six American boats at anchor with us...one even flying the Californian flag in place of the American flag. It has been a long time since we have seen so many Americans in one place...and the accent makes us feel all warm and fuzzy.
Italy is a late night dinner place (similar to Greece) so we waited until 6pm to head into town for our inaugural Sicilian dinner. But first we strolled the old town gaping at ornate churches, walking through stone paved alleyways and smelling the aromas of dinner slowly filling the air. Amazing glazed, ceramic sea creatures caught our eye at The Fish House (www.fishhouseart.it). They are so life-like and the colors are vibrant! We were the first seated at 8pm and relaxed through the meal...even arriving back to Barefeet in twilight...at 10pm!? Nice long days sound good to us.
We started our stay with a few chores. Chris got our internet up and running while Erin headed into town for the daily fresh market (May 25). Fish and seafood are solidly represented...including fish mid-sections the size of tree trunks. Bunches of basil and parsley, piles of tomatoes (fresh and sun dried), pyramids of cheeses, watermelons and cantaloupes...gosh, it is going to be fun to re-jigger our palates...and dust off some almost forgotten recipes. Yikes, and everyone is eager to distribute sumptuous samples. Wow, there is a SMOKED mozzarella; soft and lightly browned on the top like a slow roasted, campfire marshmallow. But the taste is all mozzarella...fantastic!
Feeling settled after our passage we began to explore the old town (Ortygia) with a bit more diligence (May 27). Siracusa was originally settled by the Greeks (Corinthians) in 734 BC. It grew rapidly and soon became a center of military power and prosperity for the entire Mediterranean. In 413 BC even the Athenians were defeated by mighty Siracusa...condemning the defeated Athenian soldiers to a life as slaves in the local quarries...departure was not an option after the Athenian military leader burned all the ships as a sign of warning to the soldiers not to be defeated. Certainly must have had an impact but it was clearly a miscalculation...it is said that not a single Athenian soldier left the quarry alive. History continued to flow through and around Siracusa; Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Austrians, Bourbons...all left their mark...Siracusa was usually victorious, but not always. The city's architecture reflects these diverse inputs. For example, the main Cathedral (rising on the highest point on the island) now sports a baroque facade as a Catholic Church which honors the Virgin Mary (18th century). However, its actual origination as a sacred spot can be traced much earlier as a majestic Temple to Athena (5th century BC). Doric columns are clearly visible in the Cathedral walls and integrated into the whole...demonstrating the religious evolution of the region. The Piazza del Duomo on which the Cathedral reigns is stunning and surrounded by baroque and rococo styled buildings...to us they look like elaborately frosted cakes. We just paused and tried to soak it all in. Sipping a cappuccino helped, too (Antico Caffe Minerva).
The large bay of Siracusa provides marvelous protection from winds; however, due to its size moving from side to side as the winds rotate North to South and back again is necessary in order to provide less chop and a smoother time at anchor. Ooops, the Southerlies began before we were back aboard and it was a "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" back to Barefeet from town with swells that more closely resembled waves (May 27). Yikes, that water is cold. We were drenched as we stepped aboard and stripped down in the cockpit. A quick rinse off of salt in the shower and we were off across the bay for the forecasted two days of strong Southerly winds. Most of the anchorage had moved as well so there was plenty of company...but not a single dinghy was lowered into the water.
Siracusa was a powerful Greek city-state...larger even than Athens. Greek and Roman ruins still exist in an ancient settlement of public buildings and monuments lined by impressive quarries of the Latomia. At just a 30 minute walk from our dinghy landing it was a great way to stretch our legs after being boat bound by the Southerly winds (May 29). Dirt walking paths wound through thick vegetation...dropping us at the doorstep of each structure one at a time. There was both a Greek theater (5th century BC) and a Roman amphitheater (1st century BC) as well as somewhat unique structures such as the alter of Hiero II (3rd century BC) and the ear of Dionysius. The story of the alter states that in a single day 450 bulls were sacrificed to Zeus upon the alter of Hiero II...that must explain its enormous size at 70 feet by 600 feet. Holy cow! Further into the settlement was the ear of Dionysius (named by Caravaggio in 1256), originally a quarry, which has incredible acoustics. While we were inside a solitary Italian man sang...nearly pressing his lips ONTO the grooves of the wall...thus filling the towering space with song...each word clearly articulated. Amplification was further lauded because it was said that the megalomaniac ruler of Siracusa, Dionysius I, would sit and listen from above to hear what prisoners were saying while being tortured and imprisoned there.
Before we knew it...it was June 1 and our first guests of the season were due to arrive. We took the bus from Siracusa to Catania airport to meet friends Tracy and Gina. All accounted for and back to Barefeet we went. We explored the Ortygia, introduced them to our cheese man and settled into life on the hook. June 3 was an early morning as we pulled up the anchor at 5:30am. Yikes, it took 20 minutes due to the sticky, black mud that was stubborn to wash off. It was a calm motor to Taormina...just 55 miles North of Siracusa. The calm weather continued and upon arrival we jumped into the dinghy to explore the nearby caves. Gosh, the water is filled with jellyfish...maybe a swim isn't such a good idea at the moment?! Taormina sits atop the slopes of Mount Tauro and looks like a fairy town with small twinkling lights as the sun disappears. This charming town was our goal June 4. Similar to Siracusa it is Greek in origin and has its own Greek/Roman theatre (third century BC). We wandered the streets and visited stunning cathedrals. After afternoon naps we had hoped to head into Naxos town for dinner but Mother Nature had other ideas. The skies darkened and thunder exploded seemingly right above the anchorage. Gusts of wind and flashes of lightening rounded out the spectacle. Yikes, but there went an anchored cruiser...skittering ever closer to the cruiser behind them. Their anchor somehow let loose and they were now dragging around the anchorage. No one came on deck. Eeeek! Chris and another dinghy sped into action and kept boats from bumping until owners made a hasty return from dinner ashore. Everyone was resettled and our dinner aboard was prefect...apricot chicken with mashed potatoes.
The storm had passed by the morning and off we went ashore to see the beach town of Naxos. The beach is covered with umbrellas and sun beds...quite hopping later in the summer but now it is, thankfully, just festive. Mt Etna stands regally above it all...complete with a new layer of snow after the storms of the previous night...blizzard to be precise. We never did figure out how to get to Mt Etna but no worries, we were headed to Vulcano Island (June 6). It was a twelve hour run through the Strait of Messina to the offshore Aeolian Islands. We changed seas during this passage...exiting the Ionian Sea and entering the Tyrrhenian Sea. Current was not too tough but winds gusted on the nose often slowing us to just 4 knots of speed. However, there was little drama compared to the Charybdis whirlpool and the monster Scilla of the Odyssey...phew. The Strait of Messina is a big area for swordfish...and the specialized boats that hunt them are pretty spectacular. The captain sits atop an immense metal mast and steers while harpooners are ready on the 150 foot bowsprits in order to sneak up upon sluggish and unsuspecting fish. Calm weather is the only time these contraptions can go out so it seems we picked a good time to pass through the strait.
Wow, what an arrival! We anchored in Porto di Ponente at the foot of the still smoking volcano...last eruption 1888. No worries of blows at the moment so we went ashore...gawking at the mud covered souls slathering mud that smelled like a cross between a neglected barnyard and a sewage treatment plant. Peeuuu! We decided to pass on the experience and instead found a dinner spot. Ristorante Don Piricudda was wonderful (via Lentia 33, ph 0909852237)! An appetizer of thin ribbons of parma ham was topped with a ball of mozzarella the size of a baseball. It made everyone quite happy. Oh, and gnocchi for three was served in an enormous sauté pan placed in the center of the table. Erin was the odd man out who instead chose swordfish pasta...hey, it must be fresh...right?! And it was! So tender it was more like butter than fish. Yum! The house wine was amazing and the tiramisu for dessert was perfect. Molto bene!
We missed climbing Mt Etna but there was no way we could mistake the climb to vulcano crater. The path was clearly laid out and visible from the boat...we laced our sneakers and off we went. The path was mostly rough lava stones and the views were amazing! The anchorage was clearly outlined as well as surrounding volcano islands. About 2/3rds of the way up all vegetation completely disappeared. The smell of sulfur was not too strong until we circled the lip and walked directly past the steaming vents...cough, cough. What a sight! We marveled at the 360 degree views only slowly making our way back down the crater. On the way back to the boat we found a butcher with great looking beef filets...it would be a grilling kind of night. And thanks to Paulina's delicious wine it was a perfect way to celebrate our anniversary.
Sadly, the calendar keeps moving forward and we need to get Tracy and Gina back to mainland Sicily for their flight. June 8 we bid an early farewell to Vulcano Island and headed for Cefalu. It was another calm day of motoring. Perfect for spotting dolphins...which we were lucky enough to see with our friends. Cefalu (pronounced chef-a-loo) is located roughly midway along the northern coast of Sicily. Rugged but lush mountains are the backdrop for this town of sandy beaches and a magnificent cathedral with Byzantine mosaics. The cathedral was begun in the early 12th century but never completely finished. It combines Norman and Muslim characteristics that amaze from the moment you see the structure looming high on the hill. Later it was a quiet night of packing and organizing. By 9am the next day Tracy and Gina were loaded into the dinghy, complete with bags, for a beach landing enroute to the car rental office (June 9). It was fantastic exploring Sicily with them but their vacation is far from over with final stops in Florence and Venice before returning to Boston.
For now it is back to just the two of us. Temperatures have risen and summer seems to have begun. We are thrilled. A nice slow lunch unfolded at Al Porticciolo (www.alporticciolo.it). The food was okay but the view perched above the sea was beautiful. We will continue moving along the northern coast of Sicily before making the approx 170 mile jump to Sardinia. But first a little more time relaxing after a busy winter...knowing that Barefeet is in great shape mechanically and well provisioned.