The sad reality is that during periods when we're doing the most interesting things, we have no time to write about them. Since our last posting, we've attended the Noto flower festival (where we tasted the best gelato in the world) and explored the "Valley of the Temples" in Agrigento. Katherine and Leah took trips to Modica, Siracusa and Palermo, and Leah flew home from Palermo. We've visited Caltegirone, where we traipsed through dozens of ceramics shops. We've sampled Sicilian wine, Modica chocolate and cannoli at every opportunity. We returned to Syracuse for a fabulous lunch and yet another visit to the market. In short, we've been busy, and we've been eating well. Surprisingly, we seem to be losing weight rather than gaining it, maybe because of the pace we've been keeping. It almost seems like we've driven down every side road in southeastern Sicily. The rental car and gasoline costs have skyrocketed, but so have the memories. If we don't try to capture some of these adventures in writing soon, the memories will melt away into the obscure land of forgotten details, along with those of our visits to Delos, Mystras and other "missed blog" locations.We'll do our best to catch up over the next week.
Our two weeks with Katherine seemed to have gone by in a flash. We said goodbye to her on Wednesday afternoon, when she took the bus to Catania airport. From there we went straight to a goodbye lunch with friends Chris and Sandra (Deep Blue), Ni and Krissy (Finalmente) and Dan and Judy (Koa), then back to the boat to prepare for our departure from the marina the next morning. It was hard to be saying so many goodbyes all at once, and we were feeling pretty glum that evening. But on Thursday we sailed (well, actually motored) to Siracusa, and our friend Kathy MacGillivary has hopped onboard for a short visit. We're looking forward to "showing her the town" in one of our favourite destinations!
Hardly a soul is in sight when we arrive at the ferry dock in Catania, where our daughter Katherine and her friend Leah are scheduled to arrive on the overnight ferry from Naples. I am bursting with anticipation, and it seems like hours before the ferry finally appears, backing in to the dock with an ease that makes Rick envious. Finally, Katherine and Leah appear on the gangway. A happy moment!
After a quick drive-by glimpse of Catania's grand baroque buildings, we head up the coastal road toward Taormina.In the back seat, Katherine and Leah are bubbling with excitement as the stories of their adventures in Rome, Pompeii, the Amalfi coast and Naples spill out. The scenery along the coastal road is glorious, with lush vegetation, palm trees, baroque buildings, lava cliffs and jagged rocks contrasting with the intense blue of the Ionian Sea. Sicily is at its best in spring, with wildflowers and shrubs providing splashes of yellow, red, pink and white. But eventually the traffic forces us inland to the highway, where we pick up speed to arrive in Taormina by mid-morning. We drive up, up, up, gazing at the amazing view of Mt. Etna vigorously puffing out smoke in the distance. Rick threads the car through the narrow streets and with only a few wrong turns we eventually find the Porta Catania carpark, located conveniently close to the town. Then we head straight to Billy's café, where the cost of a cup of cappuccino and a cornetto is more than double what we normally pay in Ragusa. The ambience makes it worth the price.
Our Blue Guide Concise Italy claims that "Taormina is thought by some to be the most beautiful place in the world". Whoever said this had probably never seen the Cape Breton highlands or Lake Louise (and may have been referring to the Taormina of a century ago) but the view is inarguably breathtaking. We had been warned that we would likely be sharing Taormina with shoulder-to-shoulder hoards of other travelers, but in mid-May the crowds have not yet reached their peak. We wander through the streets of the town, where the sun illuminates the pastel colours of the buildings. Flowers tumble from window boxes; even the inevitable restaurants and tourist shops somehow manage to look charming.
The most famous site in Taormina is the Greek theatre. Built in the 3rd century BC, the Greeks had designed the theatre so that the stage had only the view of Mt. Etna and the water as a backdrop. It was later enlarged by the Romans, who inexplicably obscured the view by adding a colonnaded backdrop. Thanks to the ravages of time, the view is again mainly visible, and in any case it would have had to have been a large stage indeed to hide Etna, which at 3,350 meters (give or take a few eruptions worth of height ) is the highest active volcano in Europe.
Leaving the theatre, Katherine is visibly limping. She is suffering from a painful ingrown toenail that has become infected and refuses to heal. I take a look at it and become alarmed- this clearly requires more than just soaking and ointments. Fortunately, we are in a country where one can walk into a pharmacy and buy almost anything. We buy a package of ciprofloxacin at the "British Pharmacy" but after some sober second thought we decide to look for a doctor instead of relying on my rusty pharmacy knowledge. We eventually find the "Tourist Doctor" in a cavernous hospital-like building at the top of a steep street. She is completely alone, sitting quietly in an almost-empty room behind a desk that has only a single file folder on its top. She does not speak English, but a glimpse of the toe is all that is needed. She pronounces the ciprofloxacin to be "perfetto" and ten minutes later we are on our way to lunch, the toe neatly bandaged and my professional conscience clear. The bill for her services? "Niente" (nothing). I love Italy.
For lunch, we choose the terrace at the restaurant Granduca, where we can enjoy the view of Mt. Etna and the sea as we eat our pizzas and gnocchi. Now we have to decide our itinerary for the rest of the day. We had considered spending the night in Taormina, but the idea of paying for two rooms in the most expensive town in Sicily while simultaneously paying for an apartment in Pozzallo and a berth at Marina di Ragusa is rather unappealing. Instead, we decide to drive up Mt. Etna, then return to Pozzallo for the night.
Etna is puffing out smoke as we drive up the winding road toward the cable car station. This is one of the world's most active volcanos and lately it's been really letting off steam, having already erupted several times in 2012. The black ash had even reached Aisling's decks in Marina di Ragusa, but at least we weren't in Catania, where we'd been told that cruisers in the marina had purchased leaf-blowers to blow the coatings of ash off their decks!
"I hope we're not going to end up in the Darwin awards" says Katherine, looking nervously at the summit. "At least we're not as dumb as Empedocles" I say. Empedocles jumped into Etna's crater, believing that the gasses from the volcano crater would hold him aloft. (This is quite possibly the world's best example of a fatal error.) Leah can't understand how a famous philosopher would do something so illogical. "Wouldn't you think he'd have tried throwing a rock in first? A nice big Empedocles-size rock?"
We drive through the charming village of Zafferana and continue upward until the road takes as around the mountain and we can no longer see the summit. Olive trees and lush gardens are giving way to a moonscape of black lava and ash. It is already after 4 p.m. when we reach the cable car station at Nicolosi. It seems that Etna is a ski hill in the winter, with chair lifts and pomo lifts as well as the cable car. We quickly pull on jackets and sweater and rush to the ticket office. As we climb the stairs, we are all huffing and puffing with the effort, since even here the altitude is over 2000 meters. At the ticket office, we are told that the trip up the mountain will take 15 minutes and the last return time from the upper station is 5 p.m. The price is 29.50 euros each, which seems a bit expensive for a quick look. We turn away and go back to the parking lot, where an elderly man is strolling with his walker. "You really should go" he said. "It's been over twenty years since I went up, but it was definitely worth it". We realize that if we don't go up, we will always regret it, so we turn back, buy our tickets and hop into the rickety cable car. It will not carry us to the summit, but it will carry us another 500 meters higher. When we disembark, there is really little to see other than snow and lava. Even the view is obscured by a smoky haze, but the feeling of being this high on Etna's slopes is, if not priceless, at least worth 29.5 euros.
We walk up higher, but Katherine and Leah are getting nervous that we will miss the cable car. Rick checks the altitude on his phone at the highest point and it shows 2840 meters (9, 230'). We collect some bits of lava, take some pictures of each other in front of the blackened snow banks and take the ride back down to the car. It's interesting that some of the lava rocks are very heavy and some are very light, yet they all look the same to our untrained eyes. Before driving back down the mountain, we walk along the edge of an extinct crater. (I'm sure I read somewhere that the same crater never erupts twice.) Finally, with the day growing later, we return to the car and drive back down the mountain, deciding, after considerable debate, to retrace our steps rather than follow "the road not taken".
It is nearly eight o'clock when we arrive back in Pozzallo and after unloading our bags at the apartment we are all too tired to even contemplate finding a restaurant. Fortunately, we have everything we need. Fresh pasta, sweet cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and chilled wine combine to make a delicious dinner. We eat well, and tumble into bed early. Tomorrow would be another busy day!
Earlier this month, I celebrated my birthday in Marina di Ragusa. Sometimes, celebrating special occasions when we are so far from home can be a bit lonely, but not this year. Rick bought a big tray of cannoli siciliani (which has to be tasted to be believed) and other goodies, chilled some prosecco and invited a few friends over for a party. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday celebration, but at the end of the evening we realized we'd only taken one photo! Fortunately our friends Sandra and Chris from "Deep Blue" did take some photos, and not only that, they posted a collage of them on their blog. You can check it out at this link Deep Blue's blog
And while you're there, have a look at some of Chris and Sandra's fantastic blog entries about cruising in the Mediterranean.
Oh, and those nice earrings I'm wearing in the photo..Sandra made them! Thank you Sandra and Chris!
After more than two weeks of completely benign weather, the forecast was predicting Force 7 winds (30+ knots) for Monday. This (naturally) was the very day that we needed to take the boat down the coast to Pozzallo to be hauled at the Scala boatyard. Unfortunately, sailing to Pozzallo on Sunday evening before the wind piped up wasn't an option, since the yard didn't have room for us at their dock. We decided to wait until Monday morning to make our decision.
On Sunday, I overheard Rick discussing our dilemma with our starboard neighbor Chuck from "Cyan" (who was eagerly awaiting our departure so he could launch his dinghy and wax the side of his boat). "But didn't you sail across the Atlantic to get here?" asked Chuck, and I immediately knew that my fate was sealed. Chuck and his wife Lynn are fearless...they even sailed through the Gulf of Aden in 2011, just days before the boat Quest was taken by Somali pirates. You may have read their articles in Cruising World magazine last year.
Since the wind was forecast to increase during the morning, an early departure was essential. We were on deck (literally) at 06:15 on Monday morning, and called the on-duty marinaro to give us a hand with our exit. In winds that were already gusting to 20 knots, but fortunately from the west, Rick managed to reverse out of our slip without giving Chuck more than his wax job to worry about. The next hurdle was clearing "Wraith", the steel-hulled boat tied just opposite us on "E" pontoon. Wraith had just been re-launched after several months on the hard, having sustained damage to her bow in a collision with a tanker off the coast of Malta. Of all the boats in the marina, this would definitely have been the worst one to hit (not only because it would have completely demoralized the owners, but also because we clearly would have gotten the worst of it in a collision with a boat that could survive a direct hit from a tanker moving at speed). We high-fived as we motored past the breakwater, then concentrated on avoiding the sand bar off the point. It would be a rough ride, but at least it would be fast.
In spite of the thick growth on the hull, we arrived at the entrance to the port in Pozzallo at 08.45, just as the ferry from Malta was docking. As we motored toward the Scala boatyard, Rick commented that the ferry's engines were still running. Fortunately, the churning in the water seemed to stop moments later. "Good" he said, "they've turned them off", but as we approached the pontoon in what seemed to be calm waters, Aisling was suddenly grabbed by the remnants of the current and thrown forcefully against an unprotected edge of the dock. "It's OK" said Giovanni, the boatyard owner's son, who had taken our lines. But actually, it wasn't. Rick groaned as he examined a nasty puncture wound in Aisling's fiberglass.
Next, we received some surprising news. Apparently, Aisling had grown during the winter! Giovanni went into the office, appeared with a long cloth tape measure, and held it in the air near Aisling's stern while his colleague held the other end of the tape measure in the air near the bow. Between them, the tape measure drooped in a long arc. "This boat is 13.6 meters long" Giovanni proclaimed. "Our papers say that it is 12.4 meters", I said. "The papers don't matter" he pointed to the tape "this boat is 13.6 meters".
Now, we do realize that Aisling's actual length overall (LOA) is slightly more than the 12.4 meters that is recognized in her official registration, but she is definitely not longer than 13 meters. This was a critical point, since the charge bands increase with each meter of length. Moving to the next charge band would cost us roughly another 160 euros. We got out our own tape, measured the boat ourselves and came up with 12.9 metres (which coincidentally is the exact LOA shown in the manufacturer's brochure). Rick went to the office and explained the problem to Giovanni's sister Maria (who speaks excellent English). Both arrived back at the dock (Maria in 3-inch espadrilles, her hair whipping wildly around her face in the wind) and the boat was measured again. "It is 13.6 metres" said Giovanni. He had apparently included the Monitor wind-vane in the measurement, which to me didn't seem like a reasonable way to calculate a price for applying paint to the bottom of a boat. However, having been previously warned to say nothing, I managed to bite my tongue. "OK" said Rick, "I'll pay the price. I just want a good job". We were completely over a barrel, since sailing back to Marina di Ragusa in a 30 knot headwind was not an option and we'd already committed to renting an apartment in Pozzallo for the week.
But I started to warm up to them when the boat was pulled out of the water. The yard is clearly a top-notch operation, with modern equipment and good safety practices. Best of all, when Aisling was settled on the stands, a portable staircase was rolled up to her side. Not a ladder, an actual staircase, with a handrail! Luxury! I almost wished we were staying aboard.
Well, not really. The next afternoon, it was blowing so hard that the boat was shaking on the cradle, and the wind instrument was showing over 40 knots in the gusts. The yard is also a long hike from the town, and while Rick has preferred to spend most of his days on the boat, I've been enjoying the change of scenery in Pozzallo. In contrast to Marina di Ragusa, which is mainly a resort town, Pozzallo is an authentic, vibrant Sicilian town. Our apartment is lovely, with a sweeping view of the sea and enough room to host a party for about 40 people. It's quite a change compared to living in a space where we barely have enough room to swing a cat! (not that I ever would...) We're right in front of a nice beach, and everything we could ever need is within walking distance. The bakery has delicious bread and there's a wonderful fruit and vegetable shop called "Non Solo Frutta" just around the corner. A cappuccino at the cafe down the street only costs 1.20 euro. One morning, the barista wouldn't let me pay for the croissant that I had with my coffee. I'm still trying to figure out why!
Early yesterday morning, Katherine and her friend Leah arrived in Catania on the ferry from Naples. We were up at 5:00 and waiting for them at the dock at 8 a.m. Then we headed straight for Taormina, which is at the top of most of the "must see" lists for Sicily, and for good reason. It is a delightful, touristy village perched on a mountainside just north of Mt Etna. The view from the Greek theatre was so incredible that it exceeded all our expectations! We hope to tell you more about it later, and post some photos.
The boatyard has already finished all the work on Aisling, and we were pleasantly surprised when they gave us a price reduction on the final invoice and did not charge us for repairing the damage to the fibreglass, (although Aisling was left with a bright white bruise on her portside flank). By noon today, Aisling had been relaunched and Rick and I were on our way to Marina di Ragusa, while Katherine and Leah went off on the bus to explore Modica. We've certainly been treated well by the Scala yard, and would definitely recommend them. Maria was even kind enough to meet us at the dock in Marina di Ragusa and drive us back to Pozzallo, where we will be staying in our apartment until Monday.
At the moment, all four of us are hunkered down in front of various electronic devices in the living room. We have a new wifi router that allows us to connect multiple devices to the internet, yet is small enough to fit in your pocket. On the other hand, this may not exactly the best way to experience Sicily! I assure you, this is just a temporary situation. Tonight, we'll try out a local restaurant in Pozzallo. Tomorrow we're off to the the flower festival in Noto. Ciao!