Just as we are setting the anchor in Siracusa harbor, Rick's cellphone rings. It is Kathy MacGillivary, already waiting for us on the dock. "Jeez, I can see why you guys like hanging out here so much" she says. "This place is freakin' amazing!" I dash to make up a berth in the forward cabin while Rick launches the dinghy and heads to shore to pick her up.
Kathy bounces onboard, bubbling with excitement and looking fantastic in the new clothes she has bought in London. "I found a wine store" she says, passing me a bag with two bottles of Sicilian wine; one red and one white. She had also gone to the Binnacle before leaving Halifax and picked up a new fitting for our spinnaker pole. "I'll be your easiest guest ever" she promises, and when we discuss the itinerary for her visit she quickly endears herself to the skipper by nixing my suggestion of visiting the archeological park (which, although boasting an impressive Greek theatre, is a long hot walk from the harbour). Our time together will be short, since Kathy must fly to Barcelona for a business meeting in less than three days. "It would be nice to go for a sail if we could, though."
We decide to eat onboard, beginning with wine and antipasto in the cockpit as we admire the view of Ortygia, Siracusa's historic district, onshore. After dinner, we sit up talking in the cockpit late into the night, long after Rick has gone to bed, finishing off the red wine and opening another long-forgotten bottle purchased during our visit to the Spanish Alpuharas with our friends Doug and Liz in 2007.
The next morning, we are all up early for a run along the Ortygia waterfront in the sunshine. I'm feeling timid about running over the cobblestones, having barely recovered from a nasty fall in Marina di Ragusa, but I quickly relax and enjoy the experience. Kathy is exuberant. Twenty minutes into the run she spots a flat piazza, drops to the ground and does a few dozen push-ups. Has this woman even heard of jet-lag?
We have come prepared with our knapsacks, and make a stop at the morning market. We drop in to the cheese shop and buy baked ricotta, smoked mozzarella and salami. "Where have you been?" the young man at the counter asks Rick. "I haven't seen you in nearly a week." Continuing through the market, we buy mounds of fruit, a kilogram of melt-in-your-mouth ciliegino (cherry) tomatoes, three orata (sea bream) and much much more. Next, a walk through the streets of Ortygia.
I pause in front of a hairdressing salon, remembering that it has now been nearly seven weeks since my last haircut. The girl at the door makes it clear that if I want my hair cut they must do it "subito" (soon) , since they are about to close for the weekend. "Do it" says Kathy, "We'll go back to the boat and get lunch ready, then Rick can pick you up at the marina".
Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to look up the phrase "Not too short, please!" in my phrasebook. Shortly after we landed in Spain in 2007, I had the misfortune to nod with too much enthusiasm when a matronly-looking hairdresser held up her scissors and asked "Pequeno?" The results were so disastrous that I was obliged to wear a ball cap every time I went out for the next two weeks. So now, having placed myself at the mercy of this unknown Sicilian hair stylist, I sit worrying for a full ten minutes while he helps a friend choose a necklace from a small jewelry display at the back of the salon. He nods at my plastic-caped reflection in the mirror and holds up a finger. "Arrivo!" (I'm coming!) Fortunately, when he eventually arrives, it is clear that I am in good hands. He even knows the English word for "short" (surely the most useful word in any hair stylist's vocabulary!)
He decides to tell me a little story. "You understand a little Italian, don't you?" he asks. (Most Sicilians seem to assume that everyone understands a little Italian, perhaps because Italian is in some respects a "lingua franca" in this country where many regions also have their own languages or dialects.) When I nod, he continues. "My friend has just been asking me how I can communicate with all the stranieri (foreigners) that come in here. I told him there's always a way. A few weeks ago, a Chinese woman came in here. She was asking me for something and I didn't understand. She was asking for the toilet, but she was speaking Chinese, not even English. Finally she did like this..." (he lifts his leg)"...and said "pssssh..." I howl with laughter and he is satisfied that I have understood. He looks at his friend with satisfaction. "You see, she understands." I leave with one of the best haircuts I have had in years, at less than half the price I would have paid in Halifax, still laughing as I walk toward the dock.
Back at the boat, Kathy has prepared a delicious tomato and cheese salad, garnished with a few olives and some delicious Sicilian olive oil that Katherine had left in the galley. After lunch, I am ready for a nap, but Kathy hops into the dinghy and helps Rick scrub the sides of the boat, removing the muddy stains left by the marina's lazy lines. By now I'm wondering how I can convince her to cancel her trip to Barcelona!
In late afternoon, we dress up and head back to shore for a little shopping. Kathy is looking for ideas for her maternity wear business, as well as things to wear in Barcelona, but she periodically points out things that I should try on. "I used to love picking out things for you when I went on buying trips with Rick" she says. Ah yes, those were the good old days! An hour later, even Rick is carrying a Zara bag.
We head for the Piazza Duomo and peek into the cathedral, where a wedding is in progress while a few tourists are still roaming the side aisles. We tiptoe into the back corner to show Kathy the ancient baptismal font, then go back into the piazza to soak up the ambience.
Eventually, we settle ourselves at a small café. "Can I treat you to a pizza?" asks Kathy. ""I'd love to try a real Italian pizza". Unfortunately, the waitress tells us that it is still a bit too early for pizza, but she brings a small plate of antipasti with our drinks. Soon, the wedding guests pour out onto the steps of the cathedral and the waiters and waitresses rush out of the restaurant to see the bride and groom.
This is clearly an elegant affair, and we're delighted when the wedding party heads straight for our café. The bridesmaids are happy to let me take this photo, and their friends seem tickled pink that I want them in the picture too!
Now it is definitely late enough for pizza. We decide that our fish will keep until the next day, and head for "Il Gattopardo" just on time to get the last unreserved table. It is already dark by the time we get back to the boat. (This is a good illustration of why it is wise to turn on the anchor light before leaving the boat, even if you don't plan on staying ashore for dinner!)
The next morning, Kathy takes another run through Ortygia and I meet her a little later, bringing along her bag and a change of clothes. We stop at a little café, where I have a cappuccino while Kathy ducks into the washroom to change. I spot some unfilled cannoli shells and decide to introduce Kathy to my latest obsession. I have now figured out that the best cannoli are the ones that are filled on the spot, just before you eat them. Knowing that Kathy does not often eat sweets, I decide against the full sized cannoli, but have two of the small ones brought to the table before she emerges from the washroom. Her eyes widen when she tastes the first bite. "Can we order another one?"
We intend to do more shopping in the modern section of Siracusa, but everyone we ask tells us that the best shopping really is on Ortygia. So, after dropping in at the bus station to confirm the schedule for Kathy's bus to Catania airport the next morning, we head back over the bridge. By the time we phone to ask Rick to pick us up at the dock, Kathy has some new clothes to wear in Barcelona and I have a new pair of soft green chinos.
After lunch, we decide to go out for a sail. It has been years since Rick and I have "gone for a sail" simply for the joy of it. As we sail out of Siracuse harbour I recall the lovely days when we have sailed out of Halifax harbour to Herring Cove. Kathy takes the wheel and we enjoy the ride.
The day is perfect and Aisling's bottom is clean, so we are able to reach speeds of nearly 5 knots even though the wind speed is less than 10 knots. So often, we resort to the motor to make our passages faster. We resolve to slow down and enjoy the ride a bit more often.
That evening, Rick cooks the orata in lots of lemon, oregano and olive oil and we serve it with roasted potatoes and fennel, carrots and beans. It is a quiet night, because we will have an early wake-up call the next morning. Before 8 a.m., I am waving goodbye to Kathy as Rick ferries her to shore and finds her a taxi. She will have a long wait at the bus station, and an even longer wait at the airport, but she is not taking any chances on missing her plane. At 10 a.m., I receive a text from her. It says, "I just had a large cannoli!"
Katherine arrives back on the bus from Palermo just in time to attain the honour of being the youngest person in attendance at the Friday night dinner in the Marina Bar. With lots of Sicilian wine washing down the paella and pasta carbonara, everyone is in good form by the time the dessert arrives. Audrey, our across-the-dock neighbour, is celebrating her birthday and the cruisers from the UK (of which there are many) give her a rousing chorus of "Why was she born so beautiful, why was she born at all?" The silly song replays itself in my head for two days.
Late the next morning, we launch an expedition to Caltagirone, another baroque town that was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. Although Caltagirone is a Unesco World Heritage Site by virtue of the architecture in its old centre, it is best known throughout Sicily for the colourful ceramics that are produced by its artisans.Our friends Ni and Krissy follow us on their motorbike.
With our usual flair for poor timing, we arrive in Caltagirone just as most places are closing for the long afternoon siesta. But a few shops are still open, and we quickly see that we will have endless choices of beautiful bowls, platters, tiles and figurines. We have purchased ceramic items in almost every Mediterranean country we have visited, but here the craftsmanship is outstanding. The local artisans have had plenty of time to perfect their skills, since ceramics have been produced in this area for over a thousand years. Many of the techniques, colours and designs used today were introduced by the Arabs.
The 142 steps of the impressive "Scala Santa Maria Del Monte" have majolica tiles as risers. Today, the staircase has been decorated with potted plants.
We do not climb the stairs, nor do we give the beautiful baroque buildings more than a cursory admiring glance. We have seen more than our share of baroque architecture in the past two weeks and we are here to shop. Krissy is looking for a straight-sided jar to hold kitchen utensils in Finalmente's galley. Rick is determined to find a set of the ceramic address numbers that he has admired on the walls of Sicilian houses. Within an hour, the ceramic numbers are "in the bag", as well as several bowls, two olive oil spouts, an owl and a beautifully decorated tile. The quest for the kitchen jar will continue throughout the afternoon, and the perfect one will not be found until a nearly-perfect one has already been purchased.
A man on the street has recommended the restaurant "La Piazzeta" for lunch, and our Lonely Planet concurs. After a bit of searching, we find it on a quiet back street and settle in for a memorable lunch. The parade of antipasto choices is delicious, as are the pastas. It is our 33rd wedding anniversary, and what a great way to celebrate it! The meal keeps us occupied until the remaining shops have reopened. As we settle our bill, a young man walks out of the kitchen wearing riding gear, and we speculate on where he might be headed. Someone suggests that he might be a polo player. "I doubt that anyone here is rich enough to play polo" says Ni.
We head back to the shops and before long, we are all carrying bags stuffed with beautiful, breakable items that have only a remote chance of making it home intact. One of the most exceptional shops is Casamano Giacomo, where the artist has created lifelike figurines, some set up in animated scenes.
As we leave Giacomo's shop, crowds are gathering on the street. Riders on horseback clatter into the square. Many of the horses are wild-eyed and skittish, clearly not accustomed to being ridden in an urban environment.
Krissie spots the young man from the restaurant. Ni had been right; he wasn't going to a polo game! Neither is this guy:
We are mystified about the reason for the procession, but eventually learn that it is a springtime blessing of animals and farm equipment. The equestrians are followed by tractors and trucks, decorated with signs saying "Queen of Peace, bless our family".
As I dig my camera out of my bag, I glance down at the curb, where a small face is peering up from the sewer grate. I am staring at the twin of our long-dead pet rat Jo-Jo. Despite the similarities, I am not at all happy to be in such close proximity to this one!
He peers around. Surely he sees the crowd above him, but he scurries out anyway. Quick as a flash he grabs a piece of food from the curb, then disappears back into the grate. I am reminded of how Rod Heikel's cruising guide to Greece warned of "big and bold rats who will not hesitate to come aboard....". Suddenly, I have better insight into what he means by "bold". Of course, we know that rats are a fact of life almost everywhere in the world (the Canadian province of Alberta being one of the few exceptions) but I prefer it when they keep themselves out of sight. I'm a bit jumpy for the rest of the afternoon.
When the procession ends, Rick and Ni retreat to a café while Katherine, Krissy and I plunge back into the shops for one last look. The perfect countertop jar reveals itself at our final stop, just minutes after Krissy has purchased another. It is some consolation to see that the price is nearly triple that of the one she has chosen.
Just as we prepare to leave, it begins to rain. Krissy decides to ride back to Marina di Ragusa with us, which will keep her dry and make it easier for Ni to control the bike in the wind and rain. But fortunately, rain rarely lasts long at this time of the year in Sicily. Within 20 minutes, the sun begins to break through and a glorious rainbow appears on the horizon.
We round off the day with pizzas at the "American bar" pizzeria in Marina di Ragusa. As we are finishing our wine, Katherine slips away from the table and pays the bill. A nice anniversary surprise!
We still have the car for another two and a half days. We consider going to Chiaramonte Gulfi (famed for its delicious pork and olive oil) or perhaps even as far as Villa Romana del Casale (site of an ancient Roman villa with extensive and extraordinary mosaics), but we are running out of steam. Instead, we spend Sunday afternoon at the shopping mall outside Ragusa and cook pasta onboard Aisling in the evening. But Katherine mounts a campaign for a return trip to Siracusa the next day, since her previous visit had been a bit of a bust. Rick is growing tired of so much driving, but eventually caves in.
We arrive in Siracusa on time to visit the morning market, then have cappuccino in the Duomo square.
As we wander through the streets of Ortygia, a small shop called "Olive" is offering tastes of olive oil and chocolate. Delicious! Naturally, we cannot resist. We hand over a fistful of euros, hoping to bring a taste of Sicily back to Halifax.
Katherine's ulterior motive for the return trip to Siracusa is to have lunch at the Apollonian on Via Campisi. This restaurant has no menu, but instead offers a multi-course meal at a fixed price (35 euros per person, tax and service included). We feast on cold seafood antipasti, oysters, breaded mussels and clams, fish cakes topped with sea urchins, seafood spaghetti and so many other things that I'm too embarrassed to list them all. It is after 3 p.m. when we finally waddle out the door. We are all in agreement that dinner will not be served onboard Aisling this evening.
The next morning, we pay a quick visit to Ragusa Ibla (Ragusa's baroque old town).
The baroque architecture in Ragusa Ibla is reminiscent of nearby Noto or Modica, and it too was constructed after the 1693 earthquake. The story of Ragusa Ibla has a bit of a twist though. When the earthquake flattened the original Ragusa, the new town of Ragusa Superiore was built on a higher ridge. Later, many of the town's aristocrats disagreed with the decision to relocate, and rebuilt their palazzi on the site of the old town. The two towns eventually merged, but not until 1927. This morning the streets of Ragusa Ibla are quiet, although a few people are up and about.
We'd like to linger, but the car must be returned by noon. Katherine and I squeeze in one last bit of shopping on Via Roma while Rick returns the car, then we all reunite on the bus to Marina di Ragusa. The only thing left on the agenda is a trip to the beach, and goodbye visits to Deep Blue and Finalmente. Katherine is impressed by the bright and spacious boats of our friends. We all love Aisling, but we do wish the guest quarters were a bit roomier!
We know we've been eating out far too often, but Katherine still hasn't had a chance to try our favourite Marina di Ragusa restaurant, the Imperial. The caprese salad and spaghetti vongole are delicious, the owners are friendly and our bill is always reasonable. After dinner, we enjoy one last walk along the boardwalk, sad to realize that our wonderful two weeks together have come to an end. The next day, Katherine boards the bus to Catania airport, and a hollow, "empty nest" feeling pervades Aisling.
But the guest quarters will not be vacant for long. Onward to Siracusa, and a rendezvous with Kathy MacGillivary!
We always enjoy seeing wildlife during passages. Shearwaters often accompany us as we sail, and porpoises at the bow never fail to delight. But being accompanied by droves of giant bumblebees on the way from Brindisi to Bari wasn't exactly the kind of nature experience we'd hoped for! We really don't know why Aisling suddenly became irresistible to dozens of bees. Perhaps we unknowingly had a queen on board, or perhaps we simply sailed through a swarm and they decided to "draft" along with us. For whatever reason, shortly after crossing the 41st parallel, we suddenly started noticing bees on board. Lots of them. Really big ones. Some were over an inch long. I'm not making this up.
There were bees on the lines, bees on the binnacle, bees on the shrouds and bees on top of the dodger. When we shooed them away, they just tucked in at our stern, drafted in the breeze for a while, then landed again. Normally, I prefer not to kill bees, but what choice did we have? We got out the fly swatters and swatted away. Rick launched an attack on the foredeck and Martha hummed "Flight of the Bumblebee" as she whacked away with a rolled up copy of "Psychology Today". By the end of the massacre, we'd thrown the corpses of dozens of bees (and nearly as many nasty biting houseflies) overboard. Thankfully, no one got stung in the process.
And you thought we were having fun!
|Italy (Mainland) 2012||
Katherine needed some cheering up. Her visit to Siracusa had had some rough spots, including a bout of nasty stomach flu and the loss of an SD card containing precious pictures of Rome, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. A tour of the Valley of the Temples, the site of the former Greek colony of Agragas, would be just the right medicine. This Unesco World Heritage site in Agrigento, which Rick and I had visited with our friend Janet Cooper four years ago, rates high on the list of "must dos" for Sicily. We would drive to Agrigento to show Katherine and Leah the temples, then drop them off at the station in Agrigento to catch their bus to Palermo. Google maps showed the trip to Agrigento as nearly a three hour drive from Marina di Ragusa, but at only 126 km, surely it wouldn't really take that long?
In reality, the drive actually did take nearly three hours. Without access to the multi-lane highways that we take for granted in Canada, driving in Sicily can take on the feel of a road-rally. Impatient drivers overtake large trucks and slow-moving farm equipment, missing oncoming traffic with just inches to spare, only to encounter yet another slow moving vehicle around the next corner. Just getting as far as Gela, a mere 50 km down the coast, took nearly an hour and a half. We made one pit stop at a gas station, where we combined the culture shock of paying over 1.70 euros a litre for gasoline with the cultural experience of watching a group of men and young boys clustered around a tiny screen behind the cash, fists pumping as they cheered on the Italian team in a football match. It was after noon when we arrived at the western entrance of the Valley of the Temples site.
On the path leading to the site, we identified our first almond tree. Lovely!
Under ominous-looking skies, we viewed the Temple of the Dioscuri, which was partially reassembled in the 19th century using materials from other temples.
A glimpse at the angry skies prompted us to make a dash for a café near the gate to the eastern part of the site. With superb timing, we found a seat out of the rain and had cappuccinos, paninis and aracini (traditional Sicilian risotto balls) and waited for the skies to clear. Then, onward to the Temple of Heracles....
....and the Temple of Concord, which has survived relatively intact thanks to having been temporarily converted to a Christian Basilica in the 6th century AD. The statue out front was a recent addition since our last visit. If this guy had been there, I'm sure we would have remembered!
As we walked toward the Temple of Hera, we took the photos that would be our favourites of the trip. I call this one "SuperLeah!"
Love this one of Katherine too!
We had time to walk through the western site at a more leisurely pace as we returned to the car. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, would have been the largest Doric temple ever built had it ever been completed. Construction came to an abrupt halt with the Carthaginian sack of Agragas, and later, an earthquake destroyed the remains.
This huge telamon was intended to support the temple.
It was nice that our day wrapped up with a little sunshine!
Now we had to brave the streets of downtown Agrigento, but it was surprisingly easy to find the bus station and we had plenty of time for snacks and one final cappuccino in a nearby café. Our waiter was happy to hear that we are from Canada. He wondered whether we might know his cousin Francesco, who lives in Toronto? We don't, but we've met a surprising number of Sicilians who have told us that they have family members working in Toronto.
It was hard to believe that our time with Leah was over. We had enjoyed every minute of her visit and hated to see her go. She would fly home from Palermo two days later, while Katherine would return to Marina di Ragusa by bus to spend a few more days touring Sicily. Still to come, Caltagirone, Ragusa and a return to Siracusa!