If we stayed in Siracusa long enough, I suppose it's possible that we'd grow tired of it, but I seriously doubt it. With a history that dates back to Greek times, Siracusa is full of delightful surprises. The baroque architecture of the Piazza Duomo is enough in itself, but then you look closely at the cathedral and spot the pillars that are vestiges of its former life as a Greek temple. You see a lovely little children's playground, then notice the Roman columns on the perimeter. Never mind if you can't stand the heat in the vast archeological park....the city's 2700 year old history is around you, and over you, and underneath your feet.
Do you prefer shopping to touring? You can find everything from upmarket clothing stores to kitschy souvenir shops to an excellent chandlery, right in the historic area of Ortigia. Hungry? You'll definitely work up an appetite during your walk through the daily market. With the vast selection of fresh produce and fish on display, your biggest problem will be deciding what to cook for dinner tonight. Try some pecorino cheese and experience true Sicilian hospitality at our favourite cheese shop, the Caseifico Borderi. If you have enough room left in your knapsack for wine, walk to the little enoteca near the Ponte Umberto and buy a very drinkable insolia or nero d'avola for the staggering price of 1.40 euro per litre (bring your own container). But save at least one evening for eating out. You can have a great meal at one of Siracusa's many trattorias or pizzerias without wiping out your cruising kitty and, even better, you're guaranteed to come away with some new recipe ideas. This week's favourite was La Tavernetta's Penne alla Siracusana...with olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, green olives, capers and bread crumbs...yum yum.
Friday was a banner day. We went to the laundry. If you've never lived for weeks at a time on a boat that has no washing machine, you may not understand what a big event this was. We hadn't seen a self-service laundry in a very long time, and our wardrobe choices were dwindling. The two large bags of dirty laundry that we'd accumulated since leaving Licata were hard to handle, but fortunately the laundry is just a few steps from the dinghy dock. Figuring I'd be there at least an hour or two, I'd brought along a book to read. Imagine my surprise when the attendant took both bags from me, asked me for 14 euros and said "Lo facciamo" ("We do it"). I was free! I spent the next two hours wandering through the market and the shops in Ortigia. When I returned to the laundry at 1 p.m., my laundry had been washed, dried and neatly folded AND the attendant gave me a euro fifty in change. Apparently it had taken less time to dry the laundry than he'd anticipated. If I'd ever had any doubt that Siracusa is my favourite city in the Mediterranean, I know if for sure now.
Each time we come to Siracusa, we meet interesting cruisers from all over the globe. This week has been no different, and we've had a busy social calendar. We've shared several lively evenings with Americans Stephen and Shawn and their friend Ross on Amaris and Jennifer and Mark on Starlet (who are cruising on a Nordhaven with their two very lovable dogs, Mitchell and Tory).
Then we spotted another Canadian flag in the anchorage and met Guy, a native of Montreal who has been single-handing on his Halberg Rassy 42 Blue Tang since 2006. Last night, Guy arrived onboard Aisling with a delicious plum cake that he had baked himself, using plums from the market. A new bar has been set. I just hope he doesn't lift anchor without giving me the recipe. My mother is going to love it.
Another neat thing happened yesterday. It started to rain, and things got a bit dark below decks. I pushed back the curtains to let in some light. Lo and behold, I had a view of the cathedral from the galley! What a difference a few new windows make. We'd grown so used to not being able to see through the crazed Lexan of the old ones that I'd lost the habit of opening the curtains. I haven't closed them since.
Every day we watch the weather in the hope of finding a window to sail up the Strait of Messsina. So far no luck. Rick says we might be stuck here for a while. Stuck in Siracusa? Things could be worse!
Nearly two thousand years ago, a ship carrying St. Paul to Rome was shipwrecked on a small island off the coast of Malta. It is believed that Paul remained in Malta for three months before continuing on to Rome, where he was eventually sentenced to death. As you might expect, it is this ancient piece of history that gave St. Paul`s Bay its name. There`s a statue of St. Paul on an island at the entrance to the bay, but if there is anything else of interest to see there, we didn`t find it. The area seems to be mostly given over to ugly tourist sprawl, and we can well imagine what St. Paul would have to say if he could see what goes on there now! So although we'd both been enjoying the pleasant change of being at anchor, we weren't too broken-hearted when a bad weather forecast gave us an excuse to head to Msida marina for a few days. Msida marina is located in a deep harbour on the northeast side of Malta, with the twin advantages of being very well-protected and just a short bus ride away from Valletta.
Things in Valletta haven`t changed much since we were here in 2009. In fact, things in Valletta probably haven`t changed much in several centuries, other than a bad patch during World War II, when the city took heavy damages. The old Opera House has never been repaired. The first two photos below show what`s left of it, with a rocking concert taking place (it was very hard to drag Rick away). The remaining photos are taken in and around Valletta.
There has been one big huge change in Malta since 2009 though. Back then, the Malta buses were an experience in themselves. With some classic models dating back as far as the 1950s, the orange, yellow and white buses were an institution. What they lacked in comfort they made up for in character.
But in 2011, the bus system was taken over by the company Arriva, and the old buses were replaced by modern buses. Schedules were changed. People were outraged. They haven't gotten over it yet. One man even went on a hunger strike. The free newspaper "Malta Now!" had a front page article raging about how the buses were driving the Maltese "round the bend" (in reference to "bendy buses" that are ill-suited for the narrow alleyways of Malta). One thing hasn't changed though. The bus drivers still race through the streets like maniacs. For a person like me, who has a hard time remembering to LOOK TO THE RIGHT it's nerve-wracking to be at an intersection when they fly past.
Our last excursion was to the customs office. Since we are not an EU boat, the rules say we must check in whenever we enter a new country. When we`d checked in at Mgarr in Gozo, they`d informed us that we also had to check out before we left. Since we were departing from Valletta, we'd have to go to the Customs office at the cruise ship dock, but oddly, we did not have to take the boat there. We'd been down this road before in 2009, and it was a long hot walk. This time, we took the elevator down and up the side of the cliff, which saved us a lot of time and effort. The promenade along the water was more attractive than I'd remembered, with lots of nice-looking restaurants and shops. Two enormous Costa cruise ships were at the dock. Looking at the size of them, it was easy to see why they've had some problems getting the Costa Concordia off Giglio!
It was an upwind sail back to Sicily, but a great sail nonetheless. With the wind backing slightly as the day progressed, Aisling sped along at nearly 7 knots for most of the way. Our "new" sail configuration is working beautifully!
09/20/2013, Siracusa Sicily
There are many wonderful things to be seen in Malta. Perhaps that's an excuse for the fact that, when we visited Malta in 2009, we didn't visit the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. We would probably have made a bigger effort had we known that inside were two incredible paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Back then, we really didn't know much about Caravaggio. Our interest in him began later, during a quick visit to Rome on our way back to Halifax last year. While we were waiting to check in at our hotel, we received a text from our daughter Katherine suggesting that we visit the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. The Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus face each other on opposing walls of a small chapel inside the Basicila. Although we'd already seen Caravaggio's Burial of Santa Lucia in Siracusa, these paintings were in a league of their own; so lifelike and gripping that they are truly unforgettable. The use of light and shadow, for which Caravaggio is known, was stunning. Later, we saw Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross in the Vatican Museum; keeping good company with works by Raphael, Titian and other masters.
I was quickly becoming a Caravaggio fan, but when I read up on his life it was a bit distressing to realize that this artistic genius had a reputation for violence, with a background that included killing a man during a brawl. As a result, Caravaggio was on the run for a good part of his short life. His path eventually took him to Malta, where he tried to redeem himself by joining the Order of the Knights of St. John. That venture ended with him fleeing from Malta after another altercation landed him in prison. How he escaped from a Valletta dungeon remains a mystery, but he left behind some of his finest works. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing are both hanging in the Oratory of St. John's Co-Cathedral. If we needed a reason to take the bus from St. Paul's Bay into Valletta, these were two good ones. It took us 45 minutes to get there and over an hour to get back, but it was well worth the trip (even though in the end, we moved over to Msida marina near Valletta the next day and could have saved ourselves a lot of bother if we'd only waited a bit).
The interior of the Co-Cathedral is itself spectacular; paved with multicoloured marble tombs and lined with glittering chapels commemorating the various "langues" (nationalities) of the Knights of St. John's. Even Rick, who has become increasingly less enthusiastic about touring churches, was dumbfounded. Seeing the two Caravaggios in the Oratory was just the icing on the cake. I'd seen many reproductions of both paintings, but standing in front of the original Beheading of St. John was an unforgettable experience. The canvas is enormous and the scene it depicts is riveting. This painting is regarded by many to be Caravaggio's masterpiece, and it is also the only one of his works that bears his signature (in the blood that flow's from St. John's neck!) Photography is not permitted inside the Oratory, so the cover photo above is taken from a postcard, but it will give you an idea of what we saw. Photography is permitted inside the Cathedral though, so the photos of the interior below are Rick's. (The photo of the St. Jerome painting is a copy that hangs in the Cathedral, with the original in the Oratory.)
Now we're at anchor in the harbour of Siracusa, the Sicilian city that Caravaggio fled to when he left Malta. If the winds cooperate, we might sail up Messina and see the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Resurrection of Lazarus (two paintings in which, thankfully, no one is having his head cut off). If the weather doesn't cooperate, we'll hang out here for a while and catch up on a few things. If we run out of things to do, maybe we'll wander back to Church of Santa Lucia and have another look at the Burial of Santa Lucia. And if we're still at loose ends, we're always happy to sit in the Piazza Duomo, drink cappuccino, and watch the world go by!
We're temporarily interrupting our China programming to tell you what we're actually doing now. You may be surprised to hear that we are in Malta. It's a bit surprising even to us, since it was a spur of the moment decision to sail from Licata to Gozo when the wind was in the wrong direction to head for the Strait of Messina.
But first I should fill in some gaps about Licata. It felt great to arrive back there on the evening of August 30th, after a 24 hour+ journey from Shanghai. Our new windows had been installed, and they looked great. Our salon table had been sanded and varnished, and it didn't look great. In fact, the centre piece had been badly damaged by overly-zealous sanding. I was too tired to worry about it, so just threw some sheets on the bed and threw myself on top. Oddly enough, Rick was wide awake and raring to go, but he had no success in convincing me to walk down to dock to see an art exhibit and hear the live music that was being performed in front of the marina bar. I didn't need to walk down the dock to hear the music. I could hear it perfectly well from my bed. It didn't keep me awake for even a minute.
Because of the window installation, things onboard were even more dusty and disorganized than usual, so it took us several days to get things back to normal. Then we ventured a bit further into the town and discovered that, once you get past the scruffy edges near the port, Licata is actually an attractive little place. The town square is lovely. The Bar Gambrinus has delicious and huge family-size pizzas for 9 euros, a friendly waitress who seemed to enjoy speaking to us in a mixture of French and Italian and a big-screen TV where we could watch Italy play Belgium. (Football of course; is there any other game here? Everyone was sad when Italy lost 3-1)
With all this at our doorstep, we might have hung around Licata for another week, if it weren't for the fact that the marina does not have potable water at the dock. No laundry facilities either. Correction, the laundry facilities have been in place for weeks, and maybe months; they just haven't been able to open for business because of some roadblock with the cumbersome Italian bureaucracy. "That laundry is very important to this marina." Maria in the office told Rick. "I pray every night that it will open." Our friends Gaby and Paul had better start praying too, since they plan to spend the winter there and I don't think they are going to be very happy about sending their laundry out to be done at a cost of over 25 euros for a small load.
So, as I was saying, we decided to head for Gozo, which is the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago. Like the larger island of Malta, it has lovely architecture and an interesting history, but it is not as crowded and busy as Malta. It took us less than 11 hours to sail there from Licata, although to tell the truth, it probably would have taken us three days if we'd actually sailed, due to an almost total absence of wind. Of course we did it the easy way and used the motor. Lots of traffic in the Strait of Sicily (and our AIS was down) but otherwise it was a completely uneventful passage. We were certainly grateful that it was calm when we arrived in Mgarr marina (pronounced M-jar) and saw the tight spot we had to maneuver ourselves into. Once we were settled in, it might have been very entertaining to watch the commotion that occurred every time another boat arrived, if only we weren't so worried about how we were going to get ourselves out of there when the time came to leave. (In the end, it was as easy as pie, but only because the marinaro took charge and towed us out.) Otherwise, Mgarr marina is lovely, with clean toilets and showers, potable water and (for a fee) wifi. The next day, we ran through 10 euros in water charges by washing everything in sight. Then we retired to the balcony of Gleneagle's (apparently the go-to bar for locals, sailors and tourists) to soak up the view with an ice cold Cisk, the local beer. Later, we had dinner at the neighbouring restaurant "Sicilia Bella", where the food was truly Sicilian (i.e. delicious). During dinner, we enjoyed the company of a young couple from Cardiff (who were disappointed to have missed seeing the Neolithic temples at Ggantija but admitted they'd never taken the time to drive to Stonehenge!) and two young Maltese men who were seated at the tables adjacent to ours. We walked away pondering how often we cross paths with people whose company we enjoy but whom we will likely never encounter again.
On Monday, we bought tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus and set out to see the island. The bus rolled along at what seemed to be breakneck speed, through narrow alleyways, under low stone archways and balconies, and past the fairy-tale spires of churches (including the one at Ta' Pinu shown in the cover photo). The scenery on the coast at Dwerja was gorgeous. In the island's largest town, Victoria (also called Rabat) we had lunch, bought a two-week data plan for Rick's phone (20 euros) and explored the Citadel. A highlight was a stop at the Neolithic temples at Ggantija, which date back to circa 3600 BC and are said to be the oldest freestanding stone structures on earth (probably about 1000 years older than Stonehenge). Remembering how badly Christopher and Katherine had wanted to see megaliths when they'd visited us in 2007, I wished they were there with us. Mind you, these megaliths don't, in my opinion, strike the same sense of awe as Stonehenge does, but it is still pretty amazing to stand in front of anything so ancient. Yesterday we left Mjarr and motored over to have a look at the Blue Lagoon off the neighbouring island of Comino. It was pretty, but too tight and crowded for us, so we continued on to St. Paul's Bay on Malta. We've got a large concrete jungle on the port side, and a smaller concrete jungle to starboard, but it's great to be at anchor, catching the breeze!