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!