A Timeless Odyssey

Allures 45 (a thing of great practical beauty)

Western Med Blog 12 (Down the ‘shin’ of Italy, the Aeolian islands and touch and go in northern Sicily before returning to the Aeolians and going through the Straights of Messina)

From Salerno we headed for Acciaroli, allegedly Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite place in Italy and where he visited after recovering from his injuries in Milan, after being a medic for the Italians who fought in the First World War on the side of the allies (yes I learnt something there). There is even a bar named after him there but other sources say he never visited the place! Heikell, author of the Pilot’s guide, sums it up: ‘it doesn’t matter, it is such a nice place that there is no doubt he would have loved it’. We sat out a big blow with some angry seas that made the entrance of the harbour nigh impassable at the height of the blow. The centre of town was pedestrianized and full of quaint shops. A good place to hole up for a storm.

Veronica had planned to go back to the UK for 6 days to see Tayo off to 3rd year university so we needed to munch some miles and in any case Centraro in the middle of the shin of Italy was the only shelter so it was an easy choice. However, it was a pretty dire place and we barely went ashore. It is nonetheless good shelter and a good jumping off point for the Aeolians. But we were not going to Stromboli yet as we had made a plan to leave the boat in Vibo Valentia. CAptains mate and other sources had excellent write-ups about Angela’s Stella del Sud marina. We were not disappointed. We got there a day early and leisurely packed up the boat. We caught the Intercity train back to Naples and Tayo picked us up at Gatwick. It was good to see the kids again and to catch up with friends hosting a braai at home.

The boat was in sound shape when we returned 6 days later. We stayed two more nights and then set off for the 40NM crossing to the active volcano, Stromboli.

It was an interesting crossing, we saw flying fish for the first time since southern Spain, also dolphins, and then a swordfish breach in front of us. Sadly later we heard this panicky flapping behind the boat. It turned out to be a turtle which was very exciting as we hadn’t yet seen one… but we had been motoring at the time and were worried that it had got caught in the prop. The flapping stopped and the turtle seemed to swim away. We were quite devastated by the prospect that we may have injured one of these special and rare reptiles. I am rather hoping we did not and it was just stunned and disorientated. Very shortly afterwards, we saw another turtle off our port side so they must have been a mating pair.

We arrived at Stromboli and found the buoy boy, Ando, who organised a mooring buoy for us. They also offered a water taxi service, so we arranged a 18h30 pick up with the intention of going into the main town however it turned out that he was taking a crowd of tourists in his high speed RIB around to the other settlement Ginostra, on the other side of the volcano.

It was a stunning little village, a place where you turn back time. It had however been affected by the Tsunami caused by the collapse of the scree slope around the corner when, in 2002, Stromboli got out of its small once every 15 minutes eruptions mode and let a big one go. The scree slope collapsed into the sea causing a tsunami. We had a very pleasant walk amongst prickly pears and well constructed paths that wound upslope among cottages and overgrown yards. We came across a helipad complete with spot lights and a generator which we concluded must have been constructed in the event of an immediate evacuation been required due to an eruption. In fact during our meal in one of the two restaurants in the slopey village, we heard a loud explosive sound which was just Stromboli letting off steam and fire again! No one else seemed to have noticed! After a lovely candle-lit meal and local wine, we made our way back via cellphone torch back down to the harbour and sat among the other Italian tourists waiting for Ando to return. On the way back, we motored along the fiery side in the dark. Ando slowed down, but we were unlucky to not have seen an eruption. Ten days later when we returned with John and Sharon, and did a night sail past, on a stunning evening, and we saw 3 eruptions before struggling to find Ando’s sidekick, Luigi, to arrange us a buoy. Although on this occasion it involved a lot of driving the boat around in circles in the dark with a spotlight on the bow seeking out, and trying to avoid, laid buoys, mostly comprising plastic bottles or cans, wondering whether Luigi was ever going to show up. All of the Aeolian Islands present challenges for anchoring and shelter due to steep sides and paucity of shallow water.

Perhaps best to say here that we did a few days in the Aeolian Islands before picking up John and Sharon on mainland Sicily and then making our way back with them to the Islands. Rather than doing a chronologically ordered account I will start at the Northern coast of Sicily and then discuss a few brief highlights of the other Aeolian islands we visited.

We arrived in Capo D’Orlando on 19 September and John and Sharon arrived from London via Palermo, pretty wacked after a 2:30am start and an early Easy Jet flight. We went to a local pizza place for a catch up meal. The new marina was impressive but not quite finished and it was expensive. However, I did manage to negotiate a reduction for the second night. There was a hooligan blow forecast for the 20th so we wisely decided to take a day train trip to Cefalú. It was well worth it as the old city is beautiful and we did the rather strenuous walk up to the 2000BC temple of Diana and onwards and upwards to the spectacular castle at the pinnacle of the hill. From there, there are stunning views of the harbour below and the roofs in the old town. The tumultuous sea and the views out to the Aeolians made the scramble and slog a worthy one. All in all Cefalú is definitely worth a visit.

The next day we had a very satisfying sail back to Isola Vulcano, this time choosing Porto di Levante on the eastern side. There was better shelter from the swell but the nearby submarine fumaroles bubbling sulphurous gas were at times a bit of a bug. We went to visit the Volcanology museum and were hosted by 2 enthusiastic students from an Italian university. All of these islands are monitored, in particular the active ones Vulcano and Stromboli. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt were that the sulphurous mud baths and the gas leaks at the anchorage we were in, were the result of what the student described as an ENI/AGIP mistake. Basically my interpretation was that the oil company had drilled a well here to investigate geothermal energy potential, which is a source of heat to make steam to generate electricity and which is exploited widely in the African Rift valley and New Zealand. The borehole was probably drilled before the technology was refined and it was not abandoned properly, leaving a bubbling mud spring that is now a tourist attraction. You can pay €3 entrance fee, to smother yourself in grey mud with all sorts of apparent health benefits that seemed far outweighed by the list of counter-indications.

The next morning, having climbed to the crater on my previous visit, I stayed on the boat and John, Sharon and Veronica set off for the slog up to the smouldering crater. It is a walk well worth doing, not just to see the crater but also for the views across to the other islands. [Note…don’t take up metal/flask water bottles else you will be drinking sulphur-smelling water as the steel absorbs the sulphur!] In the afternoon we sailed the massive 3NM across to Lipari and docked at Lipari Yacht Haven, a very salubrious name for what was basically a pontoon off the beach. However, the guys were super helpful, had special stretchy mooring ropes for the not insignificant hydrofoil wash and there was water and electricity…. luxury.

In Lipari, we hired a 44-year old Renault version of a mini-moke and drove it around the island. The northern part was for a century or more, the world’s only source of pumice stone. The quarries are closed now and have unfortunately left a bit of a white scar with rusty hulks of conveyer belts blighting the landscape. The roads were tortuous and we descended like participants in the Wacky Races cartoon, wrestling with the steering as our creaky-open-yellow-piece-of-antiquity made it’s way to the village on the western side of the island. Much of that coast had been affected by the Tsunami from Stromboli but it had a quaint dilapidated feel to it. Well done to John who braved a swim! It was not the water that needed braving but the crossing of the boulder-strewn beach. From there the road snaked up to the highest point where there were stunning views to the western islands and vineyards producing the local and much celebrated Malvesa wine.

Late in the afternoon, we headed for Panarea, the island to the north, between Lipari and Stromboli. We snuck deep into the anchorage that we had been in previously, dropping the stern anchor, and braai-ing some excellent local Dorada fish in the most stunning setting, surrounded by black volcanic walls and overlooked by the ruins of a Neolithic settlement. In the morning we woke to inclement weather, thunder and rain. Little were we to know that this was the start of two weeks of intermittent thunderstorms, lightning and scary stuff. In the beginning it was interspersed by nice days but after we went through the Straights of Messina, it became more persistent and frankly, a dampner. On this morning in Panarea, the weather cleared by mid morning and Sharon and Veronica took the highly recommended walk I had done on our previous visit to the main village, which is stunning and similar, with all-white architecture, to Santorini. The island also only allows golf carts and scooters. John and I sailed the boat around and anchored off the village and joined the ladies for lunch.

That evening we set off, timing our departure so that we could arrive on the fiery side of Stromboli as it got dark. We were blessed to see a few eruptions. The next morning we awoke to a vicious and scary thunderstorm. As we saw it approaching, we were counting the seconds between the lightning and thunder and had one scarily close strike, I reckon into the side of the mountain/volcano 500m or less away…….goose pimples. The weather then cleared and we had a fantastic sail, reaching the 40NM to Scilla (of fame from Homer’s Odyssey) on the Italian mainland side of the entrance to the Straights of Messina.

Scilla was to be a little unexpected jewel. We took a buoy from Giovanni… it was €30 and with his numerous family sidekicks, they provided fantastic value for money. They water taxied us back and forth to the quay. From the boat the village looked like a ramshackle slum. Once ashore it was an enchanting maze of pedestrian alleys with cave-like bars and restaurants full of charm. We had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the straights. It was a charming Italian restaurant with a Fawlty Towers touch to the service. Our wine was delivered to the adjacent table twice and there was much bumbling lost in translation stuff. But, somehow it was enjoyable nonetheless. The morning saw us walking along the adjacent bays beach, climbing and touring the castle to enjoy the expansive views across the straight to the westernmost corner of Sicily. Scilla is a quintessentially southern Italian fishing village, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time.

That afternoon we set off to tackle the straights of Messina and headed for Reggio Calabria on the mainland side. It is thus appropriate that I quote from Homer’s Odyssey....." And all this time in travail, sobbing, gaining on the current, we rowed into the straight - Skylla to the port and on our starboard beam Kharibdis, dire gorge of sea salt tide. By heaven! When she vomited, all the sea was like a cauldron seething over intense fire, when the mixture suddenly heaves and rises" Book 11 translated by R Fitzgerald. In antiquity, the passage through the straights was considered perilous and extreme. It is one of the very few places in the Med where you have to worry about tides and tidal currents. We had waited for the south going tide after noon. Interestingly the whirlpools marked on the chart are caused by a salinity difference. Water rises rapidly due to the density contrast but also due to the shape of the bottom. The less salty, warmer, Tyrrhenian sea versus the cooler saltier Ionian. We saw some swirling but no actual whirlpool although it may develop into one at spring tide.

Reggio was nothing to get excited about, we were sent to the new visitors pontoon at the end of the harbour and passing a Red Cross tent for refugee processing on the quay was an ominous sign. John and Sharon went to see the famous Greek statues that date to 5BC, The Riace Bronzes. We scampered that afternoon for Taomina. At first the wind did not play ball and as we crossed the ever widening straight an ominous thunderstorm developed. We ended up motoring amongst thunder and lightning, my absolute worst for sailing, crew all down below and me on autopilot and standing away from all that was metal. The rain was heavy and the visibility was poor at times. It went on too long but eventually it began to clear and we arrived in Taomina, a little shaken and stirred. We called George who we had read about in Captain’s Mate. George was away but his Aussie sidekick Terry there on one of the best maintained buoy fields I had seen in ages. Terry was super helpful with information and taking a stern line to a second buoy to keep the boat nose into the swell. Taomina is like the French Riveria of Italy, most famous perhaps for the impressive Greek Amplitheatre. It is set on a steep hillside high above the bays separated by the Isola Bella. There is a cable car up from the beach to the town but we took the bus and did a day long bus tour that took us along the coast and up tortuous switchback roads to Forza d’Agro and past the impressive Castello Saraceno. We reached the turn around point for the bus at Savoca, the hill top village made famous by virtue of the fact that it was the location for the wedding scene in the Godfather movie. We visited Bar Vitelli that has “dined out” on the fact that it was in the movie, ever since Francis Ford Cappola was making the film there in 1972. It is a place worth visiting and we did a very interesting walk around the narrow flagstone streets and among the old houses and churches that cling to the hill.

We stayed 2 nights on the buoy before heading for Riposto. Terry had warned it was expensive but we wanted to do the narrow gauge Etna train. He had also given us excellent advice not to do the whole loop around the base of Etna. It is not exactly the base because the train does climb to 900m at its highest point. Etna is 3329m high. We went to 700m above sea level and spend about 4 hours exploring Randazzo, which has an old town built almost entirely out of basalt blocks. We did a walking tour that took in several churches, old alleyways and deep Sicilian culture. On the train on the way there we could see the paths of recent (last 10 000 years, I am guessing) lava flows. Apparently Madonna (not the singer) stopped a lava flow from engulfing Randazzo in the 1600’s, well that is what it said on a plaque below a statue in a square. It was an enjoyable outing and impressions of the train trip were of the lush vegetation, extensive agriculture in the super fertile volcanic substrate, past hard work to build the proliferation of stone walled terraces and the simple life.

From Riposta we headed straight to Syracruse. Captains Mate was for once highly confusing in terms of which the best location was and the procedure for getting permission to enter the harbour, anchor or use to the Town quay. We ended up going into the Lakkios marina on the eastern side due to the reports on price and the promise of ablutions ashore. It was a mistake and we should also know better than to get lured onto the first pontoon with waving arms. We stayed two nights before going to the town quay for 3 days. We had a total of 5 nights in Syracruse basically waiting on weather. For two days we were beaten around by the swell coming straight into the Lakkios harbour. The weather was on and off rain and the last 3 days on the town quay were interspersed thunderstorms and torrential rain at times. All in all the weather was challenging but despite this, 5 days was not too much time to spend in Syracruse. We went to the Greek and Roman theatre and the inspiring Latomia del Paridiso, with its lush vegetation and man made caves, one of which is known as the Ear of Dionisio. We also visited the Archimedes museum (he was killed in Syracruse) and the tunnels/catacombs below the city among many other things. A cruise liner visited the town for the first time and the Gardia Costaria chased everyone from the anchorage and onto the town quay. Which with people waiting out the poor weather got crowded and turned into a bit of a yachtie’s shindig. John and Sharon left for the second part of their Sicilian sojourn by car. They had unfortunately not been blessed with great weather during their time on the boat. We had had been spoilt with great weather most of the season but I guess it was getting late in the year and in fact, all the boats on the quay we heading somewhere to wind down for winter.

On the recommendation of the aforementioned Aussie, tenderer of George’s buoys, we stopped at Marzameni, a staging stop before our final run around the southern most corner of the island and onto Marina di Ragusa for winter. It was a good recommendation and an old tuna factory village had been restored and was brimming with eclectic restaurants and other shops. We could have stayed another day and explored more on the bicycles but there was a weather window of sorts the next day.

Our final sail of the season was to be a tester. We waited until 11 to leave, timed for when the wind backed. We started in barely enough wind to sail. The wind was backing as we rounded Porto Parlo and started going west. The wind came around abaft as predicted but it built to nearly 25 knots and as we went around the corner we headed into a large, long fetch swell from the west, over printed and steepened by the strong wind chop from the east. We had left with another boat, a 40ft Beneteau with 2 guys on it. Incredibly at this stage they had not reduced sail at all and they turned back, in my opinion a questionable tactic to go to the weather in those conditions. We had 37 NM of these kind of conditions, although the wind did drop later. We had just about every combination of reefs and sails up and down but the good news was that the boat was mostly doing over 6 knots. Remarkably with only 6 NM to go we went from being poled out downwind to sailing 34 deg on the apparent wind; a wind shift that happened in the space of 10 minutes.

Marina di Ragusa, MdR to the wintering over crowd, was a pleasant surprise. We spent 3 ½ days there, taking all the sails and canvas off the boat, getting some canvas repairs done and generally preparing the boat for winter. We made excellent progress on this and managed to have a full afternoon and evening off to take the bus the 23km up to the baroque town of Ragusa. It is dramatically set on the ridge between 2 deep limestone gorges. It is a must visit place with incredible architecture and narrow alleys and staircases. We also discovered the friendly and organised “wintering” crowd at MdR. They have a regular morning radio call on VHF 77, welcoming new boats, announcing what is going on the social calendar, etc. We went to the happy hour on the Tuesday night and were almost sorry we were not staying for the winter. We lifted the boat on Wednesday 11 October and flew home that evening from Catania. It has been a fantastic season of sailing and I pinch myself every time I think how blessed we are to be able to do this. There will be a final blog a bullet point summary of highlights and features of the Western Med season.