E from aboard 2012 - 9
Pictures with this "E"
Much later in the day than usual on Tuesday September 25th we again set off on our travels. The train took the strain of taking us up to Gatwick airport to catch our booked flight at 05.55 the next morning. Our 00.15 arrival at Gatwick would have allowed us a couple of hours sleep on a bench before checking in and taking a leisurely Café Rouge breakfast with buck’s fizz before boarding the three hour flight to Corfu during which we would continue our sleep. But the Greeks in their wisdom felt that another strike adversely affecting their vital tourist industry is the best way of helping their ailing economy. Our flight was thus delayed for nearly three hours giving us five hours to pass on an airport bench before enjoying our customary buck’s fizz. Perhaps we are getting a bit old for such antics?
Other than that unwanted delay the journey was uneventful and we were soon boarding CGIV in Benetses just a ten minute taxi ride from the airport. We had arranged for Vliho Yacht Club to deliver her there from Vliho to save us trekking south only to board her and trek north back to Corfu; a gain to us of around three days.
On a beautifully clear and sunny, if windless, following morning we motored north to Gouvia marina to provision up, re-fuel and, hopefully, formally check out of Greece for our trip into Italian waters. The hopefully bit included an allowance of just the one night in the marina but that was dashed by the discovery of half a tank of fresh water in the bilges. The cause was the heating element VYC had fitted for me as I did not have the special spanner it required. We were again going to need the services of a plumber. That could easily have meant a four or five day stay at exorbitant marina daily rates whilst we hunted one down and got the job done. This was not the start to our trip that we hoped for, in fact nearer to a continuance of where we left off in July. Depressing or what?
But our luck changed the next morning when I bumped into Argyris Tangalidis, an Albanian chap who had serviced CGI a decade before and who now kindly lent us the necessary spanner. The leak was soon fixed, provisions stored, fuel taken on board, spare gas bottle refilled and departure managed with one minute to spare before the 14.00 hours departure deadline to avoid another day’s marina charge. There still being no wind we motored at a leisurely pace up to Aghios Stephanou with it's stirring views cross the narrow straights to the Albanian mountains beyond. It purports to be a bit of a snobby British enclave but is charming nonetheless.
The pattern of fine weather and no wind continued for the next two days during which we motored round the north end of Corfu to the island of Othoni and anchored off overnight before continuing on to Santa Maria di Leuca on the heel of Italy. CGIV had now been motored for 160nms without the sails seeing the light of day, fortunately at minimum cost in such calm conditions.
After an expensive (€68) night in the marina of this dead and alive but mostly dead, hole, we pressed on to Crotone sailing a meagre 21 of the 72nms. It was a largely great sail with the wind set nicely just abaft the mast. However, a couple of hours of the ten hour trip were not so pleasant. Dark clouds, that had been seen just after dawn hovering somewhere over our intended course, decided to rush towards us at an estimated speed of 80mph and then embroil us in a very nasty squall that, fortunately, did not drop its evident large quantities of rain though did produce wind of up to 40 knots blowing for all directions and a nasty sea to boot. The subsequent wind being on the nose the attendant sea practically trebled our fuel consumption for the leg and at the price we were going to pay to refuel in Crotone, the cost was estimated at €105.00 or about €1.10 per nm motored. We don’t want too much of that, thank you Aeolus.
And in Crotone came yet another irritation. Wifi and Internet access is not readily available to visitors in Italy. Where it is, you may have to produce your passport, the details of which are noted and checked, before they will sell you time; I emphasise, sell you time. Compare that with Greece or the UK for that matter where it is readily available in most cafes, bars and tavernas, generally free of charge. Many Greek local authorities have taken to supplying free access to wifi for their whole district. Nonetheless we finally found a café that would allow us access with no charge as long as we sat inside away from prying eyes. But it was so so slow; it took us an hour to do what we would have done in ten minutes at home, and the UK government are demanding even faster broadband speeds. Wake up Italy or join Greece and Spain in the economic doldrums.
After a day of recuperation in a not unpleasant town and marina (€25 per night) we re-fuelled at €1.895 per litre (allegedly Italy is the most expensive country in Europe for fuel) and pressed on the 68nms to Roccella Ionica and its sleepy marina set as it is 3kms from an equally sleepy little town on the otherwise stunningly attractive mountainous coastline of the Italian ‘ball’ of its ‘foot’. We need to remind ourselves to NOT take such beauty for granted; an almost inevitable tendency when you see so much of it.
Ionica marina accepts all sizes of yachts but its finger pontoons are just not up to holding larger yachts such as ours as the broken or missing fingers confirm. And after a decade there is still no power available though those responsible insist it is ‘just down for maintenance’ and will be working again soon. We’ll see next Spring if we come back this way.
Sicily, our principal target, was now just a day away and we were keen to get there. So after a day of rest involving a coffee at a local café in town and the purchase of some white onions, brilliant for a chicken in wine dish, an enjoyable evening spent with an American couple (she is ex-Scottish actually) over a very average pizza in the marina cafe, we decided to ‘get there’ despite the lack of wind and the expected 70nm motoring session. It was a picturesque day, cruising along to the ‘toe’ with the attractive countryside just a mile to starboard and the weather calm, clear and sunny. There was even the occasional passing train on the line that follows the coast, almost on the beach, to warm the cockles of an anorak’s heart.
After a short sail whilst crossing the straights of Messina we anchored at the northern end of Taormina Roads (bay), under the majestic display of Taormina itself, perched precariously as it is several hundred feet above us atop the near vertical cliffs, and, just a few metres away from Taormina railway station with trains passing every ten minutes or so. An anoraks’ heaven or what?
The following morning we drifted the mile or so down to the southern end of the Roads and moored up to Naxos quay. Bikes assembled we circled round the bay to find one of the advertised ‘frequent buses to Taormina’. It might help if they told you where they started from! Eventually we found a bus stop they stopped at and padlocked the bikes to nearby railings; crime in Italy is rife, particularly in Sicily. After just a few minutes wait the bus arrived and a gem of a driver welcomed us aboard. He was helpful, kind, comical and patient. He had to be as when we stopped at the station to pick up more passengers, we were there nearly ten minutes whilst he advised and sorted out a party of American tourists who wished to board the bus. Our next stop was even more bizarre; some Italian passengers enlightened us tourists. “Per vista. Per vista” they called out while we looked on mystified. Then we realised the bus had stopped so we could take in the ‘vista’ along the coast from where we now were, high up on the mountainside. He waited whilst folk disembarked to take photos. I cannot see a scheduled bus to Newton Abbot doing that for holiday makers.
Like many major tourist attractions, much of Taormina’s charm is hidden behind the façade of money grabbing tat shops and hoards of largely unappreciative ‘kiss me quick’ dressed visitors from all over the world. Being early October the crowds were far less and we were able to enjoy the beauty of its architecture, particularly the houses on the main street, each with their Romeo and Juliet balconies upon which one can allow your romantic imagination to run wild. Even the tat shops playing their CD wares of ‘the best of traditional Sicilian music’ helped the atmosphere particularly when playing extracts from Verdi or Mozart operas. I was not aware that Mozart or Verdi were Sicilian; I must look that up when we get home?!
And in the centre of the town, perched on a promontory with all-round views of Sicily’s coast, are the magnificent ruins of the Greek theatre, later adapted and extended by the Romans. It seated around 7,000 residents, treating them to plays and entertainment of the day. Most know that with the clever design of such theatres all were able to hear what was said even sitting ‘in the gods’ as upper reaches of a theatre are still called. And the magical views they had of the Sicilian coastline and Mount Etna above them must have added greatly to their enjoyment (see photos).
But we had slipped up as that was on Saturday which, even in Sicily, is followed by Sunday and on Sunday everything shuts. Our cupboards were not bare but the basics of bread and milk were spent. We managed to buy a loaf of bread in Taormina but were unable to find anywhere selling milk, fruit or veg on the way back to CGIV. So we changed our plans again and motored gently down the coast the 25nms to Catania Sicily’s second city. The weather remained bright, calm, sunny and windless though with a hint of decreasing atmospheric pressure. Nonetheless the day time maximum was 32ºC and the overnight minimum which had slipped back to 19ºC held up at 24ºC presumably as a result of the increasing cloud cover.
The day’s enjoyment of the calm sea and picturesque coastline was enhanced by a yacht race with its contenders stretched out over many miles in the light airs. I grabbed one of them on camera with Etna in the background (see photo). Reflecting on Etna brought to the fore that the coastline was formed by the edge of lava flows not all of which were from the long distant past and the beaches were generally black or dark grey as they were also formed of volcanic ash. Sicily is pretty densely populated and one briefly wonders why man chose to live under shadow of such danger. Perhaps the answer is fairly obvious; volcanic emissions make for very fertile ground and early man knew that. The need for food would have been a strong driving force in where they choose to live. Latterly man’s ingenuity has used Etna’s emissions in other more economy based ways; cutting the lava into blocks and using them to build buildings and pave roads and pavements. A very hard wearing surface it is too if very uncomfortable to ride bikes along. A fact we were constantly reminded of as we juddered our way along such streets. They lay the near square blocks in a diagonal pattern to counter the effects of earthquakes; or so we are told.
I haven’t been in an earthquake since 2005 (Zakinthos measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale and we were just half a mile from the epicentre!) and am yet to experience a volcanic eruption. Come on Etna, you’ve got about three weeks to give me one or both!
The Eyewitness travel guide waxes eloquently about Catania whilst the Italian Waters Pilot is less complimentary. Certainly it has history and pretty brilliant architecture to boot. But that is in the old town. The new city is a sprawling cacophony of ghastly, loud, high-rise buildings of little if any architectural merit. The old town buildings we encountered on our brief cycle tour on Sunday afternoon were dirty, grubby, unkempt and uncared for as well as being covered in graffiti, a well known and all too visible downside of Italianate society. Fortunately Monday’s expedition produced better results and a warmer impression with Piazza Duomo and its magnificent cathedral whilst still dark with its lava stone paving and some walls, being nonetheless full of life and colour. Taking a 2km ride from there up Via Etnea let us see how the buildings can look when restored. The university buildings built apparently in sandstone and surrounding their own piazza were quite magnificent and the buildings on either side of the road, whilst needing a clean up, were equally attractive architecturally and the roads largely pedestrianized and clean. Perhaps the Eyewitness guide has it. Just.
The ride up the hill was quite exhausting but necessary. We were hunting down the terminus of the Ferrovia Circumetnea a metre gauge railway that runs round the slopes of Etna as its name suggests. But that is for tomorrow.
Free wheeling back down the hill we found our second objective for the day, somewhere to re-provision. We were looking for a supermarket as one does; instead we found a rambling street market that covered it all. Kitchen roll, sparkling water, milk, butter, cheese, bread, chicken, fruit and veg were all found in abundance. What a shopping delight it was when compared with pushing a trolley round a supermarket. Such atmosphere, such characters and such choice cannot be found in our so called civilised way of shopping. Italy has a winner in this.
Our trip on Ferrovia Circumetnea (FCE) was everything we hoped for with some extra if bizarre surprises. It is privately run and the advertising we had seen as well as the guide books we consulted gave the impression of it being what we would understand as a heritage railway. It is far from that.
From the timetable we had obtained we decided the 11.08 was the best train as it ran the whole way round Etna from Catania Borga to Riposto. From Riposto we would be able to take the mainline train back to Cantania Centrale so we rode the bikes to the latter and caught a bus from there to Bora. We allowed too much time for the stuffy bus ride arriving at the FCE termini by 10.00 so partook of an excellent glass of refreshing home made Freddochino (crushed ice, rich cream milk and strong espresso coffee) at €1.50 each in the station cafe. Whilst enjoying that we decide to take the earlier 10.34 train which terminates about a third of the way round the line, then wait there for our scheduled train.
Our first surprise was the fare, just €7.50 each for the 110km trip. Our second was that 90% of the passengers were locals using it as a normal service train. Like excited school children we stood on the platform waiting for our rickety old fashioned single carriage diesel railcar to arrive (see photo). As it did an altercation could be heard in the station yard. All the locals swiftly left the platform to witness the event and comment appropriately. We meanwhile boarded the train and picked our seats.
On leaving the termini the climb began, at first steeply through the suburbs of Catania and then through the lava flows, ancient and more recent, that are numerous and evident on this side of Etna. Regular stops were made at passing stations and simple halts at which our local passengers alighted and boarded. This has to be the noisiest train ever ridden on being more like an ancient charabanc than a train. It has a three-speed gear box with each gear change clearly audible and a lurch felt on the engagement of the clutch. What fun.
Then came our third surprise; the train dived into what quite clearly was a modern tunnel and stopped at what anyone would recognise as an underground metro station; no more than five years old was my guess and fitted out with modern lighting and colourful glazed tiles. It was at one of these our helpful guard advised us to disembark to await our next train whilst enjoying the delights of the town above. A long haul up several flights of steps brought us back to the sunlight, regrettably in the midst of a barren suburb. No delights to enjoy here! But we did see the track of the original railway and were able to deduce from the posters in this ultra modern station that this whole line is being developed into a modern metro. After that anorak Smiff saw many other indicators of huge, on going, investment.
That was at Adrano. From there the train steadily climbed through more sparsely occupied areas to Bronte and Roccacalanna, the highest point we were to reach at 922m (over 3,000 ft). The views were absolutely magnificent both down and across the volcanic landscape and further upward to Etna’s quietly smouldering peak (see photos).
Strangely Bronte seemed to house the local school as we were invaded by more kids than the little train could seat. It was not pleasant as they were extremely loud, raucous and full of testosterone; most rode the train for the next 20kms before normal service was resumed and relative quiet returned.
The roll down and round the north side of Etna was quieter as the train was free-wheeling most of the time as it passed through much lusher countryside with many more villages and small communities but strangely less station stops. After almost four hours we drifted into FCE’s Riposto station, laid as it is alongside the mainline station.
The purchase of our ticket for our return to Catania had to be from a machine as the booking office was closed. The fare was €2.85 each so a €10 note was poked into the machine’s grabbing mouth in settlement of our bill. It spat it out; three times, until another expectant purchaser spotted the Italian script on the machine stating it eats nothing larger than a €5 note. The fares are cheap but that is ridiculous!
Wednesday October 10th dawned as every day had so far on this trip, sunny, warm and with a clear sky. After a final ride into town to buy a few bits from the market and check the weather et al at the seedy little Internet shop, we headed for Siracusa, Syracuse to us Brits. It is only 30nms but it rapidly became one of those trips that confirms my passion for this sailing life has waned considerably. It is difficult to quite understand why but it is undoubtedly so.
We tried to sail in what was, as we left Catania harbour, a perfect F3-4 breeze but Aeolus had other plans. He swung the wind constantly so it came from all points of the compass and at strengths varying from 2-15 knots. Sailing such winds is impossible so the sails were furled and we motored. Again! Several times during the trip we tried to sail to no avail as the one constant debilitating factor was the small choppy sea set firmly on our bow. There is just no pleasure left to be had from such conditions even when you know your target port is probably going to be the highlight of your trip. Another major rethink on CGIV’s future is required.
Syracuse’s old town started its life as an island that was latterly joined to mainland Sicily by a short bridge; the gap between the two is called the Canal. Its streets are a mixture of volcanic rock paving and various types of polished marble. The buildings are similarly built of various stone with some brick infill. It clearly was and still is an extraordinarily wealthy town despite its minimal size of about ¾ of a mile by ½ a mile. The principal buildings are huge and heavily decorated with carvings, statues and every other embellishment it is possible to give to stonework. It must have had an abundance of exceptional stonemasons for most of its life. Syracuse puts Venice into the shadows; it is far more beautiful and certainly far better maintained. And it has atmosphere, partly from the visitors who wander around in awe of its beauty and perhaps in part because of the pride of the Sicilians who live and work here and the street musicians who quietly add to the splendour. Judy has fallen in love with Syracuse and wants to return; I have no problem with that. Enough; hopefully the photos will give some indication of what we saw and enjoyed (see photos above).
After one night on the town quay, which is free of charge, we moved by the Guardia as a cruise ship was due. That meant the nearby marina where we spent two nights at a cost of €60 per night. If it had been anywhere else but Syracuse we would have just left. But such cost rankled when reflecting on the berth in Ragusa we had already paid for that was only 60nms further on. Unfortunately the forecast weather had changed in one serious regard. Thunderstorms. One passed through on Friday but with little rain and not too severe winds. We decided to move on despite them, always a risk but a calculated one this time. We were only going 30nms and that was along the coast with a couple of shorter options to dive into if the weather got really nasty. So at 09.00 on Saturday after purchasing bread and paying the marina we set off in drizzly rain and a desperately dark horizon; motoring of course. The wind was more or less as forecast, light and westerly, though with a bit more south in it than would have enabled us to sail. It rained fairly heavily for around three hours though with no sign of lightning in the evident thunder clouds. Then the sky lightened and the rest of the trip was in sunshine filtered by the middle range cirrus nimbus cloud.
We had made it round the last cape on the south eastern tip of Sicily and decided to overnight at anchor in Porto Palo, the most uninteresting of ports with absolutely nothing going for it other than it is fairly well protected. It is stuffed full of trawlers, most of which swing on laid moorings making it impossible for any visiting vessel to safely anchor under the lee of the breakwater. We could have pushed on to Ragusa but, thankfully, decided not to.
We dropped our anchor about 30 metres from the nearest laid mooring and backed away from them inline with the easterly wind thus allowing, or so we thought, for the unlikely eventuality that the wind would swing from its then (and forecast for the next 24 hours) easterly quarter. We had 25 metres of chain in the water in less than a 5 metre depth. Short but at a scope of five it should have been adequate in all but a hurricane.
Supper was prepared and left on low to simmer gently whilst we listened to a BBC radio play Judy had recorded before leaving the UK. As the play finished we both felt rain in the air and proceeded to walk round the boat shutting all the hatches. As gentle rain pattered on the deck we both headed for the cockpit to see whether it would be enough to wash the boat down. As I reached the cockpit and Judy was still in the companionway all hell broke loose. CGIV swung violently to port, then starboard and moved of at great speed broadside on to a sudden onslaught of hurricane force westerly wind. It was so strong it blew her right over on her beam. I hung onto a winch and the cockpit table whilst Judy was supported by the companionway she was still in. The sea was instantly high with white spume tearing across its surface and the screaming noise of the wind’s strength was deafening. I expected to be thrown into the sea as CGIV reached the end of her anchor chain and lurched to a halt. I wasn’t but as that happened her bows turned into the wind and that got under the bimini. One of the restraints snapped and it immediately began to fill like a sail, its tubular framework bending under the force of the wind. The fabric should have torn and the tubes bent or snapped but miraculously they did not, partly because I had dropped the boom on top of the bimini to stop it moving in the light swell and thus creaking; a normal routine that paid unexpected dividends here. We both watched this and the flag staff holding our beloved two-yarder ensign, bending beyond the point at which it should have snapped. Surprisingly it didn’t either.
Whilst CGIV had now righted herself we were still in deep trouble as the anchor had dragged putting us in amongst the trawlers’ laid moorings. Whilst the anchor had reset we were swinging back and forth and in danger of striking the metal buoys or other boats quite violently.
After the shock of the initial few seconds, a minute maybe, I realised we needed to start the engine and try to hold our station as best we could. We did and for nearly an hour the wind was rarely less than full gale or more with a sea to match, amazing in a harbour albeit one with a fetch of over a mile. I could never have imagined waves of over 4 metres in such a place but we had them! Going on deck to retrieve and relay the anchor or make safe the bimini was not an option. Wet weather gear, lifejackets and harnesses were donned and with the instruments now on, we waited for the storm to blow through.
Whilst this was a particularly violent example of a thunderstorm at sea, they normally only last a few minutes, maybe half an hour; this one was having none of it, still blowing in excess of 40 knots after 40 minutes, a severe gale and all that time I was on the helm being painfully pelted by the torrential rain it was driving. Despite the 25ºC temperature, I was getting cold and shivering, an added danger; hyperthermia dulls the brain’s ability to think clearly and act promptly.
The added fear was that in dragging the anchor, albeit not very far, we would have picked the tackle of a laid mooring making the lifting of our anchor a near impossibility. As the wind died down to a steady force 7, around 30 knots, we decided to give it a go. Judy, bless her, went up on the fore deck, pitching up and down violently as it was, to take off the anchor restraint and then try to raise the anchor. Harnessed on to the rail, she managed it but as feared we had picked up a line spanning between two fish traps. We swapped roles, Judy on the helm trying to keep us still while I got the line off the anchor. It came off surprisingly easily in the circumstances. We again swapped roles and I selected a new position for the anchor and backed down towards the laid moorings laying out a total of 60 metres this time!
It was a very frightening experience but we coped with it well. We avoided all the other boats and dangers and suffered no serious damage at all, just a snapped bimini restraint. We were both a little shocked so a lovely mug of hot tea was brewed as we stripped off our soaked through clothing and donned fresh dry alternatives. By the time the tea was ready the wind had gone and we were sitting, calmly, in a rapidly reducing sea. The whole episode last just on an hour.
It took another hour to put the boat back together; it is surprising what breaks loose and flies around when you nearly capsize.
The forecast for the following day was for a light easterly breeze which if delivered would have been perfect for a last sail for the year 30nms along the south-eastern Sicilian coast to Marina di Ragusa. It was not to be so as the wind was light and from the south west.
Arriving at a new destination is always exciting and the first impressions of the marina as we approached were good. The entrance breakwaters were constructed in a way that should offer the best possible protection to what is a very large basin. The depth along the whole coast was rarely more than 20 metres even when more than three miles off; on entering the basin the depths dropped dramatically to just 2 metres. As we draw 1.65 it had me holding my breath.
We were met by a rib whose marinero asked if we had a booked berth. We answered “yes, foxtrot 09”. He led us round the pontoons and assisted us backing into our berth in the relatively tight gap between the rows of yachts. Each berth seems to have ample space to swing around if and when winds get up. They did the following night. A blast of 50+knots on the beam soon tested the adequacy of the two lazy lines attached to our bows and the steadiness of the floating concrete pontoon to which CGIV would be attached for the next six and a half months. CGIV suffered no damage in either storm; others were not so lucky (see photo). We were reassured about our choice of port.
The marina is large at 723 berths and we guess about two thirds full. What was surprising is the number of American yachts here. We were used to seeing a few American charterers in the Med for two week holidays but almost never a whole gaggle of American retired couples sailing as did we from Spring to Autumn before returning home for the winter. Some here stay all winter (see photos).
The marina is new, finished in 2008 and more or less empty until a discount drive this year changed that. Surprisingly it has no designated storage areas ashore yet it does have the necessary lifting dock and travelling cranes one expects in a marina that stores as many boats ashore as in the water. Other facilities are modern and, on early judgement, well run. There is a very nicely appointed café bar that has a happy hour every evening and puts on cheap meals several evenings a week. We ate and drank there on our second night having a simple but refreshingly tasty fried aubergine strips topped with an onion and tomato sauce followed by a simple tomato based savoury meat sauce in cannelloni and finished off by a choice of ice cream, all for €18.00 (£15.00) which may have been a bit undercharged as it covered only three glasses of wine whilst we had had six, or perhaps that was part of the happy hour pricing?
Two nights later we joined in a Progressive Supper; a supper where you choose to prepare a starter, main or dessert for yourselves and four guests: we chose to do a main course. All participants met at the café at 6.15 for pre-dinner drinks and at 7pm were told on which boat they were having a starter but not who their fellow guests were. At 8.15 the main providers, us, depart to their yachts to await their four unknown guests whom you then feed and latterly progress on to dessert in a similar way. So through the evening we met six different couples of various nationalities; in our case six Americans, four Brits and two Kiwis.
As time progressed we began to realise just how small our previously considered large yacht was in comparison with many here. 60 footers are common, many of expensive breeding; Oysters in abundance and not a few Trintellas, either of which would have cost three times what CGIV cost per foot of length. There are some truly rich people here.
On Friday October 19th we hopped on a bus back to Catania and picked up and overnight ferry to Naples, arriving there at 08.00 on Saturday. Having been warned of the endemic petty crime culture of Naples we split our money, credit cards et al into different parts of our two pieces of baggage, being a rucksack, the usual wheelie bin hand luggage and our pockets. Sticking to the main roads we walked the 3kms from the port to Statzione Centrale adjacent to which is Statzione Garibaldi from where we caught the metre gauge train to Pompeii Stavi, a rickety 40 minute ride away through the disgustingly dirty and evidently poor suburbs of Naples in a fairly decrepit electric train that was decorated more by applied graffiti than the private operating company’s livery. Despite having some beautiful if poorly maintained buildings and some grandiose streets, one being over a kilometre of our walk, Naples’ reputation and poor development control of its more modern buildings, damns it to be a city not worth a return visit.
Pompeii Stavi station is busy. Each of the frequent trains from either direction disgorge hundreds of tourists into one of Italy’s better organised attractions. Yes, touts are trying to sell you organised tours almost before you have taken breath but in a manner that seems both acceptable and helpful. We were greeted with “Buon giorno, you can leave your bags in the secure store in the station. Do you wish to see the ruins first or would you like a safari trip around and up Vesuvio?” “No thanks, we have booked a hotel” I replied politely. “Oh, which hotel?” I told him and immediately he responded with “Ah the owner, he is here, I will fetch him for you”. And he did to. Guiseppe joined us and immediately took our bags, put them in his car and drove us the half-a-mile to Villa Franca. It was by pure chance that he had popped down to buy cigarettes and was delayed chatting to his mates. He swiftly sat us down by the pool and made us coffee served with a couple of very fresh croissant for which nothing was added to our bill. He advised our room was not quite ready and that dinner was available if we would like it. We were so impressed with the warmth of the initial welcome that we decided on the spot to dine there.
How do you describe the remains of a city that was buried in ash not lava and thus largely preserved intact other than the roofs which collapsed under the weight of the ash. The roads and pavements are as they were when last used by its residents. Most of the walls and columns are still upright. Many mosaic floors are as they were when last walked, and, even more remarkably, many of the wall decorations are still extant. They are of course 2,000 years old and not perfect; neither would your walls be after that length of time. The whole place gives you a feeling of walking a living city that has just suffered a catastrophe and thus, on rounding the next corner, you will bump into a toga wearing ancient Roman. Sadly we didn’t though did see plenty of evidence of what happened to them (see photos).
They are not actual bodies though some have bones and teeth in place. They are casts made from plaster poured into voids as they were unearthed during excavation of the site. Excavation continues to this day as more than half of the city is yet to be uncovered.
Judy was enthralled by the place and I was not far behind this being my third visit, the first of which was in my childhood. It was quite moving to find the long street I walked with my parents more than fifty years ago and remembering how I then marvelled at the completeness of some of the street-side shops, that served the residents their breakfast of bread, fruit, wine and honey. We used a guide this time and it was a good move. His verbal input added greatly to our enjoyment and my amusement when he told us the ‘breakfasts’ were designed to upset the participant so their next stop would be at the vomitarium. I say no more.
Dinner at our little B&B hotel (the Italians advertise them as B&B) was an absolute delight. It was family food prepared for us and our fellow guests; eight American students, two Brits with their granddaughter and one Australian market trader. The photos do not do it justice. The flavours were quite brilliant.
The next morning we arose refreshed and suffering no consequences from the copious quantities of their homemade wine we had consumed with dinner. The breakfast was almost as large and included fruit juice, yoghurt, croissant and cold pizza as well as the obligatory coffee. Italian coffee is undoubtedly the best.
After that we packed our bags, paid our meagre bill and staggered back to the station to deposit the main bag in the secure room (€3.00) before boarding the bus for our safari trip up the slopes of Vesuvius. Whilst the volcano is dormant the trek to the top to peer into the depths of the now silent crater was entirely justified and worthwhile. No photographs can capture what the eye saw and the spirit experienced. A couple are included nonetheless.
The next few days were spent putting CGIV to bed for what is likely to be a long winter lay-up. We have booked the berth until April 30th next year and are unsure what our plans will be anyway.
The forecasts for our final three days were far from good; a rapidly falling barometric pressure, thunderstorms, heavy rain and little, if any, sun. Fortunately forecasts are often wrong. The pressure fell alright but we heard precious little thunder and enjoyed plenty of sun even if there was the occasional light shower. This was particularly important for Sunday and our half hour walk to the bus stop with all our bags to catch the 13.00 bus to Ragusa, a 30 minute trip and then the 13.55 from there to Palermo, a four trip.
The timings were as provided by the marina being copies of the separate bus companies’ timetables. Unfortunately the AST timetable for the onward leg to Palermo was wrong but fortunately the driver must have known that as he sat waiting for us to cross the road and walk the length of the bus station to discover his bus was our bus. He departed at 13.30.
The journey was both interesting and conversely, somewhat boring. Much of the journey was on roads that would have felt comfortable in the outlying districts of rural Devon; twisty, winding, narrow and steeply graded: our speed rarely bettered 30mph for the first two hours. But the scenery was interesting if largely unspectacular. Rolling, dry and dusty sandstone mountains between which flat agricultural valleys lay where grapes, vegetables, fruit tress and olives grew depending on the height. As we neared the north coast of Sicily the mountains became more spectacular and as our bus descended down through the granite and other rock formations for the best part of an hour on the autostrada we began to appreciate just how far it had climbed up the more gentle slopes of the sandstone mountains.
The bus disgorged us at the central railway station. It is right on the fringe of the Old Town and according to our booking our hotel was just a half a kilometre walk away. After half an hour of walking in ever decreasing circles searching for Via Alloloro, allegedly a main street, we found ourselves trekking for the third time further down Via Victorrio Emanuelle one of the principal streets of Palermo and busy as it was with traffic and pedestrians. The pavements were narrow so I walked in front of Judy lugging the large hold bag whilst she followed close behind pulling both pieces of lighter wheeled hand luggage. On taking yet another right turn in the hope of finding Via Alloro I again turned to check all was well. She was not there. I retraced my three steps to look back up the main road. She was not there either. In some panic I hurried 50 metres back up the main road to find her prostrate on the ground in the last side road surrounded by locals and the two bags. She had been mugged.
She was bruised, in pain and badly shocked. Two youths on a Lambretta had crossed the road through the moving traffic and aimed straight at her. The pillion passenger made a grab for her shoulder bag and hung on to its strap. But Judy had wisely put her jumper on over her bag. The net affect was her being dragged off her feet whilst hanging onto the strap that was cutting into her neck. He let go and they disappeared up the side road. The whole incident probably lasted less than five seconds. They were probably amateurs if there is such a petty criminal. Professional thieves would have either tackled her with a blade to cut the strap or not bothered as it was too risky and unlikely to succeed.
The incident coloured our judgement on Palermo and perhaps Sicily and Italy as a whole.
On the Monday we continued as planned to explore the two parts of Palermo’s Old Town. By the time we had walked the northern sector I was searching for the right words to sum up our feelings. A sea of filth into which one or two pearls had been dropped probably sums it up. The southern sector contained a few more pearls in the form of beautiful buildings but was still filthy; its streets caked in litter with piles of bagged rubbish at frequent intervals and so much graffiti it was hard to see the buildings beauty anyway. The pavements are narrow and largely blocked by parked cars forcing one to enter a contest with the heaviest traffic ever seen for ownership of the road.
The cathedral examples the greed the Catholic Church can show; such magnificence being at the expense of the poorest? Nonetheless the cathedral was magnificent and clean. Whilst the evident opulence and cost always worries me in such places, it was beautiful with just a little touch of humour to make me smile rather than scowl as one photo shows. Behind an alter is not where one expects to find a loo complete with posh attendant. However, we shall not be returning to Palermo.
And so, after travelling 490nms on this trip and 1,235nms in the Spring, 1,725nms in total on CGIV, She has been put to bed and we are home and pleased to be here. Our travels will continue but perhaps much less so on CGIV. We shall see.
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