Monday, 1 September 2014

Around the bottom of Sicily

We could have gone up the east coast of Sicily, past smoking Etna and glamorous Taormina, through the straits of Messina (again), into Milazzo (again) and then followed the north coast to Palermo. That would have been the sensible thing to do. Rod Heikell in his cruising guide recommends that a yacht take the north coast route if it is travelling from east to west. We usually do what Rod the God says.

Sunrise from the anchorage in Grand Harbour, Syracuse

Instead, we sat blissfully at anchor in Syracuse harbour for six days, buffeted by the hot damp southerly wind known as the sirocco, and somehow talked ourselves into the south and west coast route. It wasn't only that we had no appetite for revisiting Messina or Milazzo - though there was that too. We didn't have much appetite for the anchorages of the Aeolian islands either. Remember Vulcano and Lipari? We do. Without an engine. No, it wasn't just bad memories. It was also that there was more to see from the south coast. Or there seemed to be. Cruising in the Med is a fine balance between seeing what you want to see, and enjoying the sailing. Sometimes you can't have it both ways.

The 4th cent BC Greek theatre in Syracuse

Natural wonder used for unnatural purposes in ancient Syracuse

Alex had his reservations, something to do with adverse current in the channel between Sicily and North Africa, and the prevailing wind coming from the south-west, but I had the map marked with exciting circles. The baroque cities of the south-east (Noto, Modica, Ragusa), the 2nd century Roman mosaics near Piazza Armerina, the Greek temples at Agrigento and Selinunte, Masala, the salt pans of Trapani and the Egadi islands. Really, how difficult could it be? It was still summer, and the weather was looking very settled.
Pastoral Sicily

The harbour at Sciacca on the south coast on a quiet night

Well, quite difficult actually. From a sailing point of view, that is. The rest worked out just fine. I think Alex forgives all on account of the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale which cover over 3500 sq m of flooring in vast summer house made up of four separate apartments (not to mention fountains, courtyards etc). Whoever owned this "retreat" in the mountains of central Sicily - and it's not clear, though perhaps an emperor - was rich beyond common imagining. Something like the sheiks of Dubai. I think we've seen more finely executed Roman mosaic floors, but nothing touching the scale or ambition of those at Villa Romana del Casale. How many more Roman villas like this must there have been? Imagine this guy's place in the capital! The floors at Villa Romana del Casale survived because a landslide buried them under 10 m of mud in the 12th century.  Serious excavation began only in the 1950s.

 Alex has photographed them in a disarming sepia - I like it. It gives you the detail without the problem of glare distorting colour. I start with a few plain colour photographs however so you can see more or less what we saw from the walkways suspended above the floors.

What's left of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigente
Back to the water. For the sailors among you, it's probably enough to say that from Syracuse to Palermo (where we are now, tied to a pontoon in the commercial harbour), we had either headwinds or no wind. We used the motor a lot. That's frustrating. The swell in the Sicily channel is considerable too. It would have made more sense for us to go to Malta than Marina di Ragusa on that first day. We would have had a great sail to Malta. As it was, we put up the small jib, and tacked along the south coast to Marina di Ragusa. The water is surprisingly shallow along that stretch, less than 20 m a couple of miles offshore, and the chop is brutal when you're sailing close-hauled into it.  It wasn't the most fun we've ever had on a boat. Coming into the marina at 7 pm, our depth sounder showed 2.8 m. There's a problem with silting in the entrance. The Greeks would have known that. They were building big cities in the south of Sicily 2500 years ago. It's thrilling to visit the fragments of that civilisation by land, as we did, but perhaps even more so to see the temples of Agrigente and Selilunte from the sea. That we did too.

Far more complete - the Temple of Concord
Contemporary bronze of Icarus at the east end of the Temple of Concord

Her Greek wedding

Her first Greek temple

That was another reason for us taking this route. We wanted to take a look for ourselves at Marina di Ragusa and Licata which in the past few years have become magnets for liveaboard cruisers, basically because they offer the cheapest winter rates by far. The price we were quoted for six months in the water at Marina di Ragusa this coming winter was approximately one-third of what we paid at Netsel marina in Marmaris last winter. That's hard to argue with.

Silver coins minted in Syracuse in 4th c BC (and below)

Syracuse coins showed the head of the water nymph Arethusa

Antique jewellery - one of a pair of gold earrings from ancient Syracuse

Our conclusion? We wouldn't by choice stay in either marina though both have good, efficient staff and facilities which do the job. It's the towns which let them down. Marina di Ragusa (the summer resort town 20 km from the much lovelier city of Ragusa) is bereft of two of life's essentials - good food, and decent chandleries. Licata has a lot of attitude. I'm not sure I could cope with it. It's dark, and a bit creepy. A tough town. Very Midnight in Sicily (the title of Peter Robb's book on Sicily, for those who haven't yet read it - do!).

At home in Licata

Mainstreet Licata - umbrellas lift the mood

The menfolk

Modern virgin

Evening drinks in Licata

We rented a car from Licata. I don't know where it came from. The marina office organised it, thankfully. On our evening stroll about town we didn't see one rental car office. Nor did we see an ATM on the street. That put me on high alert. Licata probably isn't the kind of town where you can safely take out money while standing on the footpath. There's a wariness in Sicily, for sure. In some towns you feel it more keenly than in others. The lack of trust. Something about the way people look at you. Sicilians don't have much of a sense of humour, says Alex. They've been invaded too often.

Sciacca street life (and below)

Seen in Noto
What they do have is great food, and magnificent historic buildings which are planted amongst some of the ugliest, dreariest townscapes you can imagine. Eating well in a museum, that's what we're doing here. The food market in Syracuse takes some beating, and in fact, we may well have to accept that Syracuse cannot be beaten on many levels. But Palermo is still to come. In every town there's the likelihood of thrilling new tastes. Fresh spaghetti with vongole in Piazza Armerina, almond granita in Trapani, locally brewed beer in Noto, grilled raddichio in Ragusa....ah, the taste bud sensations.

So easy to love...grilled vegetables

An abundance of peaches

Anything cold will do 

These won't fit in the fridge

Swordish and tuna on the slab

More of that caponata, please

Sicilian buildings emerge from the rock of the island. The public ones took the shape of the invader of the époque. Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman, Spanish. Sicily's is a hybrid culture. Domestic architecture seems uniformly grim and grimy, a reflection of endemic poverty. Whole towns turn their backs to the sea from which the invaders have always arrived. Individual dwellings too present a closed face to the street, but often a glimpse through an archway into an interior courtyard or, on a sticky hot night, through an open door into a simple room where family sit around a kitchen table, hints at a contained world within.

Chiesa Madre in Sciacca - the Normans started building it in 1108

Same town - Catalan Gothic circa 16th century

Same town - touch of baroque about the old gate

Sicilian baroque (a short burst of dazzling inventiveness at the end of the 17th century) is difficult to translate, even in photographs. Noto, the most famous of the Sicilian baroque towns, feels a little like a theme park. So much splendour all along one street. As you look at the massive churches and palazzos - at once playful and regal, elegant and ostentatious, exquisitely ornamented and soaringly proportioned - you have to wonder (as you do today) at the ego-centricity of wealth. It exists for itself. The poor be damned.

The apricot glow of Noto cathedral - poster duomo for Sicilian baroque

The approach to Ragusa

 Ragusa cathedral dome at eye level

This time from the front - Ragusa cathedral
Modica is famous for dark chocolate - and grand churches

Modica town - no space for the workers

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