Sicily and Aeolians- Summer 2004.
leaving Catherine and Pietro and the Amalfi coast, we headed south
for Palermo, Sicily. Our only image of Sicily had come from the
Godfather movies: poor, and Mafia-ridden. Though
Palermo is undisputably poor (there are still uncleared ruins from
the Allied bombing during the Second World War), we found it to
be rich in character and history.
Our first discovery
was that the people of Palermo were incredibly hospitable. Upon
arrival, when we had difficulty finding a place to moor Akka, a
gentleman who spoke passable English offered to let us tie up alongside
his boat at a private marina -- then hooked up water and electricity,
jumping on some other boats and disconnecting them. "They aren't
really using it," he explained. Each time we asked for directions,
the person we were talking to led us out into the street to point
out where to go, and in one case took us to our destination, leaving
customers unattended in his little shop!
When we went
ashore, we noticed banners everywhere -- strung across streets,
hung in windows, flying from lightpoles -- with the name of the
local soccer team. We asked about this, and were informed that the
team had just made it into the Premier League of Italy, for the
first time in some 33 years. Everybody was pretty excited about
We were surprised
to learn that Palermo has a very rich history from the 11th and
12th centuries under Norman rule: Sicily was conquered by some cousins
of William the Conquerer, only a few years after 1066! The Normans,
who did not have the military strength to hold the island without
help from local factions, initiated a culture of cooperating with,
and borrowing from, other powers in the region. As a result, the
architecture is a unique combination of Gothic, Moorish, and Byzantine
concepts, that work beautifully together, sometimes with strange
results. The ceiling of the Palatine chapel, for example, shows
the Eastern influence in its depictions of sexual acts painted by
Moorish artisans, either converted to Christianity or at least willing
to work on Christian churches. One can only imagine the thoughts
of pius church-goers as they gazed upward in search of revelation.
buildings, similar in concept but differing in scope, are lasting
examples of the Norman period: the Palatine Chapel (Capella Palatina)
and the cathedral at Monreale. The floors are marble mosaics, the
lower parts of the walls are marble mosaics, the mid-level height
of the walls are different marble mosaics in geometric patterns,
and the upper walls, the pieces de resistance, are gilt and colored
glass mosaics. The gilt mosaics inside the Monreale cathedral cover
6,340 square meters! It simply glows in beauty. One side of the
nave is covered with beautiful, detailed depictions of the entire
story of the creation, Noah's ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. We particularly
liked the one of God resting, sitting on a sort of ottoman, or maybe
a rainbow, just doing nothing, on the 7th day. The mosaics on the
other side of the nave tell the story of Jesus, including lots of
miracles we're not familiar with, and the stories of some of the
apostles and other early saints -- Andi found Sta. Tecla! We were
blown away by the opulence and beauty: not at all like our austere
image of Sicily!
On the way
back to the city of Palermo from Monreale, we visited the catacombs
at the Cistercian monastery. It seems that in the 19th Century,
rich Palermans were embalmed by the Cistercians and suspended as
if standing, rather than buried (at least the men; the women were
mainly lying in coffins with glass sides through which you can see
their corpses) and there they are today. Most are skeletons, though
some still have some flesh on their bones and/or hair on their heads.
Really eerie, and a little disconcerting. Signs everywhere forbid
taking photos "out of respect for the dead", but you can buy postcards
with pictures of these same dead from the stand in front, within
2 meters of the Cistercian monks who are taking the $2 admission
In the Aeolian
Islands, we began to immerse ourselves in following Odysseus's travels.
This is where Vulcan lived, and also the wind gods who blew poor
Odysseus all over the place. On our approach to Vulcano, we sailed
through a period of extraordinarily changeable winds, varying in
speeds from 5 to 15 knots, and over nearly 180 degrees within a
few hours, making for many frustrating sail adjustments. The wind
gods are still in control! We visited just 2 of the Aeolian islands:
Lipari and Vulcano. Lipari has an extraordinary archeological museum,
tracing civilizations on the island back to 15 centuries BC. On
Vulcano, we climbed the volcano cone. At the top of the caldera,
the sulfuric gasses being emitted from numerous cracks were choking,
but the views were extraordinary. We could see Stromboli, the farthest
north of all the Aeolians. Its smoking volcano and the iery lava
that still low down its sides have served as a "lighthouse"
since anient times. Here on Vulcano, we also arranged to meet up
with our friends Tom and Vicki on Tempest, and, to our surprise,
also met 4 other US boats that had wintered in Barcelona with us!
of Messina separate Sicily from mainland Italy. They're where Scylla
and Charybdis hung out, either sucking down (Scylla) ships and sailors,
or eating them (Charybdis). In company with Tempest, we motored
through in light air, not seeing the monsters, but noting a strong
rip and a following current of 3-6 knots to help us on our way.
We anchored for a night below Taormina, a town we'd never heard
of, but which we found particularly lovely, with the best pizza
we had in Italy. Then it was on to Siracusa (Syracuse).
Sicily's SE corner, was Archimedes' birthplace and home town, and
Rob, the mathematician, wanted to pay his respects. He seems to
be in a distinct minority (does this surprise anyone?) as the tourist
information about Siracusa barely mentions Archimedes (although
several bars, shops, etc. are named for him). As it happens, no-one
is quite sure about just where Archimedes' tomb is, but it's reputed
to be at the Panorama Hotel. So we (accompanied by the ever-tolerant
Tom and Vicki) took a bus, then hiked about a mile in stifling heat
to find the Panorama. Its only panorama was the strip mall across
the street, but inside, in a courtyard, was a non-descript jumble
of stone blocks which are all that remain of the tomb. It was rather
a letdown for the non-mathematicians amongst us, but Rob took his
hat off to the great man, then bought us all cold drinks at the
air-conditioned bar that overlooked the site. We toasted, "Eureka!"
Eager to get
to Croatia, we sailed around Italy's heel and stopped in Otranto
to stage for our Adriatic crossing. Otranto is an old walled town
with an Aragonese castle -- those Spanish got around -- and a cathedral
with a gorgeous mosaic floor depicting a tree of life -- with King
Arthur at the top!
we took a bus inland to Lecce, a small gem of Baroque architecture
recommended to us by Catherine and Pietro. It's famous for its Piazza
de Duomo, described on a plaque: "Within the single courtyard, the
colonnades, the Bell Tower the Cathedral, the Bishopry and the Seminary
all seem to weave a refined and gentlemanly dialog, dancing together
in a delightful ring of roses that is one of the most beautiful,
theatrically set squares in the whole of Italy." The architecture
isn't the only Baroque thing in Lecce!
After one last
good dinner in Otranto, we were off to Croatia and two months of
cruising in the Adriatic.