Sicily and Aeolians- Summer 2004.
After 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 it.

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.

Two remarkable 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 fee!

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!

The Straits 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).

Siracusa, on 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!

From Otranto, 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.