June 2002 : Italy




We set off from Greece full of anticipation for the big family reunion. The 280 mile passage was uneventful – the typical too much motoring and too little wind – except for the few miles of the strait between the Ionian islands of Ithaca and Cephallonia which we had decided pass through for the fun of it. Although warned by the cruising guide to expect accelerated winds in this strait, we were taken aback to find ourselves in headwinds of 25 knots from a flat calm within five minutes - having assumed that there must be some wind in the first place, for it to be accelerated. Now we know better! Both nights of the passage were busy with shipping – an extraordinary number of huge fast ferries ply between Italy and Greece, and then a large volume of coastal shipping around the south of Italy.

My anticipation mounted as we approached the coastal village, deep into the Gulf of Taranto in the ‘instep’ of Italy, where Sarah, Kate, their respective partners and children were staying. We were hoping that they would all be on the beach scanning the horizon for us – somewhat unrealistic since we hadn’t been able to give them an exact date, never mind time of arrival. However, the meeting was fabulous - everything I could have hoped for. We identified the beach, and there they all were – waving and shouting. Sarah and Mark swam out to the boat as we were anchoring. We dinghied ashore to greet the rest of them – slightly more than expected – Kate had a little surprise, not exactly up her sleeve – due in October! It was a brilliant time. We berthed the boat at the nearby marina in Sibari – very comfortable, but idiosyncratic – rivalling Bristol for inconvenience as a base for sailing! Uniquely, in our experience, the marina entrance requires a pilot to help navigate through an exceptionally narrow and shallow shoal-ridden entrance channel. Even so we went momentarily aground on entry! It didn’t matter - although it was a shame not to be able to take the family out for a sail. On the one occasion we tried, waves were breaking at the entrance and the pilot gave us the thumbs down.

The week passed much too quickly – days spent lazing on the beach and evenings out guzzling sumptuous Italian food and wine. It was early in the season and restaurants were generally quiet – until the eleven of us showed up, creating our own rather Italian ambience with four kids up late, running around! There was also the World Cup. We joined the locals in a bar to experience the local atmosphere as Italy beat Ecuador in the early rounds. We created a ‘piccolo Inghiliterra’ in the same bar for the England v Argentina match – an excessively jubilant and rowdy occasion! We hadn’t quite realised the extent of Mark’s football fanaticism! I could of course go on forever about the adorable brilliance of the grandchildren – but I’d better not! Suffice it to say that they are a pretty good reason for heading back home.

Although Italy is a place very familiar to both of us, it was a joy to be there. The fabulous thing about Italy is how incredibly Italian it is! The landscape of rolling cultivated hills, neat vineyards, olive groves, golden hay fields, interspersed with tall dark green cypresses, hill-top villages of red roofed houses and domed churches is just exactly how Italy is supposed to look – the image made so deeply familiar from glimpses of landscape in Renaissance paintings. The people too are wonderfully according to stereotype – almost caricatures of themselves. It would be impossible to overdo an impression of the Italian accent and mannerisms!

It was sad for me to watch Villapiana disappearing into the haze as we left Calabria – but we had Sicily and a visit from Chris’ brother Richard to look forward to. We had expected good winds for this 200 mile passage – the first time in ages that the prevailing winds should have been on our side. However, yet again more motoring – except dramatically for the 30 miles or so crossing the Golfo di Squillace where we ‘enjoyed’ an excessively boisterous beam reach in 30 knots during the first night. The guide warns that this bay is noted for such conditions – on each side it was flat calm – caused by katabatic winds. It apparently lives up to its name – but unfortunately as we still don’t know what ‘squillace’ means we can’t really comment! Rounding Cape Spartivento to head across the southernmost tip of Italy towards Sicily, we were rewarded just as the sun was setting, by the hazy sight of Mount Etna. No red-hot gushing lava flowing as we’d hoped – just a few puffs of smoke around the crater peak. We arrived into our destination of Riposto at around 2am – a night entry complicated by the absence of any of the three charted harbour lights – or anywhere obvious to berth.

The following evening Richard joined us hot off the train from Naples. The plan was for a leisurely cruise down the east coast of Sicily – perfectly suited to a landlubber who would probably prefer more time ashore than at sea. It began well. Riposto is a good little working town – devoid of tourism and very pleasant in a scruffy sort of way – with an inspiring fish, fruit and vegetable market. Its main attraction for us was its situation at the foot of Etna. We spent a couple of evenings sitting in the cockpit with our sparkling Italian wine, gazing out over the town and the lazily smouldering volcano towering behind, tantalising us with its potential to burst into spectacular but destructive activity any minute. From Riposto we took a bus to Taormina – undeniably stunningly situated and gorgeously picturesque, but totally overwhelmed by tourism – souvenir shops, bars, restaurants and hoards of people wandering its quaint streets – a sort of permanent Christmas shopping frenzy – such a shame. However, Richard cleverly found a delectable restaurant with a delectable view and treated us to a superb lunch – exactly the right thing to do here, capturing something of the atmosphere of how the place must once have been, for grander tourists than us on their ‘Grand Tours’ in the nineteenth century. Next day we moved on – 12 miles down the coast to the picturesque fishing port of Acitrezza. The fishermen were very much in evidence – and not particularly pleased to see us idle yachties taking up their wharf – and so were crowds of local weekend trippers – a very buzzy little place indeed. After an interlude in a bar to watch the England v Denmark match – and what a good surprise that was – we took a bus to the small town of Mascalucia in the foothills of Etna, which was holding its annual patron saint’s festival that day. We took up position in a bar beside the church, to observe the goings on, and were soon joined by members of the brass and woodwind band waiting for their next spot in the programme – the ‘Uscita’ of the saint. They were a fascinating sight – a disarming combination of Sicilian swarthiness with dangerous dark eyes, slicked down hair and shades, and a rustic wholesomeness with their chubby red farmers’ cheeks! Through a considerable language barrier we managed to strike up a reasonable conversation with them. Amid a mad cacophony of bell ringing, in competition by now with the band playing, the ‘saint’ emerged from the church doorway – a statue of St Vito carried shoulder high under a decorated canopy surrounded by handkerchief waving ‘fans’ – a strange apparition with a ‘bubble perm’ hairstyle and knickerbockers. Confetti bombs and fireworks were let off and the saint was processed around the town. We had to catch the last bus – so missing out on whatever other fun might have followed.

After this, the city of Catania - a wonderful revelation - "...a large grimy industrial harbour surrounded by unattractive buildings…." is the unpromising description in our cruising guide, and it is not even mentioned in our ‘Lonely Planet’ of the Mediterranean. We consider it a gem. After a major eruption of Etna in the1660s, followed by an earthquake in 1693 (a combination of events which must have been even worse than blowing a head gasket!) the city was rebuilt to a grand Baroque scheme – elegant public buildings, palazzos and churches in a grid system of grand streets and piazzas. Now though scruffy and dirty – the epitome of faded elegance - the original scheme is intact and unadulterated by anything more modern – almost like a film set. Add to this an exceptionally lively nightlife – outdoor bars, restaurants and music burgeoning all over the pavements after 9pm - we considered it a pretty good place to be stranded. Our only problem was the heat. Midsummer in Sicily is stifling anyway, but much of this city is built and paved in blocks made from lava – obviously in plentiful and accessible supply. Unfortunately, lava has all the properties of night storage heating but without the possibility of being switched off.

Our last port of call in Sicily was Syracuse another 30 miles down the coast – perhaps a little disappointing. The famed Greek and Roman remains were definitely not enhanced, in our eyes, by being set amid an area of run-down 1960s housing blocks, and the Baroque city seemed a little lifeless after Catania. After two days we departed from Italy bound for Malta. This was an overnight passage with good sailing – and not without its excitement. Coming up for my watch at about 1am, Chris reported that he’d seen a fair amount of shipping after leaving the coast of Sicily, and so had the radar on. It was a very dark, moonless night. I saw only one or two ships during most of my watch, but towards the end, keeping an eye on the radar, observed a large echo which seemed to be approaching us. As it approached within what should have been visual range, I could see no sign of it at all. After ten minutes I called Chris, and the ship – or whatever it was – appeared on the radar to pass behind us. We speculated on the nature of this clandestine vessel, and I went off watch. About an hour later Chris came to fetch me – having realised we were in fog! Not so dense that we couldn’t see the end of the boat, but enough to entirely obscure ships less than a mile away. With two echoes close behind us on radar, we radioed an ‘all ships’ warning of our presence. Both ships responded advising us to hold our course. Fifteen minutes later we started to emerge from the fog bank and saw the three navigation lights of one of them, passing down our port side some way off. Scanning around for the other, we could see nothing – until what looked like a break in cloud, then a loom of light, followed by a row of hazy white lights rising up out of the water like some extra-terrestrial apparition – the spookiest thing we’ve ever seen. As the fog cleared completely, this transformed itself into an enormous brilliantly lit cruise ship about half a mile off our beam.