Afer our lovely passage from Lakka in the Greek island of Paxos, we made our first landfall in Siracusa (Brits call it Syracuse). This is a gem of a place and was a fantastic host city for our first trip in the Princess to a new country and our first week as true live aboards, staying at anchor without the comforts of marina life. No air conditioning! Would I sleep, I asked myself?( The answer was yes).
The anchorage is amazing, because it is vast. Cruising these waters in August, we had expected to find a similar situation to Greece with every convenient anchorage packed tight with charter boats. This was the first difference that struck us on crossing the Ionian; there are far fewer charter boats, and even in August at the height of the season there was ample space to anchor here. The holding is in mud, which is apparently quite loose. Once we pulled up the anchor we did find a section of the chain had changed colour from lying for one week in it. Our 55 kilo Rocna anchor, however, was more than up to the job and we felt perfectly secure throughout the whole week. We did see one catamaran drag gently backwards on her anchor and had to alert the sunbathing wife on the bow who promptly called her husband from his trip to shore(and refused to switch on the engine until he was on board for some reason). There is some confusion about the rules regarding the coast guard. Various reviews had advised calling the Guardia Costiera to ask for permission to anchor. We tried calling them on channel 14 but like other sailors who had left reviews on the anchoring app, Navily, received no response. Nor did we hear a peep from the Coast Guard until five days later when a boat came around and ordered everybody to move a few metres further up the harbour. We never understood the point of this manoeuvre, as there was certainly ample space for a large cruise liner to pass into the city (and only a small liner was in town). We did debate whether the bored guards were playing some kind of aquatic chess game with anchored boats. This anchorage gets big thumbs up from me for combining three important qualities in addition to good holding; nice breeze over the bow during the afternoon, not too rocky and rolly and plenty of space around us. It would have been possible to go stern to alongside the quay side for free also, but the music from one particular bar on the town was particularly loud, and we found the anchorage was a lovely relief from this.
What can we say about the town? Syracuse is split into two parts; the island of Ortegia which comprises the old town and the “new town” Siracusa; also packed full of historic buildings, including the Archeological Park . It is a wonderful town, packed full of history and combining the charm of the medieval labyrinthine alleyways with amazing baroque churches. The cathedral in the town square is worth a visit even for those not interested in history.
Its structure was originally a Greek doric temple and it has incorporated the ancient columns into the nave of the church itself. As we would often see in sites around Sicily, it takes you on a trip through history, incorporating classical, Norman and baroque elements. The Neapolis Archeological Park in Syracusa is the site of both a Roman and Greek amphitheatre and one of the key points of interest is the contrast between them. The stunning ancient Greek theatre, built in the 5th century BC is superbly well conserved and a wonderful demonstration of the importance of location to classical Greek theatres, with spectacular views looking out over the bay. The Roman amphitheatre was a marvel of engineering whereas the Greek theatre was built harmoniously into the landscape itself, or rather out of it, the seats being carved directly from the limestone of the hillside. When we visited, it was a baking hot day (and we sensibly got round to visiting at the hottest point of the day, English tea time). We were all happy to escape the heat in the wonderful natural grotto called “The Ear of Dionysius”, a blessed oasis of greenery and cool. Ortigia, the cathedral and the park are all a UNESCO world heritage sites. I find myself collecting them!
Visiting the market is always a great way to get some local flavours and colours of the town and a little piece of foodie heaven. We visited on Julie’s birthday and had a birthday dinner with her at one of the restaurants specialised in sword fish and tuna, local delicacies. I learned that Primo Platti are pasta or carbohydrate dishes that you should eat first (primo) followed by Secundi Platti, the meat or fish dish which is served without accompanying starch. I went for two dishes from the Primo Platti menu; pasta for starter and pasta for main. I staggered back to the dingy without so much as a gelato for dolce.
Riposto and Etna
We left Siracusa for Riposto to visit Etna. Riposto is the only marina to speak of on the west coast of Sicily and it cashes in on its unique situation. We nick named it “Rip-off-stow” ; at almost 200 Euros per night for a marina which lacked the glamour and facilities of Gouvia, this was definitely an indulgence, and the diesel was extortionate also at 1.79 Euros a litre. The town itself is nothing touristic and this is its charm; it is a bustling, working town and if you are lucky enough to visit it by foot, it is a very lovable. The bustling market and fishmongers are wonderful, everybody is friendly and you are far from the touristic bubble. Be prepared to try to communicate with whatever Italian words you know! We met up with Chris here who had finally managed to get away from Greece, having waited an extra fortnight for a delivery from a Greek courier company, Mondial. He had the sense to buy fresh tuna in town, which he then barbecued on board and told us was delicious. However, avoid the town by car. Driving is not the most pleasurable activity in Italian cities which were not designed for transport wider than a moped. One way streets and tiny cobbled alleyways combined with the Italians’ disdain for using indicators but their love of the horn make for a stressful driving experience around the town.
Renting a car is a great way to visit Etna from Riposto nonetheless. After much hesitating about booking guided tours (much easier to do from Catania) we opted to drive up to the south station, Etna sud, and to see what was on offer from here to visit the summit. On route we stopped for coffee and pastries at the delightful little mountain town of Zafferana. We were lucky enough to make our impromptu visit on a Sunday morning when the whole village seemed to be sitting out in the sunny village square (presumably after church). They even put a brass band on for us!
Once at the station on the south side of Etna, we took the ski lift and jeep to the summit of Torre del Filosofo, where a guide took us on a 45 minutes’ walk around the crater’s edge. At almost 3,000 metres altitude, we were happy to have brought jackets. The bright Mediterranean sunshine had been replaced by a steely, grey atmosphere created by the various minor steam eruptions which were permanently taking place around us. In terms of the light and need for wrapping up warm it reminded me of summer holidays in Wales! We amused ourselves by taking pictures as if we had hiked all the way to the summit. In fact Simon had complained that his toe was hurting on the walk from the car to the ski-lift, some 300 metres.
We finished our day with a drive to Castelmola, a tiny, hilltop village above Taormina which offers incredible views across the bay.
We dropped Julie off at Riposto station the next day after having spent a week with her on board. We both agreed that she had been great company and a pleasure to spend our first week in Italy with. We nick named her the Duracell bunny, as she seemed to have boundless energy and a great, hands-on attitude. It was lovely to get to know her in Italy and we look forward to having her back on board with us on the other side of the Pond.
After a hectic morning of shopping on shore and trips to the laundrette, we motored around the headland to Taormina bay. This anchorage was spacious again, with sand and good holding and fabulous views at night of the town on the shore. Most of the best part of the bay was taken up with expensive mooring buoys, so you have to anchor off from them a little, but with an operational dingy it’s stunning to be able to nip around into the next two bays and visit the caves. The best way to visit Taormina and by far the least sweaty way, is to dingy to the Lido La Pigna beach in the neighbouring bay and to take the Funivia (cable car) which takes you right up into the heart of this town, perched on the hillside.
Taormina is a high light of the Sicilian coast but one to visit in low season if you can. It was extremely crowded when I visited. Understandably; the town has amazing views over Taormina bay and is chock full of monuments, boasting a stunning Roman amphitheatre with a ringside view of Etna. My yearning for visiting gorgeous places of cultural and historic interest outside of Corfu was well and truly satisfied after a day of trekking around this treasure trove of a town and bingeing on its sights. In fact, it got to the point where I would groan after rounding a corner and finding another street full of picturesque, medieval and renaissance buildings. Having left Simon on board to relax and catch up with Chris, who had just caught up with us and anchored near by, I got back to the boat somewhat relieved after running low on mobile phone battery and picking my way down a steep, crumbling path to reach the beach. I had just enough battery to text Simon to say that I was on a beach by the station that had some blue and white parasols. Luckily, there was only one beach with blue and white parasols on that part of the coast line!
Relaxing on board that night we watched Etna puff away in the background and the lights of Taormina above us as we read up about crossing the straits of Messina…. Would we be devoured by Scylla and Charbydis?