Naples to Sicily - The Italian Volcanoes Stromboli, Etna...19th July 2003
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Torre del Greco is the largest suburb of Naples, right between Mount Vesuvius and the sea – indeed the town seems to be regularly destroyed by Vesuvius, the last time being in 1750’s but they rebuild it, just as densely packed. We were told that its marina like most of the (few) marinas round Naples are controlled by the Mafia, (apparently they like cash generating operations), which I suppose puts us in the same class as habitues of brothels, drug pushers and illegal gambling. Still there wasn’t much option, and the security is said to be good once you have paid (in cash). It so happens that the italian word for the concrete blocks used to secure the mooring ropes in marinas to the sea-bottom is ‘corpo morto’ (dead bodies) which I suppose may be appropriate in a macabre way.
Torre del Greco itself according to one guide book is a hotbed of gangsterland, and one friendly local who gave us a lift said his last job had been in a firm of lawyers whose only client was the Mafia – he showed us the place in the main street where last week the head of a Mafia family had been assassinated by machine guns. However he assured us this was ‘abnormal’, and we actually rather liked Torre del Greco, which to us seemed to be full of friendly families getting on with life – the buildings had grafitti, the streets were narrow and a bit run down, but not scary. I had my haircut, we shopped, and there was a festival of the 4 altars, where the local churches bring out their famous old altar cloths, and there was a street market and a rock band on the harbour.
The advantage of T del G is that it is only about 1.5 miles by 255 bus to Herculaneum (which is also on the sea but closer to Naples), its also on the direct circum-Vesuvius train to Pompeii about 8 miles south and from Herculaneum there is a direct bus to near the top of Vesuvius. Herculaeneum was re-discovered about the same time as Pompeii, but whereas Pompeii is 7 miles the other (south) side of Vesuvius from Naples, a bit isolated and was abandoned after the AD79 eruption that buried it in ash, Herculaneum is only 3 miles along the coast from Naples, and after it had been buried to a depth of 20 metres in a river of mud, the locals simply rebuilt on top as part of the sprawl that is greater Naples. The ruins are to some extent better preserved than Pompeii, but this makes excavations much more difficult – starting about 1980’s they have uncovered about 200 metres by 200 metres right in the middle of present day Herculaneum, down to a depth of 20 metres, but much more remains under existing houses surrounding the site. Certainly whereas Pompeii is the most visited site in Italy, Herculaneum was almost empty and we wandered by ourselves through almost intact streets and bath houses still with their original roofs and alcoves for Romans to put their clothes. The men’s baths have an intact Triton mosaic, the smaller ladies baths (in the same building but with a separate entrance) also have a Triton but with dolphins, octopus etc. You almost feel you could have a sauna there (the humidity helps).
The houses, shops, bars etc are so intact its relatively easy to imagine Romans living here, dropping into a bar for a drink or some food served from jars inset into the marble topped counter (to keep food hot), shopping from the stores that seemed to front many houses, arguing with their partners about interior decoration, how to keep up with the neighbours, and which artist to use to decorate their dining room (dark red seemed to be the fashion), or frequenting one of the 5 or so brothels. There were 4 distinct fashions of decoration, the 4th style lasting between AD65 when an earthquake damaged quite a lot of buildings which were repaired with grants from Rome (bit like EU now) and AD79 which engulfed them. There is an intact Roman bed in one room, Roman bread in the bakery, lots of intact roman wine jars in the bodega.
We decided to see the source of all the bother next day, and caught a bus up Vesuvius, which does look like a proper volcano looming over Naples. The bus is very cheap (only Euro 3.20 return), but includes an obligatory 20 minute stop where a sweet old man who used to be the funicular operator until the 1944(!) eruption swept it away tries to sell you copies of his book. The bus drops you about 200 metres below the summit, and various family parties were labouring up the pumice stone path to the top where you get an unrivalled view of the whole bay of Naples – at least it would have been unrivalled if the air had been clearer. The crater is impressively large and round and won’t fit in any photo I could take, but the 1944 eruption blocked off the smoke that used to come out, so it looks a bit tamer.
Italy is sadly bereft of laundrettes for some reason, and Nicky had been getting desperate as the dirty washing mounted up, so we washed clothes on the boat, and hung them out to dry making Intrepid look like she was trying to hide underneath flowery panties and large bedsheets. The french boat next to us promptly did the same. We were the only 2 visiting boats we could see.
Next day (Sunday) we caught the train from the higher of the 2 stations (both called Torre del Greco- confusing, both are unsignposted, but we managed local directions) to Pompeii, along with half Naples youth who were travelling on the same line to Sorrento and Capri for sun sea and whatever else they fancied. We extracted ourselves from under slightly smelly Neapolitan armpits at the Pompeii Scavi (excavations) train station, and joined the throng of multinationalities. Entrance is a reasonable Euro 10 and half that for EU citizens under 24 (good for James) but we subsequently discovered that all was not well because the guards were on strike (although the site was open). This meant that most of the interesting houses were padlocked and not being opened. Luckily we had hired a guide as one of a party of 10 (Euro 10 each) and our rather eccentric Italian/German professor took us round a good tour to see the best that could be seen including some baths/brothel just uncovered, and not normally open, and then we took ourselves round some of the less frequented places. Pompeii is so popular that groups often had to share a particular place of interest. We saw the famous cave canem (beware dog) mosaic, and a really great Diana mosaic in an alcove as part of family shrines.
Pompeii must have been the town closest to the island of Capri where Roman Emperors especially Tiberius spent the summer, and we figured that a lot of the villas and temples put up by private citizens were connected to this – Pompeii was a sort of Mayfair or Kensington. Our guide explained that citizens vied with each other to put up the biggest temple or other public building in order to get votes to be governor of the town - a bit like present day Italian politics….? Certainly it seemed to be more pretentious than Herculaeneum. There seemed to be more blue decoration, and a whole street of tombs outside the walls including one boasting that the ‘owner’ had had a double seat in the theatre reserved for him! Our favorite house was the Villa of Mysteries, uncovered comparitively recently outside the walls, with a really terrific intact full size fresco on 3 large walls showing a young woman going through all the processes for intitiation into the cult of Dionysius. The quality and preservation of the painting was better than most pre-1600 art, and would not have disgraced a present day living room (if you have a taste for such cults). Pompeii is also ridiculously photogenic with Vesuvius looming above most scenes.
We decided to check out what is reckoned to be the most beautiful island in the world – Capri, and sailed there as the sun set. Capri is small but very high, set on the end of the southern tip of the Bay of Naples, opposite Sorrento; constant ferries make the dash to Capri each day. Most of Capri is edged by sheer 200metre high white cliffs falling vertically into the sea. Apparently Tiberius after various orgies used to throw those who displeased him from there into the sea, (but that might just have been negative spin from subsequent emperors). Anyway, there are 3 main attractions in Capri – the town itself, perched 150 metres up a winding 2.5km narrow lane on a saddle between 2 peaks; the Azure Grotto; and the few small bays, and the site of Tiberius’s villa. Capri harbour is full of ferries and rental boats and expensive (80 euros). There were 5 yachts at anchor outside and we joined them, although it was a bit deep at 10 metres (we like to put out an anchor chain 4 or 5 times the depth, but 50 metres gives us a large parking circle).
Next day, Monday, we set off the 1 mile to the Grotto Azzurra hoping to find it emptier than Sunday, only to be disappointed by the 10 or more motor boats patrolling outside each full of 20 visitors being disgorged slowly into small rowing boats to be pulled into the narrow entrance of the cave. We tried the size of our dinghy but there was such a traffic jam that I am afraid we gave up and went off to a sheltered bay round the west corner where we snorkelled on lovely rockwalls, and returned at 6pm to find the grotto almost deserted, so much so that I could snorkel in to find what was to be frank a rather ordinary sea cave about 30 metres long, 20 wide and 5 high above the water, with a blue bottom because, well…., the sea with light coming in through the entrance looks blue. Well OK, this is a bit downbeat, in strong sunlight it must have looked vivid, and Tiberius apparently had a nympaneum built here, hence the carvings in the wall. (What do you mean you don’t have a nymphaneum in your garden? – it’s a cave with nymph statues etc in case you didn’t guess).
So we tried Capri town that evening. It’s a 15 minute bus ride, safer than trying to dodge traffic on the way up and less taxing. Capri is I suppose what a designer would produce if asked to produce a designer town – lots of narrow winding streets full of designer label shops interspersed with squares full of café society. Dogs were high pedigree, small and ‘cute’ and we didn’t really hear anything but English/American and maybe some German spoken, (a cruise ship was anchored off the harbour). In spite of this it is in a beautiful setting overlooking the harbour and Bay of Naples and looking up to Anacapri the higher village on the island. There are some good reasonably priced restaurants and we had a fine dinner gazing at the sun setting over the Bay of Naples from a small balcony, then joined the café set in the square. Well…
We had decided that Salerno would be the best place for our next set of transfers (James to UK, Janet from UK) and this gave us the chance to test the – yes you’ve guessed it – the most beautiful stretch of coast line in the world. Not that the Italians are given to hyperbole you understand, its just that they are incapable of appreciating anything that’s not in the designer mould – one authority attributed this to a latent insecurity after the fall of the Roman Empire, which resulted in a desire to put on your best face to the world, but all the time feeling desperately anxious because you know you are actually still very vulnerable. Anyway, in Amalfi they were right on both counts because this Amalfi coastline IS beautiful and striking, best seen from the sea, with huge cliffs encased with clouds half way up rising sheer out of the water, and little villages and a necklace like road hanging on just above the sea. Amalfi was the first Italian state to recover after the fall of the Roman Empire (some say it was started by Roman nobility leaving Rome looking for a good defensive position to keep the empire’s culture and knowledge) and by 900 AD or so was already some 80,000 people and a serious sea going power to rival Pisa Genoa and Venice; its Tavole Amalfitane were the worlds first marine laws and, and through its maritime trade with the east it introduced paper making and imported the compass from China to Europe. They also brought the remains of St Andrew from Greece after his martyrdom, and he is buried in the beautiful and very old cathedral. However Amalfi lost the odd battle with Pisa and in 1343 most of the town simply slid into the sea in a violent storm and earthquake – so they were right to feel a bit vulnerable. Now it and a few surrounding villages (Positano, Ravello) are designer tourist destinations.
Salerno is a real contrast, mostly overlooked by foreign tourists - we loved it. Anwhere else it would be considered a real tourist jewel, but there are so many vying for that prize round Naples that Salerno has concentrated on trade. Its huge harbour presumably attracted the allies who landed here in 1943, but its old town is intact, lots of narrow lanes with buildings 4 stories high connected by rickety walkways 3 stories up, good family restaurants and gelateria, and old workshops on the ground floor containing leather or antique printing works, all overlooked by a huge fort on the hill, which floodlit at night looks like a volcano. Salerno’s University is as old as Oxford University, and it was a leading centre of medical thought in 1200. Its main shopping street is pedestrianised and has all the style you need, but the harbour is the focus, with entertainment provided by large container ships coming and going every hour, nudged by tugs, tended by respectfully nodding cranes. Intrepid was moored in the east of the main harbour with a grandstand view, although a bit exposed to the westerly gale that blew up yesterday. The marineros are friendly but charges high at 50 euros/nite. Only later did we discover from dutch friends that the porto turistico allows yachts 3 nights free – oh well. Salerno is on all the main train and road links, and seems like a slice of northern Italy which happens to be south of Naples by accident. It even has am amazingly efficient and cheap laundrette near the Piazza Maggio bus stop.
Prior to the allies landing, the marshland coastline south of Salerno was a malaria ridden jungle, but a road builder in 1700’s had already uncovered some huge temples about 25kms south. This was Paestum, an early greek settlement in 600BC. I had not appreciated just how much of Italy had been a greek colony (or the mysterious Etruscans) before the Romans got going. Anyway, Paestum started as a wealthy trade city from 600-400BC or so. It supported the Romans in about 200BC and this seemd to have kept it safe, but steadily declining, and by about 200AD the jungle and malarial mosquitos simply swallowed the whole place up. Locals no doubt knew it was there, and took building stones but left 3 huge temples virtually intact. (Well, I guess even an insecure Italian had little use for large Grecian columns in their house – and anway why aggravate Hera who might just strike you down…? - the only exception was Salerno which pinched a few columns for their cathedral). Today the 3 temples look about the size of the Athens Accropolis but I guess are actually smaller but not much. Each temple has 50 or so really solid looking pillars perhaps 15 metres high and 1 metre diameter of what seems to be a yellow stone bearing entire roof beams, all well carved, each a sort of elegant stonehenge, perhaps 60 metres long by 25 wide. The yellow stone seems to give a magical light to the place, it was deserted when malaria made it all but uninhabitable, but the allies poured DDT round in 1940’s and its safe now, although there were only a very few tourists there. The best remains are in the cool museum, amazingly good greek paintings, including a famous one of a diver, (an metaphor for a radical person in life, always diving in pursuit of new knowledge), frescoes and urns decorated with a style that just jumps off the wall at you, totally different from Roman painting and carvings and predating them by 600 years. We understood a bit more why greek was chic in Roman times and Nero preferred ‘greek’ Naples to ‘roman’ rome for his culture.
We picked up Janet from Salerno on 4th July, and sailed via Amalfi to Agropoli in a strong 25 knot wind, reaching 8 + knots. Agropoli is a small medieval fortified town on top of a hill over looking the harbour, and it didn’t seem to have changed much since 1500, crumbling walls, and narrow streets with few comforts. Many of the harbours seem to have been adapted for marina use by putting in pontoons and then leasing them out one by one to the ormeggio (rope handlers), so each pontoon competes with the others (at least notionally). Its actually quite helpful because when you come into a strange new harbour there is usually at least one ormeggio waving at you to come to their pontoon.
We bounced down the coast 20 miles at a time with dutch friends – whose whole family was taking a 6 month time out - through Acciaroli, Palinuro, Camerota – all pretty fishing/touristy villages (Hemingway is said to have stayed a long time in Acciaroli), then sailed overnight due south 80 miles to the Aeolian islands, which lie about 40 miles north of Sicily, specifically to the island of Stromboli hoping to see the regular showers of flame and eruptions by night. Fat chance - it was striking looming out of the dawn, 900 metres high, but that’s it. Most of the 5000 inhabitants left after the 1930 eruption, but a few cling on, and we climbed to the observatory to see the impressive 60 degree slope of 1 mile long steaming lava flowing slowly into the sea, and clouds of brown smoke spewing from the crater The anchorage is so rolly that we moved onto the small island of Panarea, scene of many shipwrecks, then to the larger island of Lipari which we loved. The local ormeggio have organised pontoons where you can berth for Euro 30/nite.
Lipari must be one of the oldest trading posts known – it was an active volcano which happened to be the sort that produces obsidian – the black shiny lava like flint, but harder and sharper. Pre-bronze age obsidian was quite literally cutting edge technology, and Lipari prospered mightily around 4000 BC trading obsidian for pottery but ultimately paying the price for its wealth by being sacked at regular intervals up to about 1600BC, by which time bronze was appearing. Subsequent settlements in its castle were based on its strategic position between expanding Greece Carthage and Rome, but it unfortunately backed Carthage and was sacked again by Rome in 200 BC, then settled as a Roman town. The excavations have been very thorough, and the museum is huge, brilliantly laid out and really informative. Lipari still produces pumice industrially (used for light weight roofing blocks) but is mainly a very pretty tourist town with good restaurants.
11th July We left Lipari and anchored overnight 80 metres off the sheer cliffs of nearby Vulcano island – still active as it reminded us when an earthslide clattered into the sea just next to us, then next morning sailed off south west 50 miles to Cefalu in Sicily.
Well, to tell the truth we motored. 2 knots of wind does not push you along very fast. Cefalu harbour is beneath an almost sheer 200metre rock, and was full when we arrived but we anchored in the shelter of the harbour wall, and walked the 1.5 kms into town. The guidebooks describe Cefalu as touristy – Sicily is promoting tourism heavily – and there are quite a few tourists, but also a glorious Norman (yes!) cathedral – built about 100 years after the Normans invaded Britain in 1066. The Normans certainly got about, and this was one of 3 in the greater Palermo area. We needed a break from the boat so hired a car (relatively expensive in Italy compared to Spain at about Euro 75 for 1 day or Euro 160 for 3 days). Sicily is about 130 miles long with the capital Palermo at the north western end, and has perhaps 200 miles of very strange motorway, because almost all of it is on stilts ie elevated, even though it is crossing nothing more than farmland. Its also not very well built and is crumbling so driving along it is a bit like being on a train, bdnnnng, bdnnnng, bdnnnng…..as you go over the rather uneven joints in the concrete. We could only surmise that either the land belonged to someone terribly infuential, or they got more EU grants for doing it that way (apparently Italy argued very strongly to keep EU grants for its poorer south especially Sicily when the 10 new states were recently admitted), or they had something to put in the concrete pillars. .
The greeks colonised all of Sicily in 1500BC and later, and Siracuse on the south eastern tip was their capital where the tyrant Dionysius ruled. Unfortunately he was so tyranical that when he was overthrown, much of Syracuse was also destroyed. There is a fabulously sited Greek theatre, and a nice Norman cathedral, but we moved onto Mt Etna. The guidebooks (2002) say that you take a cable car up Etna but when we arrived the posts were smothered in lava to their tops – Etna is still extremely active! We stayed in a superb new B and B in Nicolosi – La Giara run by Patricia who is local but worked in London once. She described how last year the lava came directly at the town but stopped about 3 kilometres short. Since the cable car collapse you can only be driven to 3000m by bus (Euro 38 return each) where you have 20 mins to look around (but are still 300m below the crater), or can walk up the main lava field. We felt active and walked part way up, then saw the 1992 lava field which is even more extensive. Patricia described how you can hear the continuous grumbling of the volvano – its rather nasty habit is to invent new craters on the side so you can be 4 kms from the main crater and feel safe until a new lava flow opens up right beneath you.
Sicily has been invaded lots of times including the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, (who were in turn thrown out by the Normans) then Spanish, French etc before becoming Italian in 1850. We visited Enna which is the highest fortified town in Sicily, right in the middle of the main breadbasket and communication valley and its brooding sullen atmosphere seems to reflect the continuous blood shed there.
Just to show the history of feuds goes back a long way, Suggesta is a hill top town founded in 1600BC by Emyrians in a superb position inland but overlooking the sea about 15 miles south west of Palermo. The Suggestans were so preoccupied with feuding with their neighbours that the Carthaginians and Romans all got dragged into the argument. Rome finally destroyed their rivals, and gave Suggesta privileges, but they blew these and finally all that is left is a superb 600BC Greek temple only half finshed (it just lacks the roof – well they have only had 2600 years to finish it), and a 200 BC theatre that holds 4000 in a wonderous position, and is still being used for concerts.
Neighbouring Erice was also founded by the Suggestans on an even more imposing almost vertical rock plateau dedicated to the various gods of love. The cobbled streets and medieval houses are strangely atmospheric and contain a real surprise – a hot bed of world class sub nuclear physicists - and pastry cooks (maybe they go together) The town is host to world science forums and is the base for Italy’s foremost nuclear scientist. There was a major forest fire just half a mile away when we were there, so we could see and smell the fire and smoke and imagine what a siege was like. A plane was dropping foam and water on it from low level, and luckily the exit road was (covered with smoke but) still open.
By contrast Monreale (really a suburb of Palermo) has a world class cathedral built by the Normans in 1180 (just after they had conquored the Arabs so they had a point to make) – its interior is wholly covered by gilded mosaics showing most of the bible stories on walls roof, apse. The gold leaf on the mosaics is I guess still original – certainly the whole massive interior lights up like a golden fairy tale as the sun comes in the windows. I have never seen such a large interior so genuinely gold plated. The mosaics were apparently completed in just 10 years 1180-1190. While we watched we saw a wedding take place - very Sicilian.
Janet was departing from Palermo for her brother’s wedding, so we sailed to Palermo, which is said to still be the centre of Mafia – their airport is named after the 2 anti Mafia judges assasinated in Palermo in 1992, and a street after the 1982 General assasinated with his wife in 1982. We read that the head of one of the main Mafia families was shot here last month.
Palermo in its Norman heyday was apparently the grandest and one of the must cultured cities in the world, and subsequently when it was the joint capital with Naples of the kingdom of Sicily and southern Italy. However it seemed to become a bit of an orphan and after the Normans was handed round like a unwanted toy to the German Swabians and the Holy Roman Emperor, then despotic Anjou, then given to Aragon then to the Spanish crown, then Savoy, then Austrian, then Spanish Bourbons. In 1860 Garibaldi landed at Palermo with his 1000 redshirts to unite Italy, but by this time life had become so bad that 1 million Sicilians emigrated to the USA in the next 30 years. Given this history its perhaps no surprise that Sicilians became cynical about governments and some took organisation into their own hands in the form of the Mafia (variously said to mean ‘refuge’ or ‘no government’) – in Sicily it’s called the Cosa Nostra.
Tourists are left alone, but Palermo is still a city that takes a bit if getting used to. We had heard 2nd hand that it was so bad that we should avoid it altogether, but once we had got over the stench of the harbour, we liked it. The harbour did stink – we had arrived in the middle of a period of high heat and humidity, and the old harbour is clustered around some of the oldest slums of Palermo which I don’t think have much in the way of sewerage. We recoiled from the oldest part of the harbour, and found a reasonable stretch of quay run by Sailing Club Mediteraneo right next to the Carabineri police boats, which we thought might help security. They charge Euro30/nite, the smell is a not sooo bad, and we are right in the centre of the city, just 200 metres from the Piazza Marinera which has 2 really good fish restaurants, and the local friendly Viccaria street market where we did all our provisioning on lovely fresh produce and herbs, and I ate freshly boiled octopus for breakfast – quite spoils the thought of other breakfasts! We looked at the exterior of the fine Norman cathedral, the Norman Royal Palace, (but missed the mosaics) saw a street demonstration, and next morning Janet caught the airport bus which leaves every half an hour (Euro 4.50). I am afraid that by this time we were overdosed on cathedrals and museums, and after this just wandered, sampling the slightly more upmarket north end of Palermo with reasonable shops (all though offering 50%+ discounts – but then so do London shops).
As I write we half way en route from Sicily to Sardinia (about 200 miles) in beautiful sunshine and a wind that tries to be helpful but sometimes comes from the wrong direction. NO FISH.
In Sardinia we meet my brother John and his family, then about 8th August sail via Majorca and Alicante to Gibraltar (23rd August) to pick up new sails and wind generator, then to Lagos in the Portugese Algarve where Intrepid will spend September out of the water having her bottom scrubbed and little things done while we are in England. (If you are in UK in September we would love to meet!). Then 1st week in October Intrepid will sail to Madeira in the Atlantic for a week or so then south to Canaries, from where we leave on 23rd November 2003 across the Atlantic again.
We are delighted that a number of people have asked to come on Intrepid, including many who are already on their 2nd 3rd or 4th trip. We accommodate everyone we can and genuinely like having friends to sail with us. We share food and marina costs and car rental (if applicable) and we ask that you get yourselves to the relevant port, but apart from that its free! If you are interested do let us know and if we cant make the first choice because we already have someone booked there are lots of other opportunities eg east coast USA or Cuba in 2004 or Galapogos or Fiji in 2005. .
If you have got to the end of this I reckon you deserve an Intrepid medal, and clearly have what it takes for long ocean passages!
With all best wishes,
Andy and Nicky Gibb.
(Tel +44-(0)7932-054413 or better, e-mail)
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