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 A Castle in the Rye

Good early afternoon everyone! It’s 12.35pm on Wednesday 24th March 2021. I’ll be leaving for work in a few hours but wanted to make a start on this week’s blog before I venture out into the great unknown of the Kent countryside. I have been fortunate enough to have had the last couple of days off, and it coincide with decent weather in this corner of England. Naturally, I’ve had something of a spring in my step due to Brighton & Hove Albion managing to remember what those two posts, crossbar and net at the other end of the pitch are for. Apologies to any Southampton or Newcastle United fans who read this blog, but it was a rare moment for me to savour back-to-back league victories. I have also been busy with the emails that have been coming in from your good selves. Thank you very much for the correspondence, both from those who’ve been in regular contact and those who have written in for the first time. Speaking of contact, in the last few days I have had phone conversations with Tim Cochrane, Mike Deegan and Pamela Le Noury at Noble Caledonia. Whilst I might be temporarily away from the scene, it was wonderful to chat with them, be kept abreast of our short and long-term ambitions, and to be reminded how I, and all the shipboard staff, are very much part of the Noble Caledonia extended family.

 

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Approaching Camber Castle on Monday 22nd March 2021.

 

On Monday morning I decided that I wanted to visit Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Whilst I have been to Rye many times, I had never ventured to the mouth of the River Rother. The only thing I knew about the river was that a series of great storms in 1287 diverted the mouth of the river from New Romney to Rye, and washed away the original town of Winchelsea, which stood near the present day river mouth. The 475 hectare site is now managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Understandably, the hides and visitor centre weren’t open, but I completed a very long circular walk and managed to spot a few bits and pieces. I am a relatively useless ornithologist, so I printed out the online guide to what you might see and took it with me. The most obvious birds for me to recognise were the avocets. Using the chart, I also worked out that I was looking at cormorants, a grey heron, oystercatchers, redshanks, Mediterranean gulls, a skylark, Canada geese, shelducks and Greylag geese. I have absolutely no doubt that there were plenty of others, but by the time I had pulled the guide out of my pocket and looked up again, many of the birds I had spotted had disappeared.

 

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A sunny day to view Camber Castle, nestled in the nature reserve. Monday 22nd March 2021.

 

Another reason for wanting to visit Rye Harbour Nature Reserve was that I had heard rumour of there being an abandoned castle in the middle of the reserve. Sure enough, I happened upon Camber Castle. I had naively assumed that it would be in Camber – but no, it is on the other side of the River Rother, here in what is technically part of Rye. As I approached the castle, I noticed a peregrine falcon was nesting on the abutments of the inner tower. I recognised it as a peregrine falcon, because about 15 months ago I took my friend Hazel to see Brighton play at the Amex Stadium. I’m not saying the sporting spectacle didn’t appeal to her very much, but the highlight for her was that a peregrine falcon was swooping around up in the roof of the grandstand. Since then, I’ve been able to recognise them. Perhaps the presence of the peregrine falcon at the football would explain why the Seagulls weren’t performing too well! The castle was built by King Henry VIII in 1539 to protect the coast around Rye from French invasion. It was built from local sandstone, as well as wood and limestone. When completed it housed a garrison of 42 men. The castle was abandoned in 1627 when new shingle ridges built up in front of it reducing access to the sea. As the crow flies, it is now 1¼ miles from the sea.

 

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Looking through the iron gated entrance of Camber Castle. Monday 22nd March 2021.

 

The castle is now owned by English Heritage, whilst managed by the nature reserve, and in non-Covid years they offer a guided tour at 2pm on the first Saturday of August, September and October. I’m not sure how you apply for a job that involves just three guided tours a year, but it sounds like an ideal workload for me! After the nature walk on Monday, I stayed closer to home yesterday and did a beach walk along Greatstone and Littlestone. You never know what you might spot when you stroll along the beach at low tide. Some of you may recall the stranded sea mouse that my friend and I put back in the sea in a previous blog. Sadly, on this occasion the only wildlife I came across was a recently deceased seal. Having watched and listened to many a lecture on the Noble Caledonia ships, I knew that the right thing to do was make a note of my location and send an email to inform the Kent Mammal Group so that it could be recorded. Continuing my wildlife theme, on the way home from Greatstone I paused in West Hythe and walked along the towpath of the Royal Military Canal to where it backs onto the Port Lympne Reserve. On previous occasions I’ve been able to spot giraffes and various other creatures enjoying the warmth of the Kent savanna. I’m guessing the giraffes were busy having afternoon tea on this occasion, but I did spot a zebra and a few other interesting creatures. The reserve has wisely placed a sign on their fence, offering the chance to make a donation to their valuable cause, and so I did. I hope that they, along with all outdoor based tourist attractions, will be able to open as soon as it is considered safe to do so.

 

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The view of Trapani from the deck of the ship.

 

And so we head back to Sicily. This week, we will start with a look at Trapani, on the westernmost tip. I like Trapani. There is something about the place that appeals to me. Anywhere that you can dock almost in the centre of a town is always a bonus. From the berth, you only have to cross one street and you are in the pedestrianised heart of Trapani. If you keep going in a straight line, then after a few hundred yards you reach the sea on the other side of the town – proving that you are truly at the thin end of Sicily’s wedge. Trapani has much to encourage the visitor. When we visit, we tend to offer a couple of shore excursions, with passengers having the choice between Erice and Segesta. I remember learning, quite early on in my cruising career, that the former was not pronounced E-Rice. Perhaps I had been too used to seeing the word ‘email’, and presumed it was pronounced the same. When you have an Italian-speaking assistant in Reba, it’s always good to double-check the place names prior to the briefing. Even then, with my best attempt, I can usually make out Reba at the back of the lounge with her head in her hands. If the wind is not too strong, then one of the novelties of the trip to Erice is that we use the cable car. If the wind is too high, then the coach driver more than earns his salary.

 

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 The stunning view from the top of Mount Erice. 8th October 2019.

 

The town of Erice sits on top of Mount Erice. Once we disembark the cable car, it is a short walk to the historic entrance gate in the walls of this hill-top fortress town. Indeed, some of the city walls themselves date back to Elymian and Phoenician times. I love walking through the narrow streets, although the cobbles are so smooth that you need to take care if there has been recent rain. Every now and then the houses part to reveal a small square, each of which has a quaint café offering a welcoming cappuccino. Two castles remain in the city, one from the Saracen era, and the other from the Norman period. The photo above shows the view from the rampart of the latter castle, “Venus Castle”, which was built on top of an ancient Temple of Venus.

 

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The Greek theatre at Segesta. 17th October 2019.

 

The alternative adventure from Trapani is to head to Segesta. Segesta, along with Erice and one other, was one of the three main settlements of the Elymians. The two main features that remain at Segesta are the unusually well preserved Doric temple, and the Greek theatre. The view from the theatre is the photo I have included above. The temple is quite fascinating, partly because it was never finished. This is arguably one of the reasons why it survived the rampages of history. Why would you destroy something that wasn’t in use anyway? The temple was certainly never roofed over, and it has been dated to around 420 BC. It now stands alone, surrounded by the Sicilian countryside, and it is hard to imagine the city that was once there. Looking at my photos, on my last visit to Segesta I seem to have spent a long time trying to take a photo that included the temple along with the cannoli and latte macchiato that I had purchased from the gift shop in the car park. I promise to make more sensible use of my time in future – but I have no doubt that such refreshment was needed! Once our morning visits to either Erice or Segesta were complete, we would usually re-group at a beautiful countryside location for a marvellous lunch ashore. The lady of the manor would play her guitar and sing from a window overlooking the courtyard while we sampled the olive oil that was created from the olives that were cultivated in the surrounding fields. After plentiful food and Sicilian wine it would be time to wend our very merry way back to Trapani.

 

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‘Sea Cloud II’ waiting her turn to depart from Trapani. 8th October 2019.

 

As I have previously touched on, one of the joys of composing these blogs is that I look back through the photos I took of the visits to the various ports, and some surprises always come to light. Whilst scanning through the eight visits I have recorded to Trapani, I happened upon this photo of ‘Sea Cloud II’. The ship is often chartered by Noble Caledonia, as indeed it was on the occasion that I took this photo. I was looking after the ‘Island Sky’, and Angie Carpenter was holding sway over ‘Sea Cloud II’. We were scheduled to depart first, and so I threw a deck party to make sure that the people on ‘Sea Cloud II’ could see that us ‘Island Sky’ folk knew how to enjoy ourselves. I took the photo of ‘Sea Cloud II’ as we slowly reversed off the berth to head to Palermo. She really is a beautiful vessel.

 

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The Cathedral Square in the heart of Cefalù. 5th October 2018.

 

Approximately half-way along the northern coast of Sicily lies the city of Palermo, the ‘capital’ of Sicily. Similarly to Trapani, the city has much to entice the visitor who does not wish to venture far from the ship. However, as you would expect, there is always the offer to travel further afield and explore the area in greater depth. 43 miles to the east of Palermo lies the town of Cefalù. The drive there follows the scenic coastline, and the tour of Cefalù is one of my ideal town tours – a guided walk followed by free time. Perfect! The tour included Cefalù Cathedral, as shown in the photo. The cathedral dates back to 1131 and was the bastion of the ecclesiastical politics of Roger II of Sicily. I remember this fact because I didn’t really expect “Roger” to be name of a Sicilian king. Not only that, but by the time of his death in 1154, he was also titled ‘King of Africa’. The cathedral is one of nine religious and civic buildings dating back to the era of the Normal kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194) that constitute the UNESCO World Heritage Site of “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale”. Looking at my photos of my visit to Cefalù, my free time appears to have once again comprised of a cannoli, a latte macchiato, and a postcard to my parents.

 

 

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 Inside the stunning cathedral at Monreale. 28th March 2014.  

 

On another visit to Palermo, I joined the afternoon excursion to nearby Monreale. As mentioned above, it is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage list for Palermo and the surrounding area. An entire community and economy has grown around the magnificent Monreale cathedral. Begun in 1174 by William II, it was completed four years later and is considered to be one of the greatest extant examples of Norman architecture. I remember being rather enchanted by the cloister. I noticed that each of the columns appeared to be slightly different. The guide informed us that, indeed, the cloister housed 228 small columns and each varied in its decoration, with influences from Provençal, Burgundian, Arab and Salerno medieval art. I can recall feeling rather proud that I had spotted there were differences, and then moving stealthily to the back of the group when I was asked to point them out! 

 

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The interior of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo at just after midnight on 17th November 2014.

 

And finally… My notes tell me that on 16th November 2014, I was on a ship that was docked overnight in Palermo. The role I had on the cruise line I was working for at the time meant that I could make myself free for an evening if I so wished. I thought I would make the most of our overnight stay. Using what was then a primitive translation tool on the internet, I worked out that a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” was scheduled to take place in the magnificent Teatro Massimo. With my complete lack of Italian, I still managed to convince the lady in the ticket office at the 1897-built opera house that I wished to purchase a seat for that evening’s performance. Somehow, and to this day I have no idea how, I achieved my aim. The only seats left were hard wooden benches up in the Gods. I had to lean forward the entire time to see what was going on. To my amusement, the performance did have subtitles, but they were in Italian. Given the performance was in Italian anyway, I thought this might be something of a waste of a good surtitle! Although the theatre had recently refurbished their air-conditioning, I remember it being very hot up in the Gods. I took off my jacket, and then realised it would be rather useful if I folded it up and sat on it. The star of the show was undoubtedly He Hui. She was sensational in the title role. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the plot of “Tosca”, but I worked out that it had ended when He Hui flung herself over the parapet to her death. In fact, she was so good that she was miraculously brought back from the dead so that she could die all over again. I had achieved my ambition of seeing an Italian opera, performed in Italian, in an Italian opera house. Here ends this week’s blog, and we will continue our tour around Sicily next week. In the meantime, I hope you have been enjoying our circumnavigation as much as I have, and I wish everyone all the very best until next time.

 

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