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 Safaris & Sicily

Good evening everyone! Here we are, a week later, on the evening of Monday 8th March 2021. According to my original diary, I would have arrived home a couple of weeks ago, having disembarked ‘Serenissima’ in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, and now be preparing to fly out to Ushuaia, Argentina, to embark ‘Hebridean Sky’ for her cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena, Ascension Island and Senegal. Instead, I am continuing my brave exploration of Kent via delivery truck and hoping to be able to participate in those cruises another year. I trust everyone reading this has had an enjoyable week. As you may expect, I have spent most of the past week at work. I had hoped winter was now behind us, but last night the outside temperature reached -2.5°C (27.5°F) as I found myself in some of the remotest parts of the Kent countryside. It didn’t deter me from keeping the Noble Caledonia tradition alive of wearing shorts in all weathers, but I was very glad that I had been allocated one of the newer trucks with powerful heating. Today I had a day off from work, and so I offered my services to the railway, as they begin the process of becoming ready to re-open. The Commercial Manager called me and asked if I would like to have the opportunity to drive “Green Goddess”. Naturally, I was thrilled and immediately jumped at the chance. However…

 

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Volunteering on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. 8th March 2021.

 

As you can see, this was not quite what I had envisaged when he had said I could ‘drive’ “Green Goddess”. Still, at least it was good to be able to put my new skill of van and truck driving to some use. I received some lovely emails after my last blog. Many of you had tales to tell about previous trips up the Amazon. To my amusement, I also received a few emails requesting that I deliver the figures for my deliveries, now that February has passed. Not wishing to disappoint, I have evaluated all the details, and can tell you that I delivered on 20 of February’s 28 days, or 21 of them if you include my overnight in the snow as two days! I dropped off 307 deliveries, and the total truck mileage covered was 1,456.7 miles. If you take a route as-the-crow-flies, then that is the equivalent of going from my house to just north of Tromsø in Arctic Norway. Alternatively, using a popular road route planner, I could have driven from my house in Hythe, Kent to the wonderfully named Kyle of Tongue in the northwestern part of Sutherland, Scotland and back again. The maths works out at a delivery every 4.7 miles (exactly the same as January). In order to achieve this, from the time of clocking-in to clocking back out again, I took a total of 164,887 steps (or 537 per delivery).

 

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The ‘Pride of Africa’ train, part of our “The Call of Africa” holiday.

 

Last Thursday, I had the rare opportunity to take the time to watch a film in its entirety. The film was called, “A United Kingdom”, and was broadcast on BBC4. The film is centred around the marriage of Prince Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The prince, having finished his studies in London, is due to become King of Bechuanaland. His marriage to a white lady from London causes a major international outcry, not least with the British Protectorate, who are concerned not to upset the neighbouring country of South Africa, who are about to implement apartheid. In my naivety of African history, I hadn’t realised that Bechuanaland became, in 1966, what is known today as Botswana. The film was, in my opinion, superbly acted with excellent cinematography, and told a rather disdainful tale of a shameful chapter in our relatively recent history. I was very relieved that it did all work out in the end, and I finished the film with great admiration for both Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. Speaking of the cinematography, it has also made me very keen to visit Botswana at some point. I wondered why we do not offer any cruises there, and then I wisely looked at my illuminated globe and discovered that the lack of a coastline could be the reason. However, where ships cannot reach, trains invariably can. I typed ‘Botswana’ in to the search function on the Noble Caledonia website and discovered that we offer “Ultimate Botswana”, “The Call of Africa” and “Wonders and Waterways of Southern Africa”. The first one is a safari, staying in incredible lodges, in the northern part of Botswana, and includes a couple of nights at the Victoria Falls. The latter trip includes the Chobe National Park in northern Botswana, as well as a three day voyage upon Lake Kariba, sailing on the “African Dream”. However, the middle option, “The Call of Africa” did leave me reading the computer screen with my jaw dropped open. I did not realise that you can still travel by train all the way from Cape Town to Dar es-Salaam. And not just by any train. The images I viewed were stunning, and whilst I am perhaps too young to create a ‘bucket list’ at the age of 42, I have decided to start a list, and this trip is the first item on it. I can visualise myself right now, sat on the balcony of the observation carriage at the rear of the train, gin and tonic in hand, watching the sunset over the desert plains as the train takes us along the eastern side of Botswana. It is good to have a dream!

 

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My new ambition, to be sat on the balcony of the observation car on our “The Call of Africa” holiday.

 

At the end of the last blog, I promised to continue with our voyage around Sicily. We had already visited Noto and Ragusa, from Pozzallo. Let’s sail in a clockwise direction around this fascinating island. Our next stop would normally be the port of Licata. According to my notes, I have visited Licata four times in recent years. On one of those occasions I didn’t take part in the full-day tour, as I had matters to attend to on board the ship. With my work complete, I ventured into the town in the afternoon and found a delightful small museum. However, the main attraction for our visits to Licata is undoubtedly the excellent full-day tour. One of the highlights is the incredible Villa Romana del Casale, located near Piazza Armerina. Being a Martlet (someone from Sussex) meant that when we had studied the Romans at school, there had been the obligatory trip to Fishbourne Roman Palace. The Villa Romana del Casale is of very similar size, but something about it left more of an impression on me. The most famous mosaics are those of the “bikini girls”…

 

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The “Bikini Girls” mosaic at Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily. 6th October 2019.

 

Whilst the ladies depicted are commonly known as the “bikini girls”, they are in fact athletes wearing a light outfit used in athletic competitions. The outfits comprise the strophium, for the upper part of the body and the subligar, for the lower part. The figure on the bottom left, who is the only draped person, is the one with the role of crowning the victors, presenting them with a crown of roses and a palm branch. The sport of the young woman crowned winner is the ‘race with rings’, as she carries the baton and spoked wheel used for those events. Whilst this is arguably the mosaic floor that sells the most postcards, and generates the most amusement amongst visiting schoolchildren, I felt that the “Great Hunt” scene was easily the most spectacular floor mosaic I have ever seen. (The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, houses the greatest wall mosaics I have viewed). It is impossible to photograph the entire mosaic, as it stretches from one side of the villa to the other, but here is a snippet.

 

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  A scene from the “Great Hunt” as a captured elephant is loaded onto a ship for the journey back to Rome. 15th October 2019.

 

The Great Hunt mosaic lies in the antechamber of the basilica. It is known throughout the archaeological world for its exceptional mosaic representation of the venationes, the hunting scenes of capturing live animals for exhibition in the circus spectacles in Rome. Thus, in a single mosaic is unfolded a large geographical map of the empire from the Far West to the Far East, populated by an outstanding variety of animals, ferocious as lions, unique as rhinoceros, and mythical as griffins, in which are animated military hunters, knights in charge of operations and attendants committed to the transporting and loading of the beasts onto ships. I could happily have spent a few hours slowly working my way along the Great Hunt scene, and then have started again at the beginning to repeat the exercise. With our visit complete, it would be time to head off for a late lunch.

 

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The beautiful setting of the Principi di Butera, within the province of Caltanissetta, Sicily. 15th October 2019.

 

I would always feel nervous about any meals ashore with my previous cruise lines. To this day, I am always double and triple-checking that the local agent has all the dietary requirements and such things. However, there really is truth in the phrase that you get what you pay for. Since joining Noble Caledonia, the only issue that tends to arise from meals ashore is that there is too much food and wine. The quality is always of the highest order, and when you have lunch in a sublime location, surrounded by acres of vineyards, then it’s not surprising that the wine is rather good too. One of the thrills for me of dining ashore in Sicily is that the dessert is often a cannoli or two. They are a staple of Sicilian cuisine. A cannoli consists of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. They range in size from 3½ inches to 8 inches, and are commonly known as ‘cannoli siciliani’ to those on the Italian mainland. To say that they are moreish is a definite understatement.

 

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 Inside the cool cellar at the Principi di Butera, Sicily. 15th October 2019.

Once lunch was complete, the passengers would have the option of heading back to the port, or joining a member of the Zonin family, who have owned the vineyards since 1997, for a tour of the vast cellars. On the last two occasions that I have been there, I purchased a few cases of their finest wine so that everyone could enjoy a glass over dinner that evening. I would then send an email to the office asking for permission. I was never very good at getting that sort of thing the right way round! Fortunately, permission was always forthcoming. On the drive back to the ship, the soundtrack on board the coach would be the gentle chinking of the various wine bottles inside the passengers’ bags. After a day of exquisite mosaics, and a glorious lunch and fine wines, I probably joined my fellow travellers in indulging in a little snooze as we arrived back just in time to fill up again at afternoon tea.

 

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The Temple of Concordia, complete with a crash-landed Icarus. 16th October 2019.

 

The next day we would often be docked in Porto Empedocle. The harbour is very much a working port, but the main attraction is Agrigento, a short distance away. I can still recall the first time I went on the tour, and looking out from the coach to see the temples standing proudly in a line along the hill top. You would often drive a long distance to see the ruins of a single temple, but here there is a former street which seems to have a temple every hundred yards or so. The area is known as the “Valley of the Temples”, which is slightly misleading as it clearly sits on a ridge. In total, there are seven temples of varying degrees of preservation. The temples are Concordia, Juno, Heracles, Olympian Zeus, Castor & Pollux, Hephaestus (Vulcan), and Asclepius. The Valley of the Temples could easily cover every single blog from now until I retire, so I won’t go into any detail. Suffice to say that it is one of those places where I truly felt that I was walking through history. The photo above shows the status of Icarus, created by Polish artist sculptor Igor Mitoraj (1944-2014). The Temple of Concordia, in the background, is rather older, having been built between 440 and 430 BC.

 

 

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  The Girgentana, an endangered species of goat, endemic to Agrigento. 16th October 2019.

 

Being the mischievous soul that I am, whilst the temples were fabulous, I was more taken aback by the sight of these goats on the opposite side of the path that runs the length of the Valley of the Temples. Our excellent guide appeared to be on first name terms with one particular goat, who as you can see, came and stood up against the wall and was clearly photogenic. The breed has its ancient origins in the Falconeri goat, named after Scottish naturalist Hugh Falconer MD FRS (1808-1865), who first noticed it in northern Afghanistan and Balochistan. According to some authors the import of the first specimens of the goat is attributed to the Ancient Greeks. It was bred in Sicily, particularly the southwestern area. Its name derives from Girgenti (the former name of the city Agrigento) and it is the only endemic animal of the area. It is a medium-sized goat with a long and thick white coat, sometimes with brownish markings. The goat has a beard and on its head there is a thick lock that is cut by the breeder to form a fringe. Its beauty in both the male and female is due to its straight horns twisted into a spiral form. They are never excessively separate from each other, but almost joined at the bottom and are very developed in males. At their peak, it was thought that there were approximately 30,000 girgentana in the area, but that number had fallen to just 390 by 2013. Conservation programmes have fortunately now been established, and the goat shown was one of many that have been re-introduced to graze in the Valley of the Temples. I could happily have sat there for hours watching them go about their daily business. Fascinating creatures. Meanwhile, back in the valley, our coaches would have transferred to the lower end of the valley, and passengers would have the option of returning to the ship or continuing the tour at the nearby excellent museum. The museum houses many artefacts that have been removed from the valley to ensure their preservation and conservation. With that, I have reached the limit again for this blog. I still have a few more Sicilian ports to look at, so we will continue again next week. I will leave you with some Sicilian love… the photo below was one I took of the sunset as we prepared to leave Licata. I can’t remember seeing a heart shape sunset before – further proof of what a special place Sicily is to visit. I look forward to being back there, and indulging in a foot-long cannoli!

 

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Sunset, as seen from the deck of ‘Island Sky’ in Licata harbour. 28th September 2016.

 

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