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 Springtime in Sicily

Good evening everyone! As I write this, it is the evening of Thursday 1st April 2021. Good to already have three months of the year done and dusted. On Tuesday morning it was only 4°C (39°F) when I set out to work at 6.30am. By the time I had finished my shift and returned to the depot, the temperature gauge was reading 28°C (82°F). It felt strange to be so warm in the truck in March, and remember that it was only in the previous month that I had been stuck in the snow. Speaking of being stuck, we were quite excited at the depôt this morning as we have been chosen to assess a new delivery vehicle. The most common problem with deliveries is becoming stuck on a street where it is impossible to turn around, and reversing is problematic. The solution that has been proposed is this prototype vehicle.

 

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The new experimental prototype of the future delivery vehicle. 1st April 2021.

 

The idea is that, should the vehicle not be able to turn around, the driver can simply walk to the other end, and drive forwards along the route he or she has just taken. Panels open on the opposite side to provide access to the groceries. The two middle wheels are designed in such a way that cornering is not a problem. It is quite an honour to be the first depôt to be asked to assess this new style of vehicle. At present, only the senior drivers who have been working in the industry for many years are being allowed to test the practicality of the new truck. When my turn comes, I promise to deliver a full report here in the blog.

 

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“Island Sky” basks in the clear blue sea, whilst anchored off Lipari. 20th May 2017.

 

I hope everyone has managed to make use of the slight relaxation in the lockdown restrictions. Naturally I am aware that people read this blog from various locations, but here in England the rule change took place on Monday (29th March). I had a day off that day, and having checked and re-checked the rules, I had it confirmed that I was allowed to go and see my parents for the first time since Christmas Day. On the way to their house, I had booked a lateral flow test, so that I could be certain that I was clear when I met them. It is rather impressive how you can book the test as close as the day before, and then receive the results around half an hour after you have taken the test. The weather was splendid on Monday and so we walked along Littlehampton seafront. Many other family groups were out and about, and it was good to have a brief feeling of normality.

 

Returning home on Monday evening, the peacefulness of where I live was shattered by the sound of rapid gunfire and occasional police sirens. Anywhere else in the UK, this may have caused alarm, but here in Hythe it is an irregular soundtrack that we are accustomed to. The army has their firing ranges nearby, and they fly a red flag (or shine a red light if it’s dark) to indicate that firing is taking place. At this time of year, many armed police units from London and the southeast come down to the army’s firing ranges to carry out training and exercises. To anyone who isn’t aware of this, it must be quite daunting to suddenly see a four-car strong police tactical unit appear out of nowhere in this relatively remote part of Kent!

 

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Smoke rises from Stromboli at dusk on 27th May 2019.

 

For the fifth and probably final time, we head back to Sicily. So far, we have visited Pozzallo, Licata, Mazara del Vallo, Trapani and Palermo. In the first ever blog we went to Syracuse. By my reckoning, that leaves Lipari, Stromboli, Messina, Taormina and Catania. The first of those, namely Lipari, is and isn’t part of Sicily. Whilst the islands are administered as part of the province of Messina, they have very much their own identity. Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands. The other six inhabited islands are Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. A few uninhabited islands and islets make up the remainder of the archipelago. The entire archipelago is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Our visit to the Aeolian Islands tends to include landing by local tender or zodiac on Lipari, and then sailing by Stromboli later that evening. Only once have I been able to join the shore excursion in Lipari, and it was a very pleasant island tour, including spectacular views across the archipelago. The excellent museum included artefacts from all eras, ranging from pre-historic, through Greek and Roman, to World War II. There were also displays explaining how the islanders have adapted to the constant volcanic activity. My assistant on the cruise was Reba; it is always useful to have someone who is fluent in Italian with you. I wonder if any of the readers of this blog noticed Reba on the television programme “Pointless” recently? I won’t tell you what happened, in case it is repeated, but I’m sure her experiences on the programme will make for a fascinating recap on future cruises! After visiting Lipari, we would usually meander the 23 nautical miles towards Stromboli whilst the passengers had dinner. The idea would be that we would be drifting off Stromboli at dusk. That way, passengers could see the outline of the volcano, and then as darkness fell we would hope for a performance. I must have passed by Stromboli about ten times in my career, and it has varied from absolutely nothing to truly spectacular. Whilst it is known as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean”, and indeed the episodes of volcanic activity are frequent, they are sadly not regular. A couple of times I have witnessed a beautiful eruption, other times the red glow of smoke rising from the caldera, and occasionally nothing at all. Either way, it is definitely worth taking the chance if you are sailing in the area. However, I still have no idea how the people that live on Stromboli manage to obtain buildings and contents insurance.

 

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 Looking out from behind the theatre at Taormina, with Etna smoking in the distance. 10th October 2019.

 

After sailing by Stromboli, if we continue in a clockwise direction, the next obstacle on our route is transiting the Strait of Messina, separating Italy from Sicily. At its narrowest point, it is just under two miles wide. Ships over a certain size have to take a pilot through the strait, but those which Noble Caledonia use are small enough to not require one. For many years there was talk of a spectacular suspension bridge crossing the strait. Such a monumental engineering challenge has yet to be started, and many doubt it will ever begin. So far, the only crossing that is not submarine has been a set of power cables across the strait, which were supported by two of the largest pylons ever constructed. The pylons were built in 1955 and decommissioned in 1994 after submarine cables had been laid. Now listed structures, you can climb the 1,250 steps to the top of the pylon on the Sicilian side for an unparalleled view across the strait. From our berth in Messina, the most popular excursion is undoubtedly the trip along the coast to Taormina. The coach ride itself is spectacular. The roads are a seemingly endless chain of bridges and tunnels. I can only imagine the look of disdain on the face of the people who were tasked with building the roads, when the route was suggested to them. It takes approximately one hour to reach the coach park for Taormina – wisely built underground so as not to spoil the picturesque town. The photo above shows one of the classic views of Taormina. If you look carefully, you can see the summit of Mount Etna rising above the bank of cloud, with smoke billowing from the top.

 

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The famous theatre at Taormina, still in use today. 6th October 2017.

 

Our day in Taormina tends to comprise of a guided walk from the coach park end of the town, at a leisurely pace, all the way to the ancient theatre. From there, free time is given until our scheduled departure back to Messina. However, we always offer passengers the chance to stay in Taormina for lunch and return on a later coach – and I’m always pleased to see how many take up that option. As you can see above, the theatre is still in use today, with the ruins being incorporated into the present day auditorium. The original theatre dates back to the 3rd century BC, but what you see today belongs to the Roman reconstruction in the first half of the 2nd century AD. The high back wall of the stage preserves the two lateral doors, while the central one has collapsed. Either way, the ruined setting is spectacular today, so one can only imagine how it must have felt for the expectant audience two thousand years ago.

 

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The Taormina café manager takes the coffee orders ahead of kick-off. 19th October 2019.

 

I thought I would include the above photo to prove that our passengers are dedicated to culture in all its forms – whether it be ancient Roman and Greek architecture, or the Rugby World Cup! On the day of our visit to Taormina, England were playing Australia in the quarter-final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The tournament was being hosted by Japan, so kick-off was quite early for Italian time. I had challenged our local agent to see if he could persuade a bar to open early on a Saturday morning in case any of our passengers wanted to watch the match. Not only did he find a bar, but we worked together to persuade our coach operator to run an early coach for anyone who wished to view the match and then have the tour of Taormina. Suffice to say, we managed to have said passengers enjoy their breakfast and then make the transfer to Taormina, and be in place for kick-off at 9.15am Italian time. The bar owner looked slightly bewildered, but he did a roaring trade in endless coffees. England won by 40 points to 16, and a very happy crowd of passengers then undertook the stroll to the theatre. I can remember feeling proud at having been able to give the passengers what they wanted. The freedom to be able to change things around in this way is something that wouldn’t even be dreamt of by a large ship operator. God bless small ship cruising! A final memory of Taormina – whilst it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean, if not the World, I would not recommend going there if a G7 summit is scheduled to take place a week after your visit. I have never witnessed security like it. Good luck to Carbis Bay in Cornwall later this year!

 

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The Elephant Fountain in Piazza Duomo, Catania. 20th October 2019.

 

A short distance further down the eastern coast of Sicily brings us to Catania. The city is the second largest in Sicily, after Palermo, but houses the largest airport and sea port, as well as important rail and road links. For centuries it has acted as a crossroads in the Mediterranean, and been influenced by countless conquerors, visitors, empires and geology. Options from Catania include a visit to the fascinating town itself, or a trip to Mount Etna. The photo above was taken on the town excursion and features one of my favourite monuments. The “Elephant Fountain” was completed in 1737. The elephant is made of basalt rock and is the symbol of Catania. Various legends surround the elephant depicted on the monument, but the roots surely lie in the fact that the skeletons of extinct Sicilian Dwarf Elephants have been found in the area. An adult male would have had a shoulder height of just under one metre (3’ 2”) and weighed about 305kg (672lb). An adult female would be slightly shorter and about half the weight. The Catania Museum of Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Volcanology houses a superbly conserved skeleton of a Sicilian Dwarf Elephant – and during the Islamic domination of Sicily a thousand years ago, the city of Catania had the name of Balad-el-fil (or Medinat-el-fil) which translates as “City of the Elephant”.

 

 

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Walking on the lunar-like landscape of Mount Etna. 24th October 2019.  

 

As an alternative to the city tour, there is the chance to venture up the slopes of Mount Etna. Every time we visit, the tour is different. Why? I am sure you have already worked that out. Etna is very much an active and moveable object. One year we might be able to reach almost the very top. Another year we might only be allowed half-way up. It all depends on the opinion of the volcanologists who keep a close and constant eye on Etna’s behaviour. My most recent visit is shown in the photo above, and you can see the passengers walking around the perimeter of an inactive caldera. Smoke rises from Etna’s main crater in the background. Looking at my notes, back in September 2010 I had a day to myself in Catania, and so I took a trip on the Ferrovia Circumetnea. Constructed in the late 19th century, the 950mm (3’ 1⅜”) gauge line runs for 110km (68mi) from Catania, all the way round the base of Mount Etna, to the coastal town of Riposte, some 28km (17mi) north of Catania. There is both vintage and modern rolling stock, and I took the train from Catania to Riposte, and then caught the mainline train from Riposte back along the coast to Catania. It was a splendidly charming and meandering way to view the Sicilian way of life. There are 34 stations in total, many very distant from any settlements, and yet my memory tells me that each station had a little coffee shop attached to it that housed at least a couple of Sicilians who were animatedly debating the day’s news whilst indulging in multiple freshly-made cappuccinos. You won’t be surprised to learn that, since Michael Portillo decided to take a ride on the Ferrovia Circumetnea, it has seen a surge in UK tourists. However, I gather that they are usually dressed in less garish colours.

 

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The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Catania. 21st May 2017.

 

One of our visits to Catania happened to be on 21st May 2017. From previous visits, I had remembered spotting what looked like a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery as we passed along the motorway in our coach. I conducted some research, and found that 2,135 Commonwealth burials of World War II are located at the Catania War Cemetery, 112 of them unidentified. On our cruises, where there is a historical focus, it is often aimed at ancient history. Whilst this is entirely understandable, I feel it is just as important to appreciate the recent history. My research had also led me to discover that the day of our visit, 21st May 2017, happened to be exactly one hundred years to the day that the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded (the name was changed to its present format in 1960). I asked our local agent to supply a wreath, and arranged the tours so that those on the Mount Etna trip, and those on the Catania city tour, would arrive at the same time at the cemetery on their route back to the ship. 160,000 Commonwealth and American troops landed on Sicily on 10th July 1943. The Italians, who would shortly make peace with the Allies and re-enter the war on their side, offered little determined resistance, but German opposition was vigorous and stubborn. The campaign in Sicily came to an end on 17th August when the two allied forces came together at Messina. Many of those in the cemetery died in the heavy fighting just short of Catania (the town was taken on 5th August) and in the battle for the Simeto river bridgehead. To his astonishment, on a later visit, my then Assistant Cruise Director, Roger Lord, discovered one of his relatives was among those interred at the cemetery. As one would expect, the cemetery is kept in immaculate condition, and there is an uninterrupted view of Mount Etna. On that first visit, the wreath that we had been supplied with was huge, even having to be transported on the roof of a van, and it took four of us to place it in front of the memorial. Having visited all the incredible ancient sights as we sailed clockwise around Sicily, it seemed fitting to end our visit with a poignant reflection on our more recent past. Until next week, goodbye for now.

 

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