Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

We arrived at the Grand Harbor in the city of Siracusa (Syracuse) at about 1930 hours.  The setting cast a lovely glow on the handsome buildings in the old town.  The Grand Harbour quay was undergoing renovations, so we anchored in the large and well protected bay.  Celebrating our arrival in Sicily over sundowners, we could see the smoking cone of Mt. Etna directly to our north.   

The next morning we splashed the dinghy and made our way into town.  A small corner of the “marina” had been allocated for dinghy landing, making visits to the city convenient for us “anchor outs.”  The marina itself was a bit ramshackle and lacking any sort of breakwater or wave attenuator, offered no more protection than the anchorage. We made an enquiry we found out that it would cost us €140 per day plus power and water for a berth, and it wasn’t even high season.  Someone was definitely capitalizing on the closure of the 500 meter long Grand Harbour quay which had offered free berthing to visiting yachts.  

Siracusa was once considered to be the most beautiful city of the ancient world and it lives up to its reputation.  Along its narrow marble streets are an impressive array of buildings, many of which have been beautifully restored, showcasing the varying architectural styles of its long history.  Staking out a table at a cafe on the Piazza, we enjoyed an Italian coffee and some excellent people watching.  It was a Saturday and at least four groups of newlyweds and their wedding parties came down to the Piazza to have wedding photos taken in front of the town’s spectacular Duomo.  It was quite the fashion show!

Wedding photos at the Duomo, Siracusa

Entrance to the aquarium, Siracusa

Art on the Piazza, Siracusa 

We returned to town that evening for happy hour and went to a small bar recommended by a friend.  The wine was inexpensive and good and after awhile the bar was turned into a buffet of “appetizers.” Sampling our way through the plethora of Italian specialties, we found we soon had no more appetite for dinner. 

In town the next day we found the local market on a street at the edge of the old town.  On a street lined with crumbling buildings were stalls with vendors hawking fruits and vegetables, cheeses and sausages, meats and fish, herbs and spices, clothing and homewares, much as they probably did for the past few hundred years.  It was loud and crowded and all the combined aromas combined into an olfactory assault.  We picked up some provisions including some fresh tuna and swordfish from the Strait of Messina.

Fishmonger at the local market, Siracusa

Once again we returned to town for dinner and found a lovely little garden restaurant called Il Cenacolo.   Shortly after we arrived it completely filled up with locals.  We enjoyed an incredible meal of two of the local specialties-fish soup and beef couscous.  The prices were very reasonable and the portions so huge we couldn’t finish it all. 

The fuel dock at Syracusa was in very tight quarters inside the marina, so we decided to head north to Augusta to take on diesel.  We tied up to the quay and one of the local men rang the proprietor of the fuel service who came down (on a Sunday) to turn on the pump for us.  She normally catered to the local fishing fleet so did not have facilities for accepting credit cards, but she was kind enough to drive me up to the only ATM in town so I could pull out some cash.  She even made us an espresso while we were pumping diesel.   After fueling we moved a couple miles north to Porto Xifonia where we found good protected anchorage for the night.   

While we were swimming and bathing off the swim step, I managed to whack my melon on the emergency rudder gudgeon, opening up an inch-and-a-half cut just below my hairline.  Dr. Merima applied butterfly bandages after which I applied two martinis to ease the pain.  Another boat bite and battle scar. 

Winds were light the next morning so we motored up the east coast of Sicily towards the enclave of Taormina. It was an uncharacteristically clear day and along the way we were able to see the whole of Mt. Etna, unobscured by the typical blanket of haze.  As we approached Taormina, we saw an unusually large mega yacht at anchor.  It looked a bit familiar and as we drew closer I recognised it as Bill Allen’s (the other Microsoft Bill-ionnaire) Tatoosh.  She’s around 200 feet overall and has a full compliment of toys including a 40-ish foot yacht strapped to the port side, a 40-ish foot sport fishing boat strapped to the starboard side and a helicopter on a pad aft.   We took anchorage amongst her and a few other mega yachts at the foot of the cliff below Taormina and there went the neighborhood.

Mt. Etna from the Strait of Messina

Approaching the enclave of Taormina

Tatoosh and her “toys” 

We set out in the cool of the next morning and walked up the steep, old and decrepit path/stairway up to town.  Taormina is a romantic medieval village perched upon a terrace.  With its bright flowers and frivolous Sicilian decor, it explodes with color.  Its position offers stunning views up and down the dramatic coastline and of nearby Mt. Etna.  We spent the morning exploring the narrow streets and checking out the chic and pricey shops on Corso Umberto, the main street through the old walled village.  Taormina was crawling with tourists until siesta time when it suddenly went.  We stopped for lunch at an excellent trattoria/pizzeria, had another wander through the quiet streets and then headed back down the hot trail to sea level before the afternoon rush.

A colorful side street, Taormina

Blossoms on the piazza, Taormina

An antique shop on the Corso Umberto, Taormina

Produce barrow, Taormina

Doors with Sicilian decoration, Taormina

Balcony decor, Taormina 

With the wind forecast at 8-9 knots through the Strait of Messina, we thought the following day would be an excellent time to shoot through to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian Islands.  The forecasters got it wrong and within a half an hour of leaving Taormina, we were bashing into 30 knot headwinds and short steep seas.  If that wasn’t enough to deal with, we were constantly dodging the incessant ferry traffic steaming back and forth across the strait.  We found some relief by hugging the coast of Sicily until we passed the city of Messina.  At that point the winds rapidly moderated and by the time we made it the last few miles to Capo Peloro at the north end of the Strait, the winds were down to six knots and the seas were flat calm again.  With no clouds in the sky and no pressure gradient on the weather charts, we wonder how these weird weather systems can suddenly come and go. 

At Capo Peloro we hung a sharp left turn and headed out to the Aeolian Islands.   The islands get their name from Aeolis, the wind God, and are little more than seven volcanic cones poking out of the depths of the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The Aeolian Islands offer an interesting departure from coastal cruising in Italy.   Our first stop was the island of Vulcano, appropriately named as the main settlement, Porto Levante sits at the foot of an active volcano.  From its cone comes an endless trail of sulfuric steam and odiferous mud.  Down near sea level there are sulfur and mud baths, attracting a lot of rather unattractive tourists who subscribe to their therapeutic value.  While the anchorage offers the best protection in the Aeolian Islands against the prevailing westerlies, it is rather cozy and steep-to and can get very crowded, particularly during the high season.  When the wind shifted at night, we found the rotten egg smell from the baths a bit off-putting.  High speed ferries come and go all day long throwing up a sizeable wash in the harbor.  The town itself is rather uninspiring and the whole scene reminded me of one of the many outposts in the Sea of Cortez along the coast of Baja California.  With the weather settled, we found anchorage on the other side of the island at Porto di Ponente to be calmer, less crowded, less smelly and with an unobstructed view of some of the islands to the west, it was a prime position for taking in a nice sunset.

Anchored next to an active volcano, Isola Vulcano

Sunset in the Aeolian Islands  

In settled weather we headed northwest to the Island of Filicudi.   Reputed to be the most rugged and beautiful, it didn’t disappoint.  We anchored in Porto Filicudi where there were never more than two or three yachts.  The water was crystal clear and there were but a few people on the rocky beach.  The green volcanic cones bore many terraces, indicating that this island had been cultivated in ancient times.  The small port town was quaint and had just enough amenities to support those arriving or departing by ferry.  Most of the accommodation was in the village as short drive up the hill. 

The anchorage at Isola Filicudi

Lichen on the rocks, Filicudi 

We found the footpath leading from sea level to the main village and hiked up through the dense growth.  The village was quaint and reminded us of those in the Greek Cyclades Islands.  Views down to the harbour and the surrounding islands were spectacular.  We enjoyed the quiet of this place and spent a couple days hiking on the island trails, swimming and chilling out.  On a calm day we took the dinghy around to the SW corner of the island to see the Grotto del Bue Marina, a deep cave in the shoreline, and La Canna, an impressive rock pinnacle that juts 67 meters out of the water. 

At 0300 the next morning the wind began to pipe up and by late morning it was blowing nearly a gale.  It was apparent to us that this anchorage would not offer us much in the way of protection once the swell got up and started refracting around the north side of the island.  We picked up the anchor and sailed downwind to the village of Santa Marina on the island of Salina.  We anchored off the village for awhile but the swell was refracting around the island in both directions.   With gusty winds we found it to be very uncomfortable.  We made another downwind dash to the nearby island of Lipari where we were able to find reasonable anchorage off of an old pumice quarry near the town of Canneto.  It was far from the most attractive anchorage in the Aeolian Islands, but with a shallow sand bottom, we had good holding, plenty of room to swing, and got a reasonable night’s sleep. 

The next morning we headed to the main town of Lipari where we attempted to find anchorage.   While the protection from wind and swell was excellent, the shallow spots were quite crowded.  We attempted seven times to anchor in 15 to 20 meters but could not get firmly hooked.  The bottom was weed and quite foul.  We pulled up bags, old pipe, weed and other assorted rubbish.  We finally gave up and headed across the channel back to Porto Levante.  If it was crowded at least we would have decent holding while we rode out the blow. 

We were fortunate to find a good spot at Porto Levante and got hooked on the rocky bottom on the first go.  We spent a couple of days catching up on writing and maintenance while we waited for the weather to moderate.  We also amused ourselves witnessing the displays of anchoring etiquette (or lack of) by our fellow cruisers.   

The first, and most outrageous situation was when a 36’ Canadian flagged yacht dragged anchor.  With the boat drifting off to sea, the crew were lifting the anchor with a manual windlass-a slow and difficult task, especially considering all their chain rode was hanging in deep water.  The skipper of a British-flagged yacht saw their loss his gain and immediately lifted his anchor and moved to the better spot the Canadians had unintentionally vacated and set his hook.  Fortunately, the Canadians got their anchor up before they had drifted all the way to Sicily and were able to find another suitable spot just shoreward of where they had been.   

Later on, an Italian-flagged yacht came in and anchored (too) close to us.  Their idea of anchoring etiquette was to put out fenders, splash their dinghy and then head ashore to dinner.  That evening in a squall we all turned 90 degrees and they came within ten feet of us.  Speaking to the captain, he was not at all concerned, probably because he was on a chartered yacht.  I pointed out to him that while his was a charter boat, ours was our home.   He refused to move, but put out a kedge anchor giving us a bit more breathing room.  Winds were shifty that night and they were moving a lot.  Every time I woke up that night to check on things I noticed that he was in the cockpit keeping an anchor watch.   

An Austrian-flagged yacht came in and anchored too close to the aforementioned Italian yacht.  His solution to the problem was to tie his stern to a mooring occupied by a RIB-without permission and not knowing its capacity.  Very cheeky! 

One afternoon a large catamaran came in and attempted to anchor close to the shore in shallow water.  His anchor must have fouled that of a small yacht that had been there for a couple of days, as the small yacht, which was unattended, went heading out to sea.  The catamaran did manage to get a dinghy in the water and a man on the small yacht to attend to it.  The owner of the small yacht had been ashore and frantically rowed downwind to catch up to his boat.  Everyone got anchored again without further incident and the show was over for the day. 

With the decks washed by a bit of rain and the wind moderated, we headed northwest to the island of Panarea.  We found good anchorage off the town and for a few hours were the only yacht there.  By nightfall, the anchorage was reasonably full and the laid moorings were filled with punters taking advantage of the water taxi service into town. 

So far in Italy, it seems it is blowing a gale, or dead calm.  We rose the next morning and in no wind and flat calm water, headed for the mainland, passing close to the perfectly formed cone that is the island of Stromboli.  It is perpetually active and a bit of smoke can usually be seen wafting from its caldera.  We were due for a bit of marina time where we could clean the boat, do laundry and pick up a few provisions, so we headed to the little port town of Vibo Valentia.

The caldera of Isola Stromboli smouldering in the breeze

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