Circumnavigation of Sicily

Published on Tuesday, April 19, 2011

  • Palermo, Sicily

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 - Valletta, Malta: Welcome to Malta! And what a welcome for most of us coming from colder climates; the blues skies and sun-warmed squares of honey-colored sandstone encouraged some of us to rid our travel kinks over a coffee, while more energetic souls explored the ramparts, monuments, and shops of Valletta.

In the evening we assembled in the lounge of the Grand Excelsior Hotel to meet the Expedition Staff and our fellow adventurers over cocktails. Heading to our welcome dinner, we watched the twinkling lights of one of the city’s many harbors as we became acquainted with our new companions, compared notes on previous trips, and discussed each other’s anticipated highlights of the upcoming days.

Wednesday, April 6 - Mdina, Hagar Qim, Marasaxlokk, Marsascala and Valletta / Embark Clipper Odyssey: The architectural details for which the walled city of Mdina, also called the Silent City or Noble City, is known are its colorful doors with elaborate knockers, winding lanes, and decorative balconies. Winding our way through a patchwork of small farms separated by dry stone walls, we reached the megalithic site of Hagar Qim and the trefoil temple complex of Mnajdra just downhill from it, the oldest structures on Malta. Some of us toured the new visitor center and Hagar Qim, while others took the opportunity to walk down the hill with Kevin Clement, our expedition naturalist, and Allan Langdale, our ­­­­art and architecture historian, investigating both the flora and temple of Mnajdra.  

After a brief stop at the harbor of Marasaxlokk to photograph its colorful fishing boats, we were off to lunch in Marsascala, a city founded by Sicilian fishermen. Our tour took us past City Hall to the Grand Master’s Palace, its halls painted with historic figures, followed by St. John’s Co-Cathedral, with its amazing floors of stone marquetry (pietre dure) and richly decorated side chapels. Some of us opted to visit the National Museum of Archaeology before heading to our floating home. Once on board the Clipper Odyssey, we enjoyed refreshments, settled in, and joined our companions on deck to watch the sunset as we slipped out into the Mediterranean and toward Sicily.

Thursday, April 7 - Licata and Agrigento, Sicily: Sunrise found us cruising the Sicilian coast and docking in the small port town of Licata over breakfast. Allan prepared us for the day with his lecture on the Greek temples of the island, before we joined our guides for a short walk to see several buildings in the Art Nouveau style, here known as the Liberty style.

As our buses climbed higher toward the Feudo di Principo Butera Winery, the agricultural diversity was manifest in the flowering almond trees, silvery-leafed olive groves, prickly-looking artichokes, and, of course, vineyards. We were greeted at the winery with an al fresco glass of chilled chardonnay, followed by a tour of the processing buildings, vats, and cellaring rooms. Our tour was followed by a luncheon in the courtyard on the hill, naturally accompanied by more wine, including the region’s famed red nero d’avola. The dolci were served with a sweet sparkling wine before we strolled back to the buses along rosemary edged walks.  

Reaching the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Agrigento, we started at the top of the ridge and walked down through the well-preserved temples of Hera, Concord, and Hercules. We returned to the ship in nearby Porto Empedocle, and joined Captain Alan McCarty for cocktails and the captain’s welcome dinner.

Friday, April 8 - Mazara del Vallo, Selinunte, and Marsala: Coming alongside in Mazara del Vallo, we set off to Selinunte passing pocket harbors of fishing boats and small market stalls. Uncertain of their exact dedication, the temple structures are lettered rather than named. We first explored Temples E and G, then drove to the former Acropolis to visit Temple C. Just below it, Pietro Frassica, our Princeton Journeys Study Leader and a native of Sicily, delighted us with a lecture about writer and playwright Luigi Pirandello in a setting not unlike Pirandello’s garden.

Back onboard, we were able to enjoy lunch before joining Jim Delgado, our maritime archaeologist, for a lecture about diving and the ships of the Phoenicians, excellent background for our afternoon in Marsala. Before heading into the town proper, we made a side trip to the salt flats of Mòzia and the Stagnone Lagoon to view the windmills used both to pump water into and between the various pans to produce salt.

Our first stop was the Museo Archeologico Regionale Baglio Anselmi, which houses a portion of the Carthaginian warship. The museum gardens, too, proved interesting with a rare example of a flowering cicad. Our next stop was at the Cantine Florio, a venerable producer of fine Marsala wines. All of the vats were of wood, as were the casks, and after an edifying tour, we were led to a great stone hall where we spoiled our suppers with delicious Sicilian foods and Marsala wines. We were soon convinced that we had to make a stop at the shop before we explored the old city. With a late departure, many of us were able to head back into Marsala for dinner before we bade farewell to this port and steamed toward Trapani.

Saturday, April 9 - Trapani, Segesta, Erice, Monreale and Palermo: Situated at the northwest corner of Sicily, Trapani sits at the juncture of the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas. Today involved tough choices; although we started together, some of us opted to visit ruins of the Elymian city of Segesta on Monte Barbaro, while others headed to the medieval hilltop town of Erice via the roads less traveled. Our guides eschewed the highways and we enjoyed traveling through small towns and villages as we climbed to the town of Erice, crowning Mount Eryx. Entering through the Porta Trapani we explored the hilly, cobbled streets as we made our way to the Castello di Venere, with wonderful vistas. We managed a stop at Segesta for a photo opportunity before proceeding to Monreale and meeting up with our companions over lunch. The restaurant hugged the hillside and provided a panoramic view over the valley and slopes to the sea below.

At the top of the hill near the fountain of Triton, we found ourselves awestruck by the interior of the Cathedral of Monreale, a treasure trove of glittering mosaics covering virtually all of its 6,430 square meters of wall. Considered one of the three jewels in the Arab-Norman crown, it whet our appetites to see the other two in the days to come. We were charmed by the cloister with its 228 twin columns, each with a different capital, and inlaid with even more mosaic. It was then time to head to the capital of Sicily, Palermo, and re-join our floating home away from home. Enjoying a brief coach orientation of the city, some of us couldn’t wait and headed off to enjoy dinner ashore.

Sunday, April 10 - Palermo and Cefalù: Setting off to explore Palermo we began with the second jewel in the crown of Sicily’s spectacular churches; the Palatine Chapel in the Norman Plaza. It was easy to see why it is such a popular destination with not only the sparkling mosaics, but marble inlay and a wooden muqarnas (stalactite) Arab ceiling. As a bonus, Al Leonard, our classical archaeologist and Archaeological Institute of America representative, arranged for Professor Gioacchino Falsone of the University of Palermo to join us; he kindly provided interpretation at a special stop to see recently unearthed sections of the Phoenician wall beneath the city. We were able to carry this architectural theme through with a short walk to the Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which exhibits a mingling of Norman and Arab architecture. Strolling through a local park with an archaeological dig, we reached the large Cathedral of the Assumption. Intending to take only exterior photos as it was Sunday and a service was in progress, we were surprised to find that a limited visit was still permissible. Our morning ended with a visit to the regional archaeological museum, which holds the metopes of Selinunte. It was too soon to leave and many of us stayed ashore for lunch in the myriad street side cafes and additional exploration while others joined the ship for lunch and returned later for free time.

Once we were all aboard we were treated to Al’s lecture about the first 5,000 years of wine, followed by teatime with an ice cream social, and Ron Wixman’s lecture on the cultural geography of the Mediterranean. During recap we moored off Cefalù and the keenest among us took Zodiacs to shore to savor the local cuisine.

Monday, April 11 - Cefalù and Lipari: Upon arrival at La Rocca, some of us elected to climb the 912 feet to the Temple of Diana. The rest of us visited the Duomo di Cefalù after investigating the lavatoio, a rare example of a spring-fed laundry washing facility that dates to the 16th-century. The Cathedral is the final jewel in the Norman-Arab style. Our visit was made particularly memorable by listening to the organist rehearsing on the massive pipe organ. Few of us lunched aboard, preferring instead to enjoy the cobbled streets, cheerful plaza, and colorful shops.

Returning to the ship, we joined Kevin for a wonderful and succinct version of The Odyssey, complete with Greek chorus and wine-dark sea! After tea we had another of Jim’s fascinating presentations about the sea as a great museum as we motored through the Aeolian Islands and before we knew it we had moored off Lipari. Having become old pros at Zodiac travel, a number of us headed for dinner ashore, wandering back to the harbor under a star-sprinkled sky.

Tuesday, April 12 - Lipari and Stromboli: We found Lipari as delightful by day as it was enchanting at night. The town is dominated by a fortified upper city, now an archaeological complex, with walls composed of sections from the Greek through 16th-century Spanish occupations. The walls now enclose a number of excellent museums, excavated ruins, a tree-shaded theater overlooking the harbor, and the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew. Descending from historic Lipari, we continued to explore its more recent offerings in the form of cheerful cafes, small shops, and the ever-present pastry shops.

Any regrets at having to tug ourselves away from the island were quickly dispelled when we joined Allan for an introduction to the mosaics of the Piazza Armerina which we’ll be visiting later in our journey. An excellent photographer, Allan also shared tips to improve the memories we’re taking home via our cameras.

Impossible to anchor because of the great depth, we spent the remainder of the day cruising and drifting around the active volcanic island of Stromboli. We joined Al for a lecture on ancient theater and theaters from Greek through Roman times. We enjoyed cocktails beneath Stromboli and returned after dinner for dessert and cognac to watch the volcano’s dramatic performance when, about every fifteen minutes, it would send up tongues and bursts of flame and sparks. At last we had to watch the mountain fade away as we turned our bow southward.

Wednesday, April 13 - Giardini-Naxos, Mt. Etna, Zafferana, and Taormina: Passing through the Straits of Messina just before dawn, we moored off Giardini-Naxos, the first Greek settlement in Sicily. About half of us elected to pack lunches and join Kevin, Allan, and Julie Christensen, our cruise director, for the day on the Ultimate Etna walk. This involved taking buses, a cable car, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and finally walking to the top of the Mount Etna volcano crater. With snow still on the ground and the wind blowing strongly, there was little indication of the volcanic activity recorded only a few days previously. The rest of us took the same initial steps to the lookout from which our companions caught their cable car. Even there a cold wind was blowing too strongly to walk completely around the lower craters and not even the samples of Etna Fire liqueur provided by a local shop could provide sufficient warmth to keep us outdoors so we wound our way down the mountain to the picturesque town of Zafferana.

Returning to lunch either ashore in the sunny seaside cafes or on board, the afternoon saw us setting off for Taormina, the Byzantine capital of Sicily in the 9th-century. By far the most striking sight is the 3rd-century b.c. Greek theater overlooking the sea. Most of us returned to the ship for dinner, while some elected to stay in Taormina.

Thursday, April 14 - Catania and Morgantina: We set off early on our day-long adventure, which began with a walking tour of the core of Catania. A World Heritage Site, the city center is dominated by contrasting black lava and white limestone architecture and an almost whimsical fountain. After visiting the Cathedral of Saint Agatha, we strolled past the large fountain celebrating the river Amenano and met up with the ship’s chef and hotel manager in the famous fish market, La Pescharia, before visiting the Piazza Armerina, another World Heritage Site.

After we enjoyed another exceptional lunch at a nearby restaurant, we set off for the archaeological site of the Cittadella Morgantina. Rediscovered and excavated by Princeton in the 1950s, the site spreads across two hills and the intervening valley. Kevin took some of us on a walk to examine the flora, and archaeologists Jim, Al, and Allan added to the guides’ archaeological explanations at the theater, agora, and in the residential quarters.

Enjoying the countryside and small villages again on our return trip, we arrived on board in time for tea and to join Pietro for his presentation about Sicily. During the evening recap, Susan Langley, our expedition assistant and resident beekeeper, provided a brief synopsis about the honeys of the island and provided five different types for sampling during cocktails. With the ship remaining alongside there was another opportunity to dine in Catania but most of us were eager to enjoy our chef’s market finds.

Friday, April 15 - Syracuse and Ortygia: Our last day in Sicily began with a visit to the Catacombs of St. John; on the way we passed the rock-cut temple alleged to be the tomb of Archimedes, although this is accepted now as more lore than fact. We also passed the modern Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Tears, a conical structure replicating a teardrop splashing onto the ground. The catacombs are a 4th-century maze of thousands of rock-cut tombs and tunnels with fragments of frescoes surviving in places. The nearby new Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum has an excellent and diverse collection. The Neapolis Archaeological Park is another World Heritage Site. The highlights of the site include an immense altar on which Hieron II sacrificed 400 bulls, the theater that was being prepared for the festival held annually on the site, and the enormous quarries, or latomie, which includes a spiral cave called the Ear of Dionysius with a tremendous echo.

After a barbecue lunch aboard, we crossed the bridge onto the island of Ortygia to explore the town on foot. We started at the massive remains of the Temple of Apollo which is the only vestige of the Greek occupation of Ortygia. We strolled most of the length of the island and returned to the center of the city via the Fountain of Aretusa, a spring with mythological ties. In the main square, the cathedral incorporates a temple of Minerva with many of the columns still standing and supporting the church. From here we scattered to explore or shop for our last hours in Italy.

Meandering back to the ship we gathered for our final recap; a chance to thank our fearless expedition leader, Lia Oprea, and for the staff to say their farewells. Then we joined Ron for the last presentation of our journey, an examination of the geopolitics of the Mediterranean, before joining Captain Alan McCarty for farewell cocktails and dinner. We all managed to forestall packing to join Allan and Lia in the lounge for a slideshow of our voyage that was so popular it had to be shown twice. Finally, it was time to prepare to head for Malta and home.

Saturday, April 16 - Valletta, Malta: Even Malta was sad to see us leave as we awoke to our only rainy day of the expedition. After last minute chances to exchange addresses and emails with new friends and say arrivederla to old chums, we made pacts to shun our bathroom scales for a while and began to disperse to further travels or homeward bound.

With a half dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites behind us and innumerable wonderful meals, we find ourselves between the intellectual and the secular philosophies of Pirandello: “The History of mankind is the history of ideas” and Sophia Loren: “Everything you see, I owe to pasta.”