Sicily with Montenegro, Croatia, Albania & Greece

Published on Monday, October 15, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012 - Palermo, Sicily, Italy: We arrived from all points of the world into the bright light of Sicily. The drive along the coast, between a glittering blue sea and dramatic mountains, took us into the center of the city and our comfortable hotel—The Excelsior. The evening was spent recovering from the effects of jet lag, a welcome dinner with a first taste of Sicilian cuisine, and a briefing on the first day’s exploration.

Friday, August 31 - Palermo / Monreale / Erice / Trapani: We set off after breakfast with our guides to explore the city of Palermo. Our buses took us through the heart of the old city, past magnificent baroque palazzi from the age of Spanish rule, to the Palatine chapel. The interior was extraordinary—every inch of the walls was covered with glittering mosaics brilliantly illuminating stories from The Bible, the floors were patterned marble, and the carved and gilded ceiling of wooden stalactites bore an Islamic influence.

We then drove out of Palermo to the hilltop town of Monreale, perched dramatically above the Conca d’Oro, or the Golden Shell, the bay in which Palermo lies. Its cathedral revealed a more expanded version of the unique Norman style with gorgeous mosaics and the tombs of the Norman kings. Beside it were the cloisters, a quadrangle supported by fascinating carved pillars, set around a tranquil courtyard, containing a soothing Arab fountain. A Sicilian lunch followed in Il Rustico, a restaurant on the slopes of Monreale, with fine views over the Golden Shell where we could admire Palermo’s setting.

In the afternoon we drove across rolling landscapes of wheat fields; one group explored the Greek archaeological site of Segesta with its dramatic Doric temple perched on a prominent hill. The rest of us drove up hairpin bends to the medieval hilltop town of Erice where we walked among quiet cobbled streets, visited churches, enjoyed expansive views over sea and land, and tasted Erice’s world-famous cannoli. A few of us descended by cable car to meet the bus.

We rolled into the port of Trapani to find the welcome sight of the Clipper Odyssey, our home for the adventures ahead, waiting for us with cool towels, drinks, and dinner, and a briefing on the day ahead. The ship headed off down the coast under a beautiful blue moon.

Saturday, September 1 - Mazara del Vallo / Selinunte / Mozia / Marsala: We awoke in the small port of Mazara del Vallo on a breezy and lightly overcast day, ideal for the adventures ahead. We set out to visit the ancient Greek temple site of Selinunte, situated beside the sea. The honey-colored temples of local sandstone standing against the now blue sky, provided the perfect backdrop for our group photograph. As we toured the site with our local guides, we saw giant cylinders of stone in jumbled piles, results of where earthquakes had shattered the original building. Pigeons cooed from the roofs, a cooling wind blew, and lizards scuttled among the stones.

Selinunte’s size and power were evident from the city’s extent, so spread out that some of us took the bus to the second part of the site to tour the ancient acropolis. Others followed ornithologist Greg Homel, spotting bee-eaters and flocks of honey buzzards migrating south at the end of summer.

After lunch on the ship, Allan Langdale’s vividly illustrated lecture on The Greek Temples of Sicily helped further explain the site we visited today, and those we would see in the days ahead.

We split into two groups to visit the area around Marsala, famous throughout the world for its dessert wines. One group took a boat across the atmospheric lagoon north of the town, where salt pans still produce mounds of glittering salt and old windmills stand beside the water. Our objective was the ancient Carthaginian island of Mozia just offshore. We toured the archaeological site and visited its museum. The second group took the bus round the salt pans then visited Marsala’s archaeological museum, whose prize exhibit was the remains of an ancient Carthaginian ship sunk by the Romans in 241BC—the world’s oldest surviving warship, complete with Carthaginian lettering on its planks. This was followed by an enjoyable stroll through Marsala’s atmospheric streets, where we were lucky enough to catch the spectacle of a traditional Sicilian wedding in the cathedral.

Afterwards, both groups joined up at Florio Winery. We walked through the cavernous halls where huge barrels of sweet smelling Marsala wine were maturing and the production process was explained. Then we enjoyed a sociable tasting of both white wine and the fortified dessert wine accompanied by sweet and savory Sicilian snacks. There was time to shop at the enoteca, then back to the warm welcome of the ship for the evening.

Sunday, September 2 - Agrigento / Licata: We docked at Puerto Empedocle early this morning under a full moon with the dawn coming up over the calm sea. It was a short drive from the ship to the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, once described by an ancient Greek writer as the ‘most beautiful city of mortals.’

The valley, a long ridge looking down over the sea, provided us with a spectacular and exhilarating morning walk. The temples, set amongst ancient, gnarled olive trees against a backdrop of blue sky, were a perfect experience of the ancient Mediterranean world. We learned from our guides that these temples were once covered with brilliant white plaster, a visible landmark for ships out at sea and a demonstration of the city’s prestige—now they are a rich sandstone color. We proceeded to the impressive and well laid-out museum, an awe-inspiring treasure trove of this huge and remarkable site.

We then drove through the rolling Sicilian landscape to Fuedo Principi di Butera Winery where we settled down to a long and sumptuous lunch of antipasti, pasta, and sweets (including more than a few cannoli!) with a wide view over the vineyards, and accompanied by samplings of the estate’s red and white wines. We enjoyed a tour of the winery and the chance to take home some liquid souvenirs.

We returned to the port of Licata where the Clipper Odyssey was awaiting us. We made it on board just as the skies opened and heavy rain, thunder, and lightning provided the Sicilian landscape with its welcome first water for many months. Snug aboard our floating home, we enjoyed a cocktail reception, hosted by Captain von Schnurbein, and the official welcome dinner, just as the ship slid out of harbor and on towards Syracuse.

Monday, September 3 - Syracuse / Ortygia: We awoke as the ship was pulling into the harbor of ancient Syracuse, once the greatest city in the ancient Greek world. We learned that the city was a center of early Christianity as we started the morning with a visit to the Christian catacombs, an extraordinary honeycomb of underground passageways and tombs, cut out of the solid limestone.

From there it was on to the Archaeology Park, the site of one of the largest theaters in the Greek world which could accommodate 15,000 people, and a Roman amphitheater. We then descended into the ancient stone quarries where the Syracusans kept 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war after a failed siege of the city in 414-413BC. At the end of the quarry we made our way into a remarkable cave, known as the Ear of Dionysius, where some of us were lucky enough to catch a magical experience. A small choir of young Austrians was putting on an impromptu performance of choral music. Their perfect harmonies echoing around the vast sound chamber were moving and unforgettable. We all came out smiling at the unexpected joys of travel.

Some of us stayed in town to eat. For the rest, there was a tasty poolside barbecue to enjoy and Christine Drake gave us an informative introduction to the historical geography of the island in her presentation, Sicily: Tracing History’s Imprint on the Landscape. We then enjoyed a walking tour with our friendly local guides. We divided into two parties to see Ortygia, the oldest part of the city, just as rain started to fall. We made our way up the old streets to the main square and into the duomo, or cathedral, which had incorporated the massive columns of the earlier Greek temple of Athena. As we were about to leave, an impressive thunderstorm broke out. The rain fell in torrents, thunder crackled and boomed around the cathedral, lightning flashed. One group made it to the sheltered awning of a bar. The other was trapped in the cathedral porch. The rain fell in shattering bursts, interrupted by more peals of thunder, for over an hour. Despite the sudden interruption to our plans spirits were high at our second unscripted ‘treat’ of the day. We finally made a break for it and sloshed back to our welcoming ship, for recaps from Greg and Allan, dinner, and casting off for new seas.

Tuesday & Wednesday, September 4 & 5 - At Sea / Kotor, Montenegro / Dubrovnik, Croatia: Today we waved goodbye to Sicily with a day at sea and the chance to catch up, sit on the pool deck, and listen to our lecturers. In the morning Ron Wixman explained the Food Culture of the Mediterranean and Roger Crowley put the complexities of Sicilian history into order for us with Trinacria: A Short History of Sicily.

After lunch, some of us signed up for a tour of the bridge, where Captain von Schnurbein gave us an understanding of how the ship is managed. Christine’s lecture on The Lure of the Adriatic briefed us on the coast ahead, and Greg’s presentation on Mediterranean Islands and Their Surprising Birds and Wildlife captured the imagination of even the non-naturalists among us. There was also time for an ice cream social by the pool and mini-presentations during the evening recap.

The next day, Greg inspired quite a number of us to get up early to look for migratory birds. As we approached the coast, we were struck by the looming and massive limestone mountains of Montenegro, rising up out of the dawn, and the arrival of the pilot boat to guide us into the gulf of Kotor. The sail up this Mediterranean fjord while we ate breakfast on deck was dramatic and extraordinary.

When we docked at Kotor we split into two groups. One explored the old Venetian town, a fascinating medieval labyrinth of squares, courtyards, palaces, and churches. They visited the maritime museum, St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, and enjoyed time to wander. Some hiked up the hill to the old castle and gained breathtaking views of Kotor.

The second group drove a short distant to the old seafaring village of Perast. From here a boat took us out to the miniature island of Our Lady of the Rocks, perfectly set in the sea. We visited its fascinating painted church, embellished with hundreds of silver plaques donated by seamen. Then it was back to Perast to stroll lazily along its front, visit its church and maritime museum – or simply drink coffee in the shade. Back onboard, Allan previewed our visit to Albania with his presentation, Basilicas and Baptisteries: Ancient and Early Christian Butrint, Albania. Before we knew it we were sailing into Dubrovnik in festive style in our most colorful outfits, cocktails in hand, and music playing.

Thursday, September 6 - Dubrovnik / Cavdat: In the morning we repositioned off Dubrovnik. We had a unique sail past the old city walls as we came to anchor in the bay and the chance to appreciate this 1,300-year-old town from the sea. A tender took us into the harbor, to land where the people of Dubrovnik have landed for hundreds of years, and to pass into a city with a uniquely independent history.

To tour we split into two groups, visiting the maritime museum where we learned of Dubrovnik’s seafaring and trading past, the cathedral with its extraordinary collection of relics, and the city’s ancient monasteries of the Franciscans and Dominicans with their tranquil cloisters. We were soon treated to our second Mediterranean thunderstorm, and waited it out from the safety of ancient doorways and loggias. Most of us took the tender back to the ship at lunchtime for a change of clothes and a hot meal.

By the afternoon, the Mediterranean had returned to its sunny self and we set off in two parties from the landing dock in town. One group drove into the countryside, first to the small seaside town of Cavdat for a stroll. Then it was inland through the Konavle region to tour a restored mill on the river Lyuta. We were shown the mill workings and walked upstream to a pavilion where we ate local snacks and enjoyed the pastoral setting.

The second group ascended by cable car to the top of the mountain behind the city. From here we had a magnificent view of Dubrovnik—a diamond of red roofs encircled by massive walls, set in a sea strewn with green wooded islands. Behind, bare mountains stretched into the distance, giving us glimpses of another world, the upland Balkans.

There was time for more strolling in town. Some of us walked the city walls, allowing us to view Dubrovnik from roof top level, while others enjoyed shopping and the chance to sit in caf├ęs, set among the picturesque backstreets with fascinating stone houses, alley ways, and impressive churches.

Our day was completed by flaming desserts on the pool deck after dinner and the lights of the city shining in the darkness of a warm Mediterranean night as we sailed south towards Albania.

Friday, September 7 - Durres, Albania / Tirana / Kruja: Morning greeted us with brightly colored cranes at Albania’s main port, Durres. We began with a visit to its fascinating amphitheater, only partially excavated, and poked around in the tunnels underneath to admire some Byzantine frescoes inside.

From there we drove to the capital of Tirana, a bustling place, still bearing the marks of its Communist past. Our goal was the national museum, designed as a tribute to Communism, with a mosaic of sturdy peasants and heroic workers over the entrance.

Lunch was served in the nearby Sarajet restaurant, where we enjoyed an Albanian style buffet and a spectacular display of folk dancing. There was an element of audience participation involved, with the braver among us stepping their way around in the room in a circle, with smiles on their faces. Albanian-American relations were further cemented by Ron’s virtuoso turn on the dance floor, which stunned and delighted the Albanian dancers. We finished with whoops and wild clapping.

Some of us elected to return to the ship for a leisurely afternoon, while the rest enjoyed a bus ride across the plains and up a winding road to Kruja, the haunt of Albania’s great national hero, Skanderbeg, who kept the Ottoman advance into Europe in check for twenty five years. The museum was fascinating, as much for the way the Communists projected Skanderbeg as an eight-foot high socialist superman, as for the actual facts of his life. We also visited the ethnographical museum, which recreates an early 19th-century house in wonderful detail. We made our way back from the fortress site over the cobbled streets via the bazaar, a typical Albanian market street of times past, where we could watch weavers at work and buy a range of souvenirs—from old farm implements to scarves and handicrafts. In the early evening we set sail down to the coast, with recaps on the day’s events.

Saturday, September 8 - Saranda / Butrint: We docked at the seaside town of Saranda and had the chance to cruise by Zodiac into the harbor over a calm sea. Our buses carried us through the booming seaside town around a winding road with magnificent views of the coast to the World Heritage Site of Butrint, spectacularly set beside a lake with views across the Vrina nature reserve to the distant hills of Greece.

We toured the site with our guides in the coolest part of the day, getting views through the willow trees of the lake. Our route led us past a small Greek theater, early Christian churches, and a marble well in which grooves had been worn by the action of ropes pulling up water over centuries. An impressive gate, carved with the relief of a lion devouring a bull, led us up to the summit of the castle with its wide views and informative museum. We had time to experience the entrepreneurial skills of young Albanian boys selling bracelets at carefully calculated prices as we headed back to the coach.

From there it was a drive to the Lekuresi castle, built by the Turks and perched high over the bay of Corfu, where we were serenaded by musicians playing Vivaldi while we paused for a snack. Hummingbird hawk moths hovered over the flowers in the garden and Corfu seemed almost close enough to touch. The hillside around the fort was strewn with the curious mushroom-domed concrete bunkers of the Communist era. On the way home some of us opted to walk through Saranda, while others stayed and cruised by Zodiac back to the ship for lunch.

As we sailed south into Greek waters, passing between the offshore islands and the coast, we had an afternoon of lectures. Roger entertained us with a glimpse of sailing these seas long ago in Wine Dark Sea: Taking a Zegrahm Cruise in the Past, a chance to fully appreciate the modern comforts of the Odyssey, and Ron gave us an account of Traditional Village Life in the Balkans followed by a slide presentation of his magnificent collection of Balkan folk costumes.

There was time for a recap adding further dimensions to what we had seen, dinner, and the surprise at putting our clocks forward an hour for Greece.

Sunday, September 9 - Itea, Greece / Delphi: We arrived in the little port of Itea just as the sun was rising behind pearl gray mountains. The sea was a flat calm. At once we felt we had entered another world—the pure clear light of Greece.

Our drive to Delphi was magnificent. We climbed up through expanses of olive groves, between bare mountains, and followed the route taken by countless Greek pilgrims to the ancient site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. We arrived early, before the heat had built up, and wound our way past the extraordinary monuments of this most magical place. Past the small rectangular treasury of the Athenians, once decorated with golden statues, and the temple of Apollo, where the Oracle dispensed ambiguous prophecies. Some of us made it to the magnificent stadium at the summit of the site before returning to the well laid-out museum, with its magnificent statues including the famous bronze figure of the Delphi charioteer, an image that took us back to the Greeks of Sicily.

Lunch was traditional Greek fare served in a restaurant on the edge of Delphi with a magnificent breezy view looking far down to the sea, miles below. We could just see the Clipper Odyssey beyond the tumbling descent of olives trees and the spikes of cypresses, while eating Greek salad, grilled kebabs, rich sweets, and local yogurt.

After lunch we drove to the small Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas. The small church, founded in the 10th century, with gorgeous mosaics glittering in its narthex, was a complete and satisfying expression of Greek orthodox art. We had time to buy the local delicacies in the gift shop—olives, thyme honey, and locally produced soap—before the bus took us along a winding coastal road with fantastic views of the sea far below and the mountains of the Peloponnese further south.

In the evening we enjoyed a cocktail party hosted by our captain as well as his farewell dinner, before retiring with the knowledge that we needed to be up in time for our transit of the Corinth Canal.

Monday, September 10 - Corinth Canal / Athens: The light was still low as we entered the canal, led by a tug to the accompaniment of short sharp blasts of the ship’s horn. The bare limestone rocks rose up sheer above us as we moved serenely along a channel hardly wider than the ship, to emerge into the Saronic Gulf—the gateway to Athens.

We passed among stationary merchant vessels waiting to go out to sea and slid snugly into our berth at Piraeus among towering cruise ships, and blindingly white and blue Greek ferries. As we progressed we had time for Greg’s presentation, So What is Birding Anyway?, so vividly illustrated with stills and video that even the least enthusiastic ornithologist was enthralled. This was followed by a final recap by the lecturers and Lia’s briefing on Athens and our arrangements for departure, and a poolside lunch.

In the afternoon most of us embarked on a tour of the most important sites of Athens. Our buses took us to Syntagma Square, the Houses of Parliament and the Panathenian stadium before the fitting conclusion to our whole trip—a tour of the Acropolis, marble white against the sky. We climbed up to the site with our guides and enjoyed a final salute to Greek history.

Then it was back to the ship to pack, to prepare ourselves for departure, and to eat a final dinner. The fitting conclusion to our voyage was Allan’s slideshow, bringing together his photos along with those of others in the party, a magic lantern tour of the whole journey. Mosaic churches, Greek temples, red-roofed towns, bays, lunches, faces, landscapes, carvings, and birds passed before our eyes, reminding us of all we had seen and done. There were final goodbyes before we headed to bed.

Tuesday, September 11 - Athens / Disembark / Home: We departed the ship to catch our flights home or to continue our travels elsewhere, carrying with us memories of our voyage across the Middle Sea in the aptly named Clipper Odyssey.

“Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
With what pleasure, what joy,
You enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
May you stop in Phoenician trading stations
To buy fine things,
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony…
And may you visit many…cities
To learn and go on learning from those who know.”
Excerpted from “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy