Circumnavigation of Sicily

2017 Circumnavigation of Sicily Field Report

Susan Langley|December 6, 2017|Field Report

Wednesday & Thursday, September 27 & 28, 2017 - Valletta, Malta / Embark Variety Voyager

Welcome to Malta! The beautiful blue skies and sun-warmed streets of the honey-colored sandstone—for which the island was named—encouraged some of us to sip on a cappuccino in a sidewalk café, while more energetic souls explored the ramparts, monuments, and shops of Valletta. We assembled in the evening at the Grand Hotel Excelsior to meet our fellow adventurers and the Expedition Staff over cocktails and dinner. As night fell, we became acquainted with our new companions, compared notes on previous trips, and discussed each other’s anticipated highlights of the upcoming days.

Our adventure began in earnest this morning as we started the day winding our way through a patchwork of small farms separated by dry stone walls. After a short stop at the azure waters of the Blue Grotto, with its photogenic stone arches, we reached the megalithic site of Hagar Qim perched on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Dated between 3000 and 2500 BC, this is the oldest structure on Malta and one of the oldest structures in the world, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Returning to the capital city of Valletta, we visited the National Museum of Archaeology to view, among other artifacts, the exquisite Sleeping Lady, the fertility figure from the third millennium BC. The Grand Master’s Palace of the Knights of Malta kept our heads turning, from its walls and ceilings painted with historic figures to the stone marquetry underfoot. Strolling the colorful streets, we reached our lunch venue, the well-known Palazzo Preca, before exploring St. John’s Co-Cathedral.

Continuing to the Upper Barraka Garden overlooking the Saluting Battery of cannons, we were treated to a spectacular view of the multiple harbors within Valletta’s Grand Harbor. As beautiful as it was, it was soon time to board our ship, the Variety Voyager.



Friday, September 29 - Agrigento, Sicily / Licata

We awoke in Sicily, “Island of the Sun,” and true to its name, the sun soon burned off the morning clouds and provided a glorious day. We set off for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Agrigento, Valley of the Temples. We started at the top with the Temple of Hera and descended with stops at the Temples of Concord, Hercules, and Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple of Greek Antiquity. Ornithologist Jim Wilson even got in the fun, when he noted a Bonnelli’s eagle soaring overhead.

A short drive through the countryside brought us to the Mandranova Estate. The Palermo family that started this olive farm soon became enchanted by the area and left city life to produce exceptional olive oils and almonds. A relaxing lunch was followed by a tour of their small factory and the opportunity to purchase some of the tasty goods.

Returning via Licata, we had the choice of walking to the ship from the town center or enjoying a windshield tour back to the port. Either choice provided the opportunity to see several buildings in the Art Nouveau style, here known as the Liberty style.

The late afternoon saw us joining Allan Langdale, our art historian, for his presentation on Palermo’s Palatine Chapel: Jewel of Norman Sicily, as well as additional background information about Greek temple structure to enhance our site visit tomorrow. We then joined Captain Andreas Sifniotis for his welcome reception and dinner before we set sail.



Saturday, September 30 - Mazara del Vallo / Selinunte / Marsala

Coming alongside in Mazara del Vallo, we passed pocket harbors of fishing boats and small market stalls on our way to the Greek colony of Selinunte; occupied during the 5th and 6th centuries BC by around 100,000 inhabitants, it was one of the largest, richest, and most powerful cities in the world. The remaining structures are impressive whether they’re still standing or in ruins; we first explored Temples E and G and drove to the former Acropolis to visit Temple C, accompanied by ubiquitous Eurasian magpies. Accenting the ruins were flowering oleander with striking pink and white blossoms and lovely Spanish sparrows with their pronounced stripes.

Following lunch aboard, we headed off to Marsala, a Phoenician settlement. In 1860, Garibaldi landed here and planned his unification of Italy, a point of great local pride. Our first stop was the newly refurbished Museo Archeologico Regionale Baglio Anselmi, which houses a portion of the only known Carthaginian/Punic warship.

After time spent exploring the old city, our next stop was at the Cantine Florio, a venerable producer of fine Marsala wines. All of the vats were made of wood, as were the casks, and after an edifying tour, we were led to a great stone hall where some of us proceeded to try to spoil our suppers with delicious Sicilian savory and sweet foods and red, white, and Marsala wines paired with each type of dish.

As the Variety Voyager had repositioned to Trapani after we departed in the morning, we were able to stop near the famous salt pans and windmills of the region as we made our way along the coast. Rejoining the ship, those who wished could dine ashore, but most of us opted for an early night and some extra sleep for tomorrow’s explorations.



Sunday, October 1 - Trapani / Segesta / Erice / Monreale / Palermo

Situated at the northwest corner of Sicily, Trapani sits at the juncture of the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas. Some of us opted to visit the ruins of Segesta on Monte Barbaro; a huge 5th-century BC temple complex, Segesta was in perpetual conflict with Selinunte. Those of us who elected to take the other option, 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, the ruined Norman castle built by Roger I over an earlier temple when he captured the town in the 12th century. It also provided wonderful vistas, which included the impressive switchback road down which our coach would soon travel, although the walk to the coaches was fraught with temptation in the form of the pastry shops for which the town is justly famous.

We all reassembled at the lovely olive oil farm, Fontanasalsa. We were greeted by singer Irene Gambino, who continued to entertain us with songs and music throughout our visit. We visited the production area and enjoyed a formal olive oil tasting before lunch. Proceeding to Monreale, we entered the cathedral from near the fountain of Triton, and found ourselves awestruck by the interior; a jewel box of glittering mosaics covering virtually all of its 7,690 square yards 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. With just enough time for an espresso outside in the sunny Piazza Duomo, it was time to head to the capital of Sicily, Palermo, and rejoin our floating home away from home, which had repositioned from Trapani.



Monday, October 2 - Palermo

Setting off to explore Palermo, we passed the Massimo Theater to the Piazza Pretoria near the Quantro Canti, the four corners intersection where a former patron saint of the city stands over each corner. The Piazza is dominated by the large Pretoria Fountain, dubbed the “fountain of shame,” by nuns shocked at the nudity of the classical statuary. Some of us began with the Palatine Chapel in the Norman Plaza, with its sparkling mosaics, marble inlay and a wooden stalactite Arab ceiling.

Although we all eventually visited all the sites, we did these as smaller groups so as not to overwhelm certain venues. Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna personally conducted our tours and was not only a gracious hostess, but extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the history, art, and architecture of the sites.

We proceeded to the large Cathedral of the Assumption, also in the Norman-Arab style found largely in Sicily. This impressive structure—built as a church, converted to a mosque, and reconverted by the Normans to a cathedral—defines the Arab-Norman architectural tradition. It houses six royal tombs and the remains of Palermo’s patron saint, St. Rosalia, in a solid silver urn. Enjoying the sun, there was time to have a gelato or coffee, or go shopping for a bit and to watch cheery barn swallows darting and flitting over the city before we strolled through the Ballaro street market.

As we enjoyed lunch on board, we steamed toward Cefalù. We spent the afternoon with two of our staff; Susan Langley, our maritime archaeologist, who presented Beneath the Wine Dark Sea, Maritime Archaeology in Malta and Sicily, and Ron Wixman, our cultural geographer, who presented Food in Italian Culture.

We docked at Tèrmini Imerese, a town with deep prehistoric and Greek roots, though it is most remembered as a famous Roman spa. A few of us opted to head into Cefalù to enjoy a starry dinner ashore in this enchanting coastal town, as popular with locals as with tourists.



Tuesday, October 3 - Cefalù

Another sun-washed morning as we set off for the interior village-estate of Regaleale and the famed cooking school of Anna Tasca-Lanza and the Regaleale Winery; all contained within the old stone buildings, cellars, and gardens of the 1,200+ acre estate. Here we learned to make a number of Sicilian specialties and enjoyed a formal tasting in the cellars. Our two groups swapped places so that the first class learned to make a crispy appetizer of chick pea flour, panelle, and a typical timbale of pasta rings, timballo di anelletti, while the second group created a ragout of minted lamb, spezzatino di agnello e mente, and an impressive celebratory cake, cassata, all of which we enjoyed at lunch. The school provided each of us with a gift of a tote bag containing an apron and the recipes. At the winery we enjoyed both red and white varietals, and were provided with guidelines for tasting as well as bread, water, and a crachoir—although not much wine was dumped! After lunch we had time to seek out some of the local ingredients, including sun-dried tomato paste and honey from the rare black bee of Sicily raised on the estate. In this lovely rural retreat, we also saw a Sardinian warbler among the many flowering shrubs and roses.

Back in town, we enjoyed a walking tour of pretty Cefalù to visit the 16th-century lavatoio; a spring-based laundry or wash house that includes rock-cut washboards and the Duomo di Cefalù. This is the final jewel in the crown of Norman-Arab style and also dates to the period of Roger II in the 12th century. It is simpler than the gilded wonders seen to date, but still beautiful and emotive. As well as viewing many other historic structures explained by our guides, many of us enjoyed time to explore on our own or to sit in the cathedral square for a refreshment before heading back to the ship.



Wednesday, October 4 - Lipari, Aeolian Islands / Stromboli

We disembarked by Zodiac this morning to the miniscule harbor of Lipari, a town that is dominated by an archaeological complex with walls which now enclose the Archaeological Aeolian Museum, excavated ruins, a theater overlooking the harbor below, and the Cathedral of St. Bartholomeo with its Norman courtyard. From this vantage point, we watched ferries and hydrofoils arriving and departing for nearby islands with the frequency of buses. Descending, some of us joined geologist Tom Sharpe for a circular tour of the north of the island, that included stops to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the volcanic Aeolian Islands; they even spotted a spotless starling. On the northwest side of Lipari, they had a wonderful view of the whole of the Aeolian Island chain; this may be the only place in the world where an entire volcanic island arc can be seen in one view. In the northeast, they passed through the brilliantly white abandoned pumice quarries and made a stop in the village of Canneto where they scoured the beach for pebbles of not only pumice, but also obsidian, for which Lipari was famous in antiquity.

The rest of us enjoyed a panoramic drive and stopping for photos before we continued our culinary theme—learning to make pizza at La Macine. 

Weighing anchor, Kelsey and the captain managed to obtain special permission—swimming behind the ship! Once dried off we joined Olga Stone, our concert pianist and historian, for her presentation Myths as Legends in Art and Music, before Tom’s lecture on The Making of the Mediterranean.

As we approached the active volcano of Stromboli, Zegrahm hosted a cocktail party on the Ocean Deck for a little volcano watching and music. Susan set out a tasting of a variety of honeys collected along our journey and some bottarga, the roe pate traditionally from tuna but more often now of mullet. We spent the evening cruising and drifting around the active volcanic island of Stromboli.



Thursday, October 5 - Mt. Etna / Taormina

Passing through the Straits of Messina before dawn, we continued south and soon headed up the restless dragon that is Mt. Etna. The local people refer to Etna as a friendly volcano since it usually gives plenty of warning of impending eruptions. First, we ascended to the upper crater via cable cars at 7,000 feet, then boarded 4-wheel drive buses, and finally continued on foot. Circling the 2001 crater at around 9,000 feet in altitude, it was much colder and windier than one might imagine from a sunny garden in the city below. Returning to the lower levels there was time to fortify oneself with a sample of a local liqueur called Etna Lava, or perhaps just an espresso, before returning to the ship for lunch.

The afternoon saw us heading to the picturesque city of Taormina, reaching it via elevators to its cliff-side aerie. At the far end of town, the 3rd-century BC Greek theater is cut into the cliff with the sea providing a striking background to the largely intact stage architecture. A leisurely walk along the high street and some cunning alleys provided colorful photo opportunities and shopping to suit every desire. The 9th-century capital of Byzantine Sicily, the city is a smorgasbord of architectural styles and designs, and offers fantastic views from its three main piazzas that look over the sea. From this vantage point, it is not surprising that we would see crested larks. We gathered at the ornate baroque fountain in the Piazza del Duomo near the 12th-century clock tower before returning to the ship.



Friday, October 6 - Catania / Morgantina

Some of us began our day in the core of Catania; the second-largest city in Sicily, for centuries it has been repeatedly damaged by the eruptions of Mt. Etna less than 20 miles to the northwest. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city center is dominated by contrasting black lava and white limestone architecture, along with an almost whimsical fountain. After visiting the Cathedral of Saint Agatha, we strolled to the famous fish market. The market extends into other produce, cheeses, meats, and prepared foods and few of us returned to the square without a snack of some sort. We then sample a cone of fritto misto (a mixed fry) of sardines, calamari, and shrimp topped with an arancino rice ball.

Piazza Armerina was founded by the Normans in the 11th century but the nearby Villa Romana del Casale is believed to have been owned by Maximianus Herculeus, co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305), which explains its size (nearly an acre) and sumptuous, well-preserved mosaics. This extraordinary site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well-worthy of the designation.

Those of us opting to forego the city set off early in the morning directly to Morgantina and the Aidone Museum. The archaeological site of Cittadella Morgantina dates from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD, and spreads over two hills and the intervening valley. The acoustics of the theater remain as superb as the day it was constructed! We climbed some of the rises for better views of the excavated structures. Stopping at the small Aidone Museum in the village of Morgantina, we were able to see the contentious statue of Aphrodite (now believed to represent Persephone). After a typical Sicilian lunch at Al Ritrovo, we continued to Piazza Armerina to visit the Villa Romana del Casale before rejoining the ship.



Saturday, October 7 - Syracuse / Ortygia

For our last day in Sicily we berthed early, close to the bridge to the lovely Island of Ortygia. To avoid crowds and the heat of the day we headed straight to the Neapolis Archaeological Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered by Cicero to be the most beautiful city in the ancient world, Syracuse drew the luminaries of its day including Livy, Archimedes, and Plato. Vestiges of its glory days are evident in the large theater, and the massive Altar of Hieron II on which as many as 100 bulls were sacrificed at a time. The enormous quarries were not evident at first, as they are now filled with citrus groves, flowering trees, and bird life like cheeky jays. But then we saw the column that once supported the ceiling of the massive pit and we entered the remaining portion; the cave-like Ear of Dionysius, the scale of which is mind-boggling. From here we visited the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi to wander the many galleries dedicated to geology, archaeology, and ancient art, as well as an excellent coin and jewelry collection.

Some of us lunched ashore and/or visited the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia in Ortygia to view another Caravaggio, while others preferred to enjoy the view from the ship, where Allan spoke on, The Roman Villa of Piazza Amerina. Fortified both physically and intellectually, we set off for a walking tour of charming Ortygia, visiting the ruins of the Temple of Apollo as we strolled through the picturesque lanes dedicated to the various crafts that had been practiced there, and emerged at the Fountain of Artemis in Piazza Archimede. Plunging back into the alleyways, we reached the central plaza at the cathedral which incorporates the Doric columns of the Greek Temple of Athena, before we proceeded to the sacred Fontana Aretusa. From here, some of us returned to the ship to pack and others returned back through the streets for photo opportunities and a little last-minute shopping.

Our final evening was crowned by a farewell reception and dinner hosted by Captain Andreas Sifniotis, followed by an excellent slideshow created by Allan.



Sunday, October 8 - Valletta, Malta / Disembark / USA

It appears that many of us agreed with the captain when he said he counts the entry into Valletta’s Grand Harbor as one of the five most dramatic in the world, to judge from those of us present with cameras as the sun touched the golden stone of the walls and fortresses. For those of us not heading immediately to the airport, or with the luxury to be staying on in Malta, there was a final town tour with a bit of free time for those with later flights. Soon, after hasty farewells, it was time to say good-bye to the Variety Voyager too.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not,” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Related Blog Posts