2019 Circumnavigation of Sicily Field Report

Text by: Susan Langley | Main photographer: Jim Wilson|December 3, 2019|Field Report

Monday, September 23, 2019
Valletta, Malta

Welcome to Malta! And what a welcome; the beautiful hard, blue skies and sun-warmed streets of the honey-colored limestone for which the island was named, encouraged some early arriving guests to bask away our travel kinks over a cappuccino in a sidewalk café, while more energetic souls explored the ramparts, monuments, and shops of Valletta. While some of us could not resist probing a few layers of this history-rich city, and others preferred people-watching on the bustling streets, and a few opted to catch up on missed sleep.

In the evening, we assembled in the Harbor View Lounge of the Grand Excelsior Hotel to meet our fellow adventurers and the expedition staff over cocktails. At our welcome dinner in the hotel’s Admiral’s Landing Dining Room, John “Little John” Yersin, our intrepid expedition leader, introduced Kelsey Simmons, our amazing cruise director, presented the lecture staff, and we met Heather Garcia, our MIT Travel tour leader. As night fell, we watched the twinkling lights of Valletta’s many harbors and became acquainted with our new companions, compared notes on previous trips, and discussed each other’s anticipated highlights of the upcoming days.


Tuesday, September 24
Valletta / Ħaġar Qim / Embark Serenissima

Our adventure began in earnest this morning as we walked through the main city gates of Valletta, the capital city of Malta. The streets were still brightly decked in banners and statuary from the recent Independence Day celebrations and kept our heads turning as we made our way to the National Museum of Archaeology to view, among other artifacts, the exquisite Sleeping Lady; the fertility figure from the third millennium BC excavated at Ħal-Saflieni (the Hypogeum of Paola). Models of the megalithic temples of the islands of Malta and Gozo and artifacts from the Neolithic (5000 BCE) to Phoenician times (218 BCE) served to prepare us for the afternoon’s adventures. Making our way to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, with our local guide pointing out and explaining the historic importance of numerous monuments on the way, we were able to view the two splendid paintings by Caravaggio, while also admiring the stone marquetry (pietre dure) underfoot. The Co-Cathedral’s austere exterior belies the breathtaking interior as the side chapels for each nation represented within the Knights vie with the others in splendor. Continuing to the Grand Master’s Palace of the Knights of Malta, we entered the armory housing suits of armor for both men and horses, as well as an amazing array of weapons large and small as they evolved over the centuries. We made our way out of the city via the Upper Barrakka Gardens for spectacular views over the Grand Harbor.

Boarding our buses, we were soon winding our way through a patchwork of small farms separated by dry stone walls to the picturesque coastal village of Zurrieq for lunch at the Coast Cessarini restaurant. After this refreshing break we continued to the megalithic site of Ħaġar Qimperched on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Dated between 3,000 and 2,500 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 Valletta it was time to board our historic ship,Serenissima. As soon as we had our safety briefing and learned to master our lifejackets, we enjoyed a bountiful buffet and watched the stars appear and the coast of Malta fade away as we cast off and steamed through the night toward Sicily.


Wednesday, September 25
Pozzallo, Sicily, Italy / Ragusa

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 as we came alongside in Pozzallo, one of the island’s most important ports for 700 years, as well as an important beachhead as recently as WWII. A scenic drive along the coast soon took us to the dairy farm, La Masseria, Posto di Blocco 452. Its unusual name is a reference to a significant Roadblock (452) at the site during the Second World War, for which there is a memorial at the farm. La Masseria is a family-run agritourism farm that specializes in making traditional cheeses. After a brief video, we watched their master make provolone, which we were able to sample, before watching a milking demonstration that permitted us to taste milk as fresh as it can be, followed by a snack of bread, wine, olives, and different cheeses including fresh ricotta, and finished with the best cannoli most of us have ever tasted.

On our way again, we soon arrived in Ragusa, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its fantastic baroque architecture; a result of the town’s reconstruction after the earthquake of 1693. Our first views were spectacular as we wound through hairpin turns across the valley. Beginning at the gates of the 19th-century Giardino Ibleo, we threaded our way through the tangle of streets to the Ristorante Il Barocco for a tasty lunch before working it off exploring this charming city. With at least seven churches of note, we had choices to make and visited the Cattedrale di San Giorgio, where Matthew Whyte, our art historian, provided some valuable insights about viewing Italian Baroque architecture and pointed out features to note about the cathedral and other churches in Ragusa. While many of us continued to explore the lanes and churches, others were tempted by cafes and gelaterias, and some could not resist the allure of the many quaint shops and specialty food stores, especially for the renowned chocolate of nearby Modica. All too soon it was time to return to the ship for Captain Etien Bonacic’s welcome reception and dinner. Captain Etien not only introduced his officers, but also provided the history of our little ship and his evident to devotion to her. Before long we were at sea again.


Thursday, September 26

Coming alongside in Porto Empedocle, we set off for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Agrigento, Valley of the Temples; something of a misnomer since they are actually perched along a ridge. Although their exact dedication is not known, various attributions have been assigned to these Doric temples. It was founded in 581 BC, and its location and reliable water supply saw the city grow rapidly until it was famed in the 5th century BC as “the most beautiful city inhabited by mortals” according to the Greek poet Pindar. We started at the top with the Temple of Hera/Juno and descended with stops at the Temples of Concord, Hercules, and Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple of Greek Antiquity. The temples are largely intact and impressive in size, scale, and number. Almond and olive trees skirt the site and we even saw some Girgentana goats; a local breed distinctive for their long spiraling horns. In addition, we followed the remains of the massive city wall pocked with rock-cut tombs, before reassembling at the base of the ridge to continue to the Museum of Santa Nicola. This former convent now houses a large and significant collection of archaeological finds from the region including one of the large Atlas statues, which dominates one hall. 

Returning to the ship for lunch, we then joined archaeologist, Stephen Fisher, for his presentation, Who’s Next; A Short History of Sicily, and then, maritime archaeologist, Susan Langley presented Beneath the Wine Dark Sea: Maritime Archaeology of Malta & Sicily. These lectures provided context for many of the sites and artifacts we had seen and would see in the days to come.


Friday, September 27
Tràpani / Segesta / Erice / Marsala

Situated at the northwest corner of Sicily, Tràpani sits at the juncture of the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas. Today involved difficult choices; some of us opted to visit ruins of the Elymian city of Segesta on Monte Barbaro. A huge 5th-century BC temple complex, Segesta was in perpetual conflict with the coastal city of Selinunte. We visited both the picture-perfect Doric temple of 430 BCE as well as the beautifully-preserved Greek theater still in use.

Those of us who elected to take the other option, headed to the medieval hilltop town of Èrice via the roads less traveled, and thereby lay much difference. Entering through the Porta Tràpani, 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 had the opportunity to have a guided olive oil tasting before lunch. 

After lunch, we headed to Marsala along a coastal road that afforded views of the Egadi Islands, quaint fishing villages, and the numerous salt pans with their picturesque windmills that produce the famous Tràpani salt. A special treat was provided when Jim Wilson, our ornithologist, spotted a flock of flamingos along one of the distant pans beneath a sky alive with multi-hued kite surfers. Marsala is another Phoenician settlement; originally called Lilybaeon but renamed Marsa Allah (Port of God) in AD 830 when it was conquered by the Arabs. In 1860 Garibaldi landed here and planned his unification of Italy; a point of great local pride. Once again there were choices to be made and some of us opted for a stroll through this historic city and some time for shopping or resting. However, some of us headed for the newly-refurbished Museo Archeologico Regionale Baglio Anselmi, which houses shipwrecks and their artifacts, and highlights a portion of a Carthaginian/Punic warship; the only one known. Its sinking can be precisely dated to March 10, 241 BC during the last battle of the First Punic War.

We all regrouped at the Cantine Florio, a venerable producer of fine Marsala wines. All of the vats and casks were made of wood, 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 appropriate to each type of dish. Most of us were convinced by this that we had to make a stop at the shop before returning to Serenissima.


Saturday, September 28
Monreale / Palermo

Arriving in the hilltop town of Monreale, we entered the Cathedral, completed by King William II “the Good” in 1174. We found ourselves awestruck by the interior; a jewel box of glittering mosaics covering virtually all of its 6,430 square meters/7,690 square yards of wall. Considered one of the three jewels in the Arab-Norman crown, it piqued our curiosity to see the other two; the Palatine Chapel this afternoon and the Cathedral in Cefalù tomorrow. Just as enchanting was the Arab-influenced cloister with its dozens of mosaic-inlaid paired columns, each different from the other. 

Soon it was time to head to the capital of Sicily, Palermo, and the opportunity to visit the second jewel in the crown of Sicily’s spectacular churches; the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo Dei Normani.  Constructed by William’s grandfather King Roger II, 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. Its gemlike appearance is intensified by its small size, as it was intended only as the chapel of the Royal Court. The palace in which it is housed is now the seat of the Sicilian Government and we were able, also, to tour the state rooms and apartments on the upper floors. From the divine to the secular, we whet our appetites for lunch with a visit to the bustling Ballaro Market before reaching the Piazza Marina and the Ristorante Gulù.

After lunch we passed by the dramatic façade of the Massimo Theater and proceeded to the large Cathedral of the Assumption. This impressive structure was begun in 1185 by Walter of the Mill, Palermo’s Archbishop, in an effort to compete with Monreale and also uses 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. Returning to the Serenissima, some of us couldn’t resist the opportunity afforded by a late sailing and returned to the city for dinner or just to enjoy an evening in this vibrant city. They were not disappointed by the pedestrian streets brimming with families enjoying the nightlife of Palermo. 


Sunday, September 29

Another sun-washed morning as we docked at Tèrmini Imerese, a town with deep prehistoric and Greek roots, although it is most remembered as a famous Roman spa. Cefalù remains an enchanting coastal town; as popular with Italians as with tourists. We began our walking tour with the Duomo di Cefalù. This is the final jewel in the Norman-Arab style and, like the Palatine Chapel, was also built by Roger II in the 12th century. It is simpler than the gilded wonders seen to date, but still beautiful and emotive. Here the statuary and mosaics seem to depict more natural and human attitudes. Strolling through the narrow, shop-lined streets we passed many historic structures including the mansion called Osterio Magno until we reached the 16th-century lavatoio; a spring-based laundry that includes rock-cut washboards that saw use into the 1970s.  After the tour, many of us enjoyed some time on the local beach, exploring on our own, or sitting in one of the cafes filling the cathedral square for a refreshment with a view of La Rocca; a 376-meter/1,233-foot rock looming over the town.

Leaving Cefalù, our buses climbed ever higher into the hills and up narrower and narrower lanes snaking through vineyards until we reached the stone-built complex that is the Relais Santa Anastasia Wine Estate; an organic biodynamic wine cellar. The lunch and wine pairings were delicious and several of our number couldn’t resist purchasing wine, while others were Googling American importers near home. 

Back aboard our floating home, we joined Matthew for his excellent presentation, Caravaggio in Malta:The Artist’s Work in Context. During the evening recap we had the exciting news we would be going ashore in Lìpari with our ship’s Zodiacs and so required a special briefing for these. Soonthe coast of Sicily slipped behind us as Serenissimaturned its bow toward the Aeolian Islands.


Monday, September 30
Lìpari / Stromboli

We embarked by Zodiac this morning to the miniscule harbor of Lìpari. This bijoux 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 last period of heavy fortification was in response to an attack by the Muslim corsair nicknamed Barbarossa (Redbeard) that devastated the town. The walls now enclose the Archaeological Aeolian Museum, excavated ruins, and the Cathedral of St. Bartholomeo with its Norman courtyard, as well as four other churches. Reached after a gentle uphill walk from the harbor, we toured these sites, and from this vantage point, we could watch ferries and hydrofoils arriving and departing for the other islands and mainland with the frequency of buses. Descending from historic Lìpari, we dispersed to spend part of the afternoon shopping, swimming, munching pizza, or seeking the perfect gelato or granita. 

Back aboard, we joined Stephen for his presentation, Anywhere but Sicily: Sicily 1943, that provided insights into the invasion of Sicily in WWII. As Serenissimaweighed anchor for the active volcanic island of Stromboli, Tom Sharpe, our geologist, then presented The Making of the Mediterranean, to put our travels into an environmental context. As we approached Stromboli, Zegrahm and MIT Travel hosted a sunset drinks cocktail party on the Deck 5 bow for a little volcano watching and music. Susan set out a tasting of a variety of honeys collected along our journey. Impossible to anchor because of the great depth, we spent the remainder of the evening cruising and drifting around the volcano, and enjoyed a barbecue on deck so as not to miss any of the volcano’s activity. Some of us watched the Roberto Rossellini film, Stromboli Land of God,in the Andrea Lounge while others returned to the decks to watch the volcano until we steamed again into the night.


Tuesday, October 
Catania / Mount Etna / Taormina

Passing through the Straits of Messina before dawn, we continued south to Catania. From here we headed up the restless dragon that is Mount Etna. The local people refer to Etna as a friendly volcano since it usually gives plenty of warning of impending eruptions, but winding up the side of the mountain, we passed ample evidence of previous activity. Indeed, it has been somewhat active since July. 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 not as cold and windy as usual and the views were spectacular despite Etna’s smoking and steaming. We were able to see both Catania and our afternoon destination of Taormina. Descending to the lower levels, we returned to Serenissimafor lunch, but everyone continued to watch the volcano’s peak for as long as it could be seen.

Thus fortified, the afternoon saw us on our way to the cliff-side city of Taormina; reaching it via elevators to its aerie. At the far end of town, the 3rd-century BC Greek theater is hewn into the rock face with the sea providing a striking background to the largely intact stage. 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. Some of us gathered at the ornate Baroque fountain in the Piazza del Duomo near the 12th-century clock tower to return to our ship, but others, including those of us from MIT, took advantage of Serenissima’s late sailing to dine in Taormina.


Wednesday, October 2
Catania / Piazza Armerina / Morgantina

Once again, we had choices today. Some of us began our day in the core of Catania; the second-largest city in Sicily that has been repeatedly damaged or destroyed for centuries by the eruptions of 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 and an almost whimsical fountain combining a Roman-period elephant of black lava and an Egyptian obelisk. The elephant is the symbol of the city. We strolled past the large fountain celebrating the river Amenano, now channeled underground, at the entrance to the famous fish market, La Pescharia. 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 visited the Cathedral of Saint Agatha and continued through the squares and streets, admiring the diverse architecture of the government and university buildings as well as commercial and private structures. After lunch, we enjoyed free time to explore the city further or just relax.

Those of us in a more archaeological frame of mind rode into the hilly interior of the island where we were surprised to see how unpopulated and open it was after the harvest of the prevalent wheat fields. 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 a wealthy landowner during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305). This extraordinary site covers nearly an acre and contains more than 4,228 square yards of beautifully-preserved, vibrant mosaics, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site well-worthy of the designation. This amazing site provided much fodder for discussion until we reached our lunch destination.

The charming Masseria Mandrascate is a 17th-century fortified estate now operating as an agritourism farm producing wine and olive oil. Our buffet-style lunch was typical of Sicilian family meals and provided ample time to wander the courtyard, explore the former stables, and seek out the swimming pool overlooking a vineyard and countryside. Plenty of cats, a puppy, chickens, and geese, as well as the friendly family-owners made for a delightful break. 

Soon we were off to the town of Morgantina and the Aidone Museum. The small museum houses the famous, or infamous, statue of a goddess that may represent Persephone, as well as other artifacts all returned by the Getty Museum between 2007 and 2011 when it was determined they had been looted from nearby archaeological sites. 

Back aboard our floating home, it was time for Captain Etien Bonacic’s farewell cocktail reception and dinner. At dinner, the crew of the ship were introduced and entertained us with a farewell song, and after dessert we all assembled in the Andrea Lounge to watch the terrific slideshow that Jim had been photographing and assembling for us throughout the voyage as Serenissimaturned her bow southward toward Syracuse.


Thursday, October 3
Syracuse / Ortygia

For our last day in Sicily, we berthed early, close to the bridge to the lovely Island of Ortygia. We began our morning at the ruins of the Basilica di San Giovani under which lie the catacombs. These are a 4th-century maze of thousands of rock-cut tombs and tunnels, with fragments of frescoes surviving in places; definitely a place to stay near our companions. From here, we walked to the nearby Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi to wander the many galleries dedicated to geology, archaeology, ancient art, and Greek Theater, as well as an excellent coin and jewelry collection. 

We completed our morning at the Neapolis Archaeological Park; another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Settled by colonists from Corinth, Syracuse reached its zenith in the 4th century BC. Vestiges of its glory days are evident in the large theater, and the massive Altar of Hieron II, where as many as 100 bulls were sacrificed at a time. The enormous latomie(quarries) were not evident at first, as they are now filled with a citrus grove and flowering trees, until 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. 

After lunch aboard or ashore, we set off on a walking tour of the charming island of Ortygia. We first visited the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, then made our way to the Fountain of Artemis (possibly Diana) in the Piazza Archimede. This is the historic Jewish section; there is an ancient miqwe(ritual bath) nearby. Plunging back into the alleyways, we emerged at the central plaza and went first to the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia to view another Caravaggio. Finally, we proceeded to the sacred Fontana Aretusa. This freshwater spring was the ancient city’s main source of water and part of the reason the site was settled. Now populated by Muscovy ducks, gray mullet, and papyrus stands, it is a popular gathering place. From here we returned through the picturesque lanes, many dedicated to the various crafts that had been practiced there (rope making, chandlers, etc.) for photo opportunities and a little last-minute shopping. 

Friday, October 4
Valletta, Malta / Disembark

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 most dramatic in the world, judging from those of us present with cameras as the sun touched the golden stone of the walls and fortresses. Soon, after hasty farewells, it was time to say good-bye to Serenissimatoo.


Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson  

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