We arrived in Sicily early in the evening, dropped anchor and poured ourselves a glass of red. We were the only boat in the anchorage outside Licata marina, which for Aug 10th must be a first. We had been warned repeatedly not to be in Italy in August as the crowds were horrendous but 2020 is proving to be a year of change and tourist-free is one of the very few benefits. We caught up with Matt and Cristy from Trifecta for a late brekky and to check in – all very easy and a free check-in – bonus.
En route to Siracusa, we stopped at Ragusa and found a delightful beach town, with big sand sculptures and hoards of Italians enjoying their annual summer holiday. There is a large marina here where people overwinter and we checked it out to see if it was an option again this year if we can’t leave the Med. It looked great – we may be returning…
We arrived in Siracusa a couple days later and met up with Mike and Proud for dinner. Our first Italian pizza in Italy and the most expensive round of drinks ever! Siracusa is a lovely very old town with stone streets, pastel coloured buildings with wooden shutters and literally hundreds of balconies where people lean over to watch all the holidaymakers below. We spent a couple of days exploring but when we walked the 3km to the big supermarket we discovered a very different Siracusa, a town full of boarded up shops, dilapidated buildings and crumbling footpaths. We were told many young Sicilian leave and as a result there are many older retired people left behind.
We headed north to Taomina, and ended up anchoring next to a massive yacht which turned out to belong to the owner of Moet champagne and Louis Vuitton. There are some seriously big boats here in the Med and we always feel so tiny next to them. Taormina is a small hilltop town with Mount Etna nearby. You can hike to Mount Etna but as it is still active, we preferred to just watch it from our cockpit. We took the bus up and spent a lovely day exploring one more of Sicily’s old towns. We had a great lunch overlooking Indian Summer and her new neighbour.
When we left a day or so later we discovered that our boat was covered in ash – tiny little hard specks of ash. It was everywhere and even after washing the boat, we were still finding black ash everywhere. The next place we visited was the Aeolian islands. Also known as The Lipari islands. The Aeolian are a group of volcanic islands off the north coast of Sicily. We visited 3 of them. The first was Vulcano where we walked up to the crater. The view was spectacular and the walk was a bit tiring but worth it. After the hike we found the town, which had lots of bars and waterside cafes, so we stopped for a sundowner before heading back. The beach had the blackest sand I have ever seen, much blacker than most volcanic island beaches – the Sicilians didn’t mind though – running down to the water burning their feet as they went.
We called into Lipari – a cute place with lots of beach bars. These islands have over 600,000 people visit them in the summer from a local population of only 15,000 – so tourism is their lifeline.
The other island we stayed at was Panarea. This is the trendiest of the islands, and all the houses are beautifully maintained and freshly painted. I suspect most of them are holiday homes.
We headed up to Stromboli, whose volcano is live. You can actually see the red lava at night coming out. We didn’t stop here as we wanted to get into Salerno in the mainland- a days sail away.
Salerno – what a gorgeous town. We had been in Italy for a few weeks now, but not the mainland. We were not sure what to expect for a town so near the Amalfi coast but we were really impressed. We anchored in the large bay and took the dinghy over to the town wall to tie up, but were approached by a very excitable man. We understood we were not allowed to tie up there and with waving arms and talking ten to the dozen, he showed us where to go. We had to then clamber up some rocks and climb over a fence to get to the road – all fun and games. As is so often the case with these ancient towns in Europe, there was a castle high up overlooking the bay, but we never actually got up to see it as we were using Salerno as a base for the Amalfi coast and Pompeii.
We took the bus to Pompeii – which was free because the drivers are boxed in and we were not allowed to approach them due to COVID so he told us ‘free’. It was mid August and not the best time of year to visit Pompeii as there is no shade at all and it was very hot, but it is a very special place.
We had been visiting ruins since we arrived in Jordan, but Pompeii was different because it just stopped suddenly rather than just fell into decay. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD and completely covered the City. When the excavated it, they found that the town has literally been frozen in time. They found houses with frescoes still intact, people lying where they had been buried, whole streets with houses, and of course an amphitheatre – both a large one and a small one.
When I was 18, I went along the Amalfi Coast on a motorbike with a boyfriend. 43 years later I did the same journey on a motorbike with Ian… I had forgotten how beautiful it was – with all the little bays and the colours of the water. It is one of the most famous drives in the world and everybody seemed to have the same idea. The cars sat in traffic while us on bikes were able to weave in and out. We kept stopping to look at the view and eventually arrived at Positano – a town built into the side of the hill, with restaurants and cafes lining the narrow spiral roads. Such a pretty town and crowded with Italians. The international tourists have not yet come back and it was still crowded- it must be terrible on a normal August Saturday afternoon.
We visited the small hilltop town of Ravello on the way back and found it very peaceful after the crazy Italian drivers all trying to overtake. We also stopped for a vino in Minori and had a walk around. These little towns built on the coast are so beautiful but somehow they still retain their ‘lived in’ feel – maybe there are no tourists during winter.
We discovered something interesting that gave Salerno its fame. We went and visited the gardens of Minerva. I was a bit surprised when we found we had to enter them via a lift – botanical gardens via a lift???? We duly followed the signs and entered a small room that led to small garden outside – actually 5 gardens all going up the hill. They were quite pretty with lots of specimens and an intricate watering system that ran down the hill. The views were amazing looking out over the bay but after a hour or so we felt we’d seen enough and left. On the way out we went through a room with large written notices and we found out the fascinating story behind these botanical gardens.
Matthaeus Silvaticus founded the first garden of simple medicine dedicated to experimentation and science. This formed the basis for a medical school in order to teach students to identify medicinal plants. The garden of Minerva can be considered as the first botanical gardens and Salerno medical school was the first and most important medical institution in Europe during the middle ages and as such, it is considered the forerunner of all modern universities. It was in operation for over 8 centuries and closed in 1811. Incredible.. .
Time was pushing on and we wanted to get to Rome. We decided to sail up and stay in a marina nearby rather than train it from Salerno. It was a 3 day journey and we stayed at the small island of Procida on the way. I love the small Italian coastal towns. They paint the houses a different pastel colour and typically have restaurants along the waterfront and then many steps up to the hill above where there’s normally a castle. Procida was no different, so off we went, climbed to the top checked on Indian Summer and headed down for a drink by the water. Yes – a perfect evening in a beautiful setting.
We arrived in Fiumicino early in the evening and settled down in the anchorage to wait until the next day to go into the marina. This marina is small, maybe 200 boats but there was a small boatyard and a coastguard station there. We came in the dinghy and were promptly stopped by the coastguard who told us there was no room. We looked around at all the spaces and told him we would ask at the boatyard. With our appaling Italian (non-existent) and their English (also non-existent) we somehow managed to get away. We went to the boatyard who told us we could park our boat right here – Pointing to the dock we were standing in for €68 a night cash please. Sounded good to us so we went back to get the big boat. A hour later we come in on Indian Summer to be shouted at from the quay by the entry by a man who we presume was the management. We pointed to the boatyard and continued. By the time we got there, the guy had run round before us and was shouting at the guys in the boatyard, who were shouting back, gesticulating wildly and waving them off. We sheepishly tied up and snuck back on board. It was quite clear to us that the boatyard had pulled a swifty on the management and got us to pay them for their dock (it was the weekend) when we should have gone through the proper channels. We felt bad but as we had already paid we were not going to budge. They had to give us a key to the yard which we had to hide before we left – it was all a bit dodgy so we were glad it was only for 3 days. Gotta love the Italians!
Next day – the long awaited visit to ROME – Vatican first.
Up early to take the bus to the airport where we caught the train to Rome and then the metro the The Vatican. We had pre-booked the Vatican Museums and the Sistene Chapel for 1pm, so after a quick lunch we lined up with everyone to go through. These museums display thousands of artifacts collected by the catholic church over the centuries. As we wandered through we were stunned at the sculptures and artwork which include most of the important masterpeices of renaissance art in the world. There are over 20,000 pieces on display from a total of 70,000 – an incredible collection.
The final treat was the Sistene Chapel. Michaelangelo took 4 years to paint it but no pictures allowed unfortunately. No talking either but you could hear lots of ‘ooo’s’ and ‘ahh’s’
Next we walked to St Peter’s Basilica and St Peters Square. Before we came to Rome, we had imagined our visit packed with thousands of other tourists, getting hot and not being able to see much. Well, with COVID we were really lucky as Rome as empty. No foreign tourists, no tours with people waving flags, no shouting to be heard at the back… It was wonderful. August and we had Rome to ourselves!
We were not totally alone and of course we found some visiting nuns – they were so excited..
The next day we explored Rome. We knew the route this time so we thought we would get there in better time, but after catching the bus from the same bus stop, we noticed we were heading in the wrong direction. With good old trusty Google translate we discovered that the bus was correct, it just went via three other towns and took about an hour – we weren’t worried though because don’t all roads lead to Rome!
A fabulous breakfast filled us up in preparation for long hot walking day. It actually was not as exhausting as we thought because all the main interesting places are all close together and it was fun exploring. The Trevi fountain was beautiful and only a handful of people there. With over 2000 fountains in Rome, the Trevi fountain is the most famous and everyone throws a coin in over their shoulders signifying they will one day come back to Rome. The actual city is beautiful – we could have stayed here for days.
I loved the Piazza Navona. It is huge and has two gorgeous fountains, one at either end. We visited the Pantheon, The Colliseum and the Spanish steps amongst other things, took hundreds of photos and had a wonderful day.
With Rome and The Vatican seen, we decided to head away from the mainland and go and visit Sardinia. This was to be an overnighter so we spent the next day relaxing and set off early to arrive mid morning. We were heading to a place called Olbia, a medium size town well protected from the winds on the east coast. We anchored the first night in the river but the next morning tied up to the quay – a 2 minute walk from the centre of town. We were expecting a visit from the authorities to collect payment but after 3 days, no-one came. We had a drink one night with a New Zealand couple who have been around these waters for years and they said it was free! Wonderful – and unusual in the Med.
We found the cheapest gas to date, €27 for 20 litres and that included the bottle.. We bought lots of cheap Italian wine and dined out on the best pizza. Sardinia is much greener than Sicily and appears to be much better off. We didn’t see the run down buildings and the closed up shops that were everywhere in Sicily. The main street, the Corso Umberto is lined with great restaurants and bars and lead to a small square that comes alive after 8pm. We loved Olbia and didn’t want to leave but as we have ordered our new lithium batteries from China which are being delivered to Malaga in Spain in 6 weeks, we have to get a wiggle on, as there are still many places we want to see before we head to southern Spain.
We next headed up to the islands north of Sardinia. We anchored in an idyllic bay – of course all by ourselves and had our sundowners. There were literally hundreds of anchorages in this area so we were spoilt for choice.
We spent the night on the island of Caprera which is attached to Maddalena by a causeway. Garibaldi’s house is on this island so we thought we would hike over to see it, but with the anchorage all to ourselves, we spent the first night just watching the sunset over the bay. We dinghied to Maddalena the next day and found a lovely little town hugging the side of the hillside with various bars and restaurants lining the seawall. We did a very touristy open air bus trip round the island, mainly because we felt sorry for the driver who was desperately trying to get some business – we weren’t disappointed as the views were to die for..
We found a small pizza restaurant for lunch and walked around. It’s the beginning of Sept and even the Italian tourists have gone, so instead of finding an overcrowded, overpriced and spoiled town like we had been told, we found a little gem. We loved it and wished we could have stayed longer. Later on we went looking for Garibaldi’s house but we were on the wrong side of the island. Caprera is a granite island and it was lying everywhere. All the pavements are made of it, the steps and windowsills too – pink and other pastel shades.
That night we had a walk on our little private beach in the anchorage. A swim, a wine and a wander… tomorrow we leave for France.