Saturday, 10 January 2015

Rome, then Home

I don’t imagine that our few days of brief impressions can add much to the volumes written about Rome over the last few thousand years, but here they are, for what it’s worth. Firstly, of course, Rome was the centre of the greatest and richest of ancient empires. What remains from the age of the Caesars is grandiose, designed as a display of wealth and power. The remnants of the Fascist era seek to echo that sense of empire. With a bit of effort you can imagine triumphal marches down the broad Appian Way (we saw its terminus back in Brindisi), games and spectacles in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, impassioned speeches from the balconies of grand public buildings. To be honest, touring the major attractions lacked something – perhaps it was overexposure, the fact that we’ve seen far better sites in Tunisia and Turkey, or the decidedly less than enthusiastic attitude of those who work there, but James Joyce’s cutting comment resonated a little for me: “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse”. Not as bad as that, but you get the idea.

It is pretty impressive though
Rome feels as though it’s been thoroughly lived-in forever. A stroll around any part of the city reveals layers of human activity from Neolithic foundations to contemporary fashion houses, and everything in between. The Roman ruins are not the only ones – decaying remnants of houses, factories and office buildings of every age are everywhere. It feels as if nothing is ever demolished and replaced – you simply build on and leave the old stuff to collect litter and crumble away. But it is never dull. Just sitting and watching the tourists and the fashionable, flamboyant Romans is endlessly entertaining, as are the interesting little shops and cafes. (There is no such thing as a bad coffee here.)
Gepetto's workshop

 We stayed in a terrific four room apartment, Lilium House, not too far from town and easily accessed by bus, metro or on foot. The apartment’s owners, Angelo and Marcia, provide a pickup service from the train station for €15, an airport dropoff for €30 (a taxi has a fixed price of €48!) They are also very helpful with advice, directions and tips for enjoying the city. The usual reconnoitre on an open top bus was a good way to orient ourselves to the city, followed by a few days of sightseeing, shopping and plenty of eating. We decided to save some major attractions, like the Vatican, until we return in March.

Then the long haul home to Western Australia!  Similar climate – different in almost every other respect…

It’s been a fantastic few weeks so far, spending time with Lizzy and Martin and their partners, catching up with family and dear friends in Perth and the south west. And despite the wonders of the Med, its history, culture, people and beautiful places, it really is a pleasure to return to a place that is clean, shiny and prosperous, set on a glorious coastline. There are still plenty of wild places. I walked a couple of kilometres along our local beach the other day in perfect weather, meeting just two people fishing for whiting and a bloke walking his dog. Not a single plastic bag, can, pile of dog poop or chunk of polystyrene to be seen. Let’s try to keep it that way.

Saturday, 22 November 2014



Agrigento from the Valli d'Templi

Just a one hour bus trip from the marina in Licata, Agrigento is the regional capital and the jumping off point to tour the Valli di Templi, Sicily’s best preserved Greco-Roman site. We stayed in a great little place called B&B Rabate, which is just outside the old hilltop town and has a fine view over the valley and a beautiful old church just opposite. Francesca the proprietor clearly loves her town and Sicily, and is very helpful with ideas for things to see, places to go and great restaurants to visit. She speaks only a little English, but our Italian is improving and we find the Sicilian people so expressive that it’s usually easy to pick up what they mean. Comfortable bed, good shower, everything very clean, nice breakfast – a fine place to stay if you’re in this part of the world!

Francesca and two of her children
On our first morning it was pouring with rain, so the visit to the temples would have to be postponed – but only for an hour or so, as it turned out. The rain stopped, the sun came out and the light was gloriously clear. Francesca dropped us off at the start of the walk and we were treated to the sight of the beautiful golden sandstone structures glowing in the sunlight, washed clean by the rain. The temple complex dates from the fifth to the fourth century BC, from the Greek city Akragas which was described in ancient texts as “the most beautiful city mortals had ever built” and also as “exceedingly opulent”.  The remains of seven temples and various other buildings sit along a ridge in the middle of the Akragas Valley, which is filled with olive and almond trees, with the Temple of Concord the best preserved. A museum holds the archaeological finds from this extensive site, including a giant male figure which formed a supporting pillar for the Temple of Zeus. A brother to this figure lies on his back at the temple itself, looking like an eternal sunbather.
 Ancient olive tree and the Temple di Concordia


The old town was a great place for shopping and exploring, with the tiny steep back alleys, interesting shops and surprising architectural treasures we’ve come to expect in this part of the world. The big difference seems to be that the old places are seldom pulled down to make way for the new. New interiors are created within 15th century walls, or added on right next door while the old stuff slowly crumbles away in scenic fashion. Highly visible are certain big developments that are sitting where they clearly shouldn’t be, because “someone knew someone who paid someone”.
Back alley, Agrigento 
The Street of Street Art (that's what they call it)

Via Atenea
 Via Atenea
Teatro Pirandello (Agrigento's Nobel Laureate of about 1934 or so)

We had several excellent meals, notably at “Opera”

The view from the window is out over the Valley d'Templi

and a great restaurant called Osteria ExPanificio.

For Christine’s benefit, this is what we had:-

Pappardelle with a rich and chunky wild boar and Porcini sauce.  A tiny touch of cream added.  It was strong and superb.
Ravioli stuffed with goat’s cheese and walnuts.  Melt-in-your-mouth pasta (not “al-dente” thank goodness!) with a creamy filling and crushed walnuts, plus crushed walnuts in the sauce.

Potatoes, cut into cubes and roasted in the oven with EVOO and Rosemary.  Simple Sicilian potatoes with flavour.  Excellent.
Panna Cotta with a reduction of raspberries.  Probably the best Panna Cotta the Admiral has had.

2 x aqua, one still, one with gas
660cl Moretti

½ litre of the house Nero D’avolo.  Not at all bad for a house wine.
1 coffee  €42 all up.

We took the local bus out to Port Empedocle, home of the dramatist Pirandello and also Andrea Cammilleri, author of the Montalbano novels. We established that he is alive and well, residing in Rome, that another Montalbano book (about number 18) is about to come out in English and that a statue of the famous Sicilian detective is about to be re-erected in Via Roma, the main street when new paving is completed.

Art Nouveau Customs House in Porto Empedocle
The "Wedding Cake" church in Porto Empedocle

Virginia d'Alessandro in her ceramic studio "Ceramicando" on Via Atenea.  We called a halt to the buying spree at 5 pieces.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Marina di Cala del Sole, Licata

Marina di Cala del Sole

One of the famous sunsets, after which the Marina is named
We are comfortably settled in our winter haven here in the southern Sicilian town of Licata, and so far all is going well. The marina provides excellent all-round shelter and the dock staff are helpful and vigilant – they were very much in evidence last week when the wind blew up, checking docklines and making sure boats were safe. The office staff are great, the bathrooms are clean and functional and – joy of joys! - there is a self-service laundry with industrial standard washers and dryers! (Who ever imagined that that would be cause for celebration?)  We have a real international community of cruisers here once again – fellow Aussies and New Zealanders, Brits, French, Brazilians, Germans, Dutch, Indonesian, Swedish, Finns and Norwegians, plus the locals of course. The Sunday barbecue seems to be a universal cruising tradition, and Licata has its own version accompanied by games (boules and the Finnish bowling game, Molkky) on our specially constructed courts.
The marina adjoins the town and is a popular spot for families and couples to make their evening passagiata. Everything is close by, including an excellent supermarket. Licata town itself is a bit run down, but many of its baroque buildings have been attractively renovated and there are some fascinating hidden gems – grotesques and carved balconies, tiny cavern-like shops, memorials like the statue and home of the physicist Filippo Re Capriata. It is an everyday working town rather than a tourist town, with village-style remnants like the old carpenter's workshop, unsigned and down a back alley - everyone just knows that's where Giovanni's place is. Ambitious plans are in place for the marina complex, so let's hope it doesn't change all that.
Grotesques on the façade of the bank
And it’s Sicily so the food, even in the most ordinary places, is sensational. Besides fantastic pizzas, our local pizza joint serves Peroni on tap and about five metres counter space of fresh salads, vegetable dishes, pasta, breads, fruit and desserts. At the other end of the scale is La Madia, Licata’s Michelin star restaurant which is supposed to be one of the best in Italy (to be sampled later, perhaps, on a special occasion!)
Deli counter in an ordinary supermarket (Antonio is Terry's best friend in Sicily!)
We did go with friends Louise and Gary from Takamoana to an exceptional little restaurant called L’Oste E il Sacrestano where Chiara and Chef Peppe delighted in explaining each dish of the delicious six plate tasting menu. The restaurant specialises in showcasing the fresh foods of the region, particularly its fish, vegetables and olive oil. Every single bite was a sensation, from the lovely peppery oil to the cherry tomatoes cooked in vinegar and sugar, to the rich creamy potatoes, the smoky marinated octopus, the fresh home made pasta, the fresh tuna, the sea bass which was absolutely perfect … Peppe finished by preparing dessert at the table – a delicate concoction of coffee, artisan ice-cream, chocolate and marscapone mmm! The dishes were an ideal size, so each could be appreciated and you left feeling satisfied rather than stuffed. Our hosts were so friendly and knowledgeable – what a great showcase for Sicilian food and hospitality!
Peppe prepares dessert
So far I have seen every character from The Godfather, including several scary incarnations of Luca Brasi and some well-dressed elderly gentlemen who seem to command a lot of respect. Famiglia is certainly the core of life here, including those who have passed on. Every day is busy at the very prominent hillside cemetery, but All Saints Day saw virtually the whole town turn out, with vast bouquets of chrysanthemums, to commune with the dead at the family vault.

View from the Castle over the cemetery and marina
The weather is beautiful, the food is sensational, the company is good, the boat is safe. Next week we will do a bit of travelling around the local area. There are good vineyards in the hills, and much to see in Ragusa and Agrigento. Not to be missed, of course, is Montalbano’s villa – I hope it will stay warm enough to do the morning swim!
Cruising crew celebrate Hallowe'en  (the local kids have learnt that boats are a good bet for Trick or treat!)


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Santa Maria de Leuca and on to Porto Paolo (Terry)

Leaving Brindisi
We went to Santa Maria de Leuca after Brindisi and stayed for a few days in the marina there.  Not very nice:-  it rolls all the visiting boats terribly and it was hard to sleep.  Was hard to get on and off, too, and that was when there was very little swell outside!  For the first time ever, I was pitched getting off the passareille and ended up on the pontoon.  No damage, I rolled to my shoulder on the way down but it was a shock nonetheless.  The problem is that the visiting boats are all lined up along the entrance way, which gets the first of the swell that comes in.  It seems a little better further in and to the side away from the floating pontoons.

It is a Municipal Marina, owned by the town/city.  Very pleasant staff.  We arrived around 6:00am on the Monday morning and motored around outside a bit until I could see where to go.  At 6:45, we called the Ormeggiotore and he came out and helped us in.  In a first, and pleasant surprise, once the manager worked out we were staying longer than overnight, he got the Ormeggiotore to go out to the car and bring back a gift box of local wines (red and white), artisan pasta and artisan spaghetti sauce and also a very large jar of local olive paste.  All boxed up and laid out with cellophane etc.

We were going to stay until Saturday, as it's a nice town to be in, even if half-closed as all the tourists have gone home.  The town is famous for its many mansions, as the holiday makers in this part of the world were not dissimilar to the inhabitants of the Hamptons etc.  They competed for the best architects and the best designs.
This one's on the beachfront

With its own Cabana (there are a couple more with these as well, plus many not on the beach with their own guardhouses)

The link is worth a look.

It is also famous for its lighthouse, and almost on the same block, a Basilica.  From these heights runs a water cascade that is turned on only a couple of times a year but is quite a sight when it is.  Work is under way to install LED lighting, probably to give the illusion of a cascade while saving water.

 The walk to the Basilica and the Cascade

It really is a very nice place to be, except for the rolling in the marina.

We say what was forecast as a good weather window beginning Friday, with north wind on Saturday and Sunday, so we decided not to stay on and left on Friday morning.

Forecast was bullshit as usual.  Friday night turned into the voyage from hell.  Instead of 4-8 knot winds drifting lazily from all parts of the compass, we had 28-40 knot Westerly winds for hour after hour, side on.  The seas built and we got hammered and hammered.  Carol was still sick for two days from it.   That’s what you get for producing weather forecasts with computers and sidelining the people who used to do it.

The next day was better, but we got invaded by thousands upon thousands of some kind of fly.  Not normal ones.  Didn't respond to fly spray or surface spray, so I connected up the hose that washes the anchor to another hose and we washed them off.  They were on everything.  I think they got blown offshore in a swarm and just happened to find a boat to land on.  Luckily, they weren't bitey ones.

Things quietened down a little after that and we motorsailed lazily along recovering from the beating of the night before.

Then, early a.m. Sunday, just when I wanted to get some sleep around 1am, we ran into the annual Rolex Middle Sea Race off Syracusa.  Some of the contestants had called in to Leuca on their way to Valetta, Malta,  for the start.  We didn't know then that was where they were going, but there they were, coming back towards us.  One called "Oz" actually came down from Brindisi with us.  They were really moving and unfortunately they were moving straight towards us, about 30 or 40 of them.  With all the masts, their AIS wasn’t transmitting correctly – one minute you’d see a boat on the screen, next minute it was gone, then back again!  There was only a sliver of a moon and it was near impossible to see them unless they were skylighted agains the lights of Syracusa.  Those to seaward of us we couldn’t see until they were broadside to us. Took almost two hours of threading my way through them in the dark (they had right-of-way because they were under sail and we had the engine on).  No real danger in it, because as well as we could see them on our screen, they could see us.  AIS must be a race directive as we didn't pass any unaccounted for boats. 

 There may be no wind, there may be too much wind, but there is rarely nothing going on out here.

Finally we were clear of them and I tried to sleep.  No luck, as the radio piped up with "Common Sense, Common Sense, Common Sense, this is Italian Warship “Mars something”.   Perhaps it was the Maestrale?.  Not big enough for a Destroyer, too big for a PB, too dark to get a good look. 

Something registered that they were talking to me and I answered on the second call.  All they wanted to do was set up a passing routine and we agreed on "Green to Green", which means both our starboard sides, instead of the more usual port-to-port.  They were a mile away so I suspect they were just going through a radio training routine for newbie bridge officers, and also practising their English.  No problem, except that Navies here take a very dim view of people not responding to Channel 16 calls.  They think that perhaps you are maybe sleeping a little bit and not paying attention J

Maestrale Class Frigate

Finally we arrived in Porto Paolo, where we anchored last year (Porto Paolo with a Koala Bar!)  As usual, the Admiral’s straight over the side for a swim and I was straight into the bunk for a catch up on sleep. 
After a good rest and a hot dinner, we left at around 21:30 for the last 13-hour trip on up to Licata and a full stop to 2014's cruising.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Carol and Kim's Excellente Adventure - Ostuni and Lecce

Terry spent the day in that time-honoured cruising pastime of ‘waiting for a bloke with a new part’, this time for our temperamental bow-thruster, so Kim and I set off for a day out in Lecce, the capital of the Puglia region. After purchasing our tickets in flawless Italian, we downed a wake-up cappuccino then hopped trustingly aboard the 10.17 leaving from Platform 3 for Lecce. Or so we thought. About 20 minutes into a pleasant journey through aged olive groves, the conductor arrived to inspect our tickets. “No Lecce,” he informed us with a theatrical look of dismay, “This tren to Bari!” Well we didn’t want to go to Bari, having just gone to all the trouble of sailing from there to Brindisi, so we hopped off at Ostuni, the next town, to make our way back. Small problem, the station-mistress told us with a tragic look not unlike the conductor’s, “Next tren 14.00” – about two and a half hours! She consoled us with a suggestion: “Look Ostuni (expressive gesture) Very nice!” So we decided to look Ostuni. We became aware of another small problem as we left the station and spied the sparkling white town of Ostuni atop a distant hill. The station was in a fairly deserted industrial area a long way from the town, but we happily encountered a friendly African trolley guy outside a supermarket who told us where to wait for a bus. Then he called the bus, which arrived minutes later “special for you!” The bus driver was another delightful friendly Italian who was very concerned for our welfare and gave us repeated, increasingly loud instructions on how to get around town and to catch the return bus.
Ostuni in the distance

Ostuni was a delightful surprise. It is a very old town with some fine buildings and a beautiful sunlit piazza. We naturally gravitated to “Kim’s Ristorante” where we enjoyed an excellent lunch of pasta, prosciutto and the awesome local cheese, “burrata” which is like “mozzarella on the outside, stracchiatelli on the inside”. A magnificent building of the type where you imagine Mussolini waving from the balcony towered over the square, and well-dressed folk with bundles of important papers kept arriving and leaving – clearly a place of civic authority. We had a bit of a wander but decided eventually to call a taxi back to the station. Antonio arrived in his black Mercedes and we enjoyed the scenic views back down the hill – troubled by the niggling thought that our bus driver was probably cruising the streets of Ostuni looking for us still…

So, back on the tren to Brinsisi, then on to Lecce. Kim had a bit of a kip while I chatted to a Pakistani-Italian jeweller called Mario/Muhammed, who suggested a few places of interest in Lecce (including, of course, his shop). The old town of Lecce was quite attractive, though it was the depths of siesta-time and not a lot was happening anywhere. We eventually found our way to the famous Baroque cathedrale, taking directions from several people, including a tribe of kids who took great delight in escorting us personally to the site. The cathedrale is the very definition of Baroque, with all sorts of bizarre creatures cavorting alongside solemn popes, saints and archbishops around its facade. Grimaldi described it as a “lunatic stonemason having a nightmare” – harsh, but you can see what he means! A quick prayer, a look around the creepy crypt and we were back on the street seeking directions to the stazione. “Dritto, dritto, dritto to arco, then poco, poco destra to semaphora, sinistra to stazione” accompanied by flamboyant gestures and mimes. Yep, we’ve got it, grazie!

Playing statues in the courtyard

Weird mummy figures appeal to the Madonna in the crypt...

Amazingly, the railway station eventually appeared in front of us and after several double checks, we boarded the tren back to Brindisi. When the conductor appeared, we looked smugly sympathetic as one poor guy discovered that he was on the wrong tren – he wanted to go to Bari! A rather tedious wait at the grotty bus station for the Number 5 to the Marina, a hair-raising ride back and we were ‘home’ in time for Aperols and a great meal at the marina restaurant.
Dritto, dritto...

Sometimes the best days happen quite by accident! Thanks, Kim, for being such wonderful company and remember that your Common Sense T shirt entitles you to come aboard any time, anywhere.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A small slice of the Adriatico (guest blogger Kim)

I was excited and a little anxious as I left to meet Carol and Terry on board Common Sense. I had had an amazing stopover in Dubai staying with lovely Lisa and her boys – what a fantastic city! A night in Rome was noisy and a good introduction to life in Italy.

Carol and Terry met me at the station in Bari and we took the bus (first of many!) back to the marina. After settling into my cabin, we went off exploring in this interesting port city. In the first few days I must say “Eataly” with its astonishing array of Italian products, the old guys playing poker at improvised tables all along the waterfront and my first swim in the Adriatic would be highlights. I was immediately reminded that the Italian people are friendly, warm, laid back and very expressive. 

A "small" selection of Eataly's Formaggio

They don’t mind squalor, cigarettes and dog-poo infested environs as long as they can eat good food and laugh a lot! Carol and I took a trip to Polignano where we enjoyed a superb four course meal, then spent a couple of days recovering from it. 

Domenico Modugo - born and lived in Polignano, writer and singer of "Volare"

We also took a tour to see the fascinating ‘cave city’ of Matera, once the ‘shame of Italy’ for its terrible poverty and mortality rates, now a site for tourism and movie sets. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was filmed there, and a Ninja movie was in progress while we visited. 

The oldest, continually inhabited town in Europe

Next up was Alberobello, with its cute conical stone houses known as tulli. Apparently these were constructed so as to be easily dismantled when the taxman came to visit. “House? What house? This is just a field of rocks!”

Gianluca and Kim in Alberobello


We motored to Monopoli (wind on the nose - what Terry calls a #$%# Noserly) a walled town of many churches and a central cathedral. In the café in the piazza I was introduced to my new favourite drink – Aperol Spritz – and enjoyed one or two each evening from then on. We got lost in the narrow, winding streets, finding all sorts of interesting things but not the cathedral we were looking for! We swam in a lovely little bay and watched a local guy clean his daily catch of about two dozen octopus. More good food – seafood, pasta, gelato, cornettos, cheese, bread …

The inside harbour of Monopoli

The back streets of Monopoli

We headed off to Brindisi, unfortunately in rain and quite a heavy swell – still no real sailing. There is a good sheltered marina here where I enjoyed my Aperol each evening and a swim every morning. We dinghied into town for a wander and some shopping, and Carol and I took the train to the regional capital of Lecce – with and accidental side trip to Otuni [see the next blog for this story].

The evening's aperitif - Aperol Spritz

All in all, an amazing holiday. I feel very relaxed and would certainly join you again aboard the good ship Common Sense. Fantastico! Arrivederci Italia and grazie Carol and Terry!

 Polignano dessert