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Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

Author: LSKahn (More Trip Reviews by LSKahn)
Date of Trip: May 2005

This was an elderhostel tour as opposed to my usual method of travel in Europe -- home exchanges combined with independent travel using the home exchange house as a base.

I have to say that the scenery on this trip was just spectacular and I took more photos than I have ever taken on a trip times 2. I had to stop at one point and have a photo shop put my two film cards on a CD so I could start over. Unfortunately, I had to delete some photos I took before I did that when I ran out of room.

Sicily and the Aeolian Islands are not places many Americans go on vacation unless they have relatives there or are living in Europe. Put in a few golf courses and Sicily could easily become a prime destination for those looking for a resort type vacation. In this observation I exclude the city of Palermo which, from what I saw, is dirty and not at all scenic. The rest of what I saw, however, was drop dead gorgeous. It was blue sea, brightly colored flowers, white or pastel colors on the homes. Choosing where to shoot was difficult, so you shot everywhere.

Friday, May 20th
I left Dulles Airport on time for my flight to Milan with a connection to Catania, Sicily. Sicily has two airports: Catania on the East side and the capital of Palermo. I flew into Catania and left from Palermo. The flights were on Alitalia which has those centralized movie screens making it difficult for short people to see. Since I generally read on flights and/or nap, it did not bother me, but it might be something you would want to consider if seeing the films is important to you.

Saturday, May 21st
While waiting for the connecting flight from Milan to Catania, I began to meet members of my elderhostel group. There were 18 in the group about 2/3rds of whom were on the same flight from Milan to Catania. After arrival in Catania, we were escorted to our ship in the Catania harbor and assigned to our bunks. There were two bunks in a cabin and I was very lucky to get my own cabin. That resulted when the woman who was supposed to room with me announced she wanted her own cabin. The strange thing is that she ended up being the nicest person on the trip and we would have been roomies just fine. It was her first trip to Europe and I think she was just nervous. I took the smallest cabin and left her with the larger one.

Now the boat was The Flying Dutchman, a Dutch schooner with a crew of 4 (captain, his wife, Anika (age 23, a terrific sailor!) and a young man who was our cook. This was not to be confused with a luxury boat. The food was not gourmet but I have no complaints about it either. Our cabins were spartan and teeny. This was not a cruise ship; it was a sailboat; there was no dressing for dinner. But, we all knew the score from the information provided ahead of time and largely chose the trip because we wanted to be on a sailboat. The main problem for me on the ship is that I enjoy reading when there are long sails. It was often hard to get away into a quiet corner because people were busy chatting. Some whiled away the hours at sea playing bridge or dominos. I read 3 books, 6 New Yorkers and assorted other magazines left around by others on the boat. One of my books went home with another participant, which was fine with me.

On the first day we had free time until dinner when we were given some information about the boat and ate the first of our many meals on board. We then all crashed sound asleep very quickly.

Information about The Flying Dutchman can be found at flying-dutchman.com. It is heavily chartered by elderhostel but is available for other groups.

Sunday, May 22nd
We sailed to Siracusa after some free time in the morning.

We had a walking tour of the town and the Greek theater. The theater is spectacular and the best preserved in Sicily. My biggest regret of the trip was that we could not see a performance of a play there as the one day we could have, we got in too late to go. The performances are in Italian, not Greek, but I presume that plot summaries are available in other languages if you do not speak Italian.

We were going to spend the night in Siracusa, but the captain changed his mind do to weather predictions about up coming rough seas, so we departed for Riposto. Riposto is the harbor south of Taormina where most boats for Taormina dock. It is my understanding that the only alternative in Taormina is to dock in the harbor and use dinghies to get to short (time consuming and not much fun).. At Riposto, unlike other moorings, we were able to dock alongside so we could just hop on and off the boat. At other ports we either used a narrow gangway or dinghies (2 ports). We quickly got adept at using whatever was needed to get on shore.

Those who wanted to could help raise the sails. It was not required. There were two masts and the largest of the sails was hydrolic. I have searched for a website to link with this report (I know there is one) to answer all the questions about the size of the boat, etc., but have not yet found it. When I do, I will come back and add the link.

Monday, May 23rd
The morning was free in Riposto and and an afternoon excursion was planned to Naxos to see some ruins and a small museum. This was improvised as we really were supposed to still be in Siracusa according to the schedule. Schedules have to be frequently negotiated on a sailboat.

Instead of remaining with the group, I took off on my own to take the circumvensa railroad around Mount Etna. This involved taking a bus from Giarre/Riposto to where you pick up the train and then spending a little over 4 hours on the train circling the mountain (plenty of photo ops). There is a place where you get off and wait about a half hour for the next train. This is a very small slow train--fine for sightseeing, but also used by locals as the school bus back and forth to school, for shopping, etc. You arrive back in Catania, but, as I discovered, not at the train station where the train leaves for Giarre/Riposto (figures). I asked a few people and finally figured out how to get the bus to the central station. As in all of Italy, bus tickets are purchased at any tabacconist, kiosk, etc. Arriving in Catania I at first went to the queue to buy tickets and then saw the automatic ticket machine (bigletteria). I went there and charged my 2.25 euro ticket home.

On board the train I met a delightful young man who was studying English. His English was so letter perfect that I thought he was British--complete with an upperclass accent! We had a nice chat and he ended up driving me back to the port in Riposto. I was home about an hour before the group returned from Naxos.!

Tuesday, May 24th
Today we went to Taormina. We had a walking tour of the town before lunch. For lunch some of us took a cab to Castelmollo on the top of the hill. After an "interesting" cab ride, we found a restaurant and had spaghetti there. The setting overlooking Taormina (spectacular enough from Taormina's level down below) could not be beat. After lunch, some hiked down, but I looked at my watch and figured that, if I did that, I would keep too many people waiting, and opted to take a taxi. We ended up waiting for the hikers. I spent some of the time shopping and bought a small painting that could fit in my suitcase and a figurine of a woman lawyer for my office (I am an attorney).

Then it was back to the ship to relax. I do have to report that on this trip I discovered Sicilian granita. It is what we Americans often refer to as lemon ice, but in Sicily it is definitely much better and there are oh so many flavors that don't exist here. After being tipped off by my English student young man on the train, I tried the granita at the restaurant in the Riposto harbor. I had pistachio granita. It was to die for.

Wednesday, May 25th
Today we sailed through the straits of Messina to Scilla in Calabria. We had to use dinghies to get ashore but landed right smack in the middle of a Corpus Christi religious procession. It was the first of two such processions we were to see. An even larger one awaited us on the island of Lipari in the Aeolian Islands (more on that later). A walk around the town and up to the castle (unfortunately closed for the evening) ended, of course, with a gelato.

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