12 June – South down the west coast of Italy
After a compulsory stop at a beautiful sandy beach for a swim we continue along the winding coastal road above the bluffs. Hugging the inner bank and proceeding with caution as the outer edge is cracking away, slowly subsiding into deep gullies below. At one slip near a village we encounter a steel bridge placed at right angles to span the gap with just enough room for Victory to scrape through. We cause a traffic jam at either end with cars forced to back up as we inch past.
From here we turn inland climbing the hill up through old olive grove country with the thick, gnarled and twisted trunks growing from the rough ground and where time has stood still here for generations.
Higher up in the mountains near Futani, just before dark, there’s a small-refrigerated van parked in the middle of the road selling delicatessen goods. Amazed we pull up alongside and purchase some ham, salami and mozzarella cheese chatting to the friendly locals who advise us of a place down the road to park for the night.
However, we miss the given spot arriving instead down a steep driveway pulling up right in front of a local farmer’s house. With a surprised face he comes out to meet us and after some discussion, with neither side understanding the other, he agrees we can stay the night so we manoeuvre the camper to a semi even keel and enjoy our salami with mozzarella, sweet tomatoes and olives for dinner before calling it a day.
13 June – Maratea Port
Awoken at 6.30am by the farmer’s tractor, we’re on the go early thankful to leave the narrow back roads behind. We travel south along the western side of the Basilicta Mountains that recede in layers back into a hazy blue sky. Eventually re-emerging back at the coast.
In the Maratea region we venture into one of many little villages scattered around the coastal hills where unkempt and derelict houses show evidence of impoverished times. Then with Victory in low gear we continue up the mountain behind the town. She climbs the steep road, hair pinning its way up around vertical bluffs until we ascend into the mists at the top. Here we catch glimpses of the enormous, marble Christ, arms akimbo, dominating the peak looking towards the mountains of the interior. As we walk up towards the giant statue, the clouds swirl around his head like misty vales. Within half an hour the skies are clearing, like opening a window with a view out to the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Snaking back down the viaducts we have our lunch at the port filled mostly with cruse boasts waiting for the short tourist season that hasn’t yet arrived.
Here we sketch the quaint houses around the rustic square. It’s 6pm by the time we pack up and drive to our next camp spot at Praia a Mare.
The coast here is renowned for its beaches and swimming. We take advantage enjoying a couple of refreshing swims a day in the clear, turquoise waters.
Inland overlooking the sea near Paola is the 6th century San Francesco Sanctuary. Here an old refuge is carved into the underground rock. We enter down narrow stairs to a warren of small rooms. At the bottom is a little church opening out to a stream that gently cascades down in little waterfalls; A very tranquil spot.
Alongside the new church in total contrast, built above ground, is a grand modern construction, open and spacious, with large stain glass windows and light wooden panelling.
The roadside here is ablaze with pink and white oleander and the land opens up into a lush, fertile valley of citrus and market gardens. A farmer and his dog herd curly horned goats along the berm where they eat the dry offerings reaching up into the trees to munch the greenery.
The day ends at the little seaside town of Pizzo where we meander down the lanes lined with shops and houses leading to the main piazza. Here we discover a phone shop that sells the brand of internet key we have and hope they can solve our connection problems. As they don’t have they ability to fix it, the owner Roberto offers to drive us to the larger city of Vibo Valentia in the morning, about a 20-minute drive, which we thankfully accept.
We spend the evening with the locals watching Paraguay playing Italy for the World Cup Football on a large TV screen in the square. Sitting at a table with a beer and pizza for dinner we take in the atmosphere. Not very jubilant Italians, as the end result is not quite what was wanted with a draw.
In the morning Roberto takes us into the provincial capital of Calabria in his little zippy little car. Just as well as Victory wouldn’t have handled the narrow congested streets where parking is difficult even for the small car. But we’re relieved to now have the internet connection working.
The rest of the day is spent painting in the square with curious locals looking on, mostly older men, who seem to have all the time in the world to sit around chatting. One man Franco owns a B&B here and shows us his wonderful home above the bay. Sitting on his deck we enjoy a limoncello with the splendid view of the coast stretched out before us.
‘Andiamo’ (‘Let’s go’) they say in Italy, so we are back on the motorway travelling down to the toe of Italy for the ferry to Sicily. The many tunnels and bridges make light work for Victory as we cross some wild and extreme landscapes with steep mountains torn apart by wide, dry riverbeds dropping to the sea.
At Villa San Giovanni we buy a return ferry ticket for 70 Euros (NZ$140) and board the ferry for the 20-minute crossing to the port of Messina.
17 June - Sicily
From Messina we take the southwest route along the coast past gravel beaches, little fishing boats pulled up on shore and a few sun seekers basking in the midday heat. Some of the local fishermen sell their catch direct to the public from their boats.
The skies are clear after the dust storms from Africa that have clouded the horizon over the past few days, leaving cars and everything else covered in a thick layer of grime. A sea breeze keeps us cool as we stop for a quick sketch sitting on the seawall looking past the boats to the cliff top castle.
We drive along the switch back roads above the castle through a hot dry land where the spiky cactus thrives and the only other creatures out in the sun, apart from us, are the beautiful emerald green patterned lizards baking on the rocks and concrete walls. At the top we take in the hazy vistas disappearing in the distance and visit the cool haven of the 16th century church with its offering of bread in a basket at the door.
Dana, now a master of the narrow hill roads is very brave tackling the zigzag lanes that we encounter up to the old medieval ruins of a fortress behind Taormina with rock walls one side and sheer drops on the other. But the dizzy panoramas out along the coast and to the ever-present smoking volcano of Mount Etna behind are worth the climb. Taormina is a village perched 200 meters up on the side of the mountain. There is a cable car to take tourists to and from the beaches below as the scant parking space available at the top is very expensive. The town has a brutal history dating from the 8th century BC occupied by Arabs, Normans, Romans and Greeks who have fought over it during the ages leaving behind their mark. There is the Roman theatre from 3rd Century BC, aqueducts, Roman baths and cathedrals. Today it’s a tourist town with the narrow streets adorned with bright coloured umbrellas and stores festooned with wares to tempt the passersby. Flowers spill down from baskets. In the piazza artists sit at work over their canvases surrounded by the old historical buildings.
It’s getting dark and we head for an Agriturismo for the night driving inland around Etna toward Passopisciaro. We ask directions from a local man on the roadside only to find that the owner is away. He phones a friend who has also has a vineyard and campground close by then escorts us there, ringing the bell at the large iron gates, which slide open for us to enter. We’re delighted to see a pool and have a quick swim before bed at 11pm.
18 June – Mount Etna
After an early morning swim and breakfast we set off for Mount Etna with a voucher from the camp entitling us a 12 Euro discount each.
Etna is the most renowned active volcano in Europe at 3,300 metres. We drive up to 1810 metres in Victory. This area was totally wiped out by lava flows in the 2002 eruption completely obliterating the northern side of the mountain and flowing down into the villages below.
Here we join around 20 other tourists on the four-wheel drive Unimog ascending to 2,900 metres through vast lava flows and strewn rocks. Up past huge chasms of vents opened up in 2002 to a black sand plateau at the top where we explore the lunar landscape and take in the vistas down the steep mountainsides to the valleys below. From here you can hike with a guide for the last 4-hour ascent to the smoking crater at the summit. Instead we take the easy option descending to the vents below, walking down scree slopes into the base of the craters with their coloured lava from black through to red and yellow.
Further down the mountain we walk through clumps of wild flowers and tussocks, the first inhabitants of this wilderness, past large white skeletons of trees that are somehow still standing defiant against the ravages that have beset them, very picturesque in the black landscape despite the horrific forces that created it all.
Back at camp Nino, the kind man who directed us here, is keen to take us to a wine tasting evening and picks up in his little 4x4 red Fiat Panda that has done around 240,000kms. We pile in and with a hiss and a roar we’re on our way. Alas not far down the road the little car conks out on a hill and it’s all to the rescue. With the three of us pushing from behind Nino manoeuvres the car into a nearby gateway. He calls one of his many friends and we’re all duly delivered to town. Here we meet locals and visitors sampling the wines made on the estate where Nino works along with plenty of bruschetta and other delicious finger food.
I decline the last offering of a grappa with a marinated cherry. Although it looks pretty, it has too strong a kick for me at this hour.
The owner of Etna Wines where we are staying takes us on a guided tour of his museum in the main large stone building. There is a 15th century wine press along with huge wooden storage barrels, each one approximately 3 metres in diameter. There is an old olive grinding stone sitting on a huge round table that was once turned by donkeys to extract the oil. The oil was drained off into a pit half filled with water to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom while the pure oil floated on top. The old relics tell a story of times past where life wasn’t easy and hard repetitive toil filled the day.
My task is to complete two paintings in oil, one of Mount Etna and the other of the little stone buildings and olive groves on site before being collected by Nino at 3.30pm. His little car now restored back to working order, takes us on a sightseeing tour to the little port of Acireale. It is set on a lava terrace that drops sheer to the sea with high pillars of stone stepping out into the blue waters of the bay. Behind a large breakwater we see the deep sea fishing boats being unloaded. Many swordfish are hauled up by their tails with a pulley from the bowels of a boat, weighed then loaded into the back of a waiting truck. On deck a man is busy gutting larger fish that look like tuna. It made me feel a little sad to see these beautiful creatures caught in such vast numbers, but I guess it has been their way of life for generations.
We finish the day with a seafood pasta dinner at Mangiato Riposto, a small sea hamlet on the Calabrian Coast. Overlooking the bay, smaller fishing boats are returning after their day’s catch. They are rowed up the channel between the rocks by fishermen standing in the middle using long oars.
Nino persuades us to stay another day to witness the age-old practice of ricotta cheese making in the traditional way.
His little car, a Fiat Panda is amazing. He slips it into four-wheel drive to take us up the rugged, steep tracks on the other side of the mountain.
We arrive to see around 30 goats being herded into a shed. The sound of their bells rings across the valley. The farmer’s son squats by a small opening in a dark little alcove. Each goat stops there just long enough to be milked before escaping back to the spartan, rough hillside paddock outside. Outside huge thistles grow everywhere amongst the rocks along with wild oreganum that we pick. The scent permeates the air.
We drive back down to the main shed to see the cheese making process. The farmer is busy over a large vat of milk he churns by hand using a wooden whisk made from a tree branch. The smaller twigs at the end are bent over to form a beater. Within a short time the goat and sheep milk has turned into a soft slightly sweet white junket called ‘quilata’.
With more vigorous beating this separates into curds and whey. The farmer, almost disappearing into the vat headfirst, gathers up great armfuls - a backbreaking manoeuvre. He places the curds into a colander for draining with a sprinkling of peppercorns between each layer.
We sample the curds or ‘tuma’ as it is served onto a plate of broken bread to absorb the moisture. It has a very mild flavour, more like cottage cheese in texture.
The whey drained from the curds into a second vat is placed on an open fire and heated till near boiling to form the third and final cheese called Ricotta. The little room is hot from the fire and hazy with swirls of smoke escaping through the door. We’re offered a handful of the still warm cheese, squeezing out the excess water till it forms a soft ball and sample the rather bland result accompanied by a glass of wine.
After all the hard work is done the remaining logs from the fire are carried outside and extinguished. The ashes are placed in a bucket with a lid, ready to start the process over again the following morning. We are shown the larder of round mature cheeses in a shed. A wedge is cut of for us to sample, a lot tastier than the fresh. It was a great experience although a rather odd and different breakfast for us all!
In the afternoon Nino takes us to the Gole dell Alcantara a spectacular deep gorge where the height of the rock is emphasised by the narrow passage through which the Alcantara river flows fed by a mountain spring. We walk along the track at the top through large prickly pear trees that grow everywhere around here.
High on the bluff ahead of us in the little town of Castigilone di Sicilia an impressive castle grows from the rock, its walls glowing in the last of the sun.
On another excursion Nino takes us out in the country around the back of Etna towards Randazzo. We stop at a restaurant specialising in ‘castrato’ lamb. Starting with 3 plates of antipasto filled with all sorts of delicacies including ham, salami, marinated zucchinis and eggplant, pickled onions, olives, little omelettes etc, etc. This is almost a meal in itself but then comes a large plate of roasted lamb chops, chips and salad accompanied by a couple of Nino’s lovely bottles of wine. I felt it was time for a siesta but instead we drive on through farmlands where sheep and cattle graze, leaving the main road once again. Nino sings lovely Italian songs as we bump along the stony, rutted track with ‘Little Panda” in four-wheel drive. He is taking us up to see some lakes where the flamingos are supposed to be at certain times of the year. Alas veils of mist and rain come in with the unrelenting cold wind which seems so strange after all the hot sunny days. But around Etna anything is possible and probably there will be more snow on top in the morning. We get brief glimpses of the Largo di Cartdana before the clouds block our view, a little disappointing, especially for Nino who has brought us to see the splendid vista. We return to the civilisation of the hillside towns calling into Randazzo 760 metres above sea level. Here we zip up our jackets against the cold and go to explore. The medieval town was built at the beginning of the 13th century using black lava stone creating a cold austere feeling in the dull evening light. We’re dropped back at 9.30pm and for once get a well-deserved early night. Dana and I give Nino a painting each to say thanks for all he has done for us and we say our fond farewells promising to keep in touch.
Nino Franco has an interesting accent when he speaks English - a mix of Australian and Italian as he spent a number of years working in Australia in his youth, returning home to Sicily to look after his ailing parents.
22nd June - Catania
Thankfully the Etna wind that whipped around the hills yesterday has died down and the temperature is cooler as once again we get the camper shipshape and move on, our host refusing payment for our last night’s accommodation.
Taking the motorway we continue south to Catania, Sicily’s second largest city. In the main piazza the 17th century buildings and churches built from the bountiful lava stone are embellished around the edges with white sandstone giving a much lighter appearance. 13 different cultures have lived here over the past 2000 years leaving a fusion of rich history - a dynasty that has stretched from the 8th century BC.
It has been destroyed 9 times by earthquakes and eruptions rising each time from the ashes. Some of the relics have survived from this period, including the ruins of the 2nd century Greek theatre and the larger Roman Amphitheatre. The castle ‘Castello Ursino’ built in the 17th century houses sculptures and vases that date from a remarkable 600 BC.
23rd June - Siracusa
The catastrophic earthquake of 1693 had drastic consequences for all eastern Sicily, flattening most villages. It was an immense disaster taking about 100,000 lives and resulting in most of the towns being rebuilt in the Baroque style.
The island of Ortygia, part of Siracusa, is only 1 x 1½ kms in diameter and was colonized in the 8th century BC with over 2700 years of history. It has been inhabited by the indigenous people since the 14th century BC. It became a powerful fortress where different cultures came together merging to produce unique monuments, temples and churches.
We cross to the island passing the old port linked to the mainland by a short bridge over the marina where the little boats are moored alongside the large cruse ship. All its passengers are hurrying back before sailing.
The bridge leads into a web of narrow streets in the old town that merge at the tip where the white almost Spanish Castello is built.
The island is a fantastic and lively spot. We see ladies dressed in the height of fashion wobbling down the cobbled streets in their high heels beside dapper men in suits on their way to a wedding at the grand cathedral.
The camera clicks off numerous shots of sunlit buildings with warm shadows reaching down under flower-hung balconies. The elaborate buttresses that support these are adorned with many carved stone faces grinning down at us from above.
Siracusa Archaeological Museum and Park
The museum houses artefacts dating from the prehistoric period to the time of the ancient Greek colonies. This is combined with the Neapolis Archaeological Park with a Roman Amphitheatre dating back to 3rd and 4th century AD. It is one of the largest in Italy where the fights between the gladiators and animals have now been replaced by music concerts.
It’s a stinking hot day and there is no respite from the sun except to shelter for a short time in the shade of catacombs and caves dug out of the cliff behind the theatre. There’s even one complete with internal waterfall. The largest cave is 45 metres deep and material used to build the city of Siracusa was taken from here.
In 415 BC Siracusa’s growing influence troubled Athens and a fleet of 134 boats were dispatched to take the town. The boats were destroyed. Those who weren’t slaughtered were imprisoned in the quarries as slaves to extract the rock, working and living there until their death. Another grotto called the Ear of Dionysius is massive - 65 metres long and 23 metres high in an S shape. The tyrant Dionysius locked up political prisoners here exploiting the remarkable acoustics to eavesdrop on their conversations from an opening in the upper part of the cave.
A lot of the local water here is desalinated and I’m hard pushed to drink it especially on a hot day when it’s warm. I take great delight in an ice cold bottle brought from a dispenser on my return at 1pm.
At Noto 3 kms inland we camp for the night. The lady who runs the camp drops us off in town in her van. We walk up past the fruit stalls and souvenir shops where everyone is glued to their TVs watching the soccer with Italy losing to Slovenia putting them out of the contest. The tall and elegant cathedrals are of golden sandstone in the typical Baroque style, one gaining world attention when the dome collapsed in 1996. The inside is still supported by scaffolding. There seem to be few tourists around. When we visit a local art exhibition we are offered chocolate gateau and cold tea. During the hour or so we’re there, no one else comes in. Quite sad really.
We call the owner of the camp to come and collect us. We are pleased she made the offer as it is now around 7pm and it’s been a long day.
The dry straw grass and prickly pear are strewn through the rocky countryside interspersed with pockets of agriculture. Here cherry tomatoes grow hanging in long red bunches on the vines along with rows of red orange citrus trees which seem out of season.
We arrive at the pretty little Spanish fishing hamlet of Marzamemi on the coast. Colourful boats are tied up along the pier next to a restaurant and café with shady umbrellas. Square stone buildings encircle the beautiful main piazza and the church with two arched bell towers is silhouetted against a blue sky. Just off shore an island is dominated by a luminous red building, owned by an Italian writer, surrounded by green palms, sparkling like a jewel across the blue water.
On the southernmost tip of Sicily at the seaside town of Portopalo we park on the dockside for lunch looking across to the large gashed boats, long abandoned in the shallow waters lying on their sides. The smaller rowboats are also showing their age with paint and old ropes worn by the years of use. Along the pier the deep sea boats have unloaded their catch selling fresh fish of all shapes and sizes including trays of prawns. I try to buy a kilo but they only sell bulk at 15 Euros a tray. A good price but far too many for us.
Leaving the shore we head inland towards Ragusa driving along country lanes lined with stonewalls stopping for the night at a ‘farm stay’ an organic Agriturismo. Here they grown olives and carob trees with the large pods or beans hanging in great bunches. There is also a menagerie of animals to greet us - cats, dogs, a donkey heavily in foal and a horse looking over the stable door.
We park at the back of the stables alongside a walled courtyard where we have the use of a toilet and shower for free. Before it gets too dark I do a sketch of the inner courtyard buildings with the colourful flowers growing from the rocky garden.
Next morning I complete this painting and start another of the grand stucco house from below, sitting by the large veggie garden in the shade of the carob tree. At 3pm we pack up and go down to the coast at Pozzallo for a swim in the warm water then lie on the sandy beach to dry off.
We drive on to the town of Scicli with a population of 25,000 people set into the rocky limestone hills. On the cliff tops above is a long abandoned monastery along one ridge and on the other the ruins of an old church plus several little chapels built into the bluffs. We climb up the steps between the houses, past carob trees growing from the dry rocky ground until we reach the ruins. Looking down over the walls we take in the great vistas over tiled rooftops aglow in the last rays of the sun with the sound of music coming up from the square below.
Darkness descends across the land as we make our way back to the farm stay with the full moon rises in a red ball. Daria, the Agriturismo owner, has invited us to join in the festivities to celebrate the full moon. People have come to share food, wine and music. It was around midnight when I collapse into bed falling to sleep with the sound of the guitar still playing.
After a painting session, we move on to Ragusa another medieval town rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. It is a tangle of houses stacked one above the other. From the base of the town where we park we walk up the stonewalled little alleyways to the domes and spires above. The tall sandstone cathedral of San Giorgio stands resplendent with its three stories of pillars rising up on either side of the grandiose door and its large blue tiled dome sparkling behind. We sample new flavours of gelato under the shade of the umbrellas. Mine is a very tasty fig and carob.
Climbing inland onto a high stony plateau we arrive at the city of Caltagirone rebuilt on the summits of three hills. Its wealth and history comes from the making of ceramics. We climb the 150 steps to the church of ‘Santa Maria del Monte’. The way up is flanked by houses and ceramic shops full to brimming with beautifully decorated and brightly glazed pots, bowls and platters. Each level of steps is faced with majolica tiles.
We watch a man skilfully sculpting a model of a clothed figure with a cape falling in folds around him. He jokes about charging us 50 Euros each to take a photo.
Next morning we visit the nearby 40 roomed Villa Romana, 5 kms out of Enna, dating from the 4 century BC. It was used up until the 12th century when it was covered by a landslide protecting it until its discovery and excavation in the 1950s. It is a true testament to the opulent Roman times in Sicily.
The beautiful mosaic floors are now protected from the elements by a glasshouse like structure which you wander through on raised balconies looking down over the tiles. These mosaics portray animal scenes with a Roman-African influence, a chariot race, hunting scenes with shield bearing men pitched against wild tigers, elephants and rhinos, Roman girls clad in bikinis playing sport, boats and sea creatures, serpents and much more, all laid out using tiny square tiles. Truly amazing the amount of work in constructing such intricate designs so long ago and to be still in place today. In the surrounding estate, animals were imported from Africa to be used in Rome and other cities for entertainment in the circus and amphitheatres.
Enna sits 143 metres above sea level surrounded by golden ochre rolling hills from which the grain is harvested to feed the nation. We drive up her narrow streets parking near the top at Castello di Lombardia built by Frederick II in 1160 on an imposing rocky spur. Surrounded by high stone walls from which a lofty tower rises. We enter the gate leading into 3 large inner sun baked courtyards. Some musicians are playing flutes and guitars under the shade of the trees adding to the ambiance of the setting. We ascend the internal tower staircase to the crenulations at the top for spectacular views out over the rolling countryside but are unable to see Etna hidden in the hazy distance. Down in the main square of the town a gang of boys while away the day playing soccer in a small square next to the 13th century church.
We have our lunch at the camper watched over by women from balconies above and the men sitting on the park benches. It would seem not a lot happens around here.
In the countryside the wheat has been harvested leaving patterns like combed hair through the golden fields. This contrasts with dark ploughed volcanic fields divided by a mane of tall flower heads that bend in the breeze in the late evening sun, looking like a giant patchwork quilt. The little stone buildings stand dark and silhouetted between the hazy sky and golden fields interspersed by belts of fruit trees and olives, the only green in an ochre sea.
We stop for the night in a large car park at Caltanissetta just west of Enna, once the capital for the extraction of sulphur providing 4/5ths of the world’s production until competition from America led to the closure of the mines.
Heading west towards the coast we make a short detour at Aragona to see the Nature Reserve of Macalube. Here the gray hard, cracked clay has vents where methane gas escapes from the bowels of the earth. These form small cones in the mud where they bubble away, if you’re lucky enough to see it as it’s all very miniscule. Totally unremarkable to us on this hot day with only one other car of tourists making the effort to walk the track to see this miracle.
Of more interest are the men who have blocked the road with their trucks while they load hay bales using a mechanical arm to lift them from the tractor to the stack piled high on the back of the truck until they look totally unstable. This is then covered by a green net and tied with ropes. Eventually the two trucks part with their loads and the tractor returns to the field to replenish his stock for a repeat performance.
Along the same stretch we encounter a herd of sheep and Maltese goats some sporting huge curling horns. Their fine white coats of hair and long curling ears make them look quite comical. Around their necks bells ring merrily as they graze on the leftover stubble after bailing. A little puppy seeks the shade under their bellies and as they move along so does he.
We arrive at the coastal city of Agrigento with many grand viaducts conveying the traffic across the gullies and into the congested streets above. We skirt the city heading out past the plantations of eucalyptus trees to the Valley of Temples.
Here set amongst the age old almond and olive trees the Greek temples sit built in the 5th and 6th centuries BC to celebrate their gods. We set forth in the midday heat, the only ones in sunhats, winding our way down and around the golden sandstone temples glowing in the sun, thankful for the slight breeze that stirs the hot air. Climbing in and around the giant pillars that have collapsed to the ground over the years, we marvel at those that have defied the test of time to remain standing high above us against the never ending blue sky. The Temple of Concord has survived in tact due to its transformation into a Christian basilica in 597AD that preserved its structure. The total area is 19,758 square metres with 6 columns across the front and 11 down each side, set on a base of four steps rising to a height of 6.75 metres. It is a magnificent sight.
After about 3 ½ hours and in danger of heat stroke we venture into the cooler museum. I was blown away by the dates of the finds from various tombs and places around the district going back to 6,000 BC! It houses an amazing array of objects from carved sarcophaguses, vases and utility items to helmets, swords and armoury. It is such a great museum we are the last to leave before closing time.,