Log #21e, Siracusa and Mt. Etna, Sicily

July 24, 2001 in Log Series 20 - 29, Logs by Series, Series 21 Malta, The Logs

Log #21e, Siracusa and Mt. Etna, Sicily

July 24, 2001
Written en route from Santa Maria di Leuca to the Adriatic
Covers the period July 11 to July 17, 2001

Today as I sit down in the main cabin to write this, we are having one of those idyllic sailing days with glorious sunny weather, a pleasant 15 knot wind astern, quietly pushing us along at 5.5 knots, close to hull speed, wing on wing, as we make our way north up the heel of Italy from Santa Maria di Leuca to Otranto and into the Adriatic Sea. We may anchor in Otranto or we may head straight across to Dubrovnik. (We went to Ortranto.)

We set sail from our overnight anchorage at Porto Palo on the southernmost tip of Sicily at 0625 to get into Siracusa early enough to do some touring and head out the next day. Incidentally, I will use mostly Italian spelling for place names from our charts, and it may differ from the English. For example I think Siracusa is Syracuse. But, please forgive any inconsistencies. On our arrival 30 miles later at 1225, we moored alongside on the city wall, where there were several other boats alongside as well (as opposed to bow or stern to with an anchor out). This was below the town wall of Ortigia, the ancient town quarter on the island linked by bridges to Siracusa, in Porto Grande. It was a long, busy promenade, along which, in the late afternoon, vendors started setting up their stalls for clothes, sunglasses, jewelry, and other items. A few kiddies’ rides opened up and it became a busier carnival atmosphere as the evening wore on. We wandered over to the customs shed, but no one there spoke any English, and showed no interest in our attempts to officially check in. So too at the Coast Guard station at the end of the promenade.

OK, so we wandered the old part of town, saw the ruins of the Temple of Apollo dating back to the Greek occupation, about 565 B.C., then found a helpful tourist information office to get some maps of the area. Most of the stores and businesses were closed for the afternoon, and not opening until 1700 or 1730, so we went back to the boat. Seeing a Polizei car coming down the promenade, we went out with our passports and registration documents which were noted by the officers, thus, we hope, constituting our check in to Italy. We took down our flag Quebec. We also left the dock and anchored out in Porto Grande in order to have a quieter meal and evening away from the hurly burly of shoreside.

Whoops, the wind just shifted from south to east, causing the genoa to flog, and necessitating a few minutes of sail setting, taking down the whisker pole and going on to a broad reach with the wind, still at 10 to 15 knots, from abeam to starboard. Incidentally, the weather forecast is for light force 4 westerly or northwesterly winds. We have light force 4 easterly winds. So much for their reliability of direction. It seems to be a matter of “what we see is what we get”, as long as no heavy winds or gales are forecast. Afternoon winds frequently build up to higher than what is forecast.

Back in Siracusa; next day, July 13, we took Sprite ashore, under the low bridges linking Ortigia to Siracusa and into Porto Picolo on the outer side, to the local yacht club where we asked permission to leave it for a few hours. In town we went first to the ruins of St. John’s Basilica and the Catacombs beneath. These were larger than St. Peter’s Catacombs we saw in Rabat on Malta, dating back to the 3rd century A.D. Judging from the number of large (8 metre high) beehive domes inside the catacombs, it appears they were carved from cisterns that dried out and were then converted into the Necropoli di San Giovanni.

These were located near the new church, The Sanctuary to The Madonna of Tears, recently built in reponse to the “miracle” which happened in a nearby home when a statue of the Virgin Mary started shedding tears over a few day period. The church is a modern circular swooping ribbed structure that dominates the skyline (we used it as a landmark on our approach to Siracusa) topped with its illuminated cross.

Next to it was the extremely good National Archeological Museum, the Paolo Orsi, a modern world-class museum with rare, well preserved and well displayed artifacts of prehistoric, Greek, Roman and Byzantine origin. Amphorae, busts, plaques, altars, sarcophagi, caryatids (female statues or busts carrying a basket on their heads for arch or timber supports), telamones (virile statues, genitalia and all), decorative gutter spouts with lion head ornamentation, and rare statues such as the archaic 6th century B.C. Goddess Nursing Two Children, and the Landolina Venus, the beauty of which would rival the Venus de Milo – all displayed in walk-around glass encasements in this newly built polygonal structure with thematic display halls around the periphery. This is the best archeological museum we have visited so far.

At the museum we purchased a combined ticket including the Archeological Park of Neapolis, which provided a hot, but interesting, afternoon of exploration. Siracusa, founded by the Greeks of Corinth in 734 B.C., was made up of five quarters: Ortigia, Achradina, Tyche, Neapolis, and Epipolaei: the Pentapolis (“Five Cities”), and became the capital of the Western Greek world until its conquest by Rome in 212 B.C. Tito Livio, known in English as the Roman historian Livy, attributes the taking of Siracusa and the transfer of its numerous Grecian works of art to Rome as the reason Romans first began to admire the Greek culture and civilization. By 535 A.D. Siracusa was occupied by the Byzantines, and in 663 A.D. it was actually the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine II. However, by 878 A.D. it was occupied by the Arabs and lost its position as the leading city of Sicily.

At this park we saw the Altar of Hieron II, the largest altar of the Greek world, measuring 200 by 23 metres, erected in the reign of Hieron (270 to 215  B. C.), but dismantled in 1520 to build the fortification of Ortigia. The Greek theatre, one of the largest in the world, dates back to the 5th century B.C. Mostly carved out of the hillside rock, the lower section is still used for performances, traditional Greek tragedies as well as high-tech musical productions, while at the upper level a vast panorama is still to be seen looking several kilometres across the stage to the city and its Porto Grande where Veleda is at anchor. Also from this upper level is a cave called Ninfeo with a fresh water cascading into it from an arched outlet fed by a still operating Greek aqueduct 30 kilometres long, dug by hand 2,500 years ago! Other caves and tombs of the Byzantine era (6th to 8th centuries A.D.) are to be found on this level as well.

The Ear of Dionysius is a spectacular manmade cave 30 metres high by 65 metres deep, in a quarry initially dug by 7000 prisoners after the defeat of Athens at the Port of Siracusa in 413 B.C. Remember that Siracusa was settled by the Corinthians, and apparently Athens wanted to conquer their colony in Sicily. These prisoners were mercilessly worked to death quarrying out the stone for the temples, altars, and theatres of this great Greek city state in Sicily at the height of its power under the tyrant (leader, king, emperor?) Dionysius. Its population then is estimated to be what it is today, a city of over 125,000 people. The cave has remarkable acoustics and echoes. While we were there a tour group started singing some Italian arias, and the haunting echoing sound of their voices was moving. Actually, though, I thought that the entrance to the cave looked more like Spock (from Star Trek)’s pointed ear.

The last structure we visited in this archeological park was the Roman Amphitheatre dating back to the 3rd century A.D.  It was not in as good a condition as other amphitheatres we have seen, as much of it was dismantled by the Spanish in fortifying Ortigia in the early 16th century. The centre tunnel was still in place and the stage is still used for performances today. The amphitheatre was a typically Roman construction for circus-type shows of fights, races, wrestling and hunting spectacles. The Greek theatre was for cultural, educational and religious events in a semicircular structure. The amphitheatre is oval , the term originating from “amphi” meaning double and “teatron” meaning a place to watch from; thus allowing the spectators “to watch from both sides”.

This park was impressive. We hadn’t seen such archeological antiquities in situ since Carthage in Tunisia. In fact, I guess that Siracusa was to ancient Greece what Carthage was to ancient Sidon and Tyre (Phoenicia), a colony that became a powerful city state, and the centre of a trading empire. However, Carthage was the greater city state, at one point conquering Siracusa and all of Sicily before the Romans took over.

We had to go up to Mount Etna. We took a train, about 35 km up the coast from Siracusa to Catania, from where we caught, after much searching and incomplete information, a local bus (only runs three or four times a day) to Nicolosi and on up Etna to the Sapienza Refuge at the 2000 metre level. It was a clear day, and we could see the plume of smoke coming from the summit and trailing for miles downwind. At Sapienza there were a wide range of tourist shops, parking areas for buses, a couple of restaurants, and the base terminal of the ski lift. This lift was not operational due to recent tremors and lava flows just two days earlier, and so we could not get right up to the crater’s edge. However, for the same price (77,000 lire or about $50.00 Cdn) we boarded a four-wheel-drive mini-bus with a guide that took us higher into the lava fields.

On our way up we saw a couple of buildings inundated by black lava from previous flows. It is a fact of life at that level that Etna may erupt and blow anywhere on her upper reaches. One of the refuges we stopped at that was destroyed, had a fissure of lava open up directly beneath it a few years ago. They have seismographic instruments that give warnings of tremors and potential eruptions, but the exact locations of the blow, and resultant lava flows are uncertain. Thus because of the recent activity we were not permitted above the 2500 metre level, the summit being about 3300 metres. There are three active craters near the summit, one or two of which were still belching smoke and two days earlier had a blow with fire, gases, and hot lava debris being blown into the air. We didn’t experience it, but a few days later some sailboats reported volcanic ash covering their vessels from another blow. These recent explosions were reported in the newspapers, and I have a news photo of a satellite picture of Etna and the smoke trail blowing south west at the time we were transitting that stretch of water. We saw the smoke trail during the day, looking like a haze or string of cloud originating from the summit. At night from 15 to 20 miles away we saw the red glow emanating from the craters. No spectacular fireworks though.

More about Etna and our transit across the Straits of Messina and the Ionian Sea to the toe of Italy in my next log.