Sunday, April 30, 2017

April 29th – Visiting Lipari Out of Season

Out of season, the island of Lipari, in the remote Aeolian Islands (north of Sicily), is like visiting a parallel universe. You know that in July and August, this sleepy place transformed itself into a glamorous resort for the Jet Set. Yet, at the end of April, it's just reserved for the down-to-earth locals (plus the odd cruise passenger).

In the summer months, this is a sun-drenched island paradise. In early spring, it was a grey, windswept place, that had a fairly barren feel to it. In the peak season, it's busy with constant arrivals from the ferries; but, at this time of year, there's a fairly empty feel to the island.

Of course, it's better to be here when there's fewer visitors to share it with; but with the grey skies, there was a flat feel to Lipari Town, which meant that it wasn't looking as photogenic as it normally does (more of a feel of an Irish fishing village, than a Mediterranean island vibe).

We ventured around its quiet streets, climbing up to the imposing medieval citadel that the town is built around. The town's main sight is its archaeological museum, which has a fairly dry set of exhibits, but it does at least put into context Lipari's long history, and traces its pivotal role on the ancient trade routes. Because, in ancient times, this volcanic island's unique gift of obsidian (super-hard volcanic glass) made it a rich place that received visitors from all around the Mediterranean.

Having had our fill of fragments of pottery, we then just wandered around Lipari Town's atmospheric streets, passing by fairly run-down houses, and upmarket B&Bs; smart boutiques and mobile fruit and veg stalls. It made you wonder what the locals feel about their summer invasion – the hardy fishermen pulling in their catch in the harbour must look on with bemusement. On the one hand, now that obsidian is no longer worth its weight in gold, this place is very reliant on income from the tourist trade; yet on the other, it must have a totally different atmosphere in those summer months, when prices go through the roof.

I think that Lipari needs a sunny day to see it at its best, but whatever the weather, there's still a raw beauty to this remote Mediterranean island.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 27th – Great To Be Back in Sicily

There's not many Destination Lecturers out there who take their job so seriously, that they'd be willing to spend 6 long, hard weeks in a place just to prepare for their lecture on the World Cruise. But, this was the task that I took on this past summer, just to prepare us for our visit to beautiful Siracusa on the World Cruise. That's dedication for you!

That meant that there was a feeling of almost "coming home", as we stepped off the tender in Siracusa, and began to explore its atmospheric streets. In fact, it was almost like we'd forgotten how much we loved this part of Sicily, as we walked down its atmospherically chaotic market, and chatted to its friendly gruff-voiced vendors, each of them looking like they could have had a walk-on part in The Godfather or the Sopranos.

Because, the thing that I really love about Sicily (apart from its wonderful food, its great weather, and its amazing history), is that it manages to mix magnificent sights (like the splendid baroque architecture of Siracusa) with charmingly ordinary, down-to-earth streetlife. For every spruced up set-piece (like the sparkling golden stone of the Piazza del Duomo), you only have to head a couple of streets back to get into slightly run-down alleyways where the baroque facades have been weathered by years of neglect.

But, from the historic splendours of Ortigia (the island/peninsula of baroque Siracusa), we headed into the modern town on the mainland – a place that had to be largely rebuilt (mainly out of concrete), after the bombing raids of the Second World War. But ironically, beneath the fabric of this rather unattractive modern town, are many relics of Ancient Siracusa, dating from the times when this was a thriving Greek city that was a serious rival of Athens.

So, we headed over to the Archaeological Museum to see what had been dug up around Siracusa. This modern Museum was built in the 1980s, but it seems to have fared less well than the ancient exhibits it houses – it suffers from leaks, broken lifts, and non-functioning toilets, which is a probably a sign that (like a few other things in Sicily) the construction and maintenance funds were probably not used as they should be. However, its contents were great, and have helped us piece together a lot of what we saw over the summer.

But, having got our fill of culture, most of the rest of the day was spent soaking up what Sicily does best – delicious food and drink. So, Tracy chowed down on a tasty cannolo for elevenses, we had some excellent pasta for lunch, and then in the evening, we went to an excellent bistro called Macalle where we had some great Sicilian dishes.

It was great to be back "Home" in Sicily.

April 26th – One Knight in Valletta!

I don't think that there's any other city around the world that I've been to, that displays its history so obviously and impressively as Valletta. From the moment that you sail into its magnificent harbour, and you see its immense bastions, its golden stone palaces, and its splendid baroque churches, then you feel history all around you. And it's a fascinating history – of so many sieges and battles, and the glory years when this was the home of the Knights of St John.

Our plan today was to visit the Knights' ground zero – the Grandmasters Palace – however, Malta currently holds the Presidency of the EU; so, as the Palace doubles as the office of the President, then it was sadly off-limits to us. Maybe the battles over Brexit will be as vicious as anything Valletta has seen?

Instead, we headed to the spiritual home of the Knights – the hugely impressive St John's Co-Cathedral. From the outside, the Cathedral looks almost like a fortress – unadorned and forbidding. Yet, on the inside, it looks almost like a palace, so opulent is its decoration – the floor lined with the decorated marble tombstones of the nights, and its walls highly ornamented with gold-covered stone carvings, as the different nationalities of the Knights competed to outdo each other in their individual chapels.

Back in the 16th century, the Knights acted as a kind of European combined defence force, as the French, Spanish, Italian, German, and English Knights, each contributed their wealth and military expertise to defending Europe from the expanding Turks. In a forerunner of Brexit, the English Knights pulled out fairly quickly (after the reformation), while the order gradually began to lose its way from its original stated military purpose, and become more about spending money on itself (are there any parallels with the EU on this?).

But, the end result is that the Cathedral is a wonderful baroque confection of a building, that has the course of history running through it. For me, its most impressive feature are two masterpieces by Caravaggio – painted while this turbulent genius was on the run from a murder charge in Rome. Unfortunately, as he tried to become a Knight, Caravaggio couldn't stay out of trouble in Malta either; so, after yet another fight, he had to escape to Sicily. But, at least his legacy here in the Cathedral is two of his greatest ever works.

Exploring the Cathedral top to bottom was fairly tiring, so we did a bit more exploring of this golden city, before a much needed drinks break, and back to the ship for a rest. Because, that evening, we were joining the final Silversea Experience of the World Cruise, with a visit to "The Silent City" of Mdina, where we were being treated to a classical performance in the Cathedral.

The setting was superb, in this evocative frescoed cathedral, as the singers showed off its fabulous echoing acoustics to the max, with some great "Ave Marias" and "Agnus Deis". Like the island as a whole, the evening packed a lot into a small space – history, culture, and plenty of stirring sights and sounds.