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Sunday, October 7, 2012, in Gzira, Malta

Hi all. Well, we’re still living aboard and even sailing around once in a while. I thought I’d take this opportunity to bring you up to date about what we’re doing in Malta (with a little Sicily thrown in.) Last time I wrote, a decade or so ago, we’d arrived in Malta, where the boat will spend the winter.

Our friends Patti and Dave arrived on a Friday night, and we set out first thing Saturday morning on a new sailing adventure. Our destination was again Sicily, but this time we’d visit the southeastern side. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it was effective. We sailed all the way to Syracuse, arrived well before dinnertime, and hardly anyone got seasick.

Our plan was to sail north, perhaps to Riposto, where we could find a tour of Mt. Etna. The morning after we arrived at Syracuse, we hauled up our anchor and left. We hadn’t even gone ashore there, but we knew we’d visit on our way back to Malta. Dave and Patti had already been there with us several years earlier.

Our second day’s weather wasn’t as favorable for sailing, with light winds in our face. We motored in seas that flattened as the day progressed. Art called the marina in Riposto, and learned that the daily rate was among the highest wed ever encountered. This just annoyed us enough that we stopped instead in one of my favorite places, Catania.

We would have visited Catania on our way back south, but I didn’t mind that we'd be getting there sooner. The second-largest city in Sicily (after Palermo) Catania has better access to Mt. Etna tours than Riposto does, and the marina rate was half as much for a destination that was twice as interesting.

Our arrival on a Sunday meant that we would probably only accomplish lunch at a restaurant and a small walk around the town, and that’s all we did. The marina we’d used in the past wouldn’t accommodate our size, but the marina we chose instead was closer to town.

The Sunday arrival also meant that we’d be unable to visit the tourist office or plan a tour for the next day. Still, we made good use of our Monday. Instead of taking the “hop on, hop off” (in Italian, it’s “o-pun o-puff”) or the open tram tour, we followed a walk from the always-helpful Frommers Internet site.

Catania was founded in the 8th century BC, and has been ruined more times than a city should have to endure. Earthquakes razed the place to the ground in 1169 and 1693, and the nearby Mt. Etna volcano poured molten lava on it in between, most notably in 1669. The eruptions did provide fertile soil from the episodic sprinkle of ashes all over the place. The timing of the latest rebuilding coincided with the best of the Renaissance, and the architecture is ornate and grand. But the gurgling and sporadic eruptions of Etna keep the city covered in a dusty grey coating on the light limestone buildings. So it’s simply stunning but a little bit Cinderella-like, like a princess who has just stepped out of a coal mine.

We began our tour in the Piazza Duomo, even though that isn’t the recommended spot. But that place is just the best location in the whole city, a sprawling plaza staked by a large obelisk bisected by a lava-colored elephant. Indeed, the elephant is the city’s mascot, with a mosaic elephant in the cobblestones at the town hall, and elephants carved into some of the most picturesque Baroque buildings in town.

From the fort at Castello Ursino and through the bustling fish and vegetable market to an astonishing number of overcarved church façades and fountains that could proudly stand in Rome or Florence, we drank in the history and immediacy of this welcoming city. Derelict Roman baths stood behind a gate as if imprisoned from their future. The walk was so delightful yet so taxing that we simply postponed visiting the Roman Amphitheater and Odeon for another day.

The fish market and its neighbors selling vegetables, meats and cheeses sprawled across a swath of the old city, probably just like they’ve done daily for centuries. The fish market was stunning – a swordfish on display in two pieces, the trophy head and long sword facing one direction and the decapitated but brute body facing its appraisers alongside. There were fish that were so small they’d need to be fried and eaten whole in quantities of dozens, and their offspring in buckets, so small as to be transparent, with an eye the size of a pin tip, not the head. An octopus in one bucket spent its time trying to outwit the fisherman by squirming up the bucket side to wander off to where? The streets of Catania? But they were only to be struck down again and again. I almost thought I saw frustration in its eyes.

Catania’s patron saint, Saint Agatha, was an early martyr. Her original portfolio includes patron sainthood of martyrs, wet nurses, fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna. She died in prison in about 250 AD, persecuted either for her Christian faith or for her romantic rejection of the local Roman prefect. Among the many atrocities that were common in incarceration, someone thought that it would be a good idea to lop off her breasts in punishment. She’s often painted as a saint, carrying around her severed breasts on a platter. Inspired by this image, over time, her new patron saint assignments include bakery loaves, bell-foundries, and breast cancer.

We were unable to snoop around inside the cathedral which, like so many in town, is dedicated to Saint Agatha, as a mass was in progress. In the piazza that centers the town, a little cabin promoting baked goods had a long line all day. The sponsor was Mulino Bianco, whose cookies sprawl across market shelves and whose pasta, Barilla, rules the world. People would go in on one side and come out the other, with new knowledge about grains and a tray of a cookie snack.

An hour-long bus ride took us to Taormina, the toniest resort on Sicily. From the beach where the bus arrives below the town, the road carves its way up switchbacks teetering over the end of the earth from one hairpin turn to the next. The hilltop village boasts the island’s second-largest Greek theater, but the crowds tend to stay on the pedestrian shopping street specked with designer shops and terraced restaurants.

We all stayed generally on the Corso Umberto I, window-shopping and listening to the street musicians who provided a 1950s-era travelogue soundtrack to the hilly terrain. Our lunch overlooked the sea, and it wasn’t difficult to devote hours to the casual art of the stroll. Break dancers entertained us as we paused for coffee, with sinewy arms and movements that made me wonder when this activity would find the gravitas of an Olympics slot.

When we’re traveling, it’s always welcome when we find some sort of entertainment that doesn’t require us to speak the local language. Sometimes that means a concert, and sometimes it’s dance. The Peking Opera was in town for a few performances while we visited Catania, so we arranged to go. As a bonus, we’d be inside the 1890 Massimo Bellini Theater, a 1200 seat house, a confection of excess.

Chinese opera is really different from the opera we’re used to seeing. The instruments (live) have a sort of whine to them, and the voices, especially those of the women, are thin compared to our Western expectations. The sets are spare, but the costumes are glorious, and the story, at least of the opera we watched, puts a prime-time soap opera to shame, with murder, intrigue and revenge. We had a slightly less modern experience than the locals who filled the theater with us, because twin screens interpreted the words being sung into Italian. This was only marginally helpful to me and not helpful at all to the rest of our group. But this is how non-Italians watched opera until very recently, and we could still immerse ourselves in its color and wonder and surmise most of the always-contrived plot.

In the end, we decided against a visit to Mt. Etna. Our last attempt several years earlier had been foiled due to weather. Clouds covered the general area of the volcano every time we were close enough to peek in its direction. All of the knowledgeable people we consulted assured us that the mountain is enshrouded in fog at all times it’s not freezing. I did notice that every lovely postcard photo tempting us to visit Mt. Etna under blue skies had a mountain covered in snow.

On our last day in town, we visited the Greek-Roman amphitheater. Like many other places around the Mediterranean, it’s in the middle of the downtown area. Houses share walls with the structure and look from their windows right over the seating. This theater was once a round coliseum, according to illustrations around the site. The on-site museum displays portions of ancient columns and their Corinthian capitals, busts of gods, pottery and amphorae, and well-preserved antiquities unearthed during excavations that continue in the present.

Our next destination was to return to Syracuse, not only as a waypoint as it had been on our trip north, but for a visit. We’d already visited Syracuse, and even Patti and Dave were with us on a Syracuse visit. It was a decade ago for all of us, so this was our chance to rediscover the place.

We’d already visited the ancient monuments, including the grand amphitheater, and the expansive and exhausting archaeological museum. But we allowed ourselves to be immersed again in the glorious Duomo, whose ancient Temple-of-Athena columns have been repurposed into the wall, the place of worship that served Greeks, Catholics, Muslims and more. And there was a new ancient attraction in town, a museum devoted to Archimedes.

A cross between a museum for kids and a monument to one of Syracuse’s native sons, this museum made me realize that Archimedes was a rock star, all the time he was examining rocks and stars. Here’s a partial list of his accomplishments:

• Archimedes’ principle for determining the volume of an irregular object by measuring water it displaces,
• Archimedes’ screw, for pumping liquids efficiently.
• The Claw of Archimedes, a weapon that could sink a ship,
• Block and tackle pulley systems, and improvements to the lever and the catapult,
• Approximated the value of pi,
• Calculated the area of a circle,
• Created a science of buoyancy,

Roman forces capturing Syracuse under General Marcus Claudius Marcellus entered Archimedes’ home with orders to capture him alive, as the Romans knew that his knowledge would be so valuable. Accounts differ, but, well, they just killed him instead. So maybe that’s why the Roman Empire was doomed.

We left Syracuse at first light, and motored, then sailed, then motored again, to the tiny town of Marzamemi. This would be our second visit to the place, but the first time I’d actually leave the boat. Many years earlier, we’d left Malta after our winter storage and were heading east, and Marzamemi was our first overnight stop after our crossing to Italy. This time, similarly, it was a convenient place to start our trip back to Malta.

But this time, we’d earmarked enough of a visit to get to the town. The port of Marzamemi isn’t much, but it’s adjacent to a fishing village that’s movie-eligible. I couldn’t find anything at all about it in any guidebook and barely anything on the Internet. The port itself isn’t much more than the marina; the town a kilometer away is a quaint fishing village reworked into a charming resort. The large piazza dominated by a stone church looks like old Mexico, and is softened by numerous cafés offering granite (water ice) and ice cream. The buildings on the perimeter are in need of a washing, but the plastic tables and chairs all around are white and blue and evoke tavernas in the Cyclades.

Around the harbor are crumbling stone buildings that once warehoused the catch from the tonnata, where unsuspecting migrating tuna are stopped in their tracks and carved up for human consumption. And well they do, from the dried bottarga to the tourist packages of “tuna heart” conserved in shrink wrap, to the raw tuna salads and cooked tuna that makes its way into antipasto and grilled tuna dinners.

On our second day in town, we availed ourselves of the generosity of the marina and borrowed four rusted bikes with uncertain gear boxes and without locks, as it would be iffy to make a getaway on these rickety devices. We rode to Pachino, the closest real town, had our coffee and second breakfast, and visited a surprisingly well-stocked supermarket for our remaining essentials, mostly wine. In the afternoon, we headed back to the inauthenticity of the resort, and dined on fresh seafood salad and large plates of pasta under a canopy overlooking the sea.

It was time to return to Malta, and we left early in the morning, in hope of wind that hadn’t been forecast. We had a few false sailing starts, but for the most part, we motored our way back in rolling seas under cloudless skies. We dropped our anchor in the bay at St. Julians, where we’d visited many times by foot and by bus, but not yet by boat. After tying up the dinghy along the quay, we walked along the harbor and chose a terraced restaurant for dinner, one of about a dozen appealing dinner choices that overlook the sparkling harbor. We were not disappointed in our selection.

And thus our cruising season was finished. In the morning, we hauled up the anchor and motored to Manoel Island Yacht Marina for another month afloat. On our visitors’ final few days with us, they toured Valletta, imbibed at a wine cellar, and marveled at ancient temples that make Stonehenge seem relatively modern. We’ve done all of the tourist destinations in Malta, but we joined them for their tour of Valletta.

The Valletta day began at the short movie The Malta Experience, which outlines Malta’s significant role in Western history. It begins in about 5200 BC, when settlers from Sicily created the beginning of human civilization on the island. The temple at Ggantia in Gozo is the oldest free-standing building on earth. It’s likely that the object of worship is a fat lady, who appears in sculptures found around the site and who most likely represents fertility. Cart ruts in the ubiquitous island rock demonstrate the existence of a Bronze Age civilization.

The Phoenicians and then the Greeks arrived, and Malta’s fortunes grew alongside the most advanced civilizations at the time. It’s likely that the name Malta comes from a Greek word describing a local honeybee.

The New Testament contains the story that Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the island in AD 60, in a bay now named for the event. Legends abound regarding the miracles surrounding both the shipwreck and the visit, but Malta became Catholic at that time and remains resolutely religious still.

Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs ruled the islands in turn, and then Sicily, which transformed the culture from Arab to a more Latin sensibility that remains to this day. Its real influence followed the arrival of the Knights of St. John, who were handed Malta by Charles V and created a huge religious and fortified infrastructure. The defining event of the era was the 1565 siege by Suleiman the Magnificent, in retribution for attacks by the Knights on Ottoman shipping routes. This was a defining time for the island, with ugliness and horror all around. Malta withstood the siege, and every year still celebrates the day that the siege ended on September 8, 1565.

More fortifications were constructed, and the main town of Valletta, and soon the Knights dissolved into complacence and corruption. Napoleon saw an opening in 1798, and managed to establish a government and steal the treasury’s silver before departing on his Egyptian campaign. Unhappy with the occupation, Malta agreed to join the British Empire, and English replaced Italian as the non-Maltese language of choice. Malta’s people demonstrated such bravery during a terrible World War II siege in 1940 that they earned the highest civilian award for gallantry, the George Cross from King George VI and a United States Presidential Citation from Franklin Roosevelt. The island eventually achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 and became a republic ten years later. If you just tell that general story, you have a forty-five minute movie, and now you don’t have to see The Malta Experience for yourself. But it’s a great start to a visit to the island, and that’s why Art and I have probably seen it half a dozen times with our various visitors.

We had two other stops in Valletta, first the Grand Master’s Palace, originally built as the headquarters for the Knights of St. John, and the home for now for Malta’s President and House of Representatives (although a new complex is under construction nearby.) Our second stop was the glorious – in all senses of the word – St. John’s Co-Cathedral (sharing cathedral status with yet another gigantic church in the medieval town of Mdina.) We’d both forgotten the feast that this cathedral is for the eyes, most every corner etched, painted or gilded, and a side chapel with two haunting paintings by Caravaggio.

One day, our foursome met our friends from Norway, Astrid and Mauritz, who we had met along the coast of Norway and, somehow, we manage to see them about once a year even though they’re nearly always in Scandinavia and we aren’t. They, like Dave and Patti, were celebrating a big anniversary and were happy to devote their celebration to Malta.

There’s another set of guests and a bit more touring, but I��ll hold off on more news until next week or so. It’s threatening to cool off here, but it hasn’t really done so yet. Let us know what you’re up to.

Love, Karen (and Art)