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Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

Author: 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.

Thursday, May 26th
Today we sailed for our first Aeolian Island, Stromboli. The chief attraction in Stromboli is the volcano. It is best seen at night when you can see the red flares. Some hiked up to the top, but, hey, this was an elderhostel. The boat moseyed on over to the best viewing point and watched in comfort rather than climbing up. I bought a t-shirt which says (in Italian) “On Stromboli even the cats are on vacation.”There is a nice drawing of a sleeping cat in a window well.

Friday, May 27th
We headed for the island of Panera. Many of the jet set have summer homes there. We took a hike to a prehistoric site. Not everyone did the hike. I made it to the top of the hill but did not walk into the site. I was able to take plenty of good photos from that vantage point and, mindful of an ankle I broke last year that was reinjured two weeks before the trip, I did not walk down into the site. Enough was enough and I did not want to take unnecessary chances with turning it over on the uneven ground. I did have the ankle in a brace for much of the trip and occasionally used a stick on uneven ground as a safety measure.

Saturday, May 28th
If it is Sunday it must be Salina. Salina was the quietest of the Aeolian Islands we visited (we did not go to Filicudi or Alcudi). There was a bar and a ceramics shop in the harbor but not much else. During the day, we had a tour of the island which included a caper farm and a winery. I bought some capers which I ended up giving to the boat when I thought about the damage that could be done if they plastic bag they were in decided to open in my luggage. I also bought a bottle of grappa at the winery which was eventually consumed on the boat. Given the weight and trouble, I no longer bring wine or liquor back from Europe.

Sunday, May 29th
We went first to Volcano where a hike to the top of the volcano was offered. At this point we were all fairly chilled out and only 3 tried the hike. Two completed it. Some swam off the boat. The rest of us took the dinghy to shore and explored the town on foot. Eventually we all met up at the inevitable bar in the harbor for limoncello and/or gelatti. Unfortunately some of the group found out how much those fancy ice cream concoctions cost when you sit down at a table in a major tourist destination.

The boat then moved on to Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Island, where we anchored for two nights.

The evening was free for ambling and shopping or whatever. A group of the men went to dinner in a restaurant. The rest of us remained on board. My understanding was that a number of the men more or less drank their dinner. I heard about it afterwards. A highlight of the day was the Corpus Christi relgious procession in Lipari. Unfortuantely, it was in the evening when it passed by and and I missed some great photo ops. I thought the locals took the procession rather casually. One of the musicians in the band immediately picked up her cell phone and began talking as soon as the music stopped. She talked as she continued walking in the procession. Some of the children needed adults to remind them to keep their minds on what it was they were supposed to be doing. Kids are the same everywhere!

Monday, May 30th
The morning was free for ambling, shopping or relaxing by the port. I used my time to finally put my film cards on a CD so I could freely shoot photos again. I did some shopping, buying a ceramic tile from a shop in the harbor that had the most intense colors of any ceramic shop I saw. I was sorry I had purchased things elsewhere. The tile is out at the framers being simply framed so I can hang it on the wall.

The afternoon was spent on a tour of the island by bus which finished with a walk up to the castle and the Aeolian Museum. The museum is full of pots and the guide spoke about the different ways the pots are dated, the styles, etc. If it had not been so hot in the museum I would have paid better attention. There were also masks from Greek plays that had been discovered and were displayed. Interestingly, there was no museum shop. Plenty of replicas of those masks were available all over Lipari in the shops.

After dinner, the guide, one other woman and I walked over to the beach and collected pumice stones. Italians use these to rub dead skin off feet. We brought ours back to the boat and left them for anyone who wanted them. They are volcanic in origin and actually float if you throw them in water! We tried it!

Tuesday, May 31st
I spent the day sailing to Cefalu, just east of Palermo on the northern coast. Cefalu is a charming town, but the boat had to dock a good distance away from the downtown so we got in a walk after dinner to earn our gelato. I had limoncello gelato which, alas, turned out to taste suspiciously like lemon custard. The cathedrale is very interesting inside with a huge mosaic of Christ over the altar.

Wednesday, June 1st
In the morning we double confirmed our flights and then set sail for Palermo. Arriving in Palermo, we had a few hours and I finally succeeded in seeing a Sicilian puppet show where Orlando and Rinaldo slugged it out and the Saracens were left in a heap on the floor. We got a chance to try to pick up the puppets afterwards and I can tell you that they were extremely heavy. I also saw the cathedral in Palermo. My one regret is that there was no time to go to Montreale, but I have learned that you never get to see everything on these trips.

Thursday, June 2nd
We were awakened at 4:00am to tumble onto the bus for the ride to the Palermo airport and our connecting flights home. I had a window seat on a blissfully uncrowded transatlantic flight. As we flew away from Milan, I could almost touch Mont Blanc out the window. When we reached Canada, there were great views of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia! You do not get that often!

Our wonderful trip to Sicily was over and I had a wonderful tan to cause much jealousy in the office!

Some Notes
I have enjoyed traveling in Europe either through home exchanges or on group trips. Each way has its plusses and minuses.

When you are independently traveling and something goes wrong, you have to figure it out. The upside is, of course, you do what you want to do when you want to do it. That is a huge advantage, but it does mean that YOU plan every detail of your trip.

A group tour removes all the uncertainty. If something goes wrong, the tour director deals with it. The disadvantage is that you may not care for some of the people or you may want to do something else than what is planned for the day. I did go “off tour” twice but was always careful to be certain to return when I needed to so as not to inconvenience anyone. There is nothing more annoying than have to wait for someone who gets “lost” on a tour and holds everyone else up (usually over haggling in a market in my experience). In Palermo, I was 5 minutes late for dinner (which was on the boat, so I inconvenienced no one by being 5 minutes late). You cannot believe how many said they were worried. The tour organizer told them all he had seen me and I was fine (He ran into me at the Palermo Cathedral and I assured him I would be back on time, etc.). When I walked onto the boat, I did get applause! The one who was worried the most, by the way, was the woman who did not want a roommate! We became good buddies on the tour and would have roomed together just fine. Many individuals have never traveled independently and get worried when they can’t see the guide. They were amazed I took the bus back to the boat from the cathedral and survived!

On my Russia trip with elderhostel, I tuned to CD’s when people started complaining. Most group trips–even non elderhostel ones for which you must be a minimum of age 55–attract older people. Unfortunately, many of them are not used to the petty inconveniences of travel. The food is a frequent source of complaints. Toilets are another. I have to say that on the boat I had my own toilet and I never used a public toilet in Italy as I could always return to my private moving hotel (the boat) except at the Milan airport when I was coming and going. In any event, you do have to learn to turn that stuff off or the kvetches will drive you nuts!

On the boat it was difficult also to find private space when we were sailing, say, to read. There were groups that formed to play bridge and dominos, but I was not interested in that. I preferred to read. Reading in the cabins during the day was not comfortable as the cabins were basically bunks and a closet (mine had no closet because I took the smaller cabin to allow the older woman to have the larger one–and avoid any unpleasantness). There were no chairs and no air conditioning. When the boat was not moving, there were fans to cool the air down below, but during the day it could be quite warm. Finding a quiet space on top was difficult because there seemed to be “talkers” everywhere when I wanted to read. I did usually find a spot but sometimes I rotated to different places around the boat to find quiet.

Having said all of this, I did know what I was getting into and was glad to have had the experience, but we really spent too much time on the boat. Looking back on it, I would have preferred more land time. However, it was just great not to have to move hotels all the time and the whole idea of the sailboat was just grand. The hotel moved with you. On balance, I am glad I took this trip, but, if I took another elderhostel cruise sometime, I would look for a boat with larger cabins and a bit more place for personal space.

If you are interested in elderhostel, they do have all sorts of trips — and something for everyone. I particularly have enjoyed the active outdoor experiences in the US where you get the more active seniors. Please note that most people on the trips that are NOT labeled as “active outdoor” tend to be well over 55. As someone just a “tad” over 55, however, I always find some people to hang with no matter what their age. Many times the oldest person on the trip is the one with the most spunk. There is no telling.

By the way, if you wanted to go to the Aeolian Islands by yourself, you could easily base yourself in Lipari for a week and take boats between the islands. Another great place as a base would be Cefalu, which is a very cute town on the Sicilian mainland.

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