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blog Blog 2021

We’ll be back in time- treasures of Sicily (Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Ragusa)

Siracusa

An hour and a half or so from the Etna’s slopes lies the port city of Siracusa, dating to 2500 BCE. The entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site. Most of Sicily is or should be, unless clean streets and regular trash pickup and street sweeping count- there its cities are failing.

Once in town we found a parking place for our van entirely due to the efforts of a local. He was leaving so he took us to where he was parked, in front of a sign that said no parking. After I parked he came back to make sure we understood that parking there was ok. He knew the sign was no longer valid, but would give us cause for concern as we are ‘stranieri,’ (foreigners) and unfamiliar with the way things actually work. Or don’t. Things are rather idiosyncratic in Italy, making local knowledge of great value. Locals, however, sometimes disagree loudly about what really is and is not permissible.

Back in Time

In the evening we walked to the old town from our lovely 6 person/3 bedroom flat. It was a journey from the fairly new, across the bridge, then onto the island of the very old. Here the city began, ideally situated for access to the sea.

The old island was full of people walking, sitting on benches, drinking and eating, taking photos and what not. They came on scooters and buses mostly as finding a place to park can be somewhere between difficult and impossible.

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The Cathedral, called Il Duomo. You can see the ancient columns.

The cathedral was built on the site of a temple to Athena from the 5th century BCE. The latter’s still visible columns were used to build the walls. What stories they could tell if they had lips! T. The roof of the nave is Norman, as are the mosaics, the people who brought into my family our blond, blue eyed Sicilian uncle. Fewer structures anywhere can transport you so far back in time without you having to budge much at all.

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Il Duomo when we were there at night.

A big reason to come here is to visit the archaeological park. There are huge caves chiseled from the hills, from where oracles gave their predictions. As will all such sites, it helps to have some familiarity with the ancient cultures to enjoy the visit so you can imagine the smoke and mirror shows that went along with all the hooha. The park contains not only a Greek theater but a Roman as well. The Greeks did plays, the Romans watched blood sports. Tell me who was more civilized than the other.

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It was lunch time by the time we left so we looked for a restaurant that is more or less on the way back to our apartment, as we were on foot and not all of us capable of lots of hoofing. I found a place that looked good and with just one minor navigation boo boo went right to it. The chef greeted us with enthusiasm at a volume all Sicilians seem to enjoy. Loud. It is equated with being genuine. It’s all about drama, theater, expressiveness. We have run across this often in our past journeys, and as I grew up with Sicilians, I can do a clever imitation my own self.

Well all was fine and dandy despite our expressive albeit friendly cook who came to greet us. Americani! He was thrilled. There have not been many of us lately and he’s off the beaten track so even in normal times there are few. But then I made a major mistake. The house antipasto had a bit of everything so I ordered one for the table. The waitress took that to mean one each. In the meantime everyone had ordered either a primo (pasta) or a secundo (meat or fish). Then the antipasti arrived. And arrived and arrived. It was too much food but fantastic, so we had a great time. We had the other dishes for dinner and were so so at best. In the end, I’d done it right, by mistake. It was about 30 euros per person, not terribly expensive especially given the quality and quantity.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is close by, less than an hour or so in the van. We went the next day. You drive through windy roads and a dusty village or two perhaps before you get a view of the burial caves. We never got close up but you could certainly see the openings on the side of the cliffs. I wondered how they reached some of these, as they were well off the ground and far from the cliff’s top. These were dug between the 13th and 7th centuries BCE. It’s a dry, rocky landscape but a stream runs through it. Life must have been as hard as the rocks they lived on.

Necropolis of Pantalica

Modica and Noto

Noto and Modica are short distances from Siracusa and each other so we visited both on the same day. Noto is most noted for its Baroque church, completed in 1776, and Modica for being built on both sides of a steep, wide gully. Noto as well as Modica is a World Heritage city, their origin in Roman times. Like many others it was conquered by the Moors before falling to the Christians in 1091. Each was also severely damaged in 1693. In Modica there was a population loss approaching 50%. Modica was rebuilt in a homogeneous fashion, giving it a special charm.

Modica from the Church, watercolor
Modica from the Cathedral steps, watercolor

This is our second visit to Modica. We stayed just outside town in the summer of 2000. We were living in Rome at the time. We stayed with the nephew of  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, a well respected and famous novel written in the early 1950’s, and made into a film in 1963. It’s story of the joining of Sicily to the just unified Italy, led by Garibaldi and company in the events termed Il Risorgimento.

“The more you want things to remain the same the more things must change,” he wrote. My sense is that Italy and Sicily particularly are trapped in deep, enduring ironies such as this. It is extremely rich in heritage in form of architecture, art (at least until the Baroque), antiquities, music, film, theaters, science- Marconi invented radio, for instance. Maybe you have heard of him. Italians were instrumental in the European expansion into the Americas. Maybe you have heard of the famous Italian Cristoforo Colombo. He was born in Genoa. Then there’s Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot to us anglophones. How about Amerigo Vespuci?

In addition to the many contributions to civilization, Italy today is among the 10 largest economies of the world. Yet when you visit many cities the streets, buildings and public spaces look third world. They have trouble getting unemployment below 10%, although who knows, really, given how readily people can move between being on and off the books. And the Italians go through governments as they go through pasta, twice a day.

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Modica

We departed Siracusa after three nights in a lovely place with two large bathrooms and a tiny kitchen and a huge living room that no one used other than as a 4th bedroom. We were heading for Ragusa, before landing in a B and B for the night.

Ragusa

Want some super views and an old castle on top of it all? Nearly get stuck while trying to get your van out of town? Come to Ragusa where a little over 70,000 people are spread between two steep hills full of narrow roads. Do not follow the one that says “Residents only.” I did and nearly had to back out of the whole town.

Ragusa was heavily damaged in the 1693 quake. The residents rebuilt first on a second hill before fixing up the old section. These are called Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Inferiore. We drove through the narrow steep streets of both. There are great views from the Lombardi castle after you clamber up the boulders.

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View of Ragusa Superiore

We checked into an attractive B and B up a short steep driveway, with a small garden in front. After a bit of confusion I caused as I thought there was no a.c. but not for the first time I missed the modern units sitting high on the ceilings. Later we had dinner in a huge restaurant, its large patio occupied by a family celebrating the birthday of a kid who could not have been more than three. They whopped it up as he did a grand entrance on a battery operated car he was barely old enough to maneuver safely. It’s the kind of thing that could turn the kid into a whopping narcissist. What are these people thinking?

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Ragusa’s Cathedral with large modern sculptures in the style of

The next day we visited Villa Roman de Casale and the following it was Agrigento. The former is a Roman villa from the 4th century CE. There are amazing mosaics covering 3500 square meters. They depict the life of a wild animal importer who provided these poor creatures for Romans’ cruel pleasures. Or maybe, as most scholars now suggest, it was the home of a high level politician. In 1161 it was destroyed by William I, the first Norman king. I figure the Normans invaded Sicily after realizing how bland the food in England was, deciding to look for better restaurants to the south. They chose well. The villa was covered by a landslide later in the century, thus preserving the mosaics. The huge villa is yet another World Heritage site.

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Villa Roma del Casali
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villa figures
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blog Blog 2021

Amersfoort to Muiden, Weesp and Breukelen

May 9, 2021

From our perch just outside Amersfoort we managed to secure an appointment for a Covid vaccination. We called the appointment line on advice from the Irish boaters we met in the Amersfoort harbor and on a second try found someone who knew how to make the database work for people who live on boats.

Our next destination is Muiden, famous for its castle, and the Vecht is lovely from here and most of the way to its source, passing through the lovely historic towns of Weesp and Breukelen (pronounced like and giving its name to Brooklyn) and small villages. It was a lovely if windy ride, with just a bit of wave action hitting us broadside so it was a comfortable trip to the lock. The friendly lockkeeper was waiting, the gate open. It’s an easy lock in and out right in the middle of town, shops, restaurants and houses on each side.

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Muiden Castle, watercolor

Muiden does not have any moorings in town center, unfortunately, so it’s either on a mooring from whence there is no land access or a paid spot in an unattractive area with neither water nor electricity, and a grumpy harbor master who did not bother giving us a receipt. So we moved on the next day to the downtown mooring in the middle of Weesp. From there we took the train to Schipol to get our digid code for the Netherlands. We will probably not ever need it, but if we need to interact with the Dutch government we can now do so online, as the digid code, as they call it, suffices for your signature.

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Weesp harbor

We spent two days in decent weather near Nederhorst, where I rewired the persnickety navigation lights (corrosion had spread through the wire for several meters), before proceeding up the Vecht to Maarsen for the night, then through the next day Breukelen has magnificent buildings on the water, easy to enjoy at the sauntering pace. We now rest in the tiny village of Monfoort, just one other boat and a few dozen houses.

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Breukelen

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blog Blog 2021

In the Frozen North

After the complexities of our journey north we then faced a week of bad weather. The forecasts were highly accurate. Howling winds kept us in the safe harbor. We kept warm during the day with a small electric heater, just 750 watts, with the addition of the diesel heater that pumps hot water through radiators. The boat is well insulated, which helps a lot. The windows are not double pane so they have to be wiped dry a few times a day as they fog up. As we absorbed the moisture off the panes we gazed out at snow flakes, hail, sleet and the occasional blue sky.

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View from our window in April, 2121
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First pizza of the year

We took the time to deal with any issues that arose over the winter. People were skating on the canals this year, for the first time since 2012 or so. This used to happen every year but the climate has been warming so skates spend long lonely years in the closet. We expected issues and found a few. The shower faucet froze despite having been drained by normal means. I should have removed it completely, apparently. The shower pump failed. A window leak worsened. It needs to be removed and re-bedded. Not bad overall.

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We arrived on the 4th and left on the 13th for our annual haul out. You need to check the anodes that protect the boat from electrolysis. Sometimes there is stray current in the water. This current causes weaker metals to migrate to stronger metals. Unchecked you can ruin a prop, rudder and other parts. You can install a galvanic isolater, which we will do. It prevents DC voltage from doing its worst. DC can cause problems when the boat is connected to shore power.

Monday the 12th April broke at O centigrade but sunny. We have outside steering only but stay warm and dry under the rainhood. There was some wind, a bit of hale and a snow shower or two, so staying dry and out of the wind helps greatly.

Along the way I monitored a leak at the prop shaft. There is a grease fitting around that shaft that has probably never been renewed. Before we left I made arrangements for it to be repaired at the haul out.

We made it to the tiny town of Zwartesluice in the large lovely marina. The next morning we being a few days living on the hard, as we say. The boat is put on a frame, they bring a set of stairs so we can easily get aboard, and we plug into electricity. The only disadvantage is the walk to the toilets, as we can not use the one we have aboard. The morning temperatures are still around freezing.

The next morning we make progress on the repairs. In spare moments we made an appoint for temporary residence, required if EU citizens plan to be in the country for more than three months. With the number they give you you can get the covid vaccine. We made the appointment for the number. They are vaccinating the people in our age group now. I’ll report on that as matters develop.

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blog Blog 2021

Adventures in Covid Travel

April came about and we are off.  Off our rockers, according to some, and not without just cause, given that our destination is in the midst of a third wave of the corona virus.  But I mean ‘off’ as in we are on the way north to Netherlands, literally the low lands, and to Viking, our floating home, for the next several months.

But first a word from our obstacles.  There were many between us and our destination in Freisland, the northeast part of the country, where our boat spent the winter well under the freezing temperature of water.

Obstacle one, we had to get a PCR test with a negative result within the allowed time constraints.  The EU rule, which the Dutch follow, allows you to take a PCR test within 24 hours of boarding OR within 72 hours along with an antigen test within 24 hours of boarding (an improvement over the 4 hour limit that had been replaced only a few days earlier. Whichever option you choose, you must hope that results get to you within 24 hours.    

Unfortunately, Peg made flight reservations over Easter weekend, so most labs were going to be closed. I spent hours finding a 72-hour test a day before the flight and a four-hour test in Alicante (our flight was from there, not from Valencia) on Saturday, the day our flight was scheduled, at a lab that would be open one whole hour that morning.

Three days before the flight, when the requirements changed, we had lunch with our neighbors and their niece, whose twin brother works at a laboratory. Not only was he able to get us into the lab within the 24-hour window, but at a “friend discount” of 55 euros each, about half of what we would have ordinarily paid. The clinic opened on time after lunch on Good Friday, we told the receptionist we were here on the part of the twin, we were on her list and we got our swabs, with 20 minutes to make our train to Alicante. The taxi ride took 5 minutes, which gave us time to buy tickets, buy bottled water, and jump on. We could also cancel the previously scheduled 4-hour before departure test scheduled for the next morning.

Our lodgings were a room in what had been a private home, 5 minutes from the train station.  Check-in was completely person-free. We phoned the owner, who WhatsApped us the instructions to open the front door, go to the second floor and the code to a real estate lockbox. The code opened the lockbox, which had a key to the door of the flat. The key was chained to the lockbox, so we opened the door, returning the key to the lockbox. The door to our room was open and two sets of keys to the building door, front door and room door were in it. Amazing!

Our flight was at 3:00 pm on Saturday, so we checked our phones for the results every 10 minutes beginning at about 10:00 a.m. No negative test results, no flight.  We had plenty of time to come up with a Plan B for a short term let in Alicante, just in caseTesting positive would have seriously hampered our plans for work on the boat that is scheduled for April 8.

My negative test results arrived via email around 10 a.m.  At noon Peggy’s had not arrived so I called the special number the receptionist had kindly given me for any problems. Speaking when masked, to someone who is also masked and speaking 90 kilometers a minute in Valencian, Spanish and English and who is sitting in a row of five people, all of whom are scheduling testing appointments and completing testing paperwork for people standing in front of them, is not all that easy. With Peg’s test number, we got to the problem rapidly, which was Peggy’s email address, which was missing a “K”.

When the report arrived at Peg’s email two minutes later, we did a little jig in the nice little bar two blocks from the Alicante train station, where the express airport bus stops.

At the airport, the only hiccup was that the Easyjet app lost my reservation after an update.  The friendly guy at the gate got it sorted. Peg’s sewing scissors were confiscated by security – to which she said, “Duh.”

Then came the obstacles between the airport in Amsterdam and the boat in a country undergoing its 2nd or 3rd wave of quarantine restrictions – I’ve lost track of that number too.  I figure we will be fine. Last year we traversed Netherlands and a good portion of Germany by boat, all the way to Berlin and back without getting infected.  I know. I have tested now 5 times for covid, three of which were the antigen quick type, now a PCR, earlier an antibody test, all negative.  No antibodies means you are not a symptom free carrier.   

We spent Saturday night in a high tech shoe box room of the CitizenM Hotel staffed by competent and light-hearted staff. Peg loved it – each room has an IPad that allows you to control everything, including options for full-spectrum of colors for the room lighting. The next morning our good Dutch boating friends drove us 1 ½ hours to the boat in less time than a train journey. He helped us get the rain hood installed and she brought sandwiches, ‘brood’ (bread) as they are termed here. The rainhood is a canvas and isinglass item that stretches across stainless steel tube frames and insulates the outside steering station from the weather.  It will come in very handy for the cold and rain/snow expected over the next couple of days.  I proceeded to de-winterize the boat. 

There is no end to the possible number of obstacles one might find on a boat that has been sitting in cold water for six cold months. Boat engines in the type of boat we own use diesel fuel. Unlike a diesel road vehicle, they have no glow plugs and so can be hard to start when cold. We don’t have a sailboat, so in our case, no engine, no going anywhere.