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Hello From Sicily – Goodbye Vulcano, Dolphins, Tunas, And Hello Milazzo

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The days on this sailing trip are so compressed and amazingly full of diverse experiences: waking yesterday in beautiful Lipari, followed by a driving tour of this, the largest Eolian island. Then our journey continued to Vulcano, where we had an intense Italian lesson, followed by a nourishing on-board dinner and candlelit evening of soulful music, provided by two of our shipmates. There are hardly words to describe the intense sensations that one experiences on a trip so outside of the norm.

Today was going to be our last day at sea, time was passing just so quickly. We got an early start this morning at about 8:30 am, and using the dingy, our trusted skipper Francesco ferried us on land from our location in the bay in front of Porto di Levante. The plan was to hike up the mountain of Vulcano to the “Gran Cratere” (the Great Crater) to see an active volcanco up close.

After a brief morning granita, the crushed ice drink that I had gotten so fond of, we all gathered and started our ascent to Vulcano. We started to climb along a pathway covered by black volcanic sand that turned into a hard brown rock closer to the top. The total ascent took only about an hour and was not extremely strenuous. The view got progressively better the higher we climbed, and from the top of Vulcano, all of the seven Eolian Islands can be seen.

This was my first exposure to a volcanic crater. Although over the last 6 months I had visited two other volcanoes: Mount Teide on the Spanish island of Tenerife, and Mount Etna, during my current trip to Sicily, I had not seen the crater of either one of these volcanic mountains. Vulcano’s Gran Cratere is indeed an interesting sight: a perfectly round indentation with a higher wall on the south side, surrounding the crater like a natural amphitheatre. Sulphur fumes emanate from fissures in the yellow-orange rock. Warnings advise you to stay away from the noxious fumes. I just caught a whiff of a sulphur cloud and it was so strong it almost took my breath away.

One of our travel mates, our shirtless Catholic priest Lorenzo, trekked up all the way to the back wall of the crater and waved to us from a couple of hundred meters away. Tourists of all shapes and sizes were starting to congregate at the top of Vulcano and we enjoyed the view from the top for about 20 minutes. Of course the descent was much faster than the ascent, it only took us about 20 minutes to get back down into the village of Porto di Levante.

We arranged to meet for an Italian lesson just shortly after noon and had about half an hour to explore the waterfront around Porto di Levante. The main feature in the area is a big volcanic rock right next to some sulphurous mud baths that are supposed to have healing properties, particularly for ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis. For about 2.50 Euro you can get access to the mud baths, and for about 1 Euro more you’ll even get a chance to use the shower in this fenced off area. We saw various tourists frolicking in the rather foul-smelling mud while for me personally the smell was a bit too much.

While our colleagues Lorenzo and Herbert were going to have their lesson on the sailboat in another location, us three ladies were going to study Italian with our teacher Franco on the outdoor terrace of a bar overlooking another bay on the island of Vulcano. I have really started to get into this outdoor language learning experience provided by Laboratorio Linguistico. It’s relaxed, yet intense and effective. We spent a couple of hours forming conditional sentences and abstract nouns from common verbs and adjectives. Overall I mused that two weeks ago I spoke no Italian, I had only been reading an Italian grammar book for the two months prior to coming to Sicily. Now I was speaking Italian semi-competently at intermediate level. I have become a huge fan of language study travel and of immersing myself in a foreign culture and language. And learning Italian on a sailboat so far ranks at the very top of my language learning adventures.

During our studies Claudia and I grabbed some fast food from the bar, some type of calzone and other quick Sicilian snacks and I could not resist the temptation of buying a cone of delicious ice cream. Along the way I admired the colourful works of art made of marzipan that were appetizingly displayed in their glass cases. Now there’s a another great concept: studying Italian with a delicious cone of nocciola e limone (hazelnut and lemon) gelato in your hand. Just make sure you don’t splatter the gelato all over the dictionary…

Well, all good things must come to an end, and by about 3:30 pm we met at the beach to get whisked back on the boat by our trusted skipper Francesco. Before we hopped into the dingy, our entire group performed a final rendition of “umm dari dari”, a song that music student Agnieszka had taught us a few days earlier. The men of our group provided the percussive background, producing sounds such as “ummm pffff psshh, ummm pfffff pssshh”, while Claudia and I provided a chorus of “umm dari dari dari, umm dari dari” that sounded like it would be appropriate somewhere in Saudi Arabia, in the company of a herd of camels. Agnieszka provided the leading melody with her brilliant soprano voice. What a fun and humorous ending to seven days at sea in the Eolian Islands. Our travel group certainly had come together very nicely…

Our last few hours on the boat had begun, we embarked on our voyage from Vulcano to the town of Milazzo located at the northeastern tip of Sicily, about 30 kilometers from the Straight of Messina. I thought our week long adventure would just peter out and come to an anti-climactic ending, but no, the goddess of travel had more adventures in store for us.

We were all in the back of the boat when Herbert, our experienced TV travel journalist, called us excitedly and said “Dolphins! Come on, see the dolphins”. Sure enough, we all scrambled to the front of the boat and there were four dolphins, swimming beside our boat, swimming ahead of us left and right, jumping out of the water, and generally playing with us. Herbert explained that they hear our voices, and being the curious, playful creatures that they are, they come say hello to accompany us for a while.

These four graceful grey creatures were beautiful, and all of us were in awe at this unexpected display. The dolphins swam and jumped alongside our boat for about 5, 7 minutes until they had enough and swam off in a westerly direction. I had caught everything on my camera and made several video clips and was still tickled pink about this experience. For some reason, dolphins always seem like they are smiling to me, and these four sleek water animals certainly appeared to be in a great mood.

I already thought the excitement was over, but no, the Mediterranean had even more surprises in store for us. We had been trailing fishing lines behind our boat and with all the excitement surrounding the dolphins we had basically forgotten about the fishing lines until our skipper shouted that we had made a catch. Sure enough, we saw him reeling in the line and a beautiful silver fish about 15 inches long was pulled on board. Francesco explained it was a tuna, cut the line and placed it on the floor at the rear of our boat.

I was fascinated by this, until the fish started flopping around in a panic and blood started spraying from its gills. That’s when my tender vegetarian soul said it had enough and I retreated to the front of the boat. I just couldn’t watch this fish flop around, spraying the whole back of the boat with its blood, trying to fight for its life. Our captain put it out of its misery, cut off its head and gutted it right there. I just caught a quick glimpse, but the dripping red innards of this poor tuna had me completely grossed out.

You might think that the excitement might be over now, what with the dolphins and the tuna capture, but no – the ritual repeated itself two more times: we caught two more tunas and I wisely stayed away from the decapitation and evisceration scene. At any rate, Francesco had caught three nice-size fish and said that he was going to bring them home as a special treat for his two year old son Davide.

A short while later at about 7:30 pm we arrived at the harbour of Portorosa, and Francesca and Davide, our skipper’s wife and son, were already waiting to welcome us. Davide’s excited two-year old calls “papa – papa” indicated that he had definitely missed his daddy. Francesca herself said that “papa” was indeed the first word that her son ever spoke. Our usually quiet captain himself was visibly elated to see his family almost after a week at sea.

Now it was time to get organized and unload. Francesco gave us a choice: we could either spend one more night on the boat, or we could unload the boat, drive back to the apartment which is located conveniently right above the Laboratorio Linguistico School, and go for dinner in Milazzo.

Well, this was a no-brainer. After almost a week on a nice, but rather crammed sailboat with a tiny cabinet that served as a toilet / shower facility, there was no question that all of us preferred going on land. Our first priority as a matter of fact, was to take a land-based shower, and Claudia, Herbert and I headed to the comfort station at the Portorosa Harbour to take a well-deserved, long awaited shower on terra firma. Strange, but after a week on a sailboat you start appreciating the little things in life, and a real shower and a toilet separate from the shower rank pretty high on the list …

Francesco and the rest of the gang had already started to unload the boat, and we quickly packed our stuff and help load all our luggage and the remaining food into Francesco’s car. By the time we had everything organized back at the apartment it was already about 10:30 pm, but that did not deter us from having one last joint dinner together.

Francesco and Franco packed us into their respective vehicles and drove us out to a restaurant at the tip of Capo Milazzo, the peninsula that protrudes about 6 km into the Tyrrhenian Sea from Milazzo. We had this entire establishment to ourselves, and another Sicilian feast was unfolding. Fish, wine and pasta arrived in large quantities while I enjoyed a vegetarian Sicilian pasta with pistachios. In addition, it was Agnieszka’s 23rd birthday today, so all of us got to celebrate, and a big hazelnut ice cream cake capped off the feast.

We all said goodbye at the end of the evening. Since Herbert was going to fly out tomorrow in the wee hours of the morning we would not have a chance to say our goodbyes in the morning any more. Seven days of adventures in the Eolian Islands had come to an end, and I think all of us experienced just a tinge of melancholy. The seven of us had made a great team on board: Claudia, the Lufthansa flight attendant from Germany & my wonderful cabin mate; Herbert, the knowledgeable TV travel journalist, also from Germany; Lorenzo from the US of Italian background and the coolest Catholic priest that I have ever met; our talented singer Agnieszka; and our two experts and teachers from Laboratorio Linguistico: Franco and Francesco, our skipper.

My first sailing trip had come to an end, but I still four days of discoveries left in Sicily. Tomorrow’s agenda will include Milazzo.