Along the north coast of Sicily with stops at Sant’Agata di Militello, Cefalù, Termini Imerese and Mondello with a side visit to Sicliy’s capital, Palermo.
We’ve seen far more than we expected to with settled winds giving us calm anchorages although it was colder and cloudier than we’d expected. It was a sociable time too with meet ups with two boats from our winter marina and a birthday to celebrate.
Sant’Agata di Militello
I had arrived at Milazzo in a bit of a grump after our Messina passage. It wasn’t helped when just before going to bed, Emerald having turned sideways to the swell, we were caught in a big wake from a passing ship just as I was washing my face in the heads. With the boat beneath me rolling from side to side, I was pitched forwards. As my hands were busy scooping up a handful of water they weren’t able to brake my fall, so my forehead did the job instead, using the corner of a wooden soap dish as a handy buffer. Ouch!
Anyway, a good night’s sleep can make a world of difference and other than one more big roll in the night, that’s what we had. Feeling much restored, we headed off with a light north to north-west wind, but cooler than we expected for this time of year.
We had over half a knot against us which impacted our progress, although it seemed to reverse mid-afternoon and give us a welcome push.
At Sant’Agata di Militello there is a huge space for anchoring within the embracing arm of the outer wall. Ashore there are a few pontoons and fishing boats tied up. Also, it looks like the works that are mentioned in our very old pilot book are now actually going ahead and looking at the plans, we were anchored right where the new harbour wall is going to be constructed.
Ashore we found a friendly town with great pizzas at the Risacca restaurant where we enjoyed watching the banter between the locals watching a big football match. We also came across two young American Mormon missionaries who stopped us when they heard our accents. I can’t help thinking they’ve got their work cut out converting the Sicilians to their religion – although they didn’t try to convert us, ha ha!
Having put our watermaker back in to commission at Taormina, on it’s second run it began switching itself off after only 20 minutes running with the pump very hot to the touch. At Sant’Agata we spent several hours running fresh water through and a couple of other suggestions given to us by our Katadyn guru, but we had no joy in getting it to work. We decided to pickle it until we’d crossed to Sardinia and had more time to run a few more tests.
It was a cloudy morning with some spots of rain when we set off for Cefalù. We even saw what looked like a funnel cloud forming out to sea to the north, but we were relieved to see that after a few minutes it dissipated. The current was present again, but for today’s journey, it was mostly in our favour as we motor-sailed in the light north-west to north wind and calm sea.
By late morning the clouds had gone and we could enjoy the dramatic scenery of the mountains and hilltop villages that line the coast. The approach to Cefalù was stunning with the huge rock rising from the sea and the anchorage itself was beautiful, tucked in between crazily shaped lumps of rocks sticking out of the clear, blue sea with that huge rock looming over it.
Cefalù is a very touristy town and there are coachloads of them bussed in and led around the sights. The shops on the main street are of the ‘I saw you coming’ variety with crazy prices but take off down a side road and the crowds disappear. The medieval streets are great for wandering, with plenty of reasonably priced snack shops and tons of gelato shops to restore energy.
The cathedral dominates the town with it’s twin sky soaring towers – an incredibly large church for a small town with some beautiful mosaics. Behind is the rocca which you can climb up (entry fee €4 per person), first on steps then a zig-zag path. The climb isn’t too bad and the views help distract from all the up; water is essential though. At the top are the ruins of an Arab citadel where we walked along the old battlements looking down on Emerald, looking tiny 270m below. Part way up are the ruins of the temple of Diana and some buildings from when the village was situated within the safety of the walls to escape marauders.
Along the north coast of Sicily, the prevailing winds in summer are from the north west and most of the anchorages are sheltered for these winds but open to the east. For us going west, we needed a north to north east wind to be able to sail, but this would create a swell that would affect the anchorages. So there is a lot of motoring to be able to have a calm anchorage. In an ideal world, the wind would blow from the north east just long enough for us to sail to the next anchorage before dying off in the evening to give us a calm night. And would you believe it, that’s exactly what happened on our way to Termini Imerese.
1nm out of Cefalù we were able to get the sails up and engine off for a downwind drift. We had a go at wing-on-wing with the genny one side and staysail the other, but we would have needed to use a pole to keep the staysail full. The genny was enough especially as the wind increased. Just outside Termini the wind obligingly died off and we had a calm night at anchor. So calm that when I stuck my head out later that evening, there was no wind to take away the eau di’poo that enveloped the bay. It turns out that sewage is let out in the corner of the bay.
Termini Imerese is a working town; the people we met were friendly but it and the marina could do with a good clean up of rubbish. There are a couple of supermarkets close to the marina.
There is a nice walk up to the viewpoint on top of the rock on which the old town sits, traversing narrow streets running between caramel coloured buildings, washing fluttering from balconies above like brightly coloured flags.
A thirty minute train journey whisked us from Termini along the coast to Palermo. Our first stop was to the Capuchin catacombs which are a little way out of the centre. To get there we walked through part of the Ballarò market – loud, bright and busy – and some very poor neighbourhoods. Then right around the corner we would come across a grand palace and tourist crowds. It really is a city of contrasts.
Photos aren’t allowed in the catacombs but the things we saw will stay in my head for a long time. On entering the tombs we were faced with rows and rows of bodies either hanging above in small niches or resting in open sided coffins. Arms crossed, heads hanging, dressed in their best clothing with occasional sinew and bones peeking out from the straw that had been stuffed into body cavities to aid the preservation process. Although sunken, many faces still displayed a good impression of what the owner had looked like in life. Except for those whose skin had slipped into horror masks that I’m sure will visit my nightmares for years to come. The state of preservation was so good that on many corpses, eyebrows and moustache hair was still in place even though the bodies were getting on 200 year old. The two year old girl was amazingly preserved; her blond hair glossy and tied with a bright yellow ribbon, cheeks still full and eyes resting like she was just having a little nap. Yet she is nearly 100 years old. Corridors were grouped into priests, women, men, families and professionals. There was even a section for virgins! Bizarre but wow and a fascinating insight into the life (and death) of the wealthy and famous of Palermo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For the rest of the day we simply wandered. Palermo is a great city for that. We had a look in the cathedral and browsed the Vucciria and Capo street markets. Ate street food, listened to buskers and admired the architecture. The street art and graffiti was fabulous. With weary feet we ended our journey as it started with a stroll through the Ballarò market, this time stocking up on fruit, swordfish and tuna.
Despite living on Emerald since 2004, I’d never had a birthday sail. With the wind forecast looking good for a crossing to Sardinia at the end of the week, we wanted to place ourselves further west to cut down the crossing time. So it was that I got my first birthday sail.
The day started off with a fry up breakfast of bacon, eggs and potato bread sitting in the sunshine in the cockpit before heading off mid-morning. The wind got up enough that we were able to sail and off went the engine. Unfortunately we weren’t going that quickly and with a later start, we wouldn’t be arriving until the evening. And a birthday party with Purrr beckoned!
On went the engine and with the wind freshening up from the north it got a bit bouncy as we neared our destination, but thankfully Mondello was sheltered enough.
And as a special birthday treat along the way, we reached another 1000nm travelled in Emerald, bringing out total up to 13,000nm since we left Brighton in 2010.
The next morning with the wind picking up from the east, we decided to head off straight for Sardinia rather than go to another anchorage further west on Sicily for the night. It would mean maybe 2 nights at sea and possibly a darkness arrival but with the winds we had, it seemed a shame to waste them.
9th May – Milazzo to Sant’Agata di Militello: 37nm travelled
Anchored in 3.5m in position 38 04.316’N 14 37.510’E
Good holding in sand. Landed and tied up our dinghy amongst the fishing boats tied to the main harbour wall.
Diesel available (1.61 per litre) from the fuel quay.
Large supermarket (Sigma) about 10 minutes walk away, restaurants and bars a little further along the seafront.
11th May – Sant’Agata di Militello to Cefalù: 28nm travelled
Anchored in 6.5m in position 38 02.238’N 14 02.223’E
Excellent holding in sand.
Small marina is also available with a fuel quay.
It cost €5 to park our dinghy in the marina, there is a beach but we wanted better security than the beach could offer.
13th May – Cefalù to Termini Imerese: 16nm travelled (14nm sailed)
Anchored in 4.5m in position 37 58.967’N 13 42.67’E
We left the dinghy tied to the main wall amongst fishing boats in the marina.
Supermarkets in town, a good walk up through the old town to the top of the rock.
16th May – Termini Imerese to Mondello: 24nm travelled (5nm sailed)
Anchored in 4m in position 38 12.28’N 13 19.854’E
Good holding in sandy patches amongst large patches of weed. Very clear water.