Another week in the nomadic wandering.
I’ve been using the amount of light coming through a crack in the curtains to tell me when it’s time to wake up in the morning. For about a week, as we headed north, it was too dark at 8AM for that ploy to work. As we head into the Med, the sun shines again. Speaking of sunshine, we have now gone for about three months without raindrops hitting me. What was looking like it was going to be a heatwave when we hit Israel has moderated to just a coolish beach day. And we lose yet another hour chopped off the clock.
Aboard the ship, the crew is still meticulously observing protection, but most of the passengers have abandoned it. The good/bad news is that we haven’t stopped at many ports, but that (hopefully) is about to change.
I just woke up (at about 6:15 am local time) as we passed the few lights on the shore of Gibraltar, a massive rock fortress owned by the UK on the African shore of Morocco across the Straits from Spain. We were supposed to dock there, so I’ll wave as we pass ?
Well, it’s down the rabbit hole again. We have been given an affidavit of vaccination to sign for Italy and been instructed to wrestle with the multipart “Verifly” mobile phone COVID “passport” app for Malta. We have been told that our entry into Israel will be delayed for as long as six hours while they evaluate PCR testing taken at the port. Before our first EU port the boom was lowered and the masking and social distancing became mandatory again. That said, while in our first port (in Sardinia), 100% of the locals masked inside of stores, museums, restaurants and public transportation, relatively few were masked outdoors. The good news is that passengers are allowed to sightsee independently, rather than in “bubbles”. I figure that masks will be the status quo for most of the next three months.
The ship announced the ability to purchase Euros at a lousy exchange rate (roughly 10% worse than we would receive on a debit card from an ATM. That said, I figure our trove of on-board credit has to be used on either unwanted tours, boutiques or wine/booze at 300% markup, so taking the hit to withdraw “real” money is a good bet.
The return emails I’ve recently received from the small email distribution about our travels over the past week has generated three responses from those who feel that COVID protection has been overblown and by two who are currently fighting multi-day COVID infections.
Our stop at Trapani Sicily brought home the challenges that parts of Europe have been having with COVID. Most of the stores are closed, the streets very sparsely populated and we heard that the unemployment rate among the younger workers is over 45% – presumably because of the challenges presented by COVIID. I assume most of the population has migrated elsewhere. While many in the street walk with their masks on their chin or in their hand, 100% of people wear masks inside of shops and buildings and small shops have lines waiting to be one of the few allowed into the shop at the same time.
And there goes Malta. Due to high winds from the wrong direction, the ship’s captain has decided to bypass our stop at Malta, leaving our guide on the wharf – along with a container of provisions, as well as some swapped in employees and entertainers. In the course of our trip from Miami through the Mediterranean, our only landfalls have been on Madera, Sardinia and Sicily. Of course, no one is considering adding the day to extend the time at our next port of call in Israel. More sea days ?.
The silver lining of these changes, however, has been our isolation from COVID. Everyone on the ship is fully vaccinated and most have had booster shots (more than one in some cases). While there was an outbreak of COVID before we boarded, there have been no new cases in over two months. We have already been (some multiple times) to nearly every of the originally planned, as well as the new replacement ports and our primary goal, after two years of isolation was simply to safely change our environment. While people thought we were crazy to insert ourselves into the presumed COVID hell of a cruise ship, I figured it was safer than staying home where the COVID infection rate was 28% of the population. The entire ship just got tested as a prerequisite of entering Israel and was 100% COVID free. The crew is a bit upset because the cruise line won’t test them as required of the passengers when we reach Israel, so the crew won’t be allowed ashore.
While this cruise’s itinerary is a bust compared to the original one. It was originally scheduled to sweep across Asia and then circle Africa on its way to the Mediterranean and then cross the north Atlantic. Instead, we have had a string of sea days punctuated with a bunch of non-descript islands.
Over the next two or three weeks, much of the crew, who have served for the past six months will be transitioning out – hopefully seamlessly as far as the service and experience are concerned.
And then the other shoe fell and it turns out that Israel needs a bunch of forms filed with documentation of our vaccinations (though better explained than the chaotic Maltese stuff) as well as a PCR test three days before landing coupled with another upon reaching the cruise port. This will end up eating the entire morning in Ashdod to allow time for the results to come back on all the tests.
While we will be satisfied with heading to the reasonably close Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa (Yaffo), during the afternoon, the delay places Masada beyond the reach of those who wanted to head there as well as curtail the time of those heading to Jerusalem to join the chaos promised by it being the midst of the Palm Sunday festival (for at least the western European Christian religions).
Cagliari (Sardinia), Italy
The capital of Sardinia, Cagliari, lies on the southern tier of the island, surrounded by sea and hills. Known to the Phoenicians and Romans, today it appears modern except for a dilapidated medieval quarter that occupies a long, narrow hill running north to south.
The Cagliari cruise port, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, is located at the opposite end of the island of Sardinia from the Olbia/Porto Cervo port.
The cruise terminal is located at Molo Rinascita, only a 15-minute walking distance from the city center. There is normally a shuttle bus provided by port authorities to take you to the Piazza Matteotti, the square from where you can access the old town of Cagliari to roam around its old, narrow streets filled with palazzo from the 1300s and 1400s and some decaying churches of various styles. It is a hilly area, so be prepared to walk uphill in order to get to the main historical highlights. The waterfront is lined by salt flats where hundreds of pink flamingos feed.
If you want to go shopping, especially for regional crafts, stroll along the palm-lined Via Roma bordering the port and Largo Carlo Felice, then head inland toward the old town. ISOLA, Via Bacaredda 176 (tel. 070-492756), a government-run exhibition of the finest arts and crafts on the island. Some of the artisan work is for exhibition only, but the majority of the stock is for sale.
As the temperature was colder than expected, my wife was lucky to fi nd some very reasonably priced, high quality sweaters at the confusingly named “Z-ONE Fashion & Souvenir” (Largo Carlo Felice, 7) as well as a couple of more expensive ones with outstanding graphics at the Spanish chain store “Desigual” (Largo Carlo Felice, 17).
Roaming north on Largo Carlo Felice, when you reach Piazza Yenne, head to the right along Via Manno to the Piazza Martiri.
To the right, at Via Torino, 9 is Helenie (Cell: +39 346 942 6912) which gives expert manicures (20 Euro)/pedicures (25 Euros) and facials. There was an antique shop across the street from the salon which had a window full of interesting antique jewelry.
Otherwise, turn left at the Piazza Costituzione, take a photo of the Bastione Saint-Remy, a neo-classical structure with a monumental staircase and promenade, a very nice place to relax and walk around. It is located less than 2 km from the cruise terminal.
Rather than climbing uphill, head along to the left, along the wall of the Bastione, entering the garden to an elevator. The first floor is a massive balcony where you can admire the panorama of Cagliari. The second level is the level of the Castle Quarter.
Walking a few blocks north will bring you to the Cathedral – not much to see on the exterior, but competing with the best on the interior. Make sure to look at the crypt (down a flight of stairs near the front of the church).
Continuing onwards, you will pass a couple of medieval towers.
If you are into archaeology, a few blocks further, through an arch marked “Piazza Arsenale” (not at the building with the museum’s name - which is no longer used) is the National Archaeological Museum, boasting an impressive collection of archaeological artifacts and antiques, including Punic jewelry. Interestingly, there is a Carthage statue which is the spitting image of 3CPO, the robot from Star Wars (with the same head shape and circular eyes) and, since the film was shot in Tunisia near the ancient site of Carthage, I wonder if the idea for his shape was inspired by a local statue.
Heading back from the museum, make a right turn for the 10-minute walk to the Amphitheatre. Dating from the Roman period, the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre of Cagliari is located around 2 km from the cruise terminal. It was built between the first and second Centuries AD. The only part that has been preserved was carved into the limestone rock on the Buoncammino hill. The amphitheater originally had a maximum capacity of 10.000 spectators who came to see battles between men and wild animals, between gladiators and for public executions. Nowadays it houses open-air events and concerts. Frankly, this site is underwhelming and nearly a waste of time compared to many other Greek or Roman amphitheaters.
Heading down the Via Anfiteatro and the taking the Via San Giorgio to the left will bring you to a parking lot at the point it becomes the Commino Nuovo – all that remains of the old Jewish Ghetto.
For a good restaurant serving local dishes, continue down to the Piazza Yenne and make a right turn to Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 21 – the Ellusu restaurant.
If you don’t mind heading out of town, around 5 km from the cruise terminal, is one of the iconic city landmarks – Castello di San Michele, the 12th-century military fortress with incredible panoramic views of the city and the Gulf of Cagliari.
Poetto Beach is a long, stunning city beach (located a few kilometers from the center and port of Cagliari), with eight kilometers of coastline extending between Cagliari and Quartu Sant’Elena. It is comprised of soft sand contrasted against a blue swath of water. It offers facilities, such as bars, restaurants, umbrella and sunbeds rentals. It is a popular place for both locals and tourists, and there are public buses taking you there for a small fare.
At the village of Su Nuraxi of Barumini is an archaeological excavation that brought the first native civilization that inhabited the island of Sardinia to light.
The Sanctuary and Basilica of Nostra Signora di Bonaria and its museum are located on the top of the hill with the same name, surrounded by a pleasant park located very close to the Monument Cemetery. The construction of the temple began in 1704 and continued until 1926. The religious complex includes a small Catalan-Gothic church and the Basilica in neoclassical style. The view of the Castello district and Su Siccu landscape from the top of the hill is impressive.
Trapani, Sicily, Italy
The most westerly of Sicilian provinces, here the coast from Trapani to Marsala is lined with dazzling white salt pans – the salt flats are a nature reserve populated by migratory birds, and the sight of the vast white stretches of rock salt against a blue skyline broken by red-and-white stone windmills is spectacular. That said, this is the least impressive place we’ve docked in Sicily so far.
The ship docks alongside the edge of the old city. The historic center is an atmospheric maze of medieval streets and squares. A fishing and ferry port,
Most of the stores are closed, the streets very sparsely populated and we heard that the unemployment rate among the younger workers is over 45% – maybe because of the challenges presented by COVIID. I assume most of the population has migrated elsewhere.
The old town extends westwards out to sea, and a stroll through its narrow streets takes in old palazzi; ornate churches like the Cattedrale di San Lorenzoa few blocks from the cruise terminal; the Torre della Colombaia fortress offshore on an island in the harbor; and at the tip of the headland, a former defensive outpost, the Torre del Ligny. The quirky The Museum of Illusions Trapani is only open on Saturday and Sunday, so unfortunately, we will be missing it. Also close to the pier is the Museo d’arte contemporanea San Rocco which combines art in an ecclesiastical setting. Modern Trapani is marred by some ugly modern buildings.
When you’re shopping, look out for the salt and the exquisite coral jewelry made locally. While shops may be closed, gems such as the antique coral jewelry and inlaid boxes filling a closed shop’s window show the extraordinary workmanship of a bygone era.
Start off from the centro storico, the medieval core lying on the “sickle” into the sea. The oldest part of Trapani has a typical North African style and feel, creating a tightly wound labyrinth of narrow streets. As was typical of Saracen fortification, these streets lay behind defensive walls that guarded against unexpected invaders.
The most intriguing street is Via Garibaldi (also known as Rua Nova, or “New Road”), which is flanked with churches and palaces. The Aragonese laid out this street in the 18th century. The best shops in the old town line Via Torrearsa, which leads down to a bustling pescheria (fish market) where tuna – caught in nearby waters – is king. The spacious central square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, laid out in 1869 and planted with palm trees, is a relaxing oasis.
The pedestrianized main street of Trapani is Corso Vittorio Emanuele, sometimes called Rua Grande by the locals. Many elegant baroque buildings are found along this street, which makes for a grand promenade. At the eastern end of the street rises the Palazzo Senatorio, the 17th-century town hall, done up in pinkish marble. There is a clock tower (the original mechanism is on display inside the lobby of the Palazzo Senatorio) on the left side of the building with one of the original city entrance arches. There was a sign, in the arch, advertising a bakery offering cannoli pastries there, but regrettably the bakery was among the closed stores which lined the streets.
Michele Odo Panificio e Biscottificio (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 116) prepares a broad variety of pizzas and trays of various baked eggplant and cheese dishes. We had a cheese/tuna/olive pizza, but the bakery’s small eat-in counter probably can’t be used because of COVID constraints (at least in 2022).
Along the way is the Cattedrale (tel. 0923-432111), open daily from 8am to 4pm. Built on the site of an earlier structure from the 14th century, the cathedral is dedicated to San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) and has a 1743 facade. Artworks inside include a Crucifixion, by Giacomo Lo Verde, a local artist, on the building’s south side, fourth altar.
Modern Trapani has two sights worth a visit. Santuario dell’Annunziata is a 14th-century convent whose cloisters enclose the major museum of Trapani . The 14th-century church was forever altered in the 18th century by new decorators, although its Gothic portal remains, surmounted by a beautiful rose window. Inside the church, the chapels are a treasure and include two dedicated to the fishermen of Trapani who risk their lives daily to harvest the sea.
Adjacent to the church is Trapani’s major museum, about 4 km from the port: Museo Regionale Pepoli, Via Conte Agostino Pepoli 200 (tel. 0923-553269), open Monday to Saturday 9am to 1pm and Sunday 9am to 12:30pm. Admission is 4€, 2€ for children 12 and under. The former Carmelite convent has been converted into a showcase of regional art that emphasizes archaeological artifacts but also has a worthy collection of statues and coral carvings.
Villa Margherita lies between old and new Trapani. These public gardens offer a welcome respite from a day of tramping the cobblestone streets. Fountains, banyan trees, and palms rustling in the wind make for an inviting oasis. Luglio Musicale Trapanese a festival of opera, ballet, and cabaret, is staged here in July.
A major church, Chiesa Santa Maria del Gesù, is on Via San Pietro, with a facade that incorporates both Gothic and Renaissance features, dating from the first half of the 16th century. Its major work of art is a beautiful Madonna degli Angeli (Madonna with Angels), a glazed terra-cotta statue by Andrea della Robbia. Regrettably, the church is often closed.
Also worthy but perpetually closed is Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Piazzetta Saturno, adjacent to the tourist office. This church is known for its exquisite rose window from the 14th century, and even more so for occasional concerts staged here. Ask at the tourist office for details.
Another church in the heart of the old town, Chiesa del Purgatorio, is in the 17th-century baroque style. In theory, it’s open daily 8:30am to 12:30pm and from 4 to 8pm. It’s across from Stazione Marittima, one block up from Piazza Garibaldi. The entire atmosphere of this church remains medieval, with intoxicating incense and otherworldly music. It houses the single greatest treasure in Trapani, however: The Misteri, 20 life-size wooden figures from the 18th century depicting Christ’s Passion, and carried out every year during the Good Friday procession.
At the edge of town that extends out to the sea is the Torre di Ligny, built in 1671 as a defensive fortress on the northern tip of Trapan’s “hook.” It is the supposed home of the Museo Preistorico, but it is regrettably closed to the public. From this outpost you can see the Isola Colombaia and the decaying Castello della Colombaia, built during the Punic times as a fortification and enhanced by the Aragonese.
Stretching from Trapani to Marsala along route SP21, the salt pans along the coast (salt marshes) have been in use since antiquity, and the windmills used to harvest it are centuries old. When the Carthaginians first landed in the area they immediately understood the favorable natural and meteorological conditions offered, and set about to create basins from which to harvest salt.
How the process is still carried out, is visible at Paceco, 5km (3 miles) south of Trapani. The area has now been designated a World Wildlife Fund reserve, the Riserva Naturale Orientata “Saline di Trapani e Paceco” (tel. 0923-867700; www.wwfsalineditrapani.it), covering 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres). At the Museo del Sale (Salt Museum), at Nubia (tel. 0923-867442; www.trattoriadelsale.com) guided tours are offered in what used to be an old salt worker’s house dating back to the 1700s, where tools and artifacts used during the course of history to harvest salt are on display. It is also a restaurant offering local cuisine, visit in the afternoon.
Trapani is known for its fine seafood—particularly tuna—and wine from the region’s vineyards. The local cuisine is influenced by the region’s proximity to North Africa, and Trapani is famed for its couscous.
A nice restaurant serving traditional local food near the port is La Bettolaccia, Via Generale Fardella Enrico, 25 (Phone: +39 0923 25932).
An explanation of an everyday sight in Sicily:
Throughout Sicily, you will see ceramic flower pots made as a pair – one of a man and another of a beautiful woman. Sometimes one or both are black. Some say that around the 11th century, during a time when the Saracens controlled Sicily, in Palermo’s Arab quarters – then known as Al-Halisah (that is, “the elected one”, “the pure one”), and now as La Kalsa – there was a beautiful, shy girl who kept to herself and loved taking care of the flowers on her balcony. A dashing Moor man, passing by her home, feel desperately in love with her. She fell in love with him as well, but unfortunately he had not told her he had a wife and children in the Orient, where he would soon return.
When the girl found out the truth, she was so furious and hurt by the humiliation that she waited for the man to fall asleep and decapitated him, so he could never leave. She put the head on her terrace, turning it into a vase and planting a seed of basil in it. The herb – its name deriving from the Greek “basilikos”, meaning “the king’s plant” – grew strong, watered by the girl’s tears every day. Neighbors were impressed by its delicious scent, and, thinking that her vase was ceramic and that her “green thumb” came from the shape of the pot, created their own terracotta vases resembling a man’s head. From then on, “Moor heads” spread all around Sicily, as a symbol of eternal love and of how two souls can be together forever, while never meeting again.