Tropea -Straits to Riposto

Tue 30 Sep 2014 06:58

Late afternoon Sunday, a wave and a hail from the terrace high above the pontoon, David and Brian have arrived to join ship in this Maratean idyll. This their first view of Pamarzi in the ‘flesh’ and they wax lyrical over her grace, beauty and opulence. It was great to see them and as I give them the guided tour, the do’s and don’ts and settle them into their quarters the banter starts to flow and continues as I later introduce them to my ‘local’. The patron so familiar now that menus are discarded and he tells us what he is cooking for us this evening as he does every night. The food simple, rustic and delicious with local wine eight euros a litre.

Monday morning after yet another thunderstorm the chaps are busy with their leathers as I head off to the ‘stairway’, a flight of three hundred and forty stone and cobbled steps that climb ever more steeply from the harbour to the higher part of the town where lies the train station. A short wait before Lynn’s intercity train arrives from Naples. Down the ‘stairway we go past the little houses that line one side, wondering what sort of life the inhabitants lead in their tiny precipitous homes with the only access being the ‘stairway’.

I knew she would be entranced by Maratea and whilst admitting she would not like to live here Lynn wants to stay another day to enjoy its sights and charms and do a little provisioning at the harbour front store, there is only one occasionally joined by an old couple with an open sided van selling their home grown fruit and veg. Strong winds and thunder storms continue but the forecast is for improving conditions on the morrow for our eighty nautical mile passage to Tropea.

We are all up at 5am but the winds still howl and the thunder and lightning continues to flash and crash around us. So it was another day enjoying Maratea, the guys gallantly leathering away (their choice not my request!) between the storms. By mid-afternoon the forecasted easing did happen and we gloried in the long shadowed, Italian late afternoon sunshine.

5.30 Thursday morning, still very dark, no moon, hundreds of feet above the harbour the illuminated, white, twenty two metre Christ holds out his long arms. Final weather forecast checks, a sniff of the still air and a querulous look at the occasional flash of lightning on the horizon, I decide we are go to leave. Power cables detached, passarelle stowed, tender raised and secured on the davits, shore lines set to slip by 06.00 we are hot to trot. Brian slips the bowlines, Lynn and David attend to the stern lines and silently I ease Pamarzi away from the pontoon. Brian still on the foredeck as lookout as we round the narrow, dog legged harbour entrance, towering above us the massive reinforced breakwater as black as the sky. Just as we reach the narrowest point a huge flash of sheet lightening just outside the entrance bathes everything in its electric blue light including Brian silhouetted on the foredeck arm outstretched pointing forward like some avenging angel. He’s shaken but not stirred and returns to the cockpit as we leave the shelter of the breakwaters and head out into a steep choppy sea, a deafening clap and roll of thunder announcing his arrival into the comparative safety of Pamarzi’s sheltered mid-section.  The engine stays on for despite the dramatics there is little wind for the first handful of miles. Then just as a hint of dawn appears above the mountains to the east we feel a chill as the wind backs to the north and starts to build. Rain gentle at first becomes a wave flattening, torrential down pour as the wind rising to over fifty knots shrieks and howls through the rigging. Foulies on we motor southward relying entirely on instruments, for visibility is but a handful of yards. For a long two hours we suffer this deluge all adding layers of clothing to keep warm but then breaks start to appear in the sky, a touch of blue a ray of sunshine the wind gradually veers to the south and eases to twenty to twenty five knots which might have meant wonderful sailing if it had not been for the fact that that was the direction we were heading and we did not have time to tack our way there if we wanted to arrive before dark. The wind did eventually move off our nose and sails were raised. We made good time and arrived in Tropea at 18.00, negotiated the sand silted harbour entrance and med moored to a substantial concrete pontoon.

Once Pamarzi and we were tidied and presentable we headed for the old town perched above us, rather like Bonifacio, on towering sand and limestone cliffs. Gaining entrance to this ancient fortified town, established in Roman times, entailed climbing a steep and narrow set of steps cut into the cliff side. Two hundred panting steps later we entered this glorious, gently crumbling, once rich and prosperous (for some of the buildings were wonderfully decorated with carved stonework) town. The buildings appearing to not have been subject to any planning regulations as they jumbled aside the narrow roads and alley ways, some four or even five stories high but many of them only partially inhabited and all of them fading as time wears away hundreds of years of stonemasons craftsmanship. The main road although still less than two cars wide a lively scene of local food and craftwork shops interspersed with restaurants, seating extending al fresco into the side alleys. We dine at one of these on tuna tartare and a local dish of fish and pasta, quaffing a bottle of delightfully chilled local red we decide that Tropea is worth another day.

Friday we spend exploring the town, discovering new (to us) corners and more of its long history. We took a light lunch of parmesan crusted sea bream and sea bass at a family run restaurant perched precipitously on a ledge part way down the fortified seaward side, the tiny terrace seeming to cling like a terrified climber to the cliff face. To the right our view was of Tropea island (not quite an island for it is connected to the shore by a twenty metre spit of sand) a hundred or so feet high, topped like a wedding cake with a white limestone church, the whiteness of its stone shimmering against an azure and turquoise sea. To the left across that same sea but some twenty five miles distant the massive, dark conical bulk of Stromboli, one of the Aeolian Islands, ominously smoking and (although we could not see it at this distance) red glowing lava oozing down its steaming sides.

Later that afternoon David and Lynn took to the shops whilst Brian and I headed to the beach to swim and luxuriate in the warm blue water and air dry on the coarse white sand midst bikini clad Italian beauties.

During our walks we had noticed a simple, rustic roadside cafe at the foot of the town steps, where an equally rustic looking old chap was burning empty fruit crates to make charcoal for his huge, iron, Heath Robinson barbeque. We joined the locals there that evening as Capitano Antonio, for that was the rustic fellows name, cooked over vast piles of glowing embers hacking chunks off a massive, fresh caught tuna, glistening on an adjacent ex garden plastic table, its eyes shining with rage at the ignominy of its dissection on such a dishonourable piece of furniture.  Antonio’s vivacious daughter took our order as he cooked and smoked and thrashed the steaks with a broom of oregano watched over by a brooding and obviously unwell Mama sitting under a canopy next to the little building used as a wash house and store. Two of our plates of tuna and huge gamberoni arrived and were set before Lynn and David, bread, water in a plastic bottle, a magnum sized bottle of chilled red and four heavy glass tumblers were added. We bid them to eat whilst the food was hot; meanwhile we gnawed enviously on bread and consumed not a little wine. Our plates did not arrive, and then mistake recognised, the whole family shouting and gesticulating we had the Capitano’s undivided attention as he sawed even larger hunks off the now much reduced tuna and set them on his grill. They were delicious and despite the wait and the wine we thoroughly enjoyed our meal, following which the effervescent Antonio joined us and there was much merry making and Anglo/Italiano banter. We eventually said our goodbyes before the Capitano in his enthusiasm drowned us with more wine.

With fingers crossed for fine weather next day for our passage through the notorious Straits of Messina and on to Riposto a small town at the base of the slopes of Mount Etna on Sicily we took to our beds. Sadly forecasts next morning were not ideal and I decided that we would not sail until Sunday which meant that Brian and David would have to leave us and take trains, ferries and buses to reach the airport in Catania for their Sunday morning flight home. They and we were sorry that more sailing had not been possible but they were understanding and told us they had enjoyed the experience and would like to come again. We look forward to their return some time next year.

Early Sunday morning Lynn and I cast off slipping out past the sand bar and heading south to the Straights. Light winds predominated and there was much motor sailing, we alone on a sparkling sunlit sea as we passed along the scenic coastline of the foot of Italy. As we neared the Straits a dozen or so ships appeared some cargo, some cruise liners blinking triangles on my AIS screen all making for the one and a half mile gap and its traffic separation zone. Judging angles and speeds was all good fun and we found ourselves entering with plenty of space and no ships to worry about. The wind and the current we had got right, both were flowing north to south and conditions generally were benign. Fascinated we watched the changing water as the saltier Ionian mixed with the less briny Thyrrhenian and the colder denser deep water was forced up in swirling eddies. The wind increased as it was funnelled through the narrows and we were enjoying some good downwind sailing as the current caught us and our speed over ground increased to 10.7 knots. We raced through the swirling water reaching a spot just off a headland near the town of Messina we saw and felt our bow (even in these comparatively light conditions) pushed dramatically aside several times by whirlpools. Once through the narrows we retained the northerly breeze and some current and flew down the coast of Sicily to our berth at Marina Dell Etna. The skies were clear and we had a great view of Etna for much of the way and sighted one of the swordfish passarella boats unique I believe to this area. The hull about seventy feet long has a thirty five metre ‘mast’ atop which the spotter sits, from the bow there extends a forty five metre gangway or passarella from which the harpoon is thrown. Swordfish from the deep ocean come through the Straits to spawn in the warm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. These magnificent fish weighing 100 kilos or more swim as a mating pair. Upon the spotter sighting a couple near the surface they are pursued until the harpoonist can spear the female from his passarella in the knowledge that the male will not leave her. She tears out hundreds of meters of line fighting for her life, inevitably eventually the blood loss takes its toll, and exhausted she is hauled aboard and butchered. The grieving male who will not be parted from her has remained close by and is thus easy prey as he too suffers the same bloody end.

As for Riposto the town where the marina is situated, well again another one of these places that has tasted prosperity in years past evident by its grand church with cupola, stately public buildings and solid, stone built dwellings but it quietly crumbles and doubtless will continue to decay for decades to come unless of course Etna decides on a swifter end.