Malta and Sicily
A shower was most welcome at the United Air Lines arrival facility at Heathrow about
6:45 AM Wednesday, June 25, 1997, following the flight from Chicago. It was followed by a
long bus ride to Terminal 4 to catch KM Flight #101 to Valletta, Malta. I had mistakenly thought
that KM was an abbreviation of KLM, the Dutch airline, but it turned out to mean Air Malta,
somewhat less prominent and posh, but nonetheless effective, except for the loss of my suitcase.
This took an hour or so of waiting and dealing with personnel who seemed familiar with the
problem and said that the missing luggage would almost certainly be delivered to my hotel the
next morning. Then I changed $40 for Maltese Lira at around $2.60 per pound (the 1 Lira note is
called a "pound" in Malta) and got a cab to the Hotel Phoenicia. Herb Hansen, my former law
partner and current room-mate for this trip, found me checking in, and easily persuaded me to join
him for a glass or two of good local beer by the hotel's pool, about 1/4 mile away through the
hotel's system of garden walks.
Herb Hansen and Manly, 1997
The first meeting of the 40 members of the current Smithsonian Associates Study Tour
designated Crossroads of Civilization in the Central Mediterranean was for cocktails in
the hotel Green Room, and was followed by dinner in the Phoenix Room. The red wine was
reminiscent of what I inexpertly used to make, and the Chardonnay was over-oaked and
under-graped. However, the food was good and the company better.
Thursday started out with a walking tour that I got lost from after seeing a splendid view
of Valletta Harbor. I meandered west and north and downhill to the waterfront and the
adjacent area known as Sliema. Wild fennel with anise-smelling flowers grew in profusion. The
limestone walls that formed part of the fortification of the city were so deeply pitted by the
weather that the top layer was spalling off. As I was beginning to wonder how to get back to the
hotel, I noticed several busses going in direction from which I was coming; but I did not know
which would take me back to bus depot near my hotel. Later I learned that all busses on Malta go
to or come from there. I walked around a branch of the harbor to Les Lapins Hotel where I
hoped to find a taxi to take me back, but saw none. The hall porter called one for me; the driver
first said he would charge 5 pounds, but did accept 4 plus change. When I got back to the
Phoenicia my suitcase was there.
Lunch in the hotel pub was good -- a bountiful antipasto buffet, good chicken (still in
drumstick and second joint) curry on rice with condiments, and stein of local beer.
Then I went to St. John's Co-Cathedral which the rest of the group had seen in the
morning. This church was started in 1573 and consecrated in 1578 for the Knights of Malta.
Whenever any member of the order was promoted, he was obliged to provide a gift of some
decoration, so you can't find a square centimeter that lacks decoration of some sort. The interior
walls are covered with carvings. I particularly noticed a human skull in a glass-fronted box, with
the legend "s. Clemens" on the frame above the glass, and wondered how Mark Twain would
have taken it on learning that a skull identified with his name was so displayed.
Herb and I had dinner in the Parole Restaurant on St. Paul Street. It was a small, family-
owned operation with a narrow spiral staircase leading from the ground floor room that had three
tables to the six-table room above. Starters of home made ravioli (eggplant for Herb, mushroom
for me), then two small, fresh Mediterranean fish which, at our request, the waiter cleaned before
they were cooked with onions, green peppers and white wine, each separately wrapped in foil.
The Wine was a local white en carafe that, like the wine in the hotel, tasted like the wine I used
Friday morning the group were taken by bus to Mdina via Mosta, where a huge circular
church stands by virtue of the miracle that a German WWII bomb that fell through the dome
failed to explode. We were told that the bomb has been removed but that a replica remains in the
church, but we did not see it. In Mdina we visited St. Paul's Cathedral, purportedly built on the
site of the villa of Roman governor Publius, whom the shipwrecked St. Paul (en route to trial in
Rome) converted to Christianity.
On to Rabat, an old walled city on a hilltop adjacent to Mdina. Here we wandered about
the catacombs where early Christians buried their dead in chambers hewn from "living" rock.
Thence we were taken by bus to a restaurant where those who had paid for an extension
of the trip had lunch and the rest were to wait for a minibus that did not arrive on time. So we half
dozen sat and waited, finally having lunch after 2:00 and letting the minibus driver wait before
driving us back to hotel.
The group boarded the motor yacht Halcyon about 5:30 on Friday, and were
welcomed by Leslie High of Travel Dynamics' staff who told us that the ship was refurbished in
1997 and that the plumbing cannot tolerate any paper products, so there is a garbage can with
tight-fitting lid into which used toilet paper is to be deposited. I noticed that the tile on the
bathroom floor was lacking a strip four inches wide and a foot long. When I started to do laundry
I found that the rubber plug for the washbowl popped out, so I had to stand there and hold it in.
Should I ever wish to have a small passenger ship refurbished, I'll not ask the refurbisher of the
Halcyon to do it.
The ship left port about 6:00 AM on Saturday, June 28, and promptly hit a moderately
heavy sea. Because of this, of the shallow draft (8 feet) and catamaran design of the vessel, and
of the lack of stabilizers, rolling and pitching were uncomfortable; few showed up for breakfast. I
and most others stayed in bed until the ship tied up in Pozallo at eastern end of south shore of
Sicily. Then we felt better.
A bus took us to Syracuse, where we saw the ruins of an ancient Greek theater
(semi-circle) carved from rock, and of Roman amphitheatre (full circle) and a large cavern
(Dionysus cave) that made a splendid echo chamber where the local guide entertained us with
song that resonated beautifully. If this was effected by surreptitious electronic means I saw no
evidence of it. On to Noto where most of group took a walking tour and listened to the guide's
description of the palace and other ancient wonders. I stayed near the bus in the town square and
walked through a pleasant garden and observed a political rally and adjacent wedding party in the
paved square. A walk of a couple of blocks along a major street disclosed several curling minor
streets, one so narrow that I reached buildings on opposite sides simultaneously with my arms
extended. I walked down a different narrow, curving street for a few yards and discovered more
and narrower streets branching off at random intervals and in random directions. I quickly
retreated lest I become lost forever in an endless series of diminishing passageways.
We got back to ship about 8:00. The captain's welcoming dinner was postponed until next
day, and the ship did not leave port this evening as scheduled because of gale warnings. No one
objected to the delay.
On Sunday morning, we were still in Pozallo. The previous evening we had been told to
be ready to disembark at 7:30. Then we were told to be ready at 8:30. Then, at 9:15, we were
told that the bus is coming and will be here soon. At 9:30 we were told that bus was delayed and
to go to the lounge for a lecture by Jennifer Neils, one of our two study leaders and a Professor
and Chair of the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University. It ended
about l0:35, when we were told that the bus should be ready for boarding in a few minutes. We
left about 10:45 and drove overland on route 115 westward.
The countryside displayed stony soil, wheat (some being harvested), tree crops, many
stone walls of fieldstone, often unhewn, and stone houses, often hewn or with mortar or both. It
was hilly and dry. We saw several unhewn stone retaining walls, and fields of thornless prickly
pear that are cultivated for fruit. Also olive trees and grape vines, and wind-powered generators
on brown posts 3 or 4 meters high, seldom turning. Some fields had been recently burned. Warm
houses (plastic greenhouses) for flowers, tomatoes and strawberries were abundant.
We passed an oil refinery at Gela; it included a couple of oil well pumps in operation. No
one explained whether there was a ptoducing well there, or whether the pumps were for some
other purpose. Many apartment buildings appeared in Gela and more were under
We were told that most of the grapes we saw were table grapes rather than wine grapes.
Some were covered with plastic to delay maturation and lengthen the marketing period without
A farmer was riding a donkey along the highway.
About 2:00 I bought a Foccacio at a pit stop near Agrigento for 7,000 (about $4.50) lira
after changing $40 for 62,800 lira. It was something like a pizza sandwich with tomato,
mozzarella, spinach and ham.
Back on the road Jennifer gave brief lecture, with handouts, about the Greek temples of
Sicily, including Doric and Ionian columns; she pointed out that horizontal elements in temples
were generally painted blue and some vertical elements, like metopes, red.
Lunch occurred about 3:00 at an attractive restaurant by the sea in Selinunte. A short
drive took us to an area with ruins of half a dozen ancient Greek temples with huge Doric
columns. Then on to Agrigento with more ruined Greek temples, one of which was in particularly
good shape, though the stone was red-brown rather than white, and it glowed with ancient fervor
in the light of the setting sun.
Dinner was after our 9:00 PM return to the ship, which had motored to Agrigente, and
we went to bed about midnight.
On Monday Herb's and my alarms went off at 5:45 to get us up for breakfast before a
scheduled 7:00 departure. The bus showed up about 7:30. I elected to stay on the ship and read
and nap; it left Agrigento for Palermo, on north side of Sicily, about 7:45 in a moderate sea. The
vessel rolled and pitched enough so that walking about was awkward, but I did not get seasick.
While reading in a corner of the lounge I was struck on the head by a falling 2 ft x 4 ft wall panel
with a couple of framed prints attached. The movement and vibration of the ship had torn it loose
from its moorings. No harm was done.
The ship, with me as the only passenger, reached Palermo and docked a little after 11:00
PM. The group had planned to board the ship in time to dress for dinner in the City, but had to
dine in bus-riding clothes because the ship had not arrived on schedule. The bus with the rest of
tour did not arrive at the dock by the time I retired shortly after midnight. I was glad I did not go
with the others on such a long venture, but less glad when I learned that they had had dinner at
Palazzo Raffadali with Princess of R. According to the menu that Herb brought back, they had:
insalata di riso, involtini di melanzane e tagliatelle, timbaletti di capellini; lacerto tonnato, vitello
con funghi, involtini di pesce spada; pomidori gratinati, insalata miste, caponata di melanzane,
peperoni, fagiolini, patate al vapore; gelo di mellone, tirami su, creme caramel, cassata siciliana,
budino di mandorle, gelato de fragola; Vini del Conte Tasca d'Almerita: Regaliala Nozze d'Oro,
Regeali Rose, all followed by locally made liqueurs. On board ship I got stewed veal and rice
with tomato salad and ice cream and cooky.
On Tuesday, July 1, we were taken on a slow bus ride through the traffic of Palermo, past
piazzas, statues, churches and fish markets, first to Capella Palatiba, housed in the Palace of the
Normans and exhibiting a splendid combination of Arab and Norman design. Then to Monreale
Cathedral on a hilltop overlooking the City, with mosaics, mostly gold, all over the walls. This
cathedral was completed in 15-16 years in the latter part of the 12th century because the Norman
King William II decided he needed it to maintain control of the people, 99% of whom were not
Norman. With a cathedral he could appoint an archbishop who would control them through the
Church. Monreale is called the "greatest example of Arab-Norman architecture in Sicily, a
mixture of Arab, Nordic, classical and Byzantine elements."
Lunch was in a pleasant restaurant that would have been even more so but for the
presence of several soldiers with machine guns. Apparently they were protecting a visiting
magistrate who was one of those trying to put the Mafia out of business.
More bus riding took us to Cefalu, a pretty little town about 60 km east of Palermo on
Sicily's north coast in a cove bounded on 3 sides by mountains. The streets are mostly up and
down hill. Herb and I walked down to the beach, a narrow strip of sand mostly covered by
people in bathing suits. On the way back to the center of town we stopped in a wine shop where
Herb bought a bottle of wine and one of olive oil and I bought one liter of oil for 9,500 lira (about
$5.60). The label, resembling a wine label, reads, "Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva -- Premiati oleifici
Barbera - Casa Fondata nel 1894 - Novello di Macina." An attached tag shows that the oil was
produced in November, 1996. Light green and slightly hazy, it is quite well flavored.
We missed the bus to the ship and walked the half mile down to the harbor and the
Before dinner Herb and I consumed half of his bottle of Donnafugata Bianco, 1996,
Sicilian white wine and found it quite good even at room temperature -- light, slight spritz, nice
flavor, modestly fruity. According to the label, it was made from Catarratto and Ansonica grapes
from the Belice Hills.
Dinner was Greek night, starting with Ouzo (tastes like licorice) and we were encouraged
to wear blue and white, the colors of the Greek flag and of my new walking shoes. Delicious
Greek food of many varieties ended with baklava. Some of the ship's staff demonstrated Greek
dancing and induced some audience participation.
Next morning the Halcyon left Cefalu harbor and motored to the Aeolian Islands.
Stromboli, the northernmost, was purportedly erupting modestly, and I could see a little white
area against the cloudy sky, but not the glow that some reported. We anchored in the harbor at
Lipari (rhymes with slippery). There are about 9,000 people on Lipari, roughly 13,000 in the
entire archipelago. Formerly there were 30,000 but many emigrated to find jobs. This we learned
from the local guide on a bus tour around the island after being taken to shore by tender. Then we
paid a visit to the local archeological museum. A major display showed scores of ancient amphora
that had been found in ancient shipwrecks, but whoever found them found the wine all gone.
Many ancient Greek vases were on display, the older ones with black figures on red background,
the newer with red on black. There was also an extensive exhibit of models of dramatic masks
and figurines belonging to the time of Aristophanes. Jennifer Neils, one of our two study leaders,
improved the presentation of the local guide. She has spent several seasons digging at central
Sicilian archaeological sites,
Herb and Kitty Coley (the other study leader, who talked about geology and volcanoes)
and I walked back to beach together, but when we got there it turned out to be the wrong beach.
We retraced our steps and reached correct beach with 10 minutes to spare before the departure
of the last tender prior to dinner.
Those who were intending to stay in town for dinner were summoned back to ship
because alarming weather reports made the captain want to leave port this evening and anchor in
the lee of Sicily. Perhaps he didn't trust Aeolian Islands (the name means wind) to protect the
ship from the winds.
While we were under way on Thursday morning, Jennifer gave an illustrated program on
the Riace bronzes, two of the few ancient bronze statues saved from being melted down for
cannon balls in the middle ages by being lost at sea in antiquity and not discovered until 1970s by
an amateur diver.
The Halcyon motored east and then passed passing southwesterly through the
Strait of Messina and tied up at the waterfront of Messina, across the strait from the toe of the
boot of mainland Italy. Thirteen of our group, including Herb, went on an expedition to climb
Mount Aetna. The rest had lunch on board, then were taken by bus along the coastal highway
through many tunnels and up to Taormina on its hilltop. Many hillsides we passed were covered
with abandoned terraces. An ancient Greek theater, excavated from rock and then built higher by
the Romans is the prime sight. From it we got a glorious view of Aetna and along the coast,
slightly impeded by haze. I kept thinking of ancient Greek and Roman actors finding themselves
upstaged by volcanic eruptions from the mountain that served as a backdrop. The town was, and I
suspect usually is, full of tourists. Our big bus took us to an underground parking area below
Taormina and an orange municipal shuttle bus took us to near town square. I bought .1 kg
candied violets from Pasticceria Etna, a T-shirt, and a delicious lemon gelate cone. On returning
home I found that the size label "L" on the T-shirt (which bears a trinacria - the three legged
symbol of Sicily) stands not for large, the size my wife likes, but for lilliputian.
On Friday, the Fourth of July, the ship took us across the strait to Calabria, where our
suitcases were put on a truck to Amalfi and the group visited the Calabrian Archaeological
Museum (1930's Fascist architecture) displaying various antiquities, including a statuette of
woman holding a comb in the right hand and a hand grenade (or perhaps a cherimoya) in the left.
Someone else suggested a bunch of grapes. Eventually we were taken to museum's prize exhibit,
The Riace Bronzes -- two life-sized nude male figures that were rescued from sea in 1970s. I
bought a T-shirt portraying both for my son Dodge.
From the museum it was an easy walk to the railroad station, although the weather was
warmer than optimum. The train to Salerno was a nightmare. The weather was growing hot
when we boarded. We were in first class, but the air conditioning did not work in either first class
carriage, and in the one Herb and I were in, the heat was on. In time we moved to the other one,
and the railroad added a car of which the air conditioning did work. It filled quickly, and the
conductor insisted on having one compartment entirely to himself to do his paperwork. Jennifer
Neils confronted him severely in English and Italian, and made him relent. In time George Treyz,
who had gotten a seat in the air conditioned car, came and insisted that I take it for the remaining
2 hours of the journey while he sat on the floor. He did not have to insist very hard. The scenery
was grand and the ride was smooth, but, in the absence of working air conditioning, the
discomfort of the excessive heat dispelled the pleasure we would otherwise have enjoyed admiring
A nice air conditioned bus met us at Salerno and took us along the frightening roads of the
Amalfi Coast, with their rising and descending switchbacks and hairpin turns, to our hotel in
Amalfi. I mentally recanted any demeaning thoughts I may have had about the courage of the
Italians, yet when I noticed he crucifix at the windshield, I admired their faith.
The Hotel Santa Caterina is a luxurious hotel; instead of a non-slip surface in the
bathtub/shower, it has a bellpull to summon help when you fall and break your hip. It also has
scores of staircases that separate wherever you are from wherever you want to be. Down one
flight from our room to the lobby, down two more to a landing brought us to a pair of elevators
that took us down the equivalent of several more flights to a point 1/2 flight below the swimming
pool and a nearby dining room. There Herb and I had delicious fresh swordfish in mint sauce
with the house white wine (Costa d'Amalfi DOC, Furore, Marisa Cuoma, 1996 -- good aroma
and aftertaste, medium body, good, very dry, modest fruit) that was just right with the meal. Also
splendid profiteroles in chocolate sauce. Brian and Jane Johnson joined us and had, respectively,
rice and pasta with seafood that they spoke highly of.
When Herb and I reached our room, we found, to our dismay, a double bed awaiting us.
The hotel staff soon managed, with armfuls of bedding, to turn it into a pair of twin beds.
On Saturday a bus took us on a tortuous road through kilometers of lemon terraces to
Ravello, an even more remote and exotic village, perched even higher above the sea than Amalfi.
If I understood the local guide correctly, Santa Pantaleona Church here has a relic of this saint --
his blood -- which liquefies on the same date every year. After walking through the church and
seeing no blood, we visited a splendid villa that has a colonnade, garden, theater with nearly 180
degree view of ocean and other amenities appropriate to such landmarks. Then we were freed to
walk about amongst the souvenir shops and restaurants. I bought a tile with a picture of a black
cat and the legend, "Attentione al Gatto" or something like that for my daughter Shaw who has
two cats, one of them black. Heat drove Herb and Sylvia Kerckoff and me and to an open air
gelateria for a dish of lemon flavored gelato.
After lunch back at the hotel, Herb walked into town while I took a nap. Dinner in the
hotel included grilled mixed Mediterranean seafood. OK but not spectacular. The wine was Costa
d'Amalfi red Furore DOC 96 Marisa Cuomo - modest aroma, medium body, durable aftertaste,
little distinction, moderate tannin, slightly harsh.
On Sunday, July 7, the rest of the group took a day tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Having been to Pompeii a year and a half before, I took a car and driver to the Naples airport,
detouring for a tour of the City. It has many impressive buildings and statues, most of which
would be improved by cleaning. Mount Vesuvius stands nearby, motionless but reminding me of
a caged anaconda I once saw in Iquitos, Peru. To feed the huge snake, a live monkey was kept in
the cage, unknowingly awaiting the day that the motionless serpent would grow
Draft beer and the local version of pizza at the airport became my lunch. The pizza was
about 8 inches in diameter, shaped like a doughnut with the hole plugged at the bottom, and
filled with tomato paste and cheese. Then, of course, it turned out that they served lunch on the
2:10 plane to London, but I am sure that they would not have had I not eaten the
In London I stayed at the Gloucester, a new and very pleasant hotel near the Gloucester
Road tube station. Dinner at the Restaurant SW7 in the hotel was OK but not remarkable.
Beforehand I went for a brief walk along Cromwell Road and liberated one of the cards posted
in telephone booths advertising the services of a young, sexy Thai model. I didn't get around to
mailing it from London, but sooner of later I'll think of an appropriate message to write on the
back and an appropriate victim to mail it to.