Around the World on Zephyr  
  (to be precise, around Sicily, and rather nearby than around)  
Russian version
Six in the morning
Clanging and screeching, our train from Rome to Messina rolled onto the ferry.
Outside the window - near-uniform yellow of the wall and assorted dark-green pipes. A poster in Italian - some variation on the "Prohibited" theme. I stayed inside for a while, trying to grab another half-hour of shut-eye; gave up, and went up to the top deck of the ferry. It is still dark outside. The deck is all wet from last night's torrential downpour. The snack bar is still closed. A few bleary-eyed passengers loiter about. Across the strait - a thin line of Messina's street lights. A sister ferry, named Scylla, hustles towards the continent; I can only guess the name of ours. Downstairs, the crowd gradually wakes up after seven hours in the second-class car. Our neighbors are students from Rome, visiting their parents in Sicily before a trip to India and Nepal. The girl is headed in the same direction as us: we have to make the local train from Messina to Palermo.
Our local train - by the way, by far more comfortable than the train from Rome - emerges from a long tunnel somewhere in Messina's suburbs.
The skies brighten up a bit - but they are still overcast, with rain higher up the mountainside. The landscape - if one erases the mountains and adds some dust - is not very different from, say, suburbs of Belgorod or Kharkov.
Ten minutes to eight.
We gather our belongings - remarkably expanded in two days in Rome - and leave the comfort of the coaster train for the station of Falcone.
The term "station" is a vast overstatement - it is no more than the landing. We exit to the "square" in front of the "station" - a rather narrow backyard with a few trash bins.
It rains. We have zero desire to hike to our marina.
In response to our inquiry about the marina's whereabouts, an early passer-by smiles broadly, waves his hand towards the general part of the world where our marina is, and cheerfully says: "Quattro kilometri!"
We loitered about for another five minutes or so; the passers-by became a bit more frequent. Some of them had coffee cups and grocery bags - something must be open already!
We sprint from under one balcony to the other, trying to guess our way by the increase in density of population carrying food. Yes! There is a store! And it even looks like we hit the local highway - and we descend in an open cafe.
Coffee and croissants boost our mood considerably - enough to compose an eloquent question about how to get to our marina.
It takes a couple of tries to convey the question to the locals; they all smile broadly, wave their hands in the same general part of the world where marina is, and say in unison: "Quattro kilometri!"
No, there's no taxi service here. There's a bus, a couple of times a day. No, it doesn't stop by marina, one has to walk about a kilometer.
Well... It still rains - we walk to the bus stop and take the best two seats out of three available on the wet aluminum bench.
I guess our faces conveyed our morale well enough - one of the cafe's customers returns, and offers to drive us to Porto Rosso - and absolutely refuses any payment for it.
The weather improves a bit. We try to call "Our people in Sicily," namely, the rest of the sailboat crew on their way from Russia. Our college classmate Inna G. picks up the phone, and says that they are leaving Palermo as soon as possible. It can be as soon as in an hour and a half, so there's a chance they are here in about three hours and a half. Awesome!
They are in Porto Rosso in barely five hours. All this time was spent trying to justify sitting in the outdoor patio of a tiny cafe - by drinking five cups of coffee and two glasses of beer. We try to spot our ride - a 45-foot sailboat named Zephyr - but can't make it out.
Close to half past three in the afternoon we spot people who clearly - and verly loudly - speak Russian. Our crew mates booked a tour bus the size of coaster train, and it just couldn't clear the tiny bridge leading to marina.
We re-enact "The Rendezvous At The Elbe" in the middle of the bridge - with Inna G., who we haven't seen in about five years, and the rest of the gang - Marina, Ilya, Sveta, Igor, and Artyom. Some of them we haven't seen in about twenty years, some of them weren't even born when we crossed the ocean.
The rendezvous passes in high spirits - literally. We drink to the success of our trip even before the luggage is unloaded from the bus. The life is clearly getting on the right track.
Misha Timoshkin, our cap'n, shows up as well, and takes his part in the festivities. Then he drafts me for the process of renting the sailboat, and off we go to the marina's office.
Quarter to five.
The "birds" are in all proper places in the long roster of sailboat accessories, the luggage is tossed in the boat, the motor starts, and ... we sail out!
Actually, this very moment is kind of foggy in my memory, since the festivities started on the bridge across troubled waters never stopped.
By the time we unfurl the sail, some of the grappa has already evaporated.
Captain Misha all of a sudden starts saying words that we have never heard, and only seen in print in books like Jules Verne's. He contributes to overall confusion by using equally obscure verbs that describe what to do with the nouns. A bunch of ropes of various colors interferes with our needs to bring more grappa from the galley to the table.
Finally, the sails are up, the motor's quiet, and we properly celebrate this occasion. Some of the girls already started their suntanning - which is very safe in early evening hours. We are at sea, people!
All of a sudden, a familiar deja-vu-type thought hits me: what did I do in my life to end up here? This thought is always bright as a flash, and it visits me in a vast variety of bizarre places - at a bus stop in the city of Lukoyanov (try finding it on the map), in a narrow-gauge railroad car on the way from Nevelsk to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, in the cargo hold of a rusty old freighter converted to research vessel in Balaklava, at a junkyard in Detroit, sitting in the weeds behind the port fence in Pago-Pago... Here, too...
Can't remember the time - the watch is already buried under a pile of clothes.
We crawl into the marina in Lipari bay - at the Aeolian island of the same name.
A dark-tanned aborigine (under the generic name "Giuseppe") illustrates the price of overnight stay with his hands; we have to ask him to confirm the price - does he know that Italian lires are no longer in circulation? Or is it in Roubles? In Euros? Holy cow...
We have no choice, however - we search our pockets, hand over the fare, and head out to marina's office to make things official. A mention that "out agent" had a more lenient fare agreement with the marina leads to his name being stricken from the marina's Rolodex.
We celebrate our safe passage with copious amounts of grappa, and head out to the restaurant. The restaurant staff is gracious enough to cook us a very hearty dinner - after the hours - and we make use of the restaurant's restroom (there isn't one in marina).
After a few shots of "digestif" onboard of Zephyr, we pass out in a narrow and stuffy cabin. What a day it was!
Wake up late, brush my teeth (it will fade away, along with many other habits of a civilized human being), and walk to the end of the jetty to photograph the surroundings. Lena is still asleep, the rest doesn't appear alive, either. On deck, cap'n Misha, seeing the general decadence, decides to forgo a thirty-mile dash to Stromboli in favor of the island of Vulcano (four miles).
Then, he climbs up the mast to hang the russian flag. Maybe he thinks the people around can't figure that one out.
Ten in the morning, give or take.
Our ladies wake up and take up cooking breakfast - but four of them around a two-burner stove make too much of a crowd. After a fierce, but very short, fight, Lena and Inna G. give up.
Eggs with sausage is on the table, and disappears in an instant. The first half-glass of grappa is poured before the last coffee is drank up.
Our captain begins the second rehearsal of casting off. Everything suggests the inevitability of hard daily maritime labor of pulling the ropes and hoisting the sails. Out of the blue, Cap'n Misha makes a knight's move and instead announces a trip to the local store for some bread and butter and whatnot.
The bonus points come from the need of a half-a-mile long traverse of the bay, with heated exchange with the city marina's Giuseppe about the price for half-an-hour mooring, launch of our inflatable boat, starting the outboard that hasn't been started in years, and a trip to the store.
Oh where are my childhood years on Volga River? At least, I didn't make a mistake of walking to the store in the morning - I definitely know how to poop a party.
Giuseppe, the bastard, won't let us tie off the inflatable - so we just drop it on the city beach. We return early with full bags of provisions - with most of it in liquid phase.
Remarkably, the Giuseppe turned out not to be a vengeful one, so the boat is intact and we return to Zephyr without any difficulties.
Of course, such an occasion merits a celebration - especially since out supplies of local moonshine are back up to normal. The captain skips the festivities for some poorly-understood reason, and steers the boat to the island of Vulcano, aptly named after a geographical feature of the same character.
About three in the afternoon.
Near the entrance to the Vulcano marina, we look for a reason not to stay, and circumnavigate a peninsula (also an active volcano, by the way), and have a swim call.
Here, I must take a detour.
For the sailing crowd in California, the reasons for a sailing trip from San Diego to Italy are unclear. Most of the tourists wouldn't get it, either. To all of them, I'd suggest taking a swim in dark blue-gray sixty-degree water of the Pacific somewhere near Santa Barbara, where lurk some human-loving crowd like great whites and killer whales. The water in Mediterranean - literally - brightly contrasts with our relatively frigid waters. One can stay there infinitely long - not even for a drink or snack! Speaking of tasty snacks... we'll touch upon this subject later.
The swim call lasts forever. We take our inflatable to some cave - but don't stick our noses into it, for who knows what kind of Nessie we may encounter.
The end of the swim call is a reason enough for another celebration.
Still bright outside.
Finally, we're at the marina.
Giuseppe No.2 runs back and forth along the empty pontoon, in anticipation of epic crash. Uses his fingers to convey the price of overnight mooring. Do you know how 85 euros can be shown with fingers by a Sicilian? I do, now.
Cap'n and the ladies send me off to a reconnaissance mission: to figure out how much are the bus tickets to the crater of the Vulcano. The results are dismal - marina-to-crater bus service has not been established yet.
We change into our evening clothes (meaning anything beyond a swimsuit) and go to the people.
The people clearly fall into three categories: those desperate for a hydrofoil to the mainland or a bigger island, those who just got off one and thus are hungry and thirsty, and lastly those who couldn't care less for anything in the world but warm mud in a bubbling lake in a smaller volcanic crater.
Come to think of it, people go out of their way to a remote Aeolian isand with only four miles of paved roads just to achieve the same level of comfort as a typical weekend tourist in Soviet Union, pushing his air-cooled, 27-horsepower wonder out of a mudhole with his wife behind the wheel. What a gas.
We conclude our on-foot survey of the town of Vulcano by becoming the first evening customers of a restaurant named something like "A lawn under a cactus." The tables are decked out at a "two-fork level." The naive waiters pour our first shots of grappa and... take the bottle away. They learn quickly, however, the tuition is clearly on us. We seem to get into that groove.
On the way home... that is, onboard Zephyr, we decide that a trip into the caldera is more romantic at sunrise than at the starlight. Fortify the decision with half a glass of grappa.
At the sunrise (around 10 a.m.)
We sail out... that is, depart to the mountains.
From sea level to the top of the volcano Vulcano - 386 vertical meters.
At the 2-meter (MSL) mark, we take a break under the pretense of taking photos of local flora. We cast an uneasy glance at the towering volcano - doesn't it look like the weather is about to turn for the worse? - but keep going.
Fast forward.
About 11 a.m.
We crest the rim of the caldera.
Around us - rocks: black, grey, brown, and bright-yellow. Despite noticeable sulphur smell, we partly stop for a smoke (that is, fully stop, but not all of us).
Two-thirds of the crew refuse to continue, motivating it by the lack of entertainment. The rest - continues.
At the top of the volcano, we enjoy the view of Lipari - we really didn't sail far last night... Further out, in a haze, towers the Stromboli. Next to us - two dutch ladies patiently waiting for us to go away so they could take a quality selfie. Nearby - a sign, saying in italian that the footpath ahead is closed due to a real danger of sulfur poisoning. Remarkably, the sign allows to proceed in presence of a guide (I guess such presence somehow reduces the sulfur content in the air). The sign is multi-lingual; german version is a lot shorter: VERBOTEN.
To stay legal, the captain designates me a guide, and we deliberate for a minute - should we go down into the caldera, or simply circumnavigate it along the edge? The lack of grappa clearly results in a conservative decision, and we continue on the rim. Occasionally, breathing becomes difficult - we cover our faces with our t-shirts (it works!). The eyes burn and water; we try the same t-shirt masking technique - it works well, but it's kind of hard to see.
Take a bunch of photos of sulphur crystals - up close, closer, right up against the lens.
By the time we're out of the crater, the "two-thirds majority" already happily walk downhill - and are stopped by the toll booth. I guess we creatively by-passed the toll on the way uphill; our crew, in classic Russian style, argue that since we're already going downhill, the toll has been paid. The "lil' ol'lady" disagrees, then picks up the phone receiver, and we detect the word "carabineri" in her diatribe. So we just pay up, and scoot downhill.
High noon.
Can't remember if we have lunch or not. Nonetheless, we cast off: the cap'n ordered traverse to Milazzo before the nightfall. After yesterday's four-mile trip, five or six hours of sailing drag on forever. We resort to liquid entertainment, in short breaks between doing something maritime like unfurling the sails, pulling the ropes, sticking wet fingers into the wind, and rolling up ropes in neat flat spirals.
Getting close to Milazzo.
On our right there's a monastery, the old fort, and old town with lots of trees.
On our left - oil refinery and a powerplant. We take a hard decision to seek a marina at the right.
The local Giuseppe takes his sweet time to show up; he clearly does not possess the magic of finger communication, so the argument about mooring fees drags on longer than usual. Finally, we're tied off (needless to say, celebrate the occasion), leave the captain to guard the boat, and head to town.
The goal No.1 is the old fort (Castello di Milazzo). We missed the hours of the fort by an hour and a half, so we compensate by ferociously taking photos of nettles and agave plants.
The viewing area near the fort affords a great view of the town without the refinery and powerplant, and reveals the approaches to local eateries.
We leave the fort and remarkably quickly find a grocery store. The guys file off about an inch worth of smoked pork in single-molecular-thick layers (proscuitto!) and offer us a lot of other tasty stuff. It feels just right to go back to Zephyr and wash it all down with grappa - but it wasn't to happen.
The girls had a mind for a proper dinner - which is difficult in Italy at seven in the evening.
Finally, we come across a little restaurant - very much a local eatery, away from the street and without any prominent signage. The fork count suggests that this restaurant ought to be at least 1.5 times better than the last one. The owner - Signor Filippo - welcomes us at the door, and heartily hugs each and every one of the girls. Unfazed, the ladies demand the menu; Signor Filippo retorts with a classic - "Are you here to eat, or read? It's a restaurant, not a library!"
It won our hearts, and we're down at the table. Signor Filippo declares the four-course dinner: gnocchi, two kinds of pasta, and dessert.
Here I have to make a short gastronomical detour.
Due to the socio-politico-economical environment in late 1970s in Soviet Union, pasta absolutely, positively, unquestionnably dominated in our menu. The deviations were fewer than opposing political parties. During this happy time, I had enough pasta for two extra lives ahead - with salt, pepper, sugar, apple jam, canned seafood - Italians wouldn't even come up with so many recipes to spice up the macaroni. There's no persuasion that would make me reach out for a package of pasta in a grocery store. So, most of Signor Filippo's efforts were wasted on me; not on the girls, however - they went at the pasta as if they haven't just had half a pound of proscuitto just across the street.
The wine flowed freely. The white grappa yielded to yellow grappa; the yellow grappa was better than white, and ran out just as fast. Upon popular demand, the next kind of grappa appeared - delivered with a mask of little embarrassment on the face of the waiter, due to its price rivaling that of a spanish galeon full of gold coins.
We decline, under pretenses of moderation in spirits, and move on to a giant cake made out of pistaccio ice cream. The cake was magnificent, and disappeared in a flash.
Signor Filippo takes on a short photo session with the girls, and then sort of loses interest to us. The girls demand a detailed check for dinner, and it appears.
The contents are stellar:
1. Dinner - 400 Euros.
2. Total - 400 Euros.
As it turned out, a three-fork restaurant was indeed exactly 1.5 times better than a two-fork one.
We convinced ourselves that it was the best dinner in our lives, and went back to Zephyr to finish off the plebeian white grappa.
Between Scylla and Charybdis
Early morning (before lunch)
Pay a visit to the grocery so we don't go hungry, buy a five-liter jug of young white wine and a couple of bananas (we still have proscuitto).
On the way back check the weather forecast - calm everywhere.
The cast-off happens a lot more organized - I guess we learn a few things. Captain Misha sails out of the bay, and aim towards Messina.
Near the entrance to the bay, a helicopter takes an obnoxious fly-by with somebody taking photos with a long lens. We do our best to reciprocate (that is - take photos, it's kind of hard to fly by the helo in a sailboat).
Wind: three knots. Too little to even set sail. We have nothing to do - so we take a swim call, carefully avoiding sinister-looking jellyfish. A long swim call.
During the lull in activities, I find Inna G.'s e-reader, opened up at the page devoted to the perils awaiting seafarers near Aeolian Islands. Specifically, of interest is the description of unpredictability of the winds and weather - with dramatic descriptions of ripped sails, broken masts, and torn anchor chains.
I share my new knowledge with the captain - Misha waves me off like a fly, and takes a wide swipe at the cloud-less sky and seas void of a single ripple. I am convinced.
It's time to have a drink; we never need any persuasion. Ilya and Igor decide to teach me to play dominoes - and give up before we're out of grappa.
During the short game, somewhat sneakily, the wind kicked up - to about ten knots, right into our starboard. We unfurl the sails and get up to some decent speed - very nice!
We come to the cabin and spread our "Radio Shack" on the table - to share the photos and check them out on Inna's laptop. Halfway through the photos I notice that I have to keep the Mac from sliding off the table.
In a while, we have to keep the Mac on our lap, and hold onto something.
Then, all of a sudden, all our electronics vacate the table in a hurry, and Inna G., hugging the Mac, demands to know WTF.
I go upstairs to check out.
Wind - seventeen knots. The boys with an air of purpose all sit on the windward side, Captain Misha is carefree.
Take another round of grappa.
All of a sudden, captain gets agitated, and dispatches us to take a reef in.
That reef does not really want to be taken in - is it us, or the sail? Some small rope rips apart, which is not taken lightly by the captain; he dispatches us to furl up all the sails, and do it fucking quickly.
Inna G. emerges from the cabin with a perplexed air, and demands explanations - why are we rocking the boat? The rest of the ladies are already situated firmly along the windward side, almost on the ropes, and are unusually quiet.
Wind - twenty-two knots, from the shore (towards the West), very steady without much gusts. The shore is close, but the white caps are all around - I begin to wonder what are we are going to see around the cape in Messina strait.
In about twenty minutes or so, captain is concerned about the sister ship with a crew from Moscow - the sail clearly broke free and flaps around.
Near the traverse of the cape, we see one of the two old powerline towers (now decommissionned), and take a hundred of terrible photos - one can't stand in the boat anymore, and all photos are blurred. The spray makes us to put the cameras away.
Wind - twenty-five knots, with twenty-eight knot gusts. Fairly fresh outside.
Two in the afternoon. Maybe.
We come around the cape, and captain aims Zephyr to South-East - right across the strait.
Wind - thirty knots, with thirty-two knot gusts.
The skies are no longer void of clouds, and white caps seem to dominate the surface. There's no swell, however; we aim straight into the wind. Occasionally Zephyr plows down into a crest of a wave, sending spray halfway up the mast.
The ladies are dead quiet. Artyom - what a kid! - went to sleep in the cabin.
Captain Misha, all of a sudden, suggests to have a round of grappa - a great move to boost the spirits!
Really there isn't much to fuss about - the traffic in the strait hasn't even noticed the wind.
Near the beach in Messina the windsurfers slice the waters at breakneck speeds. We are passed by a Panamax-sized container ship - the only tell-tale sign of the weather is in twenty-foot bursts of spray around its hull.
The railroad ferries - Scylla and (likely) Charibdis - loaded with trains, hustle back and forth, not caring a bit for exposing their sides to the waves and the wind. We scoot between them when we can.
At the left, appear the suburbs of Reggio Di Calabria - our destination for today.
Reggio Di Calabria
Around four in the afternoon.
We tie off in Reggio Di Calabria - the marina is on the backyard of a large port.
The Guiseppe on the pier is nervous - there's just enough space for two sailboats, but the fifteen-seventeen-knot side wind pushes Zephyr onto the neighboring zillion-dollar boat.
The bonus point - we have to cast an anchor. Everyone is drafted for the job - holding the fenders wherever possible.
We make it to the pier on the second attempt. The only loss is a broken plastic lens of a navigation light. We wait for the sister boat with Moscow crew - they arrive in forty minutes. It looks like there's barely enough space for a car-topper boat - but the captains know their business.
On the third try, captain "Uncle Andrey" stabs his fifty-foot aircraft carrier between the neighbors like a sword into the scabbard. Only a few feet of bent railing, that's all.
This was not an occasion to skip the celebration, which two crews do together. The recon says there's a restroom in marina - life's about to begin!
Six p.m.
The ladies's faces re-acquired some pink.
Captain gave everyone t-shirts and baseball caps to boost the team spirit - the best part of the insignia was a "ucandoit" in cyrillic. After another shot of grappa, we're ready to paint the town red.
The downtown is only in half-hour walk. The memories of the decadent party last night haven't faded yet, so we decided to establish some fiscal conservancy (crisis, mind you - everybody's having a hard time) and head out to a two-fork restaurant.
The waitress from Ukraine is very cordial, catches the spirit of financial doom, and eases the pain of our menu decision: pizza it is. Afterwards, the ladies demand ice cream - so we head out to old town, and find an ice cream parlor the size of Ikea. The ice cream - insanely good - is in cone cups like old Russian fire buckets (can't put them down!); we stand on the side of the road, bent forward, keeping the cups in outstretched hands - just like the cranes in the port. No big deal - everyone else's exactly like that.
We amble back to Zephyr in the dark. All night long the wind is howling in the ropes, and somewhere something slaps rhytmically against the mast.
By the way - by the time I got to write about this, I read up on Messina Strait, and learned that we got off very easy.
Back to Sicily
Misha wakes us up early - we have to make 30 miles to Riposto, yet we have to arrive early enough for a side trip.
Enjoying Shadenfreude in the morning - while observing an energetic departure of the sister boat... with the anchor still cast. Not bad, not bad at all.
The breakfast is already al fresco; the wind calmed down to 13-17 knots, white caps are infrequent, but the last night's storm left over a noticeable swell. The skies aren't quite clear, and the air cooled off a lot.
We're still going across the strait, hoist the sails. We're happy with our collective work - but Misha isn't: we spent five minutes setting up the sails, while the norm (what norm is it?) is forty seconds.
We celebrate, nonetheless.
On the horizon: Etna. We take a lot of photos, and nothing else of record for the next five hours or so. Likely, spread the Radio Shack and copy yet more photos. Maybe we're watching Inna G. search for missing bits and pieces in preparation for her early departure (business...). Did I knock her bathing suit off the railing?
About two in the afternoon
Sailing into Riposto.
The entrance to the marina makes quite an impression: we see a couple of motor yachts, decent enough to serve as "inflatables" for Roman Abramovich. Three-deckers, little people hustle around with the rigs, polishing the brass and whatnot.
Local Giuseppe makes his importance acknowledged, yet lets us park next to one of the "three-deckers."
The marina is fairly advanced, almost up to Yugoslavian standards - even with a shower! We have no time for this - whoever's ready in a few minutes, goes on a side trip!
We meet our Italian tour guide - Lena, get into the bus with the Moscow crew, and are driven off someplace.
I notice that I am actually enjoying not driving, but being chauffeured around - must be getting old.
The bus briskly climbs up the winding road in the Etna's foothills. Lena the tour guide entertains us with the recount of history of Sicily, fortunately, sparing us the distant geological times.
The first stop: Baron Murgo Estate winery. Complete with wine tasting, three-course meal, and many wines to buy. Before we have a chance to decide, whether we like Cabernet Sauvignon better than Merlot or the other way 'round, they run out of either.
One of the Muscovites grumbles that Cabernet and Sauvignon are different grapes, and therefore such wine does not exist. Come to think of it, they must be fucking with us in California...
Later, we discover that the winery also has port and grappa - but neither is included in tasting. What a shame.
We kiss Inna G. goodbye (with some uneasiness - in our common past, Inna's sudden departures were followed by some calamities), leave Baron Murgo's hospitable tasting room, and are ferried up the Etna mountainside.
Along the way, disappointed Muscovite Sasha shares his experience of multiple trips to America.
In short, New York, Los Angeles, and Grand Canyon are nothing more than tourist traps, but rather passable viewed from a helicopter. What the Americans drive cannot possibly be described in print, and therefore should not be discussed in a respectable company.
In the meantime, Lena the tour guide educates us in the peculiarities of Sicilian economy - namely, its shadowy side.
According to Lena, mafia is practically invisible for the general population - it only humbly asks the government to allow it, the mafia, to carry out the most mundane and inglorious tasks, like building something or taking care of trash disposal.
On top of this, mafia - without any profit, just out of the feeling of general social responsibility - also supplements the lack of law enforcement. For instance, if one stays in a mafia-owned hotel, one can easily leave a diamond ring on top of a dresser in an unlocked hotel room - and one is guaranteed that this ring will remain there.
We don't ask to elaborate on safety of diamond rings in non-mafia-owned establishment.
From Etna to Taormina
Our bus pulls over at a parking lot halfway up the Etna slope - at 1800 meters above sea level, out of three and a half kilometers.
Outside it is freezing - about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind is howling.
The landscape is indeed mind-blowing: I realize for the first time that I am looking at a very young and very active volcano - no vegetation for many square miles of fresh lava flows.
Wrapped in our jackets, we amble around some little crater, and find solace and warmth in a gift shop (with a cafe and a bar).
We stock up on the fridge magnet (never mind that our fridge is stainless) and calendars with Etna views, run back to the bus, and descend from the mountains to the old capital of Sicily - Taormina.
Lena the tour guide sweetens the trip with a very dramatic story about the spreading of homosexuality in these parts from the ancient Greece to these days. We, the inhabitants of Southern California, are unimpressed.
Taormina is a very pleasant and very old town. We must have lost a lot due to our late arrival - but even the late night stroll was beautiful.
As a side benefit, we note the abundance of pretty long-legged beauties - and most of them seem to be fluent in Russian. Too bad that the miserable optical qualities of our photo equipment does not allow to preserve the evidence. Or is it the presence of "the significant other?" Never mind... I don't remember how we arrive back to the boat. I do remember, however, a very animated life onboard of three-decked "Abramovich inflatable," which did not include us.
We are facing a long (five hours, maybe) trip to Catania - and therefore we get ourselves together early in the morning, and head out to the local fish market.
The local places are flooded with fish - the variety of seafood in Mediterranean is mind-blowing.
The ladies ignore marlins and tuna, skip right past calamari and octopus, and settle on doradas and... what's the name... surmullet. The veggies, fruit, and drinks originatee from them (including yellow grappa) are procured and brought onboard. Everything promises an awesome day at sea.
Lunchtime, sort of.
We cast an anchor near the castle of Aci Castello, six miles from Catania.
By that time, the five-liter jug with young white wine suffers a considerable damage. The wine attracted my attention in the store by its color - and the taste was true to that: seems like a white, very dry sherry, cut halfway with water. At some point, the collective hunger for seafood develops into a real gastronomical rage. The doradas and mullets fly onto the frying pans. The cheese, sausage, proscuitto are sliced up and served.
The minute the doradas are served, they are picked up by the molecule and eaten up. The mullet follow. We chase it down with grappa, lean back, and offer our causting comments about the Sicilian firefighters taking care of a local brush fire. The clouds part a bit - so we can see Etna, albeit not quite in its entirety.
Well... It's time to bid Aci Castello goodbye, and weigh the anchor... Or not? After a few attempts it becomes clear that the anchor is here for good.
Water is seventeen meters deep, and there's a grand total of zero pearl hunters in our ranks. For a while we try, as a fox terrier tied off to a tree, to yank our anchor every which way - but with zero success.
The captain "Uncle Andrey" of our sister boat is eager to help us - we refuse the offer, barely able to avoid any further damage.
Looks like Inna G's premature departure finally doomed our trip.
We cast off in the inflatable, and head out to the mercy of the locals.
Said locals haven't missed any of our ballet; they are also very familiar with the local bottom, so a tiny boater supply shack has a full set of diving equipment.
One of them heads out to search of a diver, the other offers me a seat in his boat and we head back to assess the situation.
We arrive to Zephyr at the same time as the local maritime police. Inna G. always dreamed to be rescued by somebody - she surely missed her chance. A very elegant (in Russian terms, "like a grand piano") policeman ascended to our deck. He proceeded to the bow, assumed the control of the anchor winch, and with a patience of the main character of "The Old Man and The Sea" freed our anchor from Neptune's embrace. He then took off with wise words - "just don't fuss around, ragazzi..."
We say goodbye to the local fishermen and sailed off to Catania.
Still not quite after sunset.
... we arrive to Catania
The marina is next to the cargo terminal; the pier is choke full of the lorries waiting their turn for the ferry.
The Catanian Giuseppe flat out refuses us the entrance to marina, but the absence of the management softens his resolve. We are awarded two premium spots, at fairly reasonable prices.
We tie off, loiter at the marina for a while, and head to town. Our ways part near the central square, and we walk the streets of the old town.
Catania resembles Genova, Barcelona, Nice, and - due to its mountainous landscape - Cuzco.
The town looks a lot better after sunset: the yellow street lights give the centuries-old layer of soot on the buildings a somber and slightly proud air.
Too bad that we can barely see the balcony fences - something of a celebrity status in Catania. We pay homage to Catania's symbol - a black statue of an elefant made out of tufa rock, with white marble tusks, and hang around Piazza Duomo for a while.
On the way back, we hit a restaurant for dinner. The language barrier manifests itself in a curious way: the waitress interprets our order in terms "one for everybody." Needless to say, we fail miserably at finishing off the food, and retire with our "doggie's backs."
An important concession: the porcini pasta was bloody marvelous. I did eat a ton of it.
Before we fall asleep, we hear a loud conversation from the sister boat, and the word "helicopter" is being used a lot. Sasha The Muscovite must be homesick...
At night, there's a terrific thunderstorm, with a torrential rain.
The last day at sea.
After the night's storm, the weather cooled off a lot.
Upon the exit from the bay, we get to se the entire Etna. We set the sails; captain Misha shuts off the diesel. It is somewhat quiet and a little sad - the fairy tale is about to end.
We see a fishing boat with a flock of seagulls around - fish must be around! Ilya casts the line trying to lure whatever with a colorful plastic squid, and won't take his eyes off it.
Sooner or later, he catches a baby tuna - barely a pound's worth. There isn't anything worth to fry, so we elect to eat it raw - as a seafood carpaccio. I guess, if one has enough salt, pepper, olive oil, and lime juice - anything is passable. I feel bad about shipwreck survivors lacking these ingredients. Grappa serves a great aperitif for the fish, and builds back up the fading enthusiasm.
We have our last swim call.
Closer to Siracuse, we are into a downpour - this time, the rain is rather cold. In five minutes we're wet to the bone. Fortunately, it passes before the usuall fuss at a marina - a little pleasant consession by the mother nature.
The white sailboats, illuminated by the slant rays of afternoon sun, are insanely picturesque on the dark grey background of the departing storm.
We take a mandatory group photo before heading out to town.
The evening passes in aimless wandering around Siracuse - or, rather, the island of Ortigia, where the old town is. Captain Misha can't wait for the results of the democratic vote for the dinner place and returns to Zephyr; we end up in the restaurant that's the closet to the marina. The waiter resembles one comedian Russian movie character to an insane degree; I can't stop giggling in completely inappropriate times. We eat something and return to Zephyr for the parting shot of grappa (or many thereof.)
The folks from Nizhny Novgorod are busy packing up - they have to go home at four in the morning.
Captain Misha is fast asleep: his next crew arrives at two-thirty.
We wake up at four-thirty in the morning to kiss our friends goodbye, and try to have another hour of sleep.
At nine, I wake up Lena and we head out to town - to the railroad ticket office. The locals swear that it's only a quarter of a mile. Definitely, not more than half a kilometer. We find it to be a bit over a mile; it doesn't matter much, but our faith in locals' directions is shaken.
At the train station we realize that we have no chance to make the ten-thirty train, and decide to stay another day in Siracuse.
The ticket office clerk has little difficulty convincing us to buy business class tickets. The train is at nine at night, and we head back to the boat.
On the way, we have a short breakfast in a roadside cafe: nothing unusual, coffee and croissants, but after a week of instant coffee onboard Zephyr it is a nice change.
By the time we get back, Zephyr is full of new people. We make acquaintances, drink more [instant] coffee, and go back to town.
The lunch is had at the same restaurant near marina - which also provides us with shelter from another thunderstorm. We head out to the far reaches of town to see the things of very old past.
Roman Arena:
Greek amphitheatre:
Later afternoon - we return to Zephyr, having seen most at the Isle of Ortigia and most of archaelogical park in the depths of the city, with its Greek and Roman theaters, caves, and Archimedes' tomb. The lack of solid proof of Archimedes' remains in its tomb does not bother us a bit - it is all absolutely inconsequential.
The entire town leaves an impression of a place where people lived always - and do today, and will - tomorrow, not terribly different. In this respect Siracusa is not unique, but its geographic compactness and isolation - at the cape dominating over the entrance to the bay - makes it similar to Ventimiglia and Antibes at the Cote d'Azur of Italy and France. We thought it was even better.
In the evening we meet the new crew, and spend some nice time at Piazza Duomo.
Captain Misha volunteered to walk us to our train; on the way, he remarks that it wouldn't be bad to at least make sure our car is hooked up to the train. This turns out to be prophetic - the car No.5 was absolutely, entirely, missing.
By the time we were about to raise hell about it, we weren't alone. One has to be proficient in Sicilian Italian to fully appreciate the exchange at the station. The train chief renames the car No.4 a number 5, and we part our ways with Captain Misha - and with Siracusa and entire Sicily.
When the train rolls onto the ferry in Messina, we're dead asleep.
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