There’s a dizzy drop in the saline swirl

as if the drunken tide spit the foam

at your feet; this is where

you feel the shore shift

if you stand still and look to the ground,

the horizon . Keep moving:

better pleasures lie ahead –

four hundred or more taverns

(one for every ten men)

will ensure you straighten

your crooked sails.

Climb back onboard under the stars,

look up – slow the movement

of the earth to a slumber.

Shore Leave    Kate Garrett

I only hoped none of my outdoor leadership students would ever find out about this. I am wading thigh high in deep snow drifts, my cotton ankle socks soaked, my jeans wet and muddy, my cotton floral top tucked into them, layered over by a thin woollen “going out” cardigan and a cotton scarf wrapped twice round my neck to keep out the biting cold wind. At least I have a cagoul, or hard shell as the pros call it now and decent trail shoes. We are pushing on towards the summit ridge of a range of hills in the Madonie Mountains, the winds are shrieking down the exposed face but luckily we are in the lee at the moment. We shelter in a small woodland, spring run off making the ground sodden and eat a snack of oranges, strawberries and cheese we had brought.

“I don’t think it is a good idea to continue onto the plateau, it’ll be in the full force of the wind” states J.

“And it is getting close to losing the day light and we’ve still a couple of hours to go “ I rationalise.

We nod, laugh and head back the way we came, down a scree slope punctuated by juniper scrub, back across the snow drifts and finally onto the path that leads down the mountain and finally back to the warmth of the car. It was a beautiful area though and one we wished we had more time to explore but as the lights of the village perched on the hilltop across the valley peeped on we knew we’d made the right decision. We had checked into a last minute bed and breakfast in Pollizi Generosa, a little village in the Madonie Mountain National Park and I had found a couple of nice walks to do before we were to head to Palermo for a night. The wee room was warm and I stood in the hot shower for ages rewarming before getting dressed for dinner which we were going to find in the village. J was changed and warm again too and we poured the last of the wine we had brought with us into the plastic B and B cups. Once these had taken effect we simultaneously said “Can’t be bothered going out” and we ate the leftovers of last night’s cold pizza while watching Italian soap opera on the tiny bedroom TV and promptly fell asleep.

Since returning to Sicily from home and after a delightful week’s ski break in the Italian Alps, we had spent the time cleaning, sorting, repairing, shopping, mending, fixing, stocking, stowing and generally getting the boat ready for the oncoming sailing season and return journey home, we were finally running out of things to do. We decided to hire a car as it would be useful to stock the boat up with dry goods, refill the gas bottle and we decided to do a bit more sight seeing of the island before we left. This proved to be a great idea though nearly didn’t happen as the captain had pre-booked a car online and headed off on the 5am bus from the marina to Catania airport to collect it, a 3 hour bus ride. He calls me awake at 8am once he had arrived,

I don’t have my passport and they won’t let me hire the car without 2 forms of I.D. I have until 11am to get the passport or they will cancel our booking and we will lose the money prepaid”

Oh jeez, I leapt out of bed and promptly got on the Net radio that the liveaboards broadcast on every morning, enquiring if anyone happened to be going to Catania – like now – and be able to give me a lift?

By luck a lovely German lady and her kids were just leaving and offered me a seat. I practically ran over to her boat, dressing as I went and helped her organise  two sleepy, disheveled kids into her hired car that she was swapping over, along with scooters and rucsacs and just as we were setting off and luckily just in time to meet the 11am deadline, she announced,

Oh look I have my slippers on!” She insisted she had to change and I sat in the car with her two children arguing in German while she ambled off down the pontoon, our prepaid booking following her into the distance. Oh well, we did get to the airport some hours later, by some miracle though as she drove even more erratically and faster than the Italians, eating her lunch, turning up the radio stating her 4yr old daughter loves The Who but only when loud, while overtaking and negotiating hairpin bends!  The booking gone but J managed to re-book for same deal which was pretty good and we finally got the car.  We were just buying a drink for the journey when we saw the German mum and kids and scooter and bags shuffling along the pavement looking dejected,

“Are you ok?”

“Zay von’t let me hire de car, I was supposed to exchange de car but I don’t have enough money on my credit card! I don’t vant to use that company and my husband vill have to sort it out. I vill get the bus back!”

Well the bus wasn’t due until 4pm so into our tiny Fiat Panda they all climbed and we took them back to MDR, a stop for ice cream and cookies to placate the children who had been promised cinnamon buns from Ikea, their bribe for a 6 hour round road trip. Her son Matti groaned,

“Grown ups, zay are stupid!”

Yup.

Our days out included a lovely day trip to Modica, the heart of Italian chocolate making, an art apparently brought over by the Aztecs and indeed it was delicious stuff. Made only with cocoa beans and sugar it was made at low temperatures so kept its form even in fairly warm temperatures as it contained no fats or milk. It was grainy but pure and went well with a café expresso. Another day was spent at Cava Grande, a spectacular gorge forging its way to the sea. We were properly equipped for this hike and spent a fabulous day walking the traverse trail along the cliff side with views down to the  green waters of the meandering river below and across to the steep rock slopes with the goats appearing to walk effortlessly up the cliff face. Spring was on its way and many wild flowers were beginning to bloom, bird song creating a sound track to the walk and fresh growth was appearing all around. We realised we still had a couple of days left before we needed to hand the car back so decided to take a road trip to the north and visit Palermo the capital, a city I had heard a lot about and wanted to see and was not sure if we would call in on the sail round. I messaged my ex student who was from there to ask about recommendations for a decent place to stay and was delighted when he replied he was flying in from Iceland the very day we intended to be there so we arranged to meet up for dinner and long overdue catch up.  We left the Madonie Mountains and drove the hour and half to Palermo.

Palermo was not quite what I expected. It had an interesting North African feel to it with a large area of open air food markets selling everything from week old lamb carcasses to strawberries and huge ugly fish. Unfortunately the streets were dirty and fouled with dog poo, derelict buildings next to beautiful fountains and cathedrals and litter everywhere. I had expected chic cafes, pretty fresh food markets, fancy hotels and restaurants but it seemed tired and run down. Maybe just out of season. We did the “touristy” things and saw the cathedrals and piazzas and markets and ate some street food that was mediocre at best and even down at the marina we were disappointed by the shabbiness.

However the highlight was meeting up with Francesco and Pietro, his friend, whom we had met in Iceland at new year. We met both guys’ parents and over conversational Italian and English spent a lovely evening sharing stories of Frankie’s times at college and Icelandic adventures. The only down side was we were looking forward to a typical Sicilian meal however it turned out to be pizza and was the third night in a row we’d had it. I mean I like pizza but essentially it is a sandwich with no top on.

We left the next day for Catania to hand the car back, after a promised retail break at the designer outlet near Enna. I was allocated half an hour so sped off like a greyhound out its trap and “did” Armani, Prada, Gucci and Versace, however I had to giggle at myself when I perused Dolce and Gabbana, the perfectly groomed and gorgeous shop assistant greeting me at the door and promptly pointed me to the sale rail. Well I don’t blame her, sales assistants can read their clientele pretty well, there I was, hair sun bleached and dried out , not seen scissors in months, trekking trousers and trail shoes on and not a brush of makeup, I’ve gone feral. However I was not deterred, my mother always told me,

Never shy away from going into any shop or trying anything on. They are just stalls selling their wares and you are the customer”

Oh well, I took a couple of “half price” things into the changing room, bigger than most of the Airbnbs we stayed in and changed into the designer garments, flicking the sand off my feet first. Hmm, nice but not nice enough and half price was still a small fortune. I am sure the captain was relieved when I arrived back at the car with no bags.

No issues at the car hire thankfully after the start of the proceedings and we boarded the bus back to MDR, a warm Arancine for our picnic and I leant against the window watching the countryside speed by. My one wish for Sicily is to be able to clean itself up. The roads are lined with rubbish, every layby is piled high with fly tipping and every town is strewn with rubbish and every beach littered with plastic. I don’t really know the cause of this as I have also never seen so many recycling bins placed everywhere. Rumours were the Mafia controlled the refuse collection but I don’t know the truth in that. It spoils the pretty island and I am sure more tourists would visit and stay longer if it were cleaned up. It needs a change in culture too, every café serving coffee – and that is every cafe – also serves accompanying water in a single use plastic cups, the light type that blows off the table as soon as it is emptied. The island is practically coated in plastic too as vast expanses are poly tunnels for salad vegetables, thin plastic covers the tunnels and readily rips at the first tear on a rusty nail and the winds shriek across the flat island regularly so ripping and shredding the huge areas of plastic until it is wrapped round trees, cactus and street lamp until finally finding its way into the sea that surrounds the island. They are trying, each town had water fountains that you buy a card for and top up your bottles rather than buying plastic bottles at super markets but I didn’t see many folk using this facility. At least the open air food markets had fresh produce in wooden boxes and many shoppers bring their own canvas bags to put their purchases in.  We did what we could at the marina and persuaded the marina café to use glasses for the water instead of plastic which they did but I’m not sure they will continue this once the busy tourist season starts. We separated all our refuse and used the recycling bins placed at the marina entrance however it seemed a bigger problem. I could not figure it out as the people are delightful, intelligent, thoughtful people, maybe it is up to the young generation to change the culture and promote a positive change.

Back onboard we managed a couple of social nights with fellow cruisers and shared great tales of high seas adventures of far off places, some encouraged me, some put me off!

Then we decided it was time to go. Sicily had been our temporary home for four and half months, we have never lived anywhere other than Scotland for so long and it had a special place in our hearts but the sea and straviaging was calling and we were keen to head off again. I mused that the original meaning of the  US navy shore leave usually existed of drinking to excess, indulging in pleasures not readily available onboard the all male navy ships of old and many crew members deserted leaving their captain to search the docks for new crew at short notice, well at least I had survived all that! I may have indulged in rather fine Sicilian wine bought at a  mini market for E2.70 per 1.5 l, quite enjoyed my all (solo) male crew and though there were times desertion was tempting we had ridden out the passing storms successfully. Stravaigin was fully repaired, a shiny new anchor hung off the repaired rollers, the instruments were working and the entrance channel was declared deep enough for us finally  to get out safely so we bid our farewells and Monday 25th March at 10am we departed Marina di Ragusa, headed out the southerly channel slowly then pointed the bow to starboard. We were westering home.

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