On this calm late afternoon, passengers have the opportunity to climb the rigging to the crow’s nest about 100 feet up the mainmast. I feel like an excited child impatiently waiting for the Matterhorn ride. Secured in a harness, I climb the Jacob’s ladder and pull myself through the lubber’s hole onto the platform where Bern and Ruel are already snapping selfies. A brisk breeze blows as I take in the 360-degree view, and I wish I could be up here during a gale, or climb to the second crow’s nest beckoning another 80 feet overhead. And suddenly I can’t contain myself and belt out, “The waves are alive with the sounds of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years…” Ruel cringes, but no one but us can hear me.
At dusk we set off for Sicily, the island below the “Boot” of Italy, and it seems that a moment of truth is about to arise. The head winds bear down, the seas swell, and we make sluggish headway. In the cabin, I bare the curtain against the dismaying sight of spray and waves spilling over the porthole. It’s more than enough to hear the sloshing against the gun walls akin to being inside a washing machine.
It’s mild consolation knowing I’m in good company; even Christopher Columbus, Admiral Nelson, and Charles Darwin felt wretched at sea. I read up on traditional remedies: eating powdered charcoal; poking a finger into a bread roll, pouring in Worcestershire sauce and eating it quickly; the yolks of two raw eggs with an equal amount of brandy well beaten together; or as Woody Allen proposed, eat ginger bread, drink ginger ale, or watch Ginger Rogers movies. I’ve come well-prepared with candied ginger slices, as well as Dramamine, homeopathic pills, and dermal patches. Luckily, I am spared the heaves, my key malaise being drowsiness and urge to sleep. Counter-intuitively, an empty stomach exacerbates seasickness. One of the Sues has eschewed food, but when urged to eat, she quickly feels better.
One reason I chose this particular Star Clipper itinerary was for the stop in Tunisia to visit the ruins of Carthage. Two weeks earlier, extremist Muslim terrorists murdered two dozen tourists in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and that port was replaced with a stop in Sicily. Disappointed, I feel that curtailing tourism is precisely the bastards’ point. If I was touring solo, I wouldn’t cancel, but understand that the Star Clip- per must for liability reasons. Yes, a traveler must adjust to the vicissitudes of nature and humans beyond one’s control.
The morning dawns sunny and breezy in Trapani, the major port of western Sicily, and we cram into a van to ride up the hills to the medieval fortified town of Erice overlooking the agricultural plains on one side, the sea on the other. At the ruins of the Diana-Artemesia temple we learn that here pilgrims once “frolicked” (quote from the guide book) with the Vestals prostitutes. Outside in the park, an accordion player busks for coins next to a brilliantly painted horse-drawn cart. We head down the cobble- stone streets to the archeological museum, which is a bit of a bust, and we instead settle into a café with sweeping views and partake in the local cuisine at Cassata di Erice. We eat the sponge cake stuffed with sweet ricotta and pistachio icing. Can’t say I love it, but when in Rome at least try what the Romans do.
Instead of returning by cab, we opt for the funicular with an amazing view of the harbor and sea, passing over luxury villas with gardens and swimming pools (I wonder what it’s like having tourists pass overhead all day). Having exercised little all week, we walk the few kilometers back to the ship, with a brief stop where I strip down to my underwear for a dip in the water; surprisingly warm considering it’s April.
A suggestion regarding land excursions on the Star Clipper, or any cruise ship for that matter: save a bundle by hiring a taxi, and a guide when needed, for a fraction of the ship excursion costs. In Trapani, what would have cost 39 euros per person cost each of us about ten. Make judicious choices for some ports, especially if visiting ruins where you’ll wander about clueless, and strike out on your own in others. An excellent alternative in larger cities such as Rome, Barcelona, Athens, and Valletta are the hop-on, hop-off double-decker sightseeing buses which cost 15-20 euros.
When we return to our cabin, on the bed awaits an adorable elephant face created from folded towels, replete with Ruel’s sunglasses. At cocktail hour, our cabin steward, Anton, demonstrates the art of towel folding. With ingenious rolls, tucks, fold,s and tugs he creates a frog, rabbit, two love swans, a cat, pig, and a monkey with a hat swinging from a coat hanger.
While many have heard of the Knights of Malta, pointing out Malta on a map is another matter. Strategically located dead center in the narrows, it controlled passage from the eastern and western Mediterranean and proved a contentious stronghold to both Christians and Muslims. The Knights of Malta, defeated by Suleiman the Magnificent on the Island of Rhodes, retreated to Malta, making it their stronghold for several centuries, and in 1565 it was the locale of one of the most brutal sieges in history (see reading list.) Then, in 1942, the tiny island became the most shelled place on earth, the concentration of German and Italian bombs far surpassing that of the London’s Blitz. The Maltese bear the distinction as the only entire population awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honor for bravery.
Europe is graced with many astonishing churches, yet St John’s Cathedral in Valletta wows with every square foot of walls covered in gold-leafed stone relief, and the tombs of four hundred knights in intricate Pietra dura—pictures, designs and script in colored marble inlay.
In the Knights’ initiation chapel hang two Caravaggios; his largest painting depicting John the Baptist’s head being severed, not yet on Salome’s platter. The Knights commissioned Caravaggio for these works, and many later wrote in diaries what an irascible character he was, and that he stank to high heaven. Rank as he was, he was an avatar, a genius of the nuance of light and shadow.
A 20-minute drive inland, the ancient Moorish Medina survives as one of the world’s finest examples of a living medieval city. After a devastating earthquake in the 1600s, the medina was abandoned for two hundred years and became known as the Silent City. In the mid-1800’s restoration was slowly undertaken and now about 250 residents live within the walls. Upon crossing the drawbridge, we encounter a surprise: it’s reenactment weekend, and we behold townspeople in medieval garb selling bread and ale, a stone mason chiseling at a sand- stone block, armored knights sparring with swords, and a grim reminder of the harsher reality, bloodied prisoners of the Inquisition rolling by in a wooden cart, presumably to the pyre. Though kitschy, I feel transported and can’t get enough, especially of the dandy dressed men strolling with falcons, hawks, and owls on their gauntleted forearms, the owls looking befuddled in the bright light.
Our favorite Aussies are leaving us in Malta, spending several nights in an AirBnB apartment in Valletta. That evening Ruel and I find our way through the narrow streets to their abode in a renovated 17th-century family home, with central courtyard, and stone steps worn by centuries of footsteps. After wine and dinner, we bid them adieu, and as we step out onto the street, the two Sues and Bob wave from the balcony singing “So long, farewell auf wiedersehen, adieu. Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you…”