Travel /
Sicily

Sailing Sicily Off Season Pt.3: A Trip Around Italy’s Biggest Island

PART 3

 

January 16th, 2022 - Marina di Ragusa via Isola delle Correnti to Marzamemi 

Nautical miles = 36

Weather = clear skies and no wind

 

Winter on the south coast of Sicily is actually what you picture: endless days of clear skies, crisp air, and no clouds in sight. Sailing is smooth, easy and comfortable, and dolphins can be spotted frequently—a dream! As we sail east, the landscape changes, becoming flatter and allowing us to see Sicily’s grandest mountain, the volcano Mount Etna with its snowy peaks and continuous trail of smoke. 

 

Paolo jumps up and points at the sea–“Guarda, guarda!” (“Look, look!”). I was just about to doze off under the sun, but I leap to my feet, excited to see more dolphins playing in the waves. There were no dolphins this time, however, just something perhaps even more rare: the exact point at which two seas meet. Behind us, the Mediterranean Sea; ahead of us, the Ionian Sea. Now you might wonder how the change of sea can be perceivable to the naked eye: I’m here to tell you. The Mediterranean Sea is different in temperature and salinity than the Ionian, and the two have different currents–factors which create a physical line in the sea. Due to these slight differences, the two seas don’t flow into one another: they clash against each other as if there were a wall between them.  

A few minutes later, we cross the border and spot a small island in the distance–the southernmost point of mainland Sicily: Isola delle Correnti (the “island” is connected to the mainland by a narrow, rocky isthmus). In the true spirit of adventure, we decide that we must head straight for the tiny island and explore it inch by inch. After accurately studying each approach to Isola delle Correnti, we decide to drop anchor on the west of the island, the most protected side, to make our trip to land as easy as possible…in theory. Jumping from a dingy which bobs up and down over sharp and unwelcoming rocks in the cold January sea is just as easy as it sounds. Somehow, we overcome these first obstacles and begin walking the tight path to the island’s southernmost point.

 

Upon noticing some strange, leafy plants, we stop in our tracks. In a patch of shade, just beside a derelict lighthouse, are hundreds of short plants which look extremely familiar. Paolo–a true foraging aficionado–recognizes them before I do. “Porri!” My mouth opens in utter shock and glee. Wild leeks were the last thing I expected to find on an inhabited island. Paolo carefully pulls one out of the ground: the pure white allium has the fattest, juiciest leaves I’ve ever seen on a leek and is gleaming as if it’s just been washed. We each take a bite from the stalk and look at each other, grinning. It’s the best leek either of us has ever eaten. We collect a handful of the biggest ones–giving the smaller ones time to reach maturity–and sit down to watch the sun drop into the sea. What a spectacular way to end the day. Although it isn’t over yet, I still have to transform the leeks into something. Back on board, I decide that the only way to pay justice to such a delicious vegetable is to pair it with another traditional Sicilian product: bottarga di tonno, cured fish roe. Thirty minutes later, we are enjoying a steaming bowl of spaghetti al dente with a light leek soffritto and salty bottarga: perfection in a dish and the peak of our gastronomic adventure.

 

January 17th, 2022 - Marzamemi to Ortigia/Siracusa 

Nautical miles = 25

Weather conditions = clear skies and little wind

 

Visiting Marzamemi and its picturesque piazza off-season–without the rivers of tourists that take up every inch of space, smartphones at the ready–is like waking up after an apocalypse. The fishermen’s borgo is asleep in winter, populated only by the few inhabitants who chose to spend their retirement years by the sea. I didn’t appreciate Marzamemi in summer and it saddens me to admit that I have the same feeling in winter: a place so invaded by tourism it lost all of its day-to-day life. 

 

Back aboard, we set sail for a day of relaxed and slow navigation, enjoying the sun and the beautiful coast which separates Marzamemi from Siracusa. Around midday, my internal food clock chimes, so I hastily begin preparing lunch. Reminiscing on the previous day’s pasta porri e bottarga, we decide to make the dish again with the few leftover leeks. However, instead of being safely tucked away in a port to cook, we are in the middle of the sea, navigating at a 10° angle of inclination. Preparing a meal is a tricky affair in these conditions. After almost pouring five liters of boiling water onto the floor and onto myself, I devise a smart plan to keep the pot still. Before I share with you the details of my ingenious method, I must add that another discomfort when cooking on an inclined boat is extreme nausea. So I wrap our ragged tea towel around the pot’s handle and keep a firm grasp on the two ends of the fabric as I sit at the top of the stairs which lead to the boat’s pozzetto, my head sticking out just enough to breathe some fresh air. In this comfortable fashion–suffering from only arm cramps–I succeed in safely cooking our spaghetti to a perfect al dente

 

We enjoy our spaghetti overlooking Ortigia’s Castle. Our position in the middle of the sea is privileged: in summer, it’s forbidden to moor due to the quantity of boats. A short nap under the warm sun follows in true holiday and abbiocco fashion. A couple of hours later, we set foot on solid ground, amidst Ortigia’s picturesque Baroque palazzi and find Paolo’s friend, a Siracusan native, to walk us through the city and point out all the details only locals know. I’ll let you discover the beautiful hidden gems and details for yourself, though I remind you to look up at the left-hand corner of the Palazzo del Vermexio next time you’re there and search for a lizard sculpted into the building: the architect’s signature. 

 

January 18th, 2022 - Ortigia to Etna 

Nautical miles = 40

Weather conditions = clear skies and strong wind 

 

Throughout our trip around Sicily, we had the good fortune of experiencing many delicious, rich and quite frankly envy-inducing breakfasts, yet they were all modest compared to the feast fit for a king (or three kings) we enjoyed in Ortigia at Caseificio Borderi. 

 

I never imagined that one day I would be eating a cheese board and half a gigantic panino–all washed down with a glass of red wine–at 9:30 A.M. Caseificio Borderi, as the name itself suggests, isn’t just the most popular panino shop in Ortigia, it’s also a cheese producer! Arriving early in the morning means beating all the crowds and eating freshly made mozzarella while it’s still warm. As we wait and watch the owners prepare our colossal panino, we are handed a board of all their fresh cheeses: ricotta cream infused with basil, smoked mozzarella, tri-cotta (ricotta cooked three times), plain mozzarella with lemon zest, caciocavallo di bufala and parmigiano with a spoonful of delectable caponata to clean the palate. After comes the main act, pressed between two halves of crunchy bread. A delectable sun dried tomato, aubergine caponata, mozzarella, caciocavallo, ricotta cream, caramelized pancetta and fresh lettuce panino

 

After finishing every last crumb of the sandwich and licking our fingers clean, we wobble back to the boat, stopping by Ortigia’s daily open-air market for two gigantic pirittuna cedar fruits…which weigh 400g each. Today, finally, we don’t need to turn on the engine, thanks to the strong winds that characterize the East coast of Sicily. A long day awaits us as we begin to draw closer to the Stretto di Messina—and therefore, home. 

 

January 19th, 2022 - Etna via Isola Bella to Capo Milazzo 

Nautical miles = 62

Weather conditions = clear sky and medium-strength winds 

 

There’s something magical about reaching a place in the dark, not knowing precisely what it looks like and then waking up in the morning to a glorious sight of landscapes, colors and people. As I pop my head out of the boat in the morning, I’m welcomed by Mount Etna in all its height and glory, right in front of my nose, with snow-covered tops and puffs of smoke steadily streaming out of the main crater. 

 

There isn’t much time to waste admiring Mount Etna, as we have a busy day ahead. We have to cross the final capo of Sicily and one of the most difficult areas to sail–the Stretto di Messina–before the sun sets. We take a small pit stop at Isola Bella, a protected cove and island just below Taormina, to admire the impressive rock formations and architecture on the island. 

 

As we draw closer to Messina, I make a quick batch of pallotte cac’e ove (cheese and bread polpette from Abruzzo) to fuel our bodies in anticipation of the strenuous sailing ahead. My expectations of the passage’s difficulty are so high that reality turns out to be a million times better, smoother and simpler. Although this stretch is one of the most maritime trafficked areas in Italy, January is a quieter month, so we only have to deal with the odd cargo ship or ferry crossing from Sicily to Calabria. Any large boat is still pretty terrifying when you’re on a small sailing boat though. We’re tiny in comparison to a 40-meter-tall and 200-meter-long ship. Fortunately, an effective system of imaginary roundabouts and forced direction of travel means that everyone knows their place, including us. 

We pop open a bottle of Prosecco as we pass the Strait of Messina and round the last capo that separates us from home. A rush of adrenaline, happiness and a touch of melancholy come over me and I realize it’s been a while since I felt the sensational feeling of accomplishment. I had begun this trip hoping to be freed from my laptop and the walls of an office, and to be immersed in nature, food and local cultures. The voyage went above and beyond in granting my wishes. I feel stronger, more accomplished and I have a boatload of stories and anecdotes to share with the world.

 

January 20th, 2022 - Capo Milazzo to Capo d’Orlando 

Nautical miles = 27

Weather conditions = clear skies, little wind and flat sea 

 

The last day. Twenty days seems like a long time, but they passed so quickly once our adventure began. Each day–even the ones in port–were spent living life to the fullest: traveling, cooking, eating and discovering. We crossed paths with all sorts of people and created memories for a lifetime—even if it sounds cheesy! 

 

On our last day of sailing, the Universe decides to grant us one last spectacle. I think it might be the last goodbye to two slightly nutty people who decided to navigate around Sicily in January. Technically, our spectacle is just a series of coincidences and weather conditions. Just 10 miles away from Capo d’Orlando, our start and finish point, we spot dark gray fish bobbing up and down on the water’s edge, swimming towards our boat. Dolphins. Dozens of them, young and old, swimming in a line. Suddenly, two of them break off from the pod and come by the boat, jumping in and out of the water and spraying playfully. I watch in dream-like awe and feel blessed to have undertaken such an adventure.

Two hours later, we draw into port and are welcomed by a delighted party with news that the celebratory porchetta is ready and in the oven. And just like that, we are back on land, driving up and down roads, back to normal terrestrial life.