Saturday, 2 July 2011

Italy 2011

I spent a month living the bachelor life while Nina was studying, photographing and collecting samples of the rocks that make up Pantelleria. Having had enough of the schizophrenic weather the UK is saddled with, I headed off to join her. As the tiny island of 6000 inhabitants appeared in the Mediterranean, my holiday began.

Laura and Benedetto own the house Nina rents a flat in each time she is there. Last summer they had one cat and two kittens. This time they had three cats and five kittens. They recognized the perils of the ongoing multiplication and have decided to get the cats fixed.

Mattheo was one of the two kittens last summer and now he was the father of the new litter. We had an instant bond and he spent the majority of the week living on the patio outside our flat. We later found out he spent the days after we left meowing outside our door, perplexed as to why I had stopped coming out to play with him.

Last year I had a love/hate relationship with Pantelleria. I had just come from the Amalfi Coast and had expectations about the island which were unrealistic. This time I was able to go with the knowledge of what was waiting for me and this made it a far better experience. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the rugged beauty, I found myself feeling very comfortable and at ease there. No crowds, no "real" tourists (mostly Italians from elsewhere in Italy) and no traffic. Everyone has an island mentality which strips away any stress with ease.

Pantelleria does not have any beaches per se, just a ragged coastline of varying sizes and formations of rock. At first this is a little off putting, however some of the lava flows leave natural curvatures and bends in the rock which simulate a deck chair's shape making it quite nice to lie out on.
This also means there are loads of shallows and tidal pools to allow easy access into the sea. The average temperature was in the mid-high 20s (in the shade) and the full strength of sun had us in the sea every single day. The water was a comfortable temperature making it inviting to bob along with a mask and snorkel enjoying the peacefulness of the underwater world as it glided by. The rocky coastline was agreeable to the abundant sea life and make for interesting geography along the sea floor. It wasn't uncommon to be floating in a metre of water above rock formations, only to come to a section where the rocks fell away and the water depth became 10 metres. It was like floating over a cliff as the underwater world fell away below me. This became my favourite pass time.

One of the great pleasures is being able to sit by the sea, surrounded by nature, without another soul in sight. We would lay out on the black and grey rock, with the brown and green mountains behind us and the varying shades of the blue sea and sky stretched out in front. And on a bad day, we may see as many as 10 other people in the two hours we spent by the sea.

Nina spent her birthday on the island and during the day we went to some cliff faces where she did a half day of field work. This particular work required a field assistant, which she didn't have. So I was recruited.
In the evening Laura and Benedetto hosted a dinner party in Nina's honour where they cooked up a fantastic feast (one of three I was lucky enough to experience in the week).

Last year Nina and I went on a day-long boat cruise around the island. As it only takes about an hour to encircle, the boat stopped multiple times in small coves to allow us to swim and snorkel. This was one of my favourite memories from last year's trip and so we decided to do it again.

When Nina was in Hawaii for 6 months she got her scuba diving certificate. Ever since she has been looking for any/all excuses to go. We lucked out and found a boat excursion which offered scuba diving and snorkelling which perfectly accommodated both of our needs.

We spent 7 hours on the boat and in that time it stopped three times. The divers suited up and went for a 50 minute dive and the snorkellers were free to go off and explore the caves and bays. These were mostly in areas only accessible by boat and therefore places we hadn't driven to or swam in before.

The water was incredibly clear. From the boat you could see the bottom of the sea which was sometimes as much as ten metres before us. It was memorizing to watch the ripples manoeuvre across the top while fish were swimming along suspended in the azure blue.

Nina only dove once and came snorkelling with me on the other two occasions. She dove on the first stop and I eagerly jumped in to explore the bay. Unfortunately I had not noticed the lone jellyfish and was stung on my back within five minutes of being in the water. I was lucky as it felt barely worse than a bee sting (I had heard stories of it being so bad, it could ruin a vacation). When the diving group returned I was able to get some ointment and by the end of the day the minor pain was gone altogether.

The Mediterranean is saltier than the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Since the rate of evaporation is 3 times higher than the volume of fresh water feeding the sea, you notice how much more buoyant you are. When the puddles on the edge of the shore evaporate, the salt is left looking like small collections of frost. While walking along the side of the sea it sometimes looks like it has snowed and upon close inspection you realize it's sea salt crystals up to two centimetres deep in places.

After a week in Pantelleria, we flew to Palermo, Sicily for three days. I had been there the previous summer, but Nina hadn't, so we had a few days to explore. Upon arriving we noticed one of the hills on the edge of the city had a few forest fires which it appeared were not being attended to. On the following days they appeared to be gone.

Palermo is known for their street markets. It seemed like a strange description as the "markets" were really just shops that spilled out onto the small streets and alleys. There were many districts where this occurred and some stretched on for many blocks.

Sicily has some of the most beautiful and ornate churches I have ever seen. We visited six in three days.

A half hour south of Palermo is the town of Monreale which sits on one of the foothills that encapsulate the city. It is known for its Norman architecture dating from 1185. Personally, I was not as impressed with the mosaic interior and preferred the painted and marble churches we saw in Palermo.

We climbed the tower which gave us some wonderful views across Palermo and the sea below us which I found more impressive than the dark interior of the church.

For reasons we never understood, sections of Palermo had street signs in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew. We did not notice a Synagogue or a Mosque (or even any visible Muslims) which would have at least explained the signs.

Palermo has an amazing botanical garden which gave us some respite from the blazing heat. Unlike in Pantelleria, we were unable to jump in the ocean as Palermo has a large industrial port which dominates the harbour.

We took an afternoon off from sightseeing to take the bus to Mondello. I had come to this resort town last year for a beach day and we both needed the luxury of white sand, deck chairs and parasols. I found myself longing for the empty rocky beaches we had become used to. Somehow it seemed to offer a different type of luxury than this artificial experience where I couldn't stretch out without knocking the gentleman next to me.

The Toyota IQ is small; it's Toyota's answer to the Smart car. It was amusing to see it parked next to an old Fiat 500 where the IQ looked big and boxy.

After 11 days in Italy I felt healthy. I was relaxed, tanned and well fed. The hardest thing I have to do each year is board the plane to head back to the Midlands. As it taxis toward the terminal and I set my watch back to GMT, I weep a little with the tastes, smells, sights and sounds of Italy still tingling my weary senses.