Blessed with yet another morning of robin egg blue skies tickled by warm fingers of breeze, the little harbor seemed to shout a hearty Buon giorno to our gang of 6 as we strolled toward the dock that berthed our awaiting vessel.
The evening before we'd booked an excursion up and down the coast on the motonave Penelope (pronouced Pehn-neh-low-peh in proper Sicilian), a motorized catamaran whose mission was to haul tourists up and down the coastal waterways of northwestern Sicily.
Captained by a crusty but kind ol' feller and first-mated by a burly Sicilian who looked like he stepped right out of a Popeye cartoon, we obeyed captain's orders and boarded efficiently. My first impression was more along the lines of "Uh oh...crowded tourist boat and that's about it...", but fortunately I was at least partially wrong. It was a bit crowded, and we were all tourists; however, the coastal views we would be treated to as we navigated the steely blue waters west rated five-star spectacular.
We motored out into the incredible serene of the Gulf of Castellammare, taking in the vista of coastline that cradled our temporary home. We marveled at the scabrous, rugged rock protrusions jutting from the water like sea creatures stranded in time; we stammered for words to describe the crystalline blue of the water; we shared joy at being a participant in this beautiful moment in time.
Twice our captain treated us to temporary rests at places only a boat could venture. Throttle back, he eased our craft under lithic overhangs that stood guard over a cornucopia of brilliant natural colors: tealy aquamarine waters emitting an almost unearthly luminesce, kissed by the rosy lips of sea algae clinging like a forsaken lover to the mysteriously shaped rock walls. It was magical.
Part of our bon voyage morning included a couple of stops for swimming in those transparent waters -- yes!!! First port o' swimming -- Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve. A natural area situated on a corner of northwest Sicily, Lo Zingaro offers a variety of wildlife, hardy plants, and the reward of a stunning coast line awaiting at the end of the sweeping rush from its harsh mountainsides.
Purported to possess the best beaches in Sicily, I'd find that hard to argue after an hour spent on one.
Captain and his first-mate secured anchor, then plunged the stairs sternside into the limpid blue. We were a fair 100 ft. or so from shore and I hesitated at first, not knowing if my swimming skills were up for this. However, even if I had dog paddle my whole way in, I was determined not to miss this chance!
I dove in, rather ungracefully at best, and quickly popped up to the surface. Feeling more cork-like than normal, I asked Marty if he didn't agree that this water was more saline, more buoyant. We later learned that the Mediterranean is about 3.8% salt whereas most other salty bodies of water hover around 3.6%. Of course, if my history included being a mile-high salt field about 6 million years ago, I guess I'd still be struggling to get over it, too!
The sudden chill of the water quickly faded to memory as we kicked and paddled and laughed and marveled our way to the snowy white pebble beach. Never before had Marty nor I seen such incredibly clear, turquoise water. When my feet could touch bottom, I stopped and just stared -- I dipped my hand over and over into the water, raising it in my palm as I released the droplets to reunite with the whole.
The surprisingly cool temperature of the water began to take its toll on me, evidenced by the largish goose bumps and chattering molars I was sporting. I bobbled onto the pebbly beach -- a conglomeration of sea-washed stone in rounded forms colored brilliant white to soft eggshell to subtle champagnes. I was fascinated (as I tend to be with rocks...go figure...) at the progression of sizes from quite large stones giving way to smaller and smaller versions of polished stone until they reached the shore and became pea-sized glistening pearls that spilled into the blue. And they were warm. Spa-like, heating pad style, toasty warm that I quickly laid myself out to dry on like a piece of Texas roadkill. It felt delicious!!!
Mr. First-mate swam over to us and offered to escort our party (comprised of Rosanna, Alessandro, Greta, Marty, myself, and a young woman from Brazil) to a somewhat hidden half-cave around a jut or two of rock. We followed like good guppies and were treated to a sight that I don't know that I can ever justifiably describe, but I'll try...
As we swam up to a sort of raised prominence -- small but almost like a balcony overhanging the water -- , we surprised two lovers. First-mate had a rather animated conversation with them and must've convinced them to pull themselves apart for a few minutes and let the tourists wade into the adjacent half-cave.
We had to belly crawl like awkward crabs over the pearly pebbles covered by shallow water to enter through a small rock "window". Once cleared, we were able to crouch along and find seats on this hidden shore that was blanketed in gravely white with just enough sunlit illumination to create an other-worldly feel. Sound was muffled; only the tenderest rustle of water on rock reached our ears. If I ever expected to meet a mermaid or a siren or Poseidon himself, it would be here. Without even realizing it, we whispered amongst ourselves. It was nigh unto holy ground. I called Marty's attention to the gentle dance of the water as it teased the iridescent shore; the amount of light coming through was enough to enter the lip of the rising and falling water, making it seem as if electrified, as if a neon strand ran through it, coursing up and down the white of the pebbles, teasing and taunting each one only to return and do it over and over again. We were mesmerized.
And the lovers were impatient.
We made one other swim-stop along the beach of antiquated Scopello, an old tuna fishing village that now makes due with seasonal tourism. The pristine beach, where the remains of the Tonnara (tuna processing buildings) are located is quite popular with locals and tourists alike. However, after parts of Ocean's Twelve were filmed here, the glorious little beach and buildings were bought up and one must now pay to walk down and enjoy this location. Or be lucky enough to be a temporary matey of the Penelope.
Up the hill, the hamlet of Scopello still invites tourists to come and spend a little time in its few hotels and restaurants, and just enjoy watching the day ease along under the Sicilian sun.
We enjoyed the cruise back to Castellammare as we sipped on teeny cups of a frozen espresso type beverage and gnawed child-style on crescent slices of cassa melon that First-mate delivered to us.
The light breeze finished drying our salt-kissed skin as we motored along, and as I looked around me, I saw a crew of smiling, blissful, relaxed two hour sailors reveling in the simple beauty of the elements.
After a brief clean-up, Sal, Winnie, Marty, and I decided to have a late afternoon "lupper" and maybe top off later in the evening with a light snack. As is the case in much of Italy, lunch commences about 1:00, lasts until about 3:00, then it's put out the "Chiuso" sign until the proper dinner start time of around 7:30 for the tourists and about 9:00 for the natives.
We did find one nearby restaurant still open, however, and asked "Possiamo?" - can we? Kindly enough, they motioned us to sit.... let the eating commence!
I had the best pizza I wrapped my lucky mouth around on this trip: a lovely, just-right crusty disk covered in thinly sliced, delectable prosuitto, then generously blanketed in mildly spicy arugula leaves decorated with slivers of perfectly tangy, salty parmigiana. We washed our lunches down with a locally made Nero d'Avola -- the best we had on the island that week -- and began to chat with the owners, Angelica and Francesco.
Neither spoke English, so once again those Italian studies paid off! They were a delightful couple who took pride in showing us the recent award they'd won for one of their pizzas.
As we explained a bit about Sal's family ties to Sicily, Sal added a comment or two in his long-remembered Italian. Francesco's bushy brows immediately arched in delighted surprise; "Vecchio Siciliano!" As was pointed out to us more than once on this journey, the Italian that Sal retains from his youth is peppered with old style Sicilian phrasing and accent, and entertainingly so, it brought many an older local a broad smile... and immediate "famiglia" status to Sal.
So what does one do when you want to make your guests feel even more welcome and special? Serenade them, of course! Francesco asked our permission, then cranked up the karaoke and sang us a wonderful song, name unknown, that was the perfect dolce to our satisfying meal.
But even more satisfying, that yet-again gift of connecting with friends you never knew you had!
La dolce vita, y'all...
Paula A. Reynolds
Lover of travel and life's many other blessings!