Our route to Palermo from Katakolon incorporated passage through the Messina Straights. Having departed in good time from Katakolon and managed to pick up an unexpected push from a current, we arrived to pick the pilot up a couple of hours earlier than originally expected which enabled the transit to be conducted in daylight, thus allowing our passengers to see the operation.
The Messina Straight is the narrow stretch of water between Sicily and the Italian mainland that at the northern end narrows to 7 ½ miles in width. Pilotage for the 10 nautical miles where it narrows is compulsory, but normally conducted at full sea speed in a typical Italian manner involving heated VHF conversations between the Pilot and ferries that cut across your path with regularity.
Once through Messina having passed a five masted tall ship called the Royal Clipper, the pilot disembarked and with time up our sleeves, we headed towards Stromboli to see the volcano.
Stromboli is the most Northern Island of the Isole Eoile, and abruptly juts about 3000 ft out of the sea. Formed from a single volcano cone, the island consists principally from solidified lava, presenting a rocky cliff faced coastline. The volcano is still active and the ancient crater is in almost continuous activity centred on the northwest side of the island in a depression named Sciara Del Fuoco.
As we approached the island from the southeast, the silhouette could be visualised against the moonlit night sky, like a black pyramid sat upon the still waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It wasn’t until we had reached the islands western most point though that the orange glow of the lava could be seen reflecting off of the smoke emanating from the crater.
The volcano was not as dramatic as you would see in films, probably to the relief of the 400 or so inhabitants of the island, but several flare like plumes of hot molten rock did provide something of interest to look at and at one point the flame red glow of a piece of cooling lava could be seen bouncing down the side of the volcano having been ejected from within.
When I arrived on the bridge in the morning as we approached the port of Palermo, the Chief Officer Rhys, and Midshipman Kevin seemed very excitable as the Saga Ruby was heading towards three minesweepers with their “vessel engaged in mine clearance operations” lights on. Once it was established that it was only an exercise the Saga Ruby proceeded towards the entrance to the port to pick up the pilot and it was only a short time before the vessel was tied up alongside ready for our passengers to start exploring Palermo and Sicily.
Phoenician traders founded Palermo in the 8th century BC. It later became a Carthaginian settlement until its capture by the Romans in 254 BC. The city decayed under Roman rule but prospered after AD 535, when the Byzantine general Belisarius recovered it from the Ostrogoths. The Arabs conquered Palermo in 831, and it flourished as a centre of rich trade with North Africa.
Palermo was thus quite prosperous when it fell to the Norman adventurers Roger I and Robert Guiscard in 1072. The ensuing era of Norman rule (1072–1194) was Palermo’s golden age, particularly after the founding of the Norman kingdom of Sicily in 1130 by Roger II. Palermo became the capital of this kingdom, in which Greeks, Arabs, Jews, and Normans worked together with singular harmony to create a cosmopolitan culture of remarkable vitality.
Norman rule in Sicily was replaced in 1194 by that of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty. The Hohenstaufen Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, shifted the centre of imperial politics to southern Italy and Sicily, and the cultural brilliance of his court at Palermo was renowned throughout Western Europe. The city declined under succeeding Hohenstaufen rulers. It was conquered by Frances Charles of Anjou in 1266, but Angevin oppression was ended in 1282 by a popular uprising called the Sicilian Vespers.
Palermo then came under Aragonese rule. After 1412 the crown of Sicily was united with that of Aragon, and subsequently with that of Spain. Palermo declined during this long period of Spanish rule. In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi seized Palermo, which the following year joined the united kingdom of Italy.
With all aboard at 4:30 pm, the Saga Ruby made light work of backing out and turning in the harbour under her own power before proceeding out to sea.