Days 97-98, April 12-13:
British poet Robert Browning once said, “Open my heart and you will see, graved inside of it, Italy.” In our hearts, too! We love Italy and have enjoyed many of its iconic sights during the years, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Michelangelo’s David in Florence. We were thrilled when we saw two Italian ports, Messina (in the island of Sicily) and Naples, on the itinerary of our 112-day Grand World Voyage. Even before we arrived, Italy was calling us with an iconic sight so Humberto, Duffy (our bear that went around the world) and I were up bright and early on deck to watch our passage through the Straits of Messina with views of majestic Mount Etna and the city of Messina with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary, protector of Messina.
The highest active volcano in Europe with snow-capped summit, Mount Etna painted a fabulous picture in the distance in the early spring morning. In Messina, we booked the “Panoramic Slopes of Mount Etna” tour sold onboard the Amsterdam. It took us towards the village of Zafferana, driving south on the motorway past dark-sand beaches, citrus groves and vineyards. We stopped at a point where a lava flow from Mount Etna had gotten perilously close to Zafferana. But the village – a quaint town with red tile roofs and narrow streets paved with volcanic stones from Mount Etna – was spared.
The villagers erected a statue of the Virgin Mary at the site of the lava flow to give thanks, said Esther, our local guide. At 1,800 feet above sea level, the views of Mount Etna and the coast of Sicily are compelling.
Mount Etna, with not one, but four craters, including a southeast one that was spewing smoke and making thunderous sounds – or “talking to us” as Esther put it – during our visit, has erupted 130 times through the years, killing more than one million people.
From a distance we saw another active volcano, Stromboli, in the Lipari Islands, as we sailed from Messina to Naples, our next Italian port of call. And views of yet another majestic volcano, 7,000-foot-high Vesubius, greeted us – though through rain and mists – when we arrived in Naples. Vesubius destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D., and tours to these famous archaeological sites were featured during our stop. Since every single time we have come to Naples we have left it to go to other points of interest, including the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Pompeii and Sorrento, this time we decided to stay in the city.
We booked the “Pizzas & Piazzas” tour sold on the Amsterdam and mamma mia, what a delight it was! The tour took us to see Naples’ main sights including the Maschio Angioino Castle dating from the 13th, the classy Mergellina district along the coast, the old Santa Lucia district – the oldest part of Naples – and Posillipo Hill. At the Piazza Plebiscito, we saw the elegant Royal Palace, the San Francesco di Paola church (inspired in the Pantheon in Rome) and the Neo-classical San Carlo Opera House, which pre-dates the La Scala in Milan.
Across from the San Carlo Opera House, we visited the Galleria, a shopping center in Neo-Classical style with lovely mosaics themed to the zodiac that also pre-dates a similar one in Milan.
After going up the hill for views of Vesubius and the Bay of Naples (which unfortunately were veiled by rain and clouds), it was on to the Toto Sapore, a typical restaurant to see how Naples’ gift to the world: the delicious, iconic Neapolitan pizza, is made by an expert pizza-maker. “You will have a real pizza – born in Naples,” our local guide, Rossana, had promised us. Antonio, the pizza maker, demonstrated how a pizza margherita is prepared with flour without yeast, tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and basil – to honor the colors of the Italian flag: red, white and green – and then baked in a firewood oven at 400 degrees. It was a thin and light crusted delight! We were each served a full, scrumptious pizza (Yum!) and a traditional Neapolitan pastry made with ricotta cheese and orange and lemon zest for dessert, to enjoy to our hearts’ content!
Freelance travel writer Georgina Cruz and her husband Humberto are currently sailing on Amsterdam’s 112-day Grand World Voyage and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout their time on board. She has logged 174 voyages to all seven continents and visited more than 100 countries.