Tuscany – A tour of Italy part 3

A tour of Italy part 3 – TUSCANY

Chicca in the olive trees

Since leaving the US and after traveling to numerous countries, islands and towns, we have loved each stop in its own way, but never felt “at home” in any of them. This is the first time in 19 months we felt immediately as though we could set up housekeeping and feel right at home.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw an Instagram post from my cousin who extolled the virtues of the Tuscany region and “Cooking In Tuscany” in particular. Herself an avid traveler, biker and free spirit, I knew that if she was recommending it, we would love it. I reached out to Chicca Maione, the co-owner and Chef extraordinaire and asked if she would be doing cooking classes over the summer when we hoped to be there. Unfortunately, Covid prevented my friend from the US, who was planning to accompany me, from arriving. Our family immigration issues coupled with rapidly changing weather in the Northern Med all threatened to prevent the meeting. After a bit of prodding from Alec however, knowing how much I enjoy cooking and was looking forward to a class in Tuscany, we decided to take a day from our packed tour of Italy schedule and drive to the cooking class.

Approximately 1 hour from Florence, we rented a car and enjoyed a stunning drive to Castagneto Carducci, just a few km from the Mediterranean coast.

The entire drive was something out of a coffee table book on Tuscany! Gorgeous!

Chicca and Arnaud live in an idealic 18th century farmhouse straight out of a picture book with about 20 olive trees separating them from the closest neighbor. When we first arrived, we were greeting by Freda, one of the house pets who, though a puppy, looked like a fully-grown Lab to us. She is the friendliest creature, and a perfect ambassador for the experience.
Given our rapidly growing kinship, it is a wonder we cooked anything on that first day, and if not for Chicca (pronounced Kee – ka), keeping us focused and on task, we could have just sat and talked the day away.

But we were there to cook so we quickly washed hands and set about making our first and most delicious tasting fettuccine any of us have ever eaten. We also made Gnocchi and the simplest of desserts, a ricotta fluff with fresh figs on top.

In the course of getting to know one another, Chicca told us that “her” Americans who help her with the olive harvest couldn’t make it due to Covid. Harvesting olives and witnessing the creation of the liquid gold we call olive oil has been a bucket list item for Alec for years. Learning that the harvest was to take place in 2 days, it was easy math for 2 retired people to cancel the flights home and add “olive picker” to the resume.

So, we raced back to Florence, crammed in several more sights and museums and raced back to COOKING WITH TUSCANY just in time for the olive harvest. Actually, the harvest got started at 8 and we arrived probably closer to 11 but we worked until sundown that day picking and carefully gathering the olives.

One of the gifts of this experience and a lesson very close to our hearts- is to connect ourselves, and more importantly, Jack, to the food we use to fuel our passions. Spending the day gathering olives from ancient trees, then watching the press, as this prized fruit is turned into nutrient rich, green- grassy, delicious oil, created for all of us, a deep connection and appreciation for this Italian delicacy. So much so, that we have hardly touched butter since arriving in Italy.

Talk about connecting with your food! It tastes better than it looks!

Once, at dinner in Portofino, Jack asked the server for some butter. That request was met with a 5 -minute lecture, from the server, on how healthy olive oil is for the body and how unhealthy butter is. The server eventually brought the butter but who could eat it after that! We had, of course, told Jack the same thing but hearing it from a complete stranger had a monumental effect. He has not really had or asked for butter ever since.

So, picking these gorgeous olives and then tasting and appreciating the fruits of the labor made this a very impactful, and memorable experience. We were compensated with 5 liters of the liquid gold for our efforts – well worth the hours outdoors enjoying the harvest.

Should you find yourself on a trip to Italy, Chicca and Arnaud have the loveliest apartments for rent. Don’t miss an opportunity to stay with Chicca and learn how to cook authentic Italian meals with the recipes from Chicca’s grandmother.

Adapting to the crazy Covid times in which we live, Chicca has begun teaching via Zoom, conducting cooking classes live from her kitchen. Together with friends from the US, Jack and I are continuing the fun and cooking now that we are back on board. There is something so surreal to me about learning to cook authentic meals and learning Italian all while living in Italy. Especially during these Covid times when we all need to be spending more time closer to home and away from crowds. Zoom is so fantastic for allowing these opportunities for enrichment right in the safety and security of our own home. Check out club@cookingintuscany.cc for more information

To find out more about the club or vacations – check out http://www.cookingintuscany.cc

Cooking club or vacations – check it out!!

There is more to this area than olives. The medieval village of Bolgheri, a hamlet of Castagneto Carducci in the province of Livorno is nearby. Touting a museum which explores the world of food and history of the area, foodies can’t miss it. Due to the micro-climate and characteristics of the soil, this area produces some of the most world renown Bordeaux origin wines known as “Super Tuscan” producers. For those who prefer the sea to the mountains, a short 20 minute drive is the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea with a very low key – non touristic vibe.

To be clear, there is truly something for everyone here. Less than a 2 hour drive from Rome, Florence, Siena, and world class food and wine, who could want for anything more?

FLORENCE AND TUSCANY

BOY AM I BEHIND!!!

ICONIC PORTOFINO

I had planned to write about our nearly 3-week road trip through Italy bit by bit, but I expected it to be more timely than this! We have been having so much fun in Marina di Ragusa, Italy getting settled that the past has been harder and harder to write about. Still, it is part of the journal and important so I’m going to get it together now and write a bit about the other fabulous places we visited on the trip. Brevity will dictate that tons will be missed.

PORTOFINO AND CINQUE TERRE

Leaving Rome, we took a 4.5 -hour train ride up the gorgeous Western coast of Italy to Portofino. We had only planned a few days here but extended so that we could take the train back down and explore Cinque Terre. Additionally, we had a day of total wash out – too windy or rainy to do anything at all. In Italy there is a color code system whereby if your town goes “red” you are instructed to stay home – streets closed. While we were in Portofino the color went “red” so we stayed in-doors. Not a bad idea when all of the “cittas” are connected by either train or boat.

All 5 villages are very difficult to reach by car due to the steep and unforgiving mountainous terrain. In fact, getting between the 5 fishing villages known as Cinque Terre is only advised by walking or train. We had a glorious hike between Montorosso and Vernazza taking full advantage of not only the beautiful fall weather, but also the lack of tourists during this Covid time and shoulder season. Hiking between these 2 fishing villages involved encountering about 10 people in 3 hours. Unheard of!

The walk itself was enchanting – imagine walking from vineyard to vineyard through the gardens of adorable farm- houses. At one point, and after climbing straight up for nearly 40 minutes, we heard the most delightful sound of an accordion. Nestled in the vineyard, overlooking the breathtaking Ligurian Sea, was this charming Italian man entertaining visitors with his accordion playing music straight out of a Dean Martin, Amore’ reproduction

The entire area is a national park and a UNESCO heritage site. Italy is home to a whopping 55 UNESCO HERITAGE SITES of which 5 are Natural and 50 are Cultural. The Cinque Terre National Park is comprised of steep paths up and down the mountain connecting the 5 fishing villages. Arriving at a village is a bit as I imagine base camp to be at Everest with hikers milling about and outfitters selling back- packs but the weather was gorgeous and the villages exuding charm that was authentic and delightful. One of the surprises we experienced in Italy in general is that regardless of how “touristy” an area, a marvelous meal can be enjoyed wherever one stops. In most areas of the world it is best to get off the beaten path to find a good meal and certainly don’t plan a gourmet experience in the heart of any tourist attraction but not so in Italy. We were too hungry to go looking for an “out of the way spot” so we decided on a restaurant overlooking the water in Vernazza. I had the best bowl of pasta fagioli soup I have ever eaten. The food here seriously makes me wish I had 2 stomachs.

All of these touristy destinations we enjoyed were fantastic – just to be clear – but even with a lack of people we struggle having to pay 7 Euro in Portofino for a Cappuccino and 45 Euro for a little Aperitivo.

THE 45 EURO APERTIVO:-)

Aperitive in Italy is a delightful tradition of finding a piazza and having a little very low alcohol drink with some small snacks before dinner in the early evening. Alec and I don’t drink so we try to find non-alcoholic beer to accompany our snacks. While we have been very fortunate to find NA beer all over Europe – it is less widely available in the touristy areas. I think it can be said that we don’t love the touristy areas. The server in Portofino was bothered that we didn’t want alcohol and he brought us our non-alcoholic drinks very begrudgingly – and then charged us 45 Euro for the experience. All of this at a time when there were fewer than 20 people in the entire piazza and 5 in total at the restaurant. I would hate to see the service that a full town would bring. So, while we loved the beauty of Portofino, it is definitely a box that has been checked for us.

PISA

So, a couple of bus rides and a train ride and we were in Pisa. We just passed through on our way to Florence, but one simply cannot pass it by and miss seeing the iconic tower, yet another of the 55 UNESCO Heritage sites in this lucky country.

Best known for the current 4 degree lean, the bell tower for the cathedral is perhaps equally interesting because of it’s location not co-located with the cathedral itself. Though the tower began the infamous lean during it’s 12th century construction, it was stabilized in 1990 after the tilt reached 5.5 degrees.

Another amazing meal right at the tower and we are off to collect our rental car for the rest of our time in Italy.

HOLDING UP THE TOWER

FLORENCE

Perhaps the best reason to return to a country after a long absence is due to how our perceptions and interests shift as we age. Not my first visit to Florence, I was here perhaps 25 years ago, but the changes in the city were not nearly as marked as the changes in me during that time.

Which is why, it should come as no surprise, my recollections were so cloudy as to be useless. Moreover, my perceptions and reactions were totally different. I recall “liking” the city and appreciating the vast collection of art that calls Florence home, but this visit left me completely bowled over!

Florence, the capital city in the Tuscany region of Italy, is most certainly best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. When we were traveling around, I was so tempted to write about our travels in a time line because having left Siracusa, which enjoyed it’s historical “hey day” in the years Before Christ, and then traveling to Rome where we dined on a feast of the Roman Empire era, to finally arrive in Florence, surrounded as we were by medieval and neo-classical architecture, and history, felt so sharp in contrast. In fact, we loved visiting several other wonderful cities’ whose greatest days were enjoyed in Medieval times. Bolgheri and Siena are 2 such great cities and no trip to the Tuscany region would be complete without stopping there. I loved them both and could write a piece on each alone but brevity dictates that I keep moving – but please, if you are reading this contemplating which towns to visit, don’t miss Siena and Bolgheri.

Siena pictured below

But I digress, Florence…

Another UNESCO heritage site, the Historical city of Florence was also ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had booked an air bnb and typical for my priorities, we were right in the heart of Florence.

Arriving at the front door to the apartment, the locale didn’t quite look like the photos in the booking. Not deterred, we continued in to discover what it most certainly must feel like to sleep in a palace – or a museum. It was extraordinary! Not every experience works so well but we loved our time in Florence in this magical apartment right in the heart of the Renaissance Era.

The front was not at all the palace we walked into – Jack was a bit worried

Home to the Uffizi museum as well as several others including the Galleria dell’ Accademia one can see works displayed by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael and others too numerous to note. These were the 2 museums we made it to on this “way to short” trip to Florence.

As with Rome, one can simply meander into a church and discover priceless master works created during the Renaissance.

Portofino

We booked 2 tours here. Time constrained by flights home, cat sitters, and a last- minute trip to pick olives (saving this for another blog post next week) we crammed what should have been a full 1-2 weeks into 2 days. To be sure, I truly did a terrible dis-service to the kind and wonderful Elvis who showed us around. Dragging Jack to one then another museum on a way too rushed trip of this fantastic city – just wore out our poor 10 year- old world traveler. We did get a terrific “dividend” upon wandering into a room in the Uffizzi museum, Jack, exhausted and desperate to have lunch looked up and exclaimed “WOW! I have always wanted to see Botecelli’s Venus!” “Is that an original?”. Shocked, I glanced down at the plaque on the side to see that in fact, it was Botecellis’ Venus. Not entirely sure if this was knowledge that came from his amazing Montessori education until last year, or our homeschooling efforts last year, we were grateful to see that more is sinking in than falling out.

This city should easily have been planned for a week or more, but I just didn’t remember how magnificent it was. Alec and I would desperately love to return for a much longer stay. As with the other destinations – due to Covid, we only had a handful of visitors competing for space in front of the priceless and breathtaking works of art who call Florence home. Jack spent probably 30 minutes admiring “David” from all angles. It is very heartening to watch one’s child appreciating – truly appreciating- something as magnificent as this. I wonder what we would be missing if not for Jack. So much of what we book, see or plan is to give Jack the opportunity for discovery and education but at the “end of the day” Alec and I know that we are the ones getting the benefit and education. Sometimes when I look back at what I would have booked had we not wanted to show Jack something, I realize that those were the things that were the best and not only for the obvious reason of being able to see it or appreciate it through your child’s eyes but also on its own merit.

So – enough said – my next and final post about our 3 -week trip around Italy will be on Castagneto Carducci. I can’t wait to talk about another great love of mine – FOOD!!!

We will be writing about olives, pasta and olive oil!!!

Chicca, Arnaud, Jack and Alec COOKING IN TUSCANY!!

ROME – it wasn’t build in a day and you won’t see it in one either!!

Rome – It wasn’t built in a day and believe me, it will take more than a day to see it!

St Peters Square the night we arrived

Our Immigration challenges newly resolved, we were ready to move on from Siracusa, Italy. The plan was to take Gratitude North to Genoa, then begin a slow and steady trip south ending in Ragusa, Sicily for the winter. But a survey of the weather combined with our previous research of the Med cruising recommendations indicated, we were going to have far less time to make this trip than we had hoped. Watching 1, then another, system work its way across, we decided it was time to consult the Momondo app for flights.

Since we left the US – and in fact many months (possibly years before that) we have not flown anywhere. Strange since Alec and I rarely went more than a week without getting on a plane in our past lives. Now it has been years since we have gone to an airport and I don’t even recall the last time we have flown anywhere. We sold our cars when we left Florida, and while Alec has driven on only a few occasions since we left, I haven’t driven even 1 mile in the nearly 18 months since our departure. We primarily take trains and busses everywhere and closer to home we prefer bikes or walking. Given the time constraints of traveling at 8 knots we decided it was time to go back to the “old ways” or risk missing most of Italy.

The flight from Catania airport on Sicily took 1.5 hours to Rome. There were temperature checks and mandatory face coverings for the duration. The Airbnb in Rome arranged to have a car meet us upon landing and after another 30 minutes (remember no customs or immigration formalities) we were enjoying our first meal in Rome nearly 3 hours after we left the boat. Easy peasy. The Airbnb in Rome was terrific – a wonderful 3-bedroom apartment in a Piazza with views of St. Peters Basilica. It was surreal for me to stand in St. Peters Square on that first night. I believe everyone must feel this – a near disbelief at finally arriving in a place one has only seen in photos and movies countless times before. I don’t know how I have managed 54 years on the planet without making it to Rome before now. I have been to Italy several times – but I think I was just a bit shy after the stories of crowds. Rome is the 3rd most populated commune in the EU and the most populated in Italy. But here we were… Rome. To be sure, what follows of our account will be in contrast to your own experiences given the Covid world in which we live. But I felt very grateful that this was our experience and that I had waited, inadvertently, for this trip. Every place we visited, every photo we took, I was filled with awe and wonder to finally be here in the Eternal City.

Third on the list of the most visited European cities in 2019 (behind London and Paris) – it truly didn’t disappoint. We had planned to “live” onboard about a 30- minute bus ride away but being right in the heart of it all really worked well for helping us to accomplish so much.

A quick word here about the blog and any recommendations you may read here. We don’t advertise through the blog – ever. We don’t earn 1 penny due to the blog. We don’t solicit or receive discounts in exchange for promotion on the blog. We wrote in an earlier piece about the reasons why we do it but just to clear up any questions quickly before recommending things/people/places – we only write to keep a record for ourselves and our 10 year old son of the adventures we are on and also to pay it forward for the hours we spent reading the blogs of others without whom we may never have taken this leap.

My mother, a travel professional for most of her working life (gee, I wonder where I get my wanderlust), recommended the DK Eyewitness book for Rome before we left. Within days of our departure, I bought the Kindle version. I may never go to a major tourist site without an Eyewitness book loaded onto my phone again. No stranger to travel books, I was surprised at the user- friendly nature of this one and the ability to find an attraction, select the google maps link and obtain directions via rail, walk, car or bus anywhere in the guide. So, guidebook in hand and 5 days booked into Rome for our 2 -week holiday, we were off!

There are a million wonderful travel blogs out there and this is not intended to be that so I won’t get too nitty gritty with the details of the sights that we visited but we really packed in a wonderful trip in those 5 days. It is not unusual for me to over-schedule my family on those occasions when we are committed to seeing so much in a short time – this was just such a time. Still – afraid to overwhelm, I tried to stick to 1 large thing per day and let the rest of the day be spontaneous and free.

We began our week at the Capitoline Hill, the symbolic center of the Roman World. The beautiful steps leading up to the Piazza del Campidoglio were designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. Had we done nothing more but admire the steps, and the Museums from the outside we would have been satisfied but Jack needed to use the rest room urgently – really urgently – so we paid our admission and thus enjoyed at least 2 hours meandering the halls of the Capitoline Museum. Not at all on our list of things to do today- we 3 enjoyed the immense collection of paintings and sculpture. What a terrific reminder to just relax and enjoy the experience. Only because of a need to use the rest room did we make this wonderful discovery and even though we had planned (roughly and loosely) to do something else during this time, none of us was disappointed. At the center of the Piazza is a statue of Marcus Aurelius. We had to pleasure of discovering the original in gold leaf inside of the museum which was moved inside to minimize the damage to the original. Good thing since legend says that when the last of the gold is lost from the statue, the world will end. Yikes…

I swear the guide told Jack to sit atop a 2000 year old column!!!!!

The major thing we had planned for today was a tour of THE COLOSSEUM. I had booked this through Airbnb and we were so in love with our guide. She is an archeologist and intensely knowledgeable about everything in the area. While some guides leave you with a sense that they know everything, but you have learned nothing, she was a teacher and so delightful. All three of us were transformed and as in love with the colosseum as she was. Her info is:
Maria Rita Bertoncini and she can be reached at http://www.visitostiaantica.org
I don’t often share guide info on the blog – but occasionally we find one who is so good at what she/he does, Im happy to recommend them.

On this tour we visited the Forum, Palantine hill and the 3 arches.

Day 2

Having booked a tour of the Vatican and the museums, we wanted to have an easy quiet morning preceding the exhausting afternoon. The tour was 3 hours and included all of the museums, the map rooms, the Sistine chapel, etc. Believe me when I tell you a WEEK is not enough time to see this nearly insane repository of the worlds most beautiful ancient art. There are room upon room full of ancient sculpture, carpets and stunning art work depicting scenes from the bible adorn nearly every wall and frescos occupy even your own mind after spending the day trying in vain to take it all in. It is nearly an assault on the senses seeing as much art in one place – seriously. Intended to be the finale at the end of the tour, we walked into the Sistine chapel and had our breath taken away by the sheer glory of Michelangelo’s work. There is far more written about it than I could ever do justice to here so I will only close this day by saying do some research before you arrive. We had booked a tour called “Pristine Sistine” by a well known tour operator in Rome. I had done this on the advise of a blog that I had read in which the writer receives compensation for tours booked from the link. I have to insert here that I have no issue whatsoever with the YOUTubers and Bloggers getting compensated for their work- but please, if you are booking on the advice of someone who is getting compensation – do your homework first. We booked a very pricey tour which promised a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel before it opened with a lengthy talk about the intricacies. When it became clear that we were not receiving what I had booked, I was told that our tour was exchanged because due to Covid there were no private groups before opening. Our guide then went on to say that it wasn’t necessary anyway because there were no crowds. Well, he was right and there were no crowds. Typically, 40,000 visitors cram the halls of the Vatican and during our visit, there were never more than about 20 people. Still, the difference in price between what we had booked and what we received was substantial and despite multiple emails and requests for the difference to be compensated, we have received nothing. Also, to make matters worse, this tour guide was the least effective of any tour I have booked in the past year (probably close to 15). Just a little reminder here to do your homework when following the advice of someone who is receiving compensation. If this was not enough extravagance for one day, we then went to St. Peters Basilica where mass was going on. It is breathtaking and frankly there are no words to describe it. In fact, we walked into several churches just in passing and I honestly can hardly imagine all of this remarkable art work around every bend. Frescoes and art work adorning every single church in nearly every Piazza. Remarkable.

The lines – empty – getting into the Vatican

Day 3

Piazza Navona was once the social center of Rome. A Baroque Oval Piazza with 3 fountains, aristocracy once strolled the streets and met friends and neighbors or came for an apertivo (a delightful custom of having a very low alcohol beverage accompanied by some small snacks – chips/peanuts/cheese). The most famous fountain in the piazza at the center is called the Four Rivers. It was designed by Bernini. Usually very crowded, it was raining during our visit so there was really nobody around except restauranters’ begging us to come eat – so we did. At and ate… Wow Can I just say that we have not had a mediocre meal since we arrived in Italy.

Day 4 and 5

We saw the Pope in the pouring rain giving his Sunday blessing and we went to Trevi fountain, built in 1762 by Italian architect Nicola Salvi which looks to me like something out of the lost city of Atlantis. Tradition demands an offering into the fountain which will guarantee a return to the city. We did some research and learned that nearly 1.5 million dollars was collected in 2016 but the good news? That money is used to subsidize a supermarket for the needy so dig down and toss those coins away. We saw and the Pantheon and we went to the Piazza Di Spagna and the Spanish Steps.

Plaza Navona 4 rivers fountain

One final thing on our list of places to visit, AMERICA! We all wanted a little taste of America since it has been over a year since we have been home and there is little chance we will make it back this year due to Covid. We went to the American Embassy in Rome. We had hoped to arrange a bit of a tour but everything was very tightly controlled and secure, even more so due to Covid. We did complete paperwork so that they know we are here.

Given that I’m about 500 words over what I like to write on the blog, I’ll leave it here. Rome is an incredibly city and one which we should never have waited so long to see. When Covid is over, give it a week or even 2 – there is so much more to see and 5 days was simply not enough.

In our next post we will cover Portofino, Cinque Terre and Florence.

Cruising Italy – Your Sandbox – Your Rules…

Last month, Ocean Navigator published a piece that I wrote about the complicated European regulations which govern our time and decisions in Europe, so it isn’t as though this was news to us. In a very short nutshell, there is European VAT (or the avoidance thereof) on the boat – Gratitude in this case, and Schengen Immigration regulations which govern Alec, Jack and me.

First a few housekeeping notes on the way we operate aboard Gratitude. There are a few things that are mostly in my domain (Laurie) such as most of the galley responsibilities, and those things which are mostly Alec’s domain – the engine room. The vast majority of what we do though, is an overlapped system of checks and backing each other up. Thus, any oversight is a learning opportunity for all of us and we take it as such. Organizing dockage, marinas, paperwork, homeschooling, etc – is often done by either and sometimes by both of us. Running the boat is a shared mutual responsibility (and even Jack is taking part on a limited basis). But while I know what Alec is checking, actually doing the engine room checks underway is Alec’s domain. I am prone to seasickness and a hot engine room in a moving boat just makes me miserable. However, I have a much better working knowledge of the food in the fridge and the meals that I’ve preparing for the passage, so it makes the most sense that I do that.

So back to our immigration issues…

We had planned to leave Portugal (Schengen country) in March and travel to the UK (non-Schengen) for the 90 required days to be out of the area before proceeding to the Baltic. That was the plan. Then Covid hit. We were ordered to remain in Portugal until the borders opened. We asked for an extension to our Schengen time and were told that making an appointment was sufficient for the requirement. When the appointment time came, we were directed to extend the appointment as the office was closed due to Covid. We did that. The new date was after our planned departure date when the border re-opened on June 15 so we notified SEF, and obtained the departure stamps in the passport and that was that. Thinking that some time in Gibraltar, out of the Schengen area, would be a good way to start our tour of the med and then begging for extension upon arrival in Italy – we thought we had a plan that made sense.

We arrived in Gibraltar and decided to stay there for 3 weeks. We reasoned that this would be sufficient time to re-enter Schengen in Spain, clear back in for a few weeks en-route to Italy where we planned to ask for an extension.

We arrived in Italy.

The first failure of the Gratitude crew was to not re-check the requirements in Italy for vessels arriving from Spain. We had checked a month or two earlier but in these crazy Covid times, rules are changing day to day. So, 5 days prior to our departure from Spain, the rules were updated that now persons arriving from Spain would need a negative Covid test. After a few days of waiting under quarantine for someone to come test us to no avail, we decided to do what we should have done at the outset – Call in professionals who do this for a living.

“These angels of Mercy exist?” were the words of my friend when I told her we were getting an agent to help with our situation. Why yes, I guess they do. However, all agents are NOT CREATED EQUAL so if you are following our advice and getting help with regulatory issues in a foreign country – make sure you are getting a good one.

Our first agent somewhat competently arranged the Covid test. She then took 10 additional days trying to get us cleared into Italy and obtaining an extension to Schengen. We were honestly surprised that it was proving to be so problematic given what we had heard from other cruising friends and what we had read on the Schengen website. Given that our overstay was not entirely our own fault, we thought this would be simple to overcome for a professional agent with relationships with the authorities. We were wrong. When we began pressing for an expected completion (remember we still wanted to cruise and see Italy), she replied tersely that we were being denied an extension or access and were expected to remain aboard Gratitude until we were able to make plans to leave the country. She didn’t offer an explanation.

My research had indicated that each local or regional border police agency has some discretion over these matters. On the off chance that a full winter reservation commitment might make a difference, I decided to contact a different agent in Sicily, where we planned to winter, and plead our case. Now here is where finding a really good agent made the difference.

It was late Friday night. Not a particularly good time to try to get a crazy situation like this resolved, but we decided to give this 1 last shot. I called Roberto Giuliana with Luise Yachting Agency in Sicily and left a message. Within moments he called me back and listened carefully to what I had to share with him. He asked several questions and advised me to send in all documentation and he would meet with the authorities on Monday am. Over the weekend Alec, Jack and I began making preparations to leave Tuesday for Montenegro if things didn’t work out on Monday. We had been waiting in Sardinia for 3 weeks. Lovely though it was, there is so much more we had hoped to be doing in Italy by this time. Further, given that the cruising season was rapidly coming to an end, we needed to get moving either within Italy or to outside of the Schengen area (Montenegro).

Roberto Giuliana with Luise Yachting

On Monday, we proceeded as though we would be leaving on a 4 -day passage to Montenegro. We provisioned and I cooked meals. Alec readied the engine room for an early departure the next morning. Sardinia is a wonderful port for getting things done – a great place for crew to fly in and out, have boat maintenance conducted, or layup the boat for the winter if we flew home. It was an ideal time to get the stores filled up with items best suited to having a car, which we had rented for the week. And we were able to get a piece of upholstery repaired and the carpets all steam cleaned. Not a bad use of the time we were here.

Roberto called Monday afternoon and told us the news. Essentially, Italy was willing to overlook some of the Schengen issues but not all. Where we had gone sideways? We should have insisted on a passport stamp in Gibraltar and again in Cartagena, SP. At each stop we were given a form and assurance that it was sufficient because due to Covid nobody would come to the boat. We had a cleared Immigration customs form, but it was produced by the marina, not the governmental agency. We should have known better. If you are reading this and following in our wake, make sure you get a stamp in every country you enter no matter what the marina advises. You see, they are mostly accustomed to dealing with other EU boats and they aren’t all that versed in the problems which will come raining down on you later. GET THE STAMP! But better still – get an agent.

So, lucky for us, we actually had a talented agent who was able to intervene on our behalf and fully understood and could explain to us what was needed to remedy the situation. We had planned to just leave and do the 4 day passage to Montenegro where we would get time outside of the Schengen area but our agent advised this was not only not necessary, but if we did this, that country had just gone “red” meaning that their Covid cases had risen to the point that other countries were blocking arrivals from there. What that would mean to us is that not only would we be putting ourselves at greater risk for catching the virus, but we would not be able to travel back as we were originally hoping we could.

The authorities would, however, accept a stamp from outside the Schengen area (Tunisia) and offer us another 90 days upon our re-entry. This blog post is already exceeding the usual length and attention span of most of my generous readers so Ill cut to the chase here. We went to Tunisia where we needed to go anyway within the next 3 months in order to clear our EU clock for Gratitude or have to pay 20% duty on her (Ill pause while you do that math:-) We had a 36 hour passage from Sardinia to Tunisia, Spent 1 hour on the dock getting all of the required paperwork handled, and we are now underway for 35 hours from Tunisia to Syracuse, Italy. Our agent will, hopefully, be there to help us with the Italian authorities as he had arranged for an agent to be at the dock in Tunisia who handled all of the formalities there. We are not completely certain of what would be required of us arriving from Tunisia. We have been instructed to expect another Covid test and/or a 2-week quarantine in Syracuse and we are prepared for either or both. It’s a tradeoff to spend 2 weeks quarantined aboard Gratitude (where we can get ahead on our schoolwork and boat chores) but at the end of it we can explore, for the bit of summer remaining, all of the places we have been so excited to see. This whole experience had us heartbroken that we would be unable to share with Jack the History, Culture, Architecture, Art, Opera, AND FOOD that Italy has to offer. This allows us to still cruise to what extent we are able, and hopefully stay for the winter and see the sites we have missed along the way.

Lessons learned.

Back in my early days of flying I had a colleague from Cuba who told me of a Latin saying which translated means “shoemaker to the shoes”. I have used this time and again with Alec in the 20 or so years we have been together, usually as he attempts to do something I deem foolhardy, like cleaning out the gutters after a rainstorm. I plead “please let someone who does this for a living have a job!” It would take one injury and he would have lost much more work from his “real” job than he would have paid the person who does this professionally. I have said this over and over and yet still, I learn that sometimes you should just leave making shoes to the shoemaker – or in this case, HIRE THE AGENT.

So, should you find yourself needing help in Italy, the agent you should talk to is: Roberto Giuliana or the folks at Luise Yachting, Sicily. I’m told that this agency has been saving visitors by yacht since the mid 19th century.

Post Script

We arrived safely in Siracusa, Italy on the island of Sicily this morning to agents and dock hands ready to assist with lines and paperwork. The authorities were notified and ready to clear us in and out – we were instructed to take down the quarantine flag and consider ourselves “VERY WELCOME TO ITALY”. It has been nearly a month of waiting and praying and crossing our fingers but thankfully, hiring the right person for the job has gotten it all handled.

Just two other items of note for the mechanical minded of our readers. We have recently developed a small issue with our AC Pump following longer passages in a very hot engine room, whereby it shuts down until the ambient temperatures cool a bit. Alec has troubleshooted this problem and indications now are likely that this pump is at the end of it’s life.

While approaching Tunis while Laurie was at the helm a small sounding “bang” was noted followed by a “thunk thunk thunk” noise. I immediately pulled the throttle to idle and noted the temperature of the engine which appeared normal. Alec quickly arrived and together we decided that it was likely we picked up a trap. Grateful to be in 80-degree water, Alec put on his mask and equipped with a knife dove to investigate. With Jack our liaison and me at the wheel, Alec discovered a very interesting fishing contraption picture below. So sorry to the poor fishman who lost his trap. We make every effort to avoid such pitfalls for all of the obvious reasons, but the poor visibility combined with zero reflective properties for our radar to see, we were hooked. Caught up by the prop but wrapped around the starboard stabilizer, Alec cut it off and we brought it to shore.

This was wrapped around the stabilizer following impact with our prop Alec dove down and cut it free while on passage to Tunisia