Ajaccio, Sardinia and the Calanques Mountains , 5/30/2022, Sea Cloud
Mediterranean aboard Sea Cloud
The morning was bright and the sea calm as we sailed into Ajaccio harbor. We docked at 8:15 a.m. The docking and line handling is always interesting to watch as it is no easy task to berth a 350-foot, 2500-ton sailing vessel with no bow thrusters. Our captain and his crew did it flawlessly. We boarded our coaches for our first stop at the Greek village of Cargese. The original Greek settlement was founded in the late 17th century to give refuge from the piratical attacks on their islands in the Cyclades. We made a brief stop here and visited the lovely Orthodox Church with its nice icons and iconostasis–the screen of images separating the performance of the mass liturgy from the worshipers. Directly across stood the Roman Latin Catholic Church–a salient reminder of the unfortunate split between these two churches in the mid-11th century. We then boarded our buses for what I guess one could say is the Zion National Park of Corsica. The drive through San Sebastian Pass to the range of magnificent pink granite weather mountains in Calanques was spectacular. The wind and water have worn the hard granite into a vast multiplicity of extraordinary shapes. At one point, we passed a large stone that looked remarkably like the head of a dog. Upon our arrival in the scenic village of Piana, we stopped at the Le Maquis Restaurant for a delightful Corsican lunch. The restaurant overlooked a canyon and afforded beautiful views of the craggy mountains.
We departed at 2:30 and drove back to Sea Cloud. Some of us decided to visit Ajaccio and the rest boarded the ship for a well-earned rest. Tom Heffernan gave a talk on European languages at 5:15. The weather was perfect, and cocktails and conversation were buzzing on the Lido Deck. Dinner was served in the dining room at 7:30. Another fantastic day on Sea Cloud.
Our charts showed the sun rose about 5:57AM. I equivocate because the horizon was as grey as the sea. In fact, there was little separating my visual field as I gazed on the water: the sea and the sky were one. Having watched the movie Around Cape Horn last night, I felt this was a fitting beginning to the day. A light rain was falling. We had an easterly wind of 20 knots at 10AM on the port bow. We were making 9.3 knots in a likely Beaufort 4 sea. The crew had a general safety muster at 10:20AM. They perform this exercise weekly to ensure that in the case of an emergency everyone knows their responsibilities. As I walked the promenade deck, I watched the crew changing the wooden block and tackles. They worked in the soft rain and the chill breeze standing on the rail in the wind. The Sea Cloud requires daily maintenance, polishing, painting, varnishing, and a host of other tasks many of which we do not see. Having been launched in 1931 she requires and expects tender love and care. And from her pristine appearance she has received it. All trust she will be sailing in her 100th year. Many of us slept in and the dining room was still filled at 9AM. Certified Photo Instructor, Anna Mazurek worked on the lido deck constructing the guest photo slideshow. We were treated to bridge tours beginning at 11AM. We learned that the gleaming brass instruments from 1931 still worked. Of course, the Sea Cloud now relies on high tech electronics, but it is nice to know that the old instruments still work. The weather dictated that the luncheon buffet was on the starboard promenade deck. We enjoyed the famous pasta wheel luncheon. The pasta wheel is a 40-kilo (100 pound) wheel of Reggio Parmigiano whose center has been gradually scooped out from use. Hot pasta is dropped into the center of the wheel of cheese; the chef then swirls around your pasta, and as it is swished it gathers cheese. You then can dress it with red Bolognese or olive oil & basil sauces. Many of us went back for seconds! Tonight, Captain Komakin greeted us and toasted us on our wonderful trip, and we sat down to our celebratory Captain’s Dinner. We had perfect weather for the entire voyage, save perhaps our afternoon at Bastia when, although we had rain, it came towards the end of our tour. Tonight, we watched a presentation of photos gathered from all of us and produced a fun visual review of our trip. There were many “oohs” and “ahs” as memories of these past events appeared on the screen and the occasional burst of laughter. Our last night is almost a tad melancholy, but we slept with the hope of meeting again on the Sea Cloud .
The sun was up by 6:04AM and the sea was glass calm, barely showing a ripple. We had a stern wind of 10 knots from the east southeast. We have now rounded the northern tip of Corsica, called Cap Corse. By breakfast time, the temperature was in the mid-60’s with a wind now from the starboard. The captain called the sailors to their stations at 9:00AM. The sails set and we had a gentle wind moving us at about 2 knots, but by 10AM we were doing 5.7 knots. The captain called for the sails to be furled at 11:30AM. The powerful and rich city state of Genoa controlled this region of Corsica for five centuries. The Genovese knew that Cap Corse was a very vulnerable spot and so they built coastal watch towers that dotted the coast. Raids were common and pirates could and did swoop in to pillage the land and the wealth of the churches, held hostages for ransom, and sold inhabitants into slavery. There was a substantial market for European slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Prior to the emergence of alliances amongst the powerful nations, for example, like a modern-day NATO, city states like Genoa, Pisa, Venice, although very rich, competed amongst themselves and had difficulty protecting their far-flung possessions. At a few minutes after 10AM, historian Tom Heffernan gave a lecture on how the Black Death of 1347 created conditions for a new Europe. He drew comparisons with how Covid had made some substantive changes in the present. We took on the pilot about noon and motored into Bastia harbor. After lunch we left the Sea Cloud for a walk through historic Bastia. Some of us chose to take a beautiful coach ride through the peninsula. Those of us who stayed for the city tour, began by crossing the central park. Our guide was the very ebullient Aida. There she showed us a bronze statue of a woman and her son looking to the distance, commemorating the Corsican war dead who fought to liberate Corsica and France during the last world wars. Napoleon is still held in high regard by Corsicans – despite their zeal for autonomy and his passion for tyrannical centralized control – as the famous son who ruled the world. His statue in the plaza depicting him as a Roman leader is impressive. On our way to the citadel, we admired a house whose windows and shutters were trompe d’oeil. We made brief visits to two beautiful baroque churches. Some folks are puzzled by why church visits are always part of our tour. But consider, the church was the center of the community. It was the fulcrum around which the community functioned. It was also one of the wealthiest units in the town and was the recipient of lots of philanthropy in the form of great paintings, liturgical works in gold, and silver, sculpture, frescoes, etc. The church was also the creator of technologies as building large cathedrals and churches created innovation in engineering skills and in 100 different artisanal disciplines. In other words, the church is a microcosm of the historical changes the cities we have visited went through. Our last stop was the citadel. The citadel is distinctly Genovese in architecture and, in the 16th century, only the Italians were allowed to live there. The Corsicans lived below. The beautiful cathedral of the Immaculate Conception contained a spectacular painted ceiling and superb arches. The church held a solid silver statue of the Annunciation weighing 750 kilos (1800 pounds). The Genovese community had money; remember they controlled the trade with the east. On our way down from the citadel, a clap of thunder echoed in the heavens and a deluge poured down on us. The drops were massive and the streets were a torrent of water but we soldiered on. We completed the day with a scrumptious dinner.
The sea last night had some large swells some as large as 3.5 meters (11 feet) and I know many guests felt the rocking, but all were smiling at breakfast. We dropped anchor in the Balanine Bay at 7:22AM. The view of the citadel of Calvi rising from the deck of the Sea Cloud was breathtaking. Lying at the head of this pristine bay, it is one of the most impressive seaside citadels of the Mediterranean. The city is bracketed by high mountains whose peaks were still snow covered. Built on the solid granite promontory, the ramparts of the citadel rise organically to a height of almost 75 feet from the grey granite. Whenever I see Calvi, I am reminded of the great fortified walls of Malta. The visual impact of the natural rock topped by the worked granite walls is magnificent. On our way to the top, a military plane flew low over the bay and 21 paratroopers jumped out and floated down into the bay. This is one of the stations of the French Foreign Legion and such exercises are frequent here. At the very top of the citadel is the cathedral church surrounded by the homes of the wealthy inhabitants of Calvi. Our first interior stop on the citadel was into the Church of St. John the Baptist, a wonderful 13th century church which was destroyed by the Turks in 1553 but restored shortly after. In the small altar just to the right of the main altar, there was a large crucifix of Christ. The locals call this the “Black Jesus” and believe in its healing efficacy. The statue was taken out and paraded around the city during the pandemic to rid the city of the illness. The defensive nature of the rampart walls with a slightly off vertical slope speaks of walls built after gun powder and cannons were introduced into Europe at the end of the 15th century. Coastal Mediterranean cities were frequently besieged by Barbary pirates from North Africa. From the 16th century, when Turkey was a power, the cities would be raided seeking slaves and valuables. Calvi was controlled by Genoa for some six centuries and went back and forth between many of the larger European powers. Calvi was besieged during the Napoleonic Wars by Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was blinded in one eye by a shard of rock which ricocheted by a cannon ball smashing the rock. The litany of foreign nations also included England who took the island from the French in 1794 and held it for a mere two years. We spent about one hour touring the citadel and passed the putative home of Christopher Columbus. After our citadel tour some of us visited a small artisanal market where vendors were selling local raw milk cheeses, honey, marmalades, charcuterie, and olive oil. The cheeses were made from the milk of sheep and goats and aged for two years. We made a brief stop to admire the beautiful pink façade of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. We then slowly made our way to the main shopping precinct and had 90 minutes of shopping! After lunch, the captain set sails and by 3:30PM we were sailing at 7 knots with a 20-knot wind from the stern. The day was perfect: large cumulus clouds floated in a perfect azure sky and the white caps were breaking on the swells. Anna Mazurek, our certified photo instructor, gave an informative talk on expedition photography and then we adjourned to a special tea of “Baba au Rhum.” Dinner on the lido deck was followed by the earnest if not quite professional Sea Cloud Shanty Singers. All joined in and guests and crew sang and danced until 11:30PM.