A lively crossing
After the reckless hedonism of Ibiza and the indulgent serenity of Sicily (during which I explored the notorious mafia town of Corleone), Islay was the third and final stop on my summer island-hopping itinerary.
We took the 6pm ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen and, after a lively crossing, we were soon making our way towards the cottage at Ardbeg that would be our base for our short stay on the island. For a whisky enthusiast like me, there can be few more exhilarating journeys than that ten minute drive from Port Ellen to Ardbeg, as we passed by the world renowned distilleries of Laphroig and Lagavulin, before arriving at our cottage, conveniently located just around the corner from the distillery at Ardbeg.
A calamity at sea?
The windswept island of Islay lies between Scotland's rugged west coast and the mighty Atlantic ocean. From nomadic hunter-gatherers to Celtic kings, Norse invaders to the ancient Lords of the Isles, these islands and their tempestuous waters have known more than their fair share of drama, heroism and tragedy.
I was vaguely aware that some maritime calamity had befallen these islands during the Great War but, until my visit this summer, was completely ignorant of the precise details.
In fact, as I soon learned, disaster had struck Islay not once, but twice, with the tragic loss of nearly 700 souls, most of them American infantrymen.
But what on earth where all these American troops doing in the waters of Islay? And what happened here that resulted in such a catastrophic loss of life?
On 20 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot and killed in Sarajevo, the capital of the province of Bosnia-Herzogovina. At first it seemed that the assassination was just an isolated act of localised terrorism. Few could have foreseen that it would trigger a chain of events that, just a few short months later, would result in the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany.
On 2 November, as the conflict intensified, the United Kingdom, in the hope of restricting the maritime supply of goods to the Central Powers, began a naval blockade of Germany. The blockade had a devastating impact on German supplies and morale. By December 1918, it was claimed that more than three-quarters of a million German civilians had died from starvation and disease. In response, Germany launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, with the objective of starving Britain out of the war.
America enters the fray
As a consequence of this unprecedented attack on merchant shipping, the United States, which for nearly 3 years had remained officially neutral, was finally drawn into the increasingly barbaric conflict.
Crossing the Atlantic
The Western Front, the brutal system of trenches which eventually stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium southward across France, remained the main theatre of war. To reach the battlefront, American troops first had to cross the Atlantic.
American doughboys crossing the Atlantic endured appalling conditions in troopships that were unfit for purpose and terribly overcrowded. On top of winter storms, inadequate sanitation and a virulent flu virus, that would become known as Spanish flu and would be later be identified as the H1N1, the constant threat of the U-boat menace made the crossing a truly perilous undertaking. And that was all before these poor young lads, many of whom had never stepped foot on a boat before, had even reached battlefront.
Amongst the vessels requisitioned for the purposes of transporting American troops across the Atlantic were HMS Tuscania and HMS Oranto.
Onboard HMS Tuscania
Named after a picturesque Italian hillside town to the north of Rome, SS Tuscania had been a luxury liner of the Cunard Line but with the outbreak of war is refitted and put into service as a troopship.
On 24 January 1918, she sets sail from Hoboken, New Jersey, with 384 crew and 2,013 soldiers onboard. Three days later she joins a 12 ship convoy that is zig-zagging its way across the Atlantic towards Liverpool. On 4 February, the convoy is joined by eight British destroyers for the final, most treacherous part of the voyage, as they enter "the submarine zone" - the part of the crossing where the ocean narrows into the shipping channels that lead to Britain's west coast ports.
The following day, the convoy is just off the north coast of Ireland, preparing to make it's final manoeuvre towards Liverpool. Lurking just below the surface is UB-77, commanded by 29-year-old Kapitän Wilhelm Meyer. Just as those on board the Tuscania are catching their first glimpse of the rugged Scottish coastline, Meyer is preparing to attack. At 7.40 pm he fires two lethal seven-metre long G-7 torpedoes. Despite intense vigilance, Tuscania is caught off guard. With a devastating explosion, one of the torpedoes strikes her amidship, near the boiler room.
Under strict orders not to risk coming to the aid of a stricken ship, the rest of the convoy steams on towards Liverpool, leaving the Tuscania to meet its grim fate in the icy seas off Islay.
As the Tuscania is foundering off the remote and inhospitable rocks and cliffs of the Mull of Oa, rescue destroyers are dispatched from the mainland.
The evacuation of the ship is chaotic and confused. Those lucky enough to find lifeboats are picked up by the destroyers and naval trawlers. Royal Navy destroyer Mosquito manages to pull alongside the foundering Tuscania. It's a long-way down from the muster stations of the stricken ship to the plunging and rolling deck of the destroyer below, but some 300 officers and men manage to jump to safety. Another rescue ship, the Pigeon, then comes alongside the now badly listing troopship. Men slide down ropes to safety, but the escape isn't without its risks and several men perish as they jump from one ship to the other. In just 30 minutes, about 750 men and 14 officers have made it safely onboard the destroyer.
Those less fortunate are swept towards the treacherous sea cliffs of Islay. Somehow a few exhausted and frozen survivors manage to make it ashore alive.
Robert Morrison, a local farmer, wades out into the stormy waters up to his neck to rescue two men clinging on to a rock. He then climbs halfway up a 250 metre cliff to rescue another survivor. His act of bravery is not the only one that night. His sisters spend six hours baking scones to feed the exhausted and starving survivors. The remarkable effort of the people of Islay save the lives of many who would otherwise have died.
Many of the bodies of the drowned servicemen wash up on the shores of Islay and are buried there with as much dignity and honour as the remote rural community can muster. It is the biggest loss of American military lives in a single day since the Civil War with over 200 casualties. Hardy islanders wept in the streets as carts of bodies pass by. But worse is to come.
Eight months later, another troopship, HMS Otranto (like the Tuscania, it is named after a small coastal town in southern Italy), is en route from America to the battlefronts of Europe. During a terrible storm, hurricane force winds and forty foot waves - experienced seamen had seldom seen such conditions, Otranto is involved in a devastating collision with another ship and founders off the rocky western shores of Kilchoman. Despite the appalling conditions we witness probably the single most significant act of courage in the entire tragic episode.
"We shall go down together"
Lieutenant Francis W. Craven is in command of HMS Mounsey, a Glasgow-built 'M' class destroyer that has been dispatched to provide assistance. Craven has spent more than half of his 29 years at sea and is a highly respected commander. Despite 40-foot waves, 70-mile an hour winds and the precarious condition of the 12,000-ton Otranto, Craven signals to Captain Davidson, commander of the stricken ship, that he is coming alongside.
"Steer clear or you will lose your crew and your ship", the captain of the Otranto replies.
"I am coming alongside. If we go down, we shall go down together", comes Craven's blunt response.
Rearing and plunging in the mountainous waves, Craven somehow manages to manoeuvre his 896-ton destroyer alongside the heavily listing troopship. Ropes are thrown between the ships and soldiers are urged to jump for their lives. The order is given - "Abandon ship!" Soldiers face an agonising decision - jump or take their chances on board the sinking ship. Many mistime their jump and fall into the icy sea, others are crushed to death between the tossing ships. Those fortunate enough to land on rescue ship's deck suffer broken legs, arms and ribs.
Despite the dangers, 600 men make it alive onto the Mounsey, which is by now seriously overladen and badly damaged from the battering it has taken coming alongside the Otranto. Craven takes the fateful decision to pull away from the Otranto. Captain Davidson can be seen waving farewell from the deck, nearly 500 men remain on board with him. Their fate is sealed.
His bridge smashed, oil tanks punctured, boiler rooms flooded, upper deck decimated, both masts with the wireless and signalling gear swept away, boat laden with debris, water and frozen, injured, ill and exhausted survivors, the Mounsey limps towards the nearest port, Belfast.
The last hope for the Otranto is that she will be swept towards the wide open sand of Machair Bay.
It's not to be though as Otranto is cruelly swept towards the ragged rocky shoreline of the Rhinns of Islay, where she crashes against a submerged reef, the Botha na Cailleach. Her back is broken and her hull ripped asunder. For the remaining survivors on board the Otranto, it is a final fatal blow.
Nearly five hundred men are suddenly thrown into the water. For the sick and the injured it means instant death. From here only twenty-one will make it ashore alive, two of those, despite the best efforts of the islanders, will die of their injuries.
A heroic rescue
Once again, local farmers and fisherman perform remarkable feats of heroism. Despite the appalling conditions, two teenage brothers, Donald and John McPhee, wade out into the wild surf off Kilchoman and, with the help of a shepherd's crook, save several survivors from certain drowning.
By the following morning, the Otranto had been completely demolished by the heavy seas. Wreckage and bodies wash up on the coastline for weeks to come. In all, 470 men lost their lives, including 358 American soldiers, 96 crewmen and 6 French fishermen.
Len Wilson's remarkable account of these events, The Drowned and the Saved, When War Came to the Hebrides, is available to buy here.
A final thought
Towards the end of the Second World War, my grandfather, who was from Coventry, served in the in the Far East on board HMS Loch Gorm.
In the late 1970s, his daughter moved to Glasgow, and he spent numerous summers touring Scotland in search of the mysterious loch after which his frigate was named.
On our way to the Kilchoman Military Cemetery, where 73 sailors and marines of HMS Otranto are buried, we find Loch Gorm. We stop for a few moments to remember my granddad. He would have loved it here. A navy veteran, with a lifelong affinity for the ocean, he loved Scotland - the drama of its landscape, the hospitality of its public houses, the warmth of its people. He would have understood the sacrifice, bravery and courage of those young men who travelled across an ocean to fight in a war. And then, like me, he would have gone for a quiet pint.
This year I'm doing a bit of island hopping - one summer, three very different islands.
First up was a lads trip to Ibiza. I'm still trying to piece together exactly what went on that week in mid-June, but as it coincided with the opening stages of the World Cup, a few cans were certainly involved. Full details will no doubt emerge after a sustained period of quiet introspection.
My second island of the summer is Sicily, our main family holiday of the year.
Not wishing to over-extend ourselves, we limited our stay to the north-western corner of the island, taking in Palermo, Cefalù, Trapani, Erice and San Vito Lo Capo.
I'd heard a few horror stories about driving in and around Palermo and things didn't get off to the best of starts when an irate customer in front of us in the car rental queue quite literally came to blows with the staff over a disputed charge.
After some delay, we grabbed our keys and fled.
Circumnavigating Palermo wasn't half as bad as I'd been led to believe. Yes the three/four lane highway is lacking in certain basic road markings, but by staying alert and sticking to the middle lane (if you can work out where it is), the seemingly chaotic traffic will simply weave it's way around you. While local drivers seem to manage just fine with only one hand for driving (the other invariably hangs idly from the open window), I wasn't taking any chances and kept two hands firmly on the wheel as we made our way along the coast towards Cefalù.
After a few days spent sunning ourselves on the glorious beach at Cefalù, we decided it was time to venture inland to explore the island's parched interior. Although I'd been warned by a native Sicilian student that there were more interesting places to visit, as I pored over my Sicilian travel map, my gaze kept returning to the same place.
Located about 50 kilometres south of Palermo, Corleone is a small town of around 12,000 inhabitants. The region has been inhabited since prehistoric times and the quaint Museo Pippo Rizzo in the centre of town modestly documents the anthropological history of the area.
But of course, there's only one reason why tourists come to Corleone.
The Mafia. Or, to be more precise, Don Vito Corleone - The Godfather.
Our guide at the fascinating Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e del Movimento Antimafia bravely tried to shift the Hollywood narrative by emphasising that there was more to Corleone than just the Cosa Nostra, but the attempt was ultimately self-defeating, as one comes away from the museum more convinced than ever that Corleone is a town that continues to be plagued by organised crime. Indeed, the mafia remains deeply embedded throughout the region of Palermo - our guide told us that a recent survey found that 80% of businesses in Palermo pay il pizzo (protection money) to the mafia. And in Corleone itself, local government has been dissolved due to mafia infiltration.
Corleone has long been a notorious mafia stronghold and it is not difficult to understand why Mario Puzo chose it as the birthplace of his iconic literary creation, Don Vito Corleone. Many of Italy's most notorious mafiosi were born here. Tommy Gagliano, "the Quiet Don"; Jack Dragna, "the Cappone of LA"; Giuseppe "the Clutch Hand" Morello, founder of the infamous 107th Street Mob, a precursor to the Morello and subsequently Genovese crime families; Michele Navarra, a leading physician and feared crime boss; Luciano Leggio, who, after killing his boss Navarra, took over as head of the Corleonesi crime clan; Leoluca Bagarella, a feared boss who was implicated in 100s of murders and terrorist attacks, including the assassinations of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; Salvatore "Totò" Riina, "the boss of all bosses", whose brutal rein of terror oversaw the assassination of a 13-year-old boy, and the terrorist atrocities that killed Falcone and Borsellino; and Bernardo Provenzano, "the Accountant", a notorious boss who was on the run from 1963 until his eventual arrest in 2006.
While the Godfather may be a cinematic masterpiece, the brutal reality of the mafia is, of course, altogether different from its Hollywood incarnation.
Indeed, one doesn't have to venture far from Corleone's main central piazza to discover a town mired in poverty and lacking in enterprise or investment. Wandering the ramshackle streets of Corleone, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the mafia has sucked the very lifeblood from the town, for who would want to invest in place so immersed in such enduring criminality?
The fallout from the atrocities committed by the Corleonesi mafia continues to this day, as prosecutors continue to unravel events surrounding the mafia terror campaign of the early 1990s. In particular, anti-mafia prosecutor Nino Di Matteo, who lives under armed protection, has led the investigation into historic links between the mafia and the political establishment in Rome. In doing so he follows in the footsteps of courageous anti-mafia crusaders like Placido Rizzotto, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Brave idealists who paid with their lives for their stand against the Cosa Nostra.
They, rather than any fictitious mafia don, are the real heroes of Corleone.
It goes without saying that Vinitaly is a wine fair.
Over 15,000 wines promoted by 4,380 exhibitors from 36 different countries to 128,000 attendees of 143 different nationalities. That's a lot of wine! And while I didn't get around to tasting them all, I did give it a pretty good bash!
But, if four days guzzling wine is just too much for you, there are a few alternatives.
So, on the final day of Vinitaly 2018, I decided to seek out some refreshing alternatives. Here's what I found.
Vinitaly 2018 - alternatives to wine
Within minutes of arriving at the fair, I was fortunate enough to bump into a good friend of mine from the Veronese bagpiping community (a small but voluble fraternity). Pietro also happens to be overseeing events in the International Pavilion and he quickly set me up with a Japanese sake tasting - the ideal way to kickstart a hitherto mundane Wednesday morning!
For this tasting, I was fortunate enough to be in the expert hands of of Katsuhiko Miyasaka and Dominique Grandemenge from the Masumi Brewing Company, who nimbly guided us through the intoxicating world of premium Japanese Sake.
Having learned that the Masumi Brewery was founded in 1662 in the heart of the Japanese Alps, a region famed for the purity of its water, we started off with the Yawaraka Type-1. Soft, clean and surprisingly fruity, without any acidity, at 12% this would make an interesting alternative to a lunchtime bottle of white wine.
Our second Sake was the Karakuchi Gold, which at 15% was slightly stronger than the Yawaraka and not as obviously fruity.
After a quick explanation of the production process, including the mystical world of rice polishing, we were on to the next drop, the Karakuchi Kiippon. Light bodied and dry, it is one of the key expressions of the Masumi brand.
A brief discussion around some of the issues currently facing the sake industry (it is generally considered to be the unfashionable drink of an older generation and, while quality has really improved in recent years, in an ultra competitive market, consumption is currently falling), and we were on to the final expression, the Nanago, from Masumi's super premium range.
As with whisky, yeast is a crucial ingredient in Sake fermentation and this expression is named 'Seventh Heaven' in honour of yeast strain number seven, which was developed by the Masumi Brewery in 1946 and of which the brewery is particularly proud. Its mellow fragrance and strength in fermentation make it the most commonly used yeast in Japan.
I have to say, the sake was not at all what I was expecting. Chilled, smooth and fragrant, I was completely blown away by it. I had been expecting some barely palatable fire water, but was surprised to learn that sake is generally fermented with a typical alcohol content of between 12% and 16% abv. Not only that, but it is best enjoyed like a bottle of wine (i.e. in one sitting and with a meal).
Now my only problem is trying to find a supplier in Verona!
With lunchtime rapidly approaching, it was time for a light aperitivo.
What better than a quality Italian gin made using only the finest local ingredients?
Franco Cavallero is a distinguished looking moustachioed entrepreneur from Asti, a small town about 55km east of Turin, famous for its sweet, sparkling wine (spumante). The Piedmontese also have a strong tradition of producing fashionable, aromatic aperitifs, such as Vermouth.
Cavallero's bar, "Il Cicchetto", has been selecting and serving gin to his customers from all over the world. A few years ago he decided to start producing his own.
The result is Gin Agricolo, a farmhouse style gin, produced using only locally sourced natural ingredients. From the mountains of Piedmont, juniper, wormwood (used in vermouth and absinthe), wild raspberries and many other aromatic plants with fragrant essences grow naturally. Gin Agricolo is produced in small batches. In order to protect their delicate and deep perfumes, the botanicals are individually infused in the alcohol base.
The range includes 3 different expressions, the Gadan, a fresh clear gin with a pleasantly dry bitter taste, the Blagheur, a herbaceous gin with spicy notes of cumin, coriander and mint, and the Evra, a fruity pink gin with notes of wild berries, mint and orange peel. All are great to sip neat, but even better with ice and tonic!
Finally stop on the tour was Vermouth, the quintessential Italian aperitif.
Essentially a heavily aromatised fortified wine, Vermouth was traditionally used for medicinal purposes, before being embraced as the ideal aperitif.
Vermouth is also a common cocktail ingredient, particularly in Martinis, Manhattans and, of course, the Negroni (one part gin, one part vermouth rosso, and one part Campari, garnished with orange peel). Vermouth's utility lies in its capacity to lower the alcohol content of cocktails with strong spirits as their base, whilst also providing a pleasant herbal-aromatic flavour.
Drawing on the city's proud tradition of liquor production, Turin Vermouth was established in 2011, the branding perhaps reflecting a nostalgic glimpse back to the golden era of the aperitif. In local dialect, Drapò is the name given to the flag of Piedmont, appropriate for a drink that is itself symbolic of the region.
Selecting more than 20 botanicals from across Oceania, Asia, South America and Europe, herbs including cinchona, angelica, star anise, juniper, lemon balm, sage, and chamomile, and carefully infusing them with fine grain alcohol and Trebbiano wine, the resulting blend is then filtered and left to rest for five weeks before being bottled.
The sweet Gran Riserva, produced in limited quantities and matured in a single French oak barrique for at least 8 months, was a fitting way to bring to a close a fascinating morning spent exploring some wonderful alternatives to wine.
Now it's time for a beer!