Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thomas Becket and Sicily

Today the Roman Catholic Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by knights under King Henry II of England.

Very few people, including Sicilians, know about the connection between this famous archbishop and Sicily, but he was so important to the Normans of Sicily that after his death they had a Cathedral built in his honor in the Western Sicilian town of Marsala, and an effigy of him done in mosaic for Monreale Cathedral.

Thomas Becket was a friend and confidant of the Sicilian Queen Margaret of Navarre, with whom he kept up a long-standing correspondence.

When he was murdered on December 29th of the year 1170, the scandal within the Church was so great that the engagement between Henry II's daughter Joan of England, and the young Sicilian Norman King William II was called off for a few years.

Read more about him in our article.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Buon Natale!

This Christmas season has been bittersweet in Sicily. Lots of street protests here and throughout Italy over things like public spending cuts. And merchants are complaining that holiday shopping, which saw an increase in sales in the United States, was not very good here. That was something you could see.

One intangible gift was a recent law that will improve higher education in Italian un iversities, including the infamously mediocre University of Palermo. In the future, nepotism will be outlawed and students will be able to "review" teacher performance. Professors will be required to be present instead of skipping classes and "office hours."

Yes, it's bizarre that such corruption still exists here, but the government's effort to address it is a good sign.

And Christmas, of course, will be celebrated as it always has been...

Friday, December 17, 2010

First Snow

This morning parts of Sicily - mostly the higher regions - were blanketed with snow. Etna, the Nebrodi and Madonie mountains, but also some lower peaks around Palermo (shown), were white. Etna, of course, is snow-capped until March.

The first snowfall is much awaited, just like the first major rains after summer (usually during early September). In recent years it hasn't come until January, but this year a burst of cold air arrived from Russia, bringing the snow with it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saint Lucy's Day

It's December 13th, Saint Lucy's Day! The feast of this saint, a native of Sicily, is celebrated in a special way in Siracusa - her birthplace - where she is the patron, and in Sweden, as well as other parts of Europe. In Sicily, where by tradition wheat products are not served on this day, arancine (rice balls) and cuccìa (wheat berry pudding) are popular.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Venus comes home!

Visitors at the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles are saying their farewells to an ancient Sicilian woman whose beauty will never pass: she's the Venus of Morgantina.

In just a few weeks, she will be traveling back to Sicily where she was "kidnapped" by tomb raiders and then sold on the international black-market during the 1980's.

In 1988 the Venus of Morgantina was bought by the Paul Getty Museum during a London auction for a reported 12 million dollars. After years of investigations, an Italian court was able to determine that the statue's tufa stone comes from a quarry in central Sicily.

The Italian-Swiss art dealer, who sold the statue to the English company illegally, which later auctioned it off to the Californian museum, was sentenced to two years in prison and to a fine of about 20 million Euros to be paid to the Italian government.

The "Venus" of Morgantina actually portrays one of the most venerated female divinities of ancient Sicily, i.e. either the beautiful Persephone or her mother Demeter.

Soon she will be back home in the Sicilian museum of Aidone, near Morgantina, where she came from. In this same museum a set of silver and gold tableware, including plates, bowls and platters, is also displayed. This set was also stolen in Morgantina and it was just recently sent back to Sicily from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Baby Bolsheviks!

Can young teenagers close down a public high school from late November until Christmas on the pretext that they want to ferment social change in "evil" Italy? Yes, if they're in Sicily. Read about this typically Italian phenomenon in my article on sit-ins.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Archbishop Romeo named cardinal

On November 20th the archbishop of Palermo, Paolo Romeo, was named a cardinal. Not an unexceptional nomination, perhaps, as the archbishop of this city is usually made a cardinal sooner or later.

Later, in this case. It seems that the archbishop's subtle differences with certain ideas emanating from the Vatican delayed his nomination by at least a year. On the other hand, with the Pope's recent visit to Palermo it was clear that the "elevation" couldn't be forestalled forever.

The archbishop is not only the bishop of the largest Italian city south of Naples. He is, by tradition Primate of Sicily as well. This title dates to the 12th century Norman rule of the island. Today, like the title Patriarch of Venice, it is largely symbolic because Sicily is no longer a sovereign nation (primates of places like Ireland have a more defined role in the hierarchy), but he does have ceremonial precedence over other Sicilian bishops.

Congratulations to His Eminence.

Friday, November 5, 2010

St Martin's Day

Here in Sicily, November means lots of things: cooler nights, shorter days, olive harvests, novello wine, and Saint Martin's Day. The feast of St Martin is celebrated with Moscato wine, one of Sicily's sweet amber delights, and hard biscotti. Read about it in the current Best of Sicily Magazine.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Historic Families

With the November number of the Best of Sicily Magazine we are publishing the first article of our Historic Families series. These are profiles of families that left a mark on Sicilian history. In most cases, the obvious trace still visible is a castle or palazzo. In an effort to avoid glorifying present-day personalities (there are gossip rags for that), the families described are now extinct and are - for the most part - medieval. The point of this series is to shed some light on the people behind certain landmarks and to present a bit of history with a "personal" touch.

The first family profiled are the infamous Chiaramonte clan. Their castle, Palermo's Steri, is shown here.

A point sometimes raised is that historians direct more attention to aristocrats than to the ordinary people who actually built the Steri and cultivated the land that made the nobles wealthy. The response is that little has been recorded about these people in the other social classes as individuals. Until the 19th century the history of Europe is largely the history of the aristocracy.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Time Change 30/31 October

A reminder that if you are in Italy or most parts of western Europe you'll have to set your clock back an hour around 2 AM on Sunday, 31 October. Or, if you prefer, late Saturday evening. What's important is that you effect the change if your computer or cell phone doesn't do it automatically.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tours of Sicily 2011

The folks in our commercial department tell me that the descriptions of our tours of Sicily for 2011 are now online, that there are more start dates than in 2010 and that the prices have not increased.

Commercial department? Yes, Best of Sicily is a commercial publication which accepts advertising. It is not published by a tour company, hotel reservation vendor, public travel bureau or media conglomerate. Advertising is what keeps this site going and that includes co-branded tours. Were it not for such advertising, this website would not exist. In fact, it had virtually no advertising from its launch in 1999 until 2005 when we began selling tours of Sicily.

That said, this site, like most newspapers and magazines, is "free press" - as you can infer from the great diversity of articles we publish on dozens of topics, often from differing points of view.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pope Benedict Visits Sicily

Tomorrow (Sunday, October 3rd) Pope Benedict will be in Palermo for a day to celebrate an open-air mass in the morning and then meet with the archbishop and seminarians for lunch. Later he'll attend an event in Piazza Politeama to meet with young people.

We can expect most of the commercial and historical districts of the city to be closed to traffic. Over 200,000 people are expected at the mass on the seaside lawns along the Foro Italico.

As you can imagine, getting around town by car will be virtually impossible, and it won't be easy even on foot. Palermitan crowds are usually undisciplined, to say the least, and consider littering public areas a birthright. I don't envy the Monday-morning cleaning crews!

It's been 17 years ago since the last Papal visit, always a big event. While some people will certainly appreciate Benedict's message (and his Italian is far better than his English), for most it's the pure spectacle that is appealing. They won't be disappointed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tracing Jewish Roots in Sicily

It may seem like an esoteric topic (perhaps it is), but an increasing number of Sicilian descendants around the world are seeking their Jewish roots in Sicily. Considering that the island's last Jews were expelled or converted in 1493, that's not a simple line of research. It's really a question of "pushing the envelope" of genealogical research and exploiting the slightest clues.

But our article on Sicilian Jewish genealogy offers some pragmatic advice.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hail in September!

Here's a follow-up to our recent report on the first rain of late Summer. As I write this, at 10 PM Friday evening, Palermo is experiencing a thunderstorm. It's hailing and the flat hail stones are a centimeter wide. In the second week of September! An unprecedented event...

Monday, September 6, 2010

First Rain!

It may seem difficult to imagine if you live in a rainy place, but the beginning of Sicily's "rainy" season is a much-awaited event. For at least two months there's no rain in most parts of Sicily - except perhaps for an occasional drizzle on Mount Etna. Then, usually around the beginning of September, there's a legitimate shower.

Last year (2009), it was on August 31st. This year it was on Thursday, September 2nd or, more precisely, the early morning hours of September 3rd. That meant droplets on the plane trees, and the beginning of cooler nights.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Operating Room Fight!

"Only in Sicily!" That was the response of many disgusted Sicilians. It was almost too incredible to believe. Even in Sicily!

A few days ago two obstetricians at Messina's general hospital got into a fist fight (literally) during a delivery, leaving a newborn with possible brain damage and a mother without a uterus. The Italian health minister made a trip to Messina to decry the lack of professionalism - to say the least! - and to assure the public that a full investigation would be undertaken. He also visited the mother and baby, both in improving condition following their macabre experience. That the story made its way into the international press only made matters seem worse than they already were.

Essentially, what happened is that the pregnant woman's personal obstetrician, who was familiar with her condition, entered the hospital to assist the staff obstetrician. The latter resented having his opinion challenged regarding the necessity of a c-section and other treatment. Angry words were exchanged, with the staff physician telling the private one something to the effect that he was "nobody" within the walls of the hospital. The debate and actual physical confrontation consumed precious time needed to assist the patient giving birth and complications ensued.

For now, one of the physicians, a state employee, has been suspended pending the investigation. There will probably be a civil suit as well, but in Italy suing a public hospital for malpractice is practically impossible. This is one of many flaws in the health care system Italians claim is "superior" to that of the United States - and when have you ever heard of two American doctors coming to blows during an operation?!?!

The health minister is absolutely correct to cite the total lack of professionalism - a serious problem in Italy but especially in Sicily. Incompetent lawyers, accountants, engineers and architects are the norm on our island. You can imagine the situation in less regulated fields like marketing and teaching. An unprofessional or incompetent accountant may cost you some money; a mediocre physician could cost you your life!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Saint Louis Day at Monreale

Today the people of Monreale, outside Palermo, celebrate Saint Louis Day.

His obnoxious little brother, Charles of Anjou, was the infamous King of Naples who provoked the Sicilian Vespers uprising in 1282, but King Louis IX of France, later canonized as Saint Louis, was a far more pleasant person - and a far better man. He died during a crusade in Tunisia.

His heart (along with his liver and some other organs) was buried in Monreale Abbey following a funeral en route to France. These are preserved in a small chapel in the abbey cathedral. Few Sicilians - or French, for that matter - are aware of this, or the fact that more of the saint is preserved in Sicily than in France.

Originally, Louis' body, minus his heart, was placed into a tomb at Saint Denis outside Paris. During the Revolution most of the royal tombs, including his, were desecrated and their contents dispersed. Today all that remains in the tomb of Saint Louis in Saint Denis is a finger.

Strangely, the name Luigi (Louis) is quite rare in Sicily, where the saint is not widely venerated. The landscape of given names is dominated by Salvatores, Gaetanos, Calogeros, Claudios, Antonios and Giuseppes. Among women, Luigia and Luisa are not as popular as they once were. Perhaps they should be.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

It's Beach season!

It looks like this August will be as hot as ever.

Earlier this year four Sicilian beaches were awarded the Blue Flag for their waters being among Europe's cleanest. This is a rating based on specific scientific standards rather than subjective ones. They are Porto Paolo (Menfi), Pozzallo (Ragusa), Fiumefreddo-Cottone (Catania) and Marina di Ragusa.

Of course, these aren't the only great beaches in Sicily. Find more on our Sicily beaches page.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Morgantina Silver

Until the first week of August, Palermo's Salinas Archaeological Museum is hosting an exceptional display of ancient Greek silver discovered at the Morgantina site near Enna in east-central Sicily.

Interesting as this is, the tale of its discovery - and how the Italian government retrieved it from the Metropolitan museum in New York, which had purchased it from art traffickers in the 1980s - is just as remarkable. Some of these objects are truly unique.

The exhibit is well worth a visit if you're in Palermo any time soon. read about this treasure in Antonella' Gallo's article (Morgantina Silver) in the July issue of our online Magazine.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Prison of the Inquisition at Palazzo Steri

For almost 200 years Sicily lived one of the darkest pages of history, as did many parts of Mediterranean Europe; an execrable "added value" of what was already an oppressive domination at the time: the Spanish Inquisition. Though it began officially in 1601 and ended in 1782 under the enlightened vision of Neopolitan viceroy Caracciolo it had, however, already existed on other parts of the island for many years prior as part of a free-for-all lynching against the Conversos and others found guilty of what was deemed stregonery and heretical.

In its quest to "keep the faith", it inflicted the most gruesome forms of torture conceived by deranged human minds, and in Palermo, these were practiced in and around the Palazzo Steri in Piazza Marina, which became the Inquisition tribunal and seat. The palace itself, oddly enough, was already the theater of sanguinary transitions of power: built by and belonging to the powerful Chiaramonte family (so imposing was their fame and wealth throughout Sicily that the architectural style known as the Chiaramontano derives from their family) in the early 1300s, the last heir was decapitated by Spanish troops just outside the main entrance; subsequently, the exterior of the palace was rigged with cages that exposed the heads of nobility that rebelled against Charles V, used as deterrents to those who dared to do the same.

It was in this lugubrious environment therefore that the setting became almost natural for the inhumane sentences that were carried out. People of all races and creeds who spoke all the known vernaculars of the time and who still populated the island well beyond the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella were literally swept off the streets when accused of, or even merely suspected of committing, dubious crimes against the church. Packed into minuscule cells, they somehow found a way to express their fears, their anger, their despair - and, in some bizarre instances of Inquisition Stockholm Syndrome, expressions of unwavering faith to the church - through etchings and graffitis that "decorated" the detention cells.

All manner of materials were used, from blood to excrements to smuggled coal. Miraculously, as a testament to the gruesome ambiance that was the Steri Palace, many of these graffitis have remained intact, serving as vivd reminders of the horror and ignorance of the past and as proof of how the Inquisition made no distinction about whom it put on trail - the most exemplary of these graffitis can be considered the one that expresses the verses of the Apostles' Creed, written in 17th century English.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Greenery at Villa Trabia

A few of us attended the Addio Pizzo fair at Palermo's Villa Trabia on Sunday. Best of Sicily supports this anti-Mafia group, which has been a positive force in bringing organised crime under control. (Editorially, we don't feel the need to go out of our way to draw readers' attention to that at every opportunity, but it is mentioned on the page About Us. Recently, somebody on a travel forum mistakenly inferred that we might not have a position regarding the pizzo. We certainly do!)

The villa's gardens used to be much larger. Parts of the land where the English Garden (Giardino Inglese) and the nearby Catholic school are located used to be part of the estate formerly owned by the Lanza family. Wandering around the grounds, I ended up in a lush corner I had never visited before. I couldn't resist the temptation to photograph this delightful little piece of isolated greenery in the middle of a city having far too much concrete.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Garibaldi Day Reality Check

Though it's not observed regularly, today is "Garibaldi Day" in Palermo. It was 150 years ago that the general "liberated" the city. Well, "liberation" is certainly a misnomer in this case. Other Sicily sites (the ones published by Sicilian emigrés living in Britain, Australia or North America) may not offer anything more than the "official" view of the Risorgimento that their writers studied in Italian schools.

Unfortunately, that perspective is full of revisionist history, political spin and simple misinformation. Wouldn't you like real information for a change?

Read our article about Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sicily for a reality check. Accuracy is something you can expect from Best of Sicily. That's why we're here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Leopard

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Garibaldi's landings in Sicily as part of the national unification movement - and nobody in Sicily seems to care. Fact is often stranger than fiction, and the historical novel that provoked serious reconsideration of the unification war and its aftermath remains the bestselling Sicilian work of fiction half a century after its initial publication.

The Leopard is the story of an aristocratic family of Palermo beginning in 1860. Important themes abound within its pages, and it remains as fresh and readable today as it was over fifty years ago. It was published shortly after the death of its author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian nobleman.

What's interesting is that this unique novel is still fairly popular. More than any other book, it has shaped the opinions of many Sicilians over the last five decades, challenging what - until the fall of the House of Savoy and the end of Fascism - was advocated by the Italian police state as the "official" view of Italian unification.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Medea at Tindari

Beginning May 22nd the drama foundation of Tindari's Teatro dei Due Mari (Two Seas Theatre) will be performing Medea by Euripides, and other Greek plays by Aeschylus, through June 6th.

This is a magnificent setting on a mountain overlooking Sicily's northern coast near Messina.

The shows start at 7 each evening and ticket information is available on their website (though this is published only in Italian) under Biglietti at Teatrodeiduemari.net.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wild Asparagus

Sicily's wild asparagus is picked in April and May. This is one of the more esoteric delights of our island - artichokes and other vegetables are far better known and harvested in greater quantities.

But it shouldn't be overlooked.

Yes, it is elusive. You may have to venture into one of Sicily's street markets to find it. If you're just visiting, it may be that much more difficult to find a restaurant that includes wild asparagus on its menu. For the most part, this is something Sicilians make at home.

It's worth the effort. Our wild asparagus article talks about this rare treat.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Forever Young: Bamboccioni (big babies)

Today is Labour Day in Italy and most of Europe. Here in Italy most young people find their way into the work force only by wading into it very gradually, one tiny step at a time. Until they begin working full-time, and perhaps long afterward, Italians continue to live with their mothers and fathers.

Back in January, commenting on a bizarre Italian court decision forcing parents to support their thirtysomething son (who was still living with them) indefinitely, Renato Brunetta, a cabinet minister, remarked that perhaps all of Italy's "big babies" should be forced to leave home at 18. He was joking, but the problem of children relying upon their parents financially - and in many cases living with them - until they're 30 or 40, is a serious problem in Italy. The foreign press sometimes picks up on this, and the American news magazine TIME has written about mammismo (mamma's boys) in the past.

While American young people often begin working part-time jobs at 16, this concept is unknown among Italians who might receive weekly "allowances" (known as the paghetta in Italy) into their late twenties! What is amazing is how many of these "adult children" are poorly-motivated "perpetual students" taking eight or nine years to complete work on what is supposed to be a 4-year university degree. It's extremely distasteful to observe that, compared to their counterparts across the European Union, most Italian young people seem to take a very long time to grow up. One of our staffers even remarked that the social maturity of the "typical" Sicilian at 23 or 24 is more-or-less comparable to that of an American or Briton of 16 or 17. The lack of emotional or economic independence of young Italians is disturbing.

According to a statistic published some years ago, the combined annual incomes of Americans under the age of 19 eclipsed those of Italy's entire workforce.

Here in Sicily the problem is obviously social but (to a very real degree) also economic, complicated by high unemployment among young people. Marilu Romano touches on this in her article about Sicily in the current recession. It's not a pretty picture. There may not be an immediate danger of Italy following Greece - and now perhaps Portugal - into an economic abyss but our part of Italy is already there.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sicily Wine Tours

As I write this, Palermo has just hosted an international wine competition (even if Europe's best wineries usually avoid such "popularity contests" which they characterise as amateurish) and with Spring upon us it's time to think about travel to Sicily.

There's really no "best" time for a wine tour, though many travellers prefer early Autumn when the grapes are being harvested - well, late August in Sicily. What's important to keep in mind is the quality of your itinerary.

A number of travel agencies can plan a personalised itinerary, which is usually the best approach. Sicily Concierge is one such company, and there are others. Sicily's wine region is a good springboard for such an itinerary, while the Etna region offers a pleasant change of pace. Along the way there are plenty of traces of the past, such as Segesta's ancient Greek temple.

Do avoid the public relations pitching one winery over another, or a particular programme. It's easy enough to invent your own. Before you go, check out our Sicily wine page.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sicily Villa Rentals at FAIR Prices!

Our Sicily villa page offers some practical advice on finding and renting a villa in Sicily, but I'd like to make a (very candid) point or two beyond those pragmatic remarks:

Negotiate!

Even if it's not something you usually do. Especially if you're not accustomed to making a counter-offer when purchasing something. This year villa rental agencies, including those outside Italy, are desperate. And they're offering unheard of reductions and discounts. Take advantage of this.

Get the price you (as the customer) deserve!

Some villa rental agencies we know of inflate weekly rates wildly - paying the property owners less than 50% of the retail rate you are paying. Remember that you are the client. In other words, you are the one who pays. Without you, the agency cannot survive. So take control of your holiday, and your budget. In other words, don't be held hostage. Don't be timid about making a counter offer. Italians do it all the time, especially when purchasing products and services costing more than a thousand euros - and most weekly villa rentals run to at least that much.

Why does our opinion count?

What really counts most is your experience in Sicily. Why do we have such a strong, "opinionated" feeling about this subject? For one, Best of Sicily (which does market some co-branded travel services and advertise others such as hotel reservations) is a frank, independent publication which - in our own small way - advocates consumer rights. The villa rental field is, unfortunately, largely uncontrolled and virtually unregulated, so rates are often incredibly subjective (read inflated). We certainly do not oppose the right of anybody, including marketing professionals, to make an honest living, but we do want to see clients and customers treated fairly.

A few agencies we like (no, they don't all advertise on Best of Sicily):

Sicily 4 U
Volcano Consult
Casale Bazan
Discover Sicily

Come to Sicily. And enjoy your stay.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Private Palermo?


In a recent New York Times article, Jim Lewis wrote about a visit to Palermo. In it he describes a city that some of us would barely recognise. While his observations are not actually inaccurate, they may be colored by certain preconceptions and a rather haphazard itinerary. What is most striking is that he fails to mention the extensive restorations of historic buildings in the older part of town, and it seems that he didn't bother visiting the more important sights most people come to Palermo to see: Monreale Abbey, the Martorana Church, Saint John of the Hermits Monastery. Nothing in the piece suggests any awareness of the various sights around Palermo: Segesta, Erice, Cefalù.

Most large cities have their "seedy" side: certain parts of New York's Bronx and London's Brixton are less than inviting. That's obviously not what people come to see. Palermo is no different. The city is not without its problems: high unemployment, political corruption, mediocre public services, organised crime. This is no secret. Best of Sicily has published articles on all these topics.

But the thesis that Palermo offers no social life is simply illogical. I recall, for example, attending a performance of the Kirov Ballet at the Teatro Massimo, one of Europe's most beautiful opera houses. The ballet and music were excellent, the setting superb, and the ticket prices were far less than what you would pay in New York, London, Paris or Milan.

I'm struck by the author's observations about some of the restaurants. An important point should be made for visitors. There are some "quasi-legal" restaurants in Palermo - the kind without written menus. By law, all restaurants in Italy must have written menus, with prices clearly indicated. That is true of all the establishments reviewed in the restaurant pages of Best of Sicily and See Palermo. Most of the restaurants in Via Orologio and Via Bara all'Olivella should be avoided, while those in Piazza Olivella nearby are compliant with regulations. The same is true of those in Piazza Marina. Restaurant reviews (for any city) are written precisely to ensure that the reader has good choices.

Palermo is an unpolished gem waiting to be discovered, but we've never said that every single part of it is flawlessly beautiful. What's important is that you plan your trip to focus on the more interesting things. (Shown here is the recently-restored Basilica of Saint Dominic.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Easter in Sicily

If you'll be in Sicily for Easter this weekend, read our recent Easter article first. It may give you a whole new perspective on how to enjoy this fantastic holiday in Sicily. (Shown here is a paschal lamb made of marzipan - a typical Sicilian pastry sold around this time of year.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sicilian Baroque - Casa Professa

While I must confess to not being a great fan of Baroque or Rococo architecture, Casa Professa (officially the "Chiesa del Gesù"), historically Sicily's most important Jesuit church, is worth a stop on any Palermo itinerary. With its intricate intarsia inlay, bold paintings and a few sculptures by Serpotta, it is generally considered the finest example of its style in Sicily - though purists do not consider it "Sicilian" Baroque per se.

Located between the Quattro Canti and the Ballarò street market, the church is easy enough to find, and just a few minutes' walk from San Cataldo and the Martorana. Read about it in Carlo Trabia's recent article.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rite of Spring

Here in Sicily Spring arrives fairly early. You might even say it's already arrived. The weather is already getting warmer after what was an unseasonably warm and brief winter.

Spring and Autumn are without question the best times to visit Sicily, though Winter is becoming increasingly popular and should not be overlooked. July and August, while great for sun worshippers, can be tricky because August, in particular, is often extremely hot - and some public beaches in Sicily are extremely crowded. That said, it's really a question of personal preference.

One of the nice things about Spring is that the fields are green and in April they come alive with wild snapdragons and other wild flowers. Our Sicily weather page offers a glimpse of Sicily's seasons month by month. Shown here is Segesta's ancient Greek temple in April.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Jewish Side of Palermo

Palestinian Jews lived in Sicily simultaneously to the Romans. The city of Palermo was a home to them and later to Berber Jews from the Maghreb for over sixteen centuries. There is no doubt that having lived side by side with a people of such an ancient history and culture, the Sicilians have made some Jewish traditions their own. This can mostly be seen in Sicilian cooking and food, which has been influenced not only by the Jews but by the Arabs. Try to keep Sicilians away from artichokes, arancini or their love of cooking much of their food in olive oil flavored with garlic, and you are in trouble.

For centuries, the Jewish people prospered in the silk industry, as coral, gold and silver artisans, and in all kinds of commerce to the undeniable benefit of the city of Palermo and of all of Sicily, but in 1493 they were forced to leave as the Spanish King Ferdinand's edict from the previous year was enforced in all his territories in Southern Italy.

It was a terrible loss for the Sicilian people, as testified by a number of letters from the local government pleaing with the king to change his mind.

Today there are no longer any practicing Sicilian Jews on the island although quite a number of Sicilian families can trace their roots to Jewish ancestors.

Editor's Note: Jackie's tours, including Judaic Palermo, are described at www.palermoguide.net.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sicily's 1st Department Store Opens

Today Palermo witnessed a historic event of sorts as Sicily's first "real" department store opened. Now I know this may seem a little silly to most of you. Yes, Sicily already had a few bona fide shopping malls. And a few "foreign" brands have shops in Sicily; in Palermo's Via Libertà shopping district there's Louis Vuiton, Hermes, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, Sephora and a few others. But the new Rinascente at the corner of Via Roma and Piazza San Domenico in central Palermo is the first actual department store of the type you'll find in New York or London.

Not that department stores, in themselves, represent the epitome of civilised living. I'm not suggesting anything of the kind. But it's nice to have choices. Convenience is not a bad thing, even if it's fast food: Sicily's first McDonald's opened about ten years ago, and a Burger King opened this week at Palermo's new shopping mall - the Forum in the infamous Brancaccio district. On a different level, the last few years have seen a number of sushi bars open in Palermo and Catania. The point is that until the late 1990s, when satellite television and the internet began to take off, Sicily was in many ways less than a friendly environment for most expatriates. Isolation would be a good description, and backward (though perhaps an unkind characterization) would not be entirely inappropriate. That has changed over the last decade.

The new store is a modern structure built onto part of a 19th century Baroque palazzo - bringing together Old and New Palermo.

Rinascente offers a number of "international" brands, including Burberry, Calvin Klein, Gant, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, which until now were not widely sold in Sicily. Of course, it's good to sell local products too, and Rinascente has those as well as a terrace restaurant specializing in Sicilian cuisine - and the store itself is right next to the historic Vucciria street market. One of the benefits of such a store is that a visitor in need of a particular item can find it easily without having to search an entire unfamiliar city. Oh yes, Rinascente, in stark contrast to most shops in Sicily, will be open continuously throughout the entire business day, from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening - without the annoying afternoon closing from 1 until 4. Evolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow in Palermo!

A few weeks ago, I posted about snow in Sicily and how I don't consider it a "real" winter here until (and unless) there's snow on the mountains around Palermo for at least a day or two. Well, today it arrived! It may not last long, but I captured it for posterity with the camera on my cell phone - okay, I agree that the quality is hardly exceptional but at least you can make out the snow on the slopes of the mountain toward the right. It's cool and rainy down here by the shore, so it may get chillier still up there on the summit, providing us with more visions of what life is like for so much of Europe and North America right now. As I write this, even parts of the southeastern United States - places like Mississippi and Florida - have had a rare snowfall.

As for me, I can finally say that, yes, it is winter in Sicily.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sicilian Royalty Remembered

Here in Palermo I encounter local women of all ages who seem to consider themselves somewhat "worldly" because they've spent money on what look like overpriced clothes and have taken a group tour to someplace like Egypt or Thailand. Let's not dwell on the fact that few can manage a complete sentence, let alone a conversation, in English. Right now, the number of women wearing fur coats in a city where it hardly ever snows is astounding.

Back in December 1994, when I first met Princess Urraca de Bourbon of the Two Sicilies, who in childhood had actually known Queen Maria Sophia (the queen, a sister of Empress Elizabeth 'Sissi' of Austria, died when Urraca was 12), I was struck by her simplicity. During the day, instead of fur she wore a simple goose down coat. There was no need to "impress" anybody with false attempts at sophistication. She was the real thing.

We spoke at Count Tasca d'Almerita's grand dinner party for the Bourbons - the likes of such an assemblage of the Palermitan nobility and fantastic cuisine hasn't been seen since then. (My date that evening was descended from one of Sicily's aristocratic families.) I honestly don't recall Urraca wearing much jewelry. A widow for many decades, Her Highness lived and died in her native Bavaria and, as would be expected, spoke several languages fluently (French, German, Italian, some English, even a little Neapolitan). She died five years after I met her.

Cynical cynosure on my part, but even if the vulgar "ladies" I encounter daily were to dress in the most expensive furs and wear the Hope diamond, they'd still look (and be) tascia by comparison, boasting little knowledge of Sicilian culture and history, and even less of their own families' histories. They don't understand that it's a woman's entire oeuvre, not just the superficial elements, that establish a style and, more importantly, an identity.

One of the things so sorely - and so obviously - lacking among Sicily's women today is the kind of grey eminence epitomized by Britain's late Queen Mother or America's Rose Kennedy. In some ways Stefania Mantegna of Gangi, the noblewoman who as a young mother defied Fascism and who later counted England's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip among her house guests at Palazzo Gangi, was such a figure. She, and an era, died in 1999, the same year as Urraca de Bourbon. Back in 1963, Palazzo Gangi was used for the ballroom scene of The Leopard, the story of the fall of the House of the Two Sicilies and the vicissitudes of Sicily's aristocracy.

Few of today's Sicilians - male or female - know much at all about the dynasty that ruled our island until 1860, and in any event the typical young giuseppina (as we Sicilians refer to particularly provincial women) can never hope to be addressed Your Highness unless she marries a prince worthy of that style - and there are precious few "princes" of any kind in Palermo! But it's nice to reminisce about a grande dame or two who wore it so well.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sicily on a Budget

The Great Recession is coming to an end but recovery may take a few more months. Unless you want to postpone your trip to Sicily for another year or two, now is the time to begin planning for 2010. Here are a few suggestions if you don't have too much to spend this year. You're not alone! (Speaking of money, the gold coin shown here is an augustalis from the reign of Frederick II in the 13th century, so don't expect to receive one as change.)

Flights: Ryan Air and easyJet are good choices if you're coming from someplace in Europe - remember to check which Sicily airport they serve - but during the "high" season (May through August) some of Alitalia's fares are comparable. If your trip involves crossing an ocean or two, the best advice is to just shop around.

Lodging In Town: There are plenty of hotels in Sicily, and rates at the 3-star establishments are usually pretty good. You may want to consider a bed and breakfast in Sicily. Keep in mind that quality of accommodation may be uneven; some B&Bs are exceptional while others leave much to be desired, and a lot of low-cost pensioni (2-star guest houses) now promote themselves as B&Bs.

Lodging Out of Town: Country retreats ("guest farms" or agriturismo) are rural bed and breakfasts on working farms. Here you can stay for a night or two. Villa and cottage rentals in Sicily usually presuppose a minimum stay of one week, with arrival/departure on a weekend.

Getting Around: Unless you're taking an escorted tour of Sicily, you'll either have to rent a car or rely on public transportation. Driving can be challenging in the larger cities, while buses and trains do not take you everywhere but do make it possible to get to major attractions.

Whatever approach you take, enjoy your trip!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Great Air Fares Until the 28th!

Let's talk... A recent article mentioned some good reasons to come to Sicily before April. In other words, during the Winter. One of the points made was that flights and hotels cost less during the "low" season than during Spring and Summer. Here's some good news if you're still thinking about it. Until January 28th Alitalia is offering fares as low as $665 round-trip to Italy from the United States, allowing you to fly through March 18th at an exceptionally low price. Check out their US site for details.

And there are equally tempting offers if you're coming from Australia, Canada or Japan.

This is perfect for independent travel but here's another good reason: Although the Best of Sicily tours are "scheduled" beginning in mid-March, most of these itineraries can be arranged on request for a small group - even 3 or 4 participants - throughout February or in early March.

Think about it but decide soon!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snow in Sicily

Here in Sicily it's simple enough to see that Winter has arrived by the snow atop Mount Etna and the higher peaks of the Nebrodi and Madonie mountains (indicated and linked from our map of Sicily). But most of Sicily doesn't get quite that cold. This year has been fairly warm, with less precipitation than last year. As I write this, there's been very little snow on the mountains around Palermo. (The photo here was taken a year ago in Via Notarbartolo.) That's my own gauge of whether it's a "cold" Sicilian winter or not, but the season isn't over yet so there's still plenty of time for some symbolic snow down here near the coasts.

I know this will have a quaint ring if you live in a cooler climate, but in Sicily weather is never very unpredictable - especially in the valleys and near the coasts. It's warm and sunny most of the year. There are only about six months when you might even wear a jacket. Winter is actually a great time to visit. So is early Spring. (Here are a few reasons.) Think about it...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Independent Travel in Sicily

Independent travel is a real possibility in Sicily and - despite what some "Sicily experts" may imply - it doesn't necessarily entail renting a villa in Sicily for two thousand euros a week or staying in deluxe seven-star hotels. In fact, it can be reasonably economical. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Sicily Concierge and other, similar firms can help plan a personalised itinerary. This service need not by unnecessarily expensive, and it offers the advantage of a specialised travel agent. (Full Disclosure & Reality Check: Sicily Concierge advertises on Best of Sicily but they are often consulted by the concierges of certain major credit card companies, often before these companies' "official" travel service representatives in Sicily are even queried.)

Best of Sicily's hotel page makes hotel reservations easy and efficient (through use of a highly-sophisticated network), and the site itself is full of travel tips. It's a destination and travel guide, after all. There are also "niche" services like Sicily Moto Rent, which rents motorcycles a week at a time.

Another interesting idea is the flexible travel "package" offered by Sicily Open Voucher. The focus here is hotel reservation options linked to your car rental and, of course, flexibility in your independent travel around Sicily.

"Independent" travel doesn't have to mean that you're always "alone." If you're looking for local tour guides for an excursion or day tour, consider a service like Palermo Guide or Eastern Sicily Guides.

Best of Sicily and the firms mentioned here have no monopoly on this field. There are other travel consultants and firms which can provide similar services. What's important is that you consider your choices.

I'd like to make a point here, and it reflects a sentiment which I know isn't really shared by all "travel experts." Much as I respect the effort and dedication of Sicilians who live and work outside Italy, the firms mentioned here are actually based here in Italy, so they help support the local economy directly. That's important because Sicily isn't just a place. It's people too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coming Ashore at Palermo or Messina

Are you planning to visit Sicily for just one day? Shore excursions from cruises don't have to be superficial or poorly-planned. There are lots of ways to discover Sicily this year, however briefly. Palermo shore excursions (to Monreale, Segesta, around old Palermo or up the coast to Cefalù) and shore excursions from Messina (with their emphasis on Taormina and Mount Etna) are a great idea if you're taking a Mediterranean cruise that calls at Palermo or Messina. This isn't a week-long tour of Sicily but a one-day outing.

If sightseeing isn't your favorite activity, think about an alternate activity like a Sicilian cooking class. In Sicily beaches would seem like a good idea but those near the large cities are crowded and probably not worth the effort.

Some practical guidelines are in order. Palermo is far more interesting than Messina and the port isn't too far from the historic part of the city, so most of the information you'll need for a walking tour can be otained online from See Palermo. It is also possible to hire a tour guide in Palermo for an interesting walking tour. However, if you plan to go further afield it's a good idea to hire a specialized touring service that provides you a guide and driver. That is also useful advice if you want to get to Taormina or Etna from Messina which is, well, not a very exciting city.

The cruise lines offer bus tours for larger groups but that isn't the best solution for everybody. Hiring your own driver-guide is not necessarily much more expensive, especially if you do it with 3 or 4 other travelers. A few choices are described on our site's Sicily tour page but we're not the only game in town. Whatever approach you choose, enjoy your visit!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Constantinian Order of St. George

A previous post mentioned an institution which, as it happens, was not described in much detail on Best of Sicily. The Constantinian Order of St George is an order of knighthood (and charitable organization) of the dynasty that ruled Sicily from 1734 until 1860. Over drinks a few days ago, one of our history writers made the point that Malta was a feudal dependency of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (as the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily came to be called) until 1798, and that there is still a close relationship between the Royal House of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta long after either has ceased to rule. I knew this but I have to admit it isn't something I think about every day, and it is kind of obscure.

As institutions, both orders of chivalry are very old. The Constantinian Order was founded some time before 1550 and the Order of Malta around 1100. Sadly, 2008 saw the passing of Prince Ferdinando de Bourbon, Head of the House of the Two Sicilies (and a direct descendant of the last kings of Sicily), and Frà Andrew Bertie, Grand Master of the Order of Malta for two decades. They were succeeded by Prince Carlo de Bourbon and Frà Matthew Festing, whose photograph accompanying the article seems more than fitting considering that each is beginning what we hope will be a long tenure.

It this information seems too esoteric, get a copy of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard or a DVD of the film starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. It'll place all of this in perspective. Or visit the orders' websites: OrderOfMalta.Org or RealCasaDiBorbone.It. The point is that Sicily has some very old, traditional organizations involved very actively in philanthropy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Saint Lucy of Siracusa

Possibly of all the famous women in the long history of Sicily, Saint Lucy of Siracusa (Syracuse) is the best known one all over the world. She is venerated in Italy, in Sweden and in all the Scandinavian countries, in Malta, the US and by Sicilians both on the island and in the "diaspora."

Her feast day is December 13th, and people commemorate this brave young Christian martyr with a number of diverse and colorful traditions.

My new article on St Lucy is online on the Best of Sicily Online Magazine.

Friday, January 1, 2010

"Historical" Itineraries?

We published a piece on the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Sicily back in 2007. Now a "cultural association" in Palermo, supported with public funds, is promoting a "Knights of the Holy Sepulchre Itinerary." That's their right and prerogative, but if you're considering their suggestions read Daniela Paglia's article first.

Why? Well, the fact is that the medieval Order of the Holy Sepulchre had only a very brief and limited presence in Sicily, and scarcely any in the city of Palermo. The Catholic order of knighthood bearing the same name is actually a re-foundation dating not to the Middle Ages - as is often claimed - but to 1847. It was only during the 20th century that the modern order got permission to use the Church of San Cataldo (a medieval structure), shown here with the red cross of the order visible in the apse window.

The focus of the "itinerary" being promoted in Palermo has nothing to do with the medieval Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, although a visit to the beautiful Norman-Arab Church of San Cataldo is highly recommended. Most of the points of interest along the way are associated with the Catholic Church and Sicily's Norman era, but not with the Crusades or the Holy Land. Not directly, at least.

I'm not condemning this entire "itinerary" a priori. I just wish that the people proposing it had done better historical research first.

That said, there are two very old, historic orders of knighthood represented in Palermo today having centuries-long continuity: the Order of Malta based in Rome (formally chartered in 1113) of which the Prince and Grand Master is Frà Matthew Festing, and the Constantinian Order of Saint George based in Naples (chartered in 1555) of which the Grand Master is Prince Carlo de Bourbon, Duke of Castro and Head of the House of the Two Sicilies, the dynasty that ruled Sicily from 1734 until 1860. The historical "home" of the Order of Malta is Holy Rosary Oratory (famous today for its painting by van Dyck) behind the apse of the Basilica of Saint Dominic, while that of the Constantinian Order is the Basilica of the Magione, a medieval church. Both of these churches are important stops along any "knights' itinerary" in Old Palermo.

Come to Sicily this Year!

This year is a great time to visit Sicily. The recession is finally winding down and the island is as inviting as ever.

As an independent destination guide, Best of Sicily presents several scheduled tours of sicily and (if you're coming to Sicily as part of a cruise) a number of shore excursions and personalized solutions for independent travel - even cooking classes. But this isn't just a "plug" for our partners' services! Best of Sicily offers travel ideas and even things like practical information on finding a bed and breakfast or renting a villa in Sicily.

With the firm that oversees our tours, we recently conducted a survey of comparable tours of Sicily being sold by travel agents in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Russia and Japan. This research revealed Best of Sicily's tours (available directly from the Sicily-based company which organizes them) to be priced very competitively - in fact, moreso than we had imagined.

Yes, like most destination-oriented sites and hard-copy travel magazines, Best of Sicily is a commercial publication and has advertising (which helps to defray publishing costs) but most of the firms and specialists listed, such as the professional tour guides in Sicily and the Sicilian restaurants reviewed, do not pay to be included on the site.

One of our authors recently made the point that visiting Sicily in the winter months is an appealing idea - not that it's ever very cold in most parts of the island. Start planning your visit now!

Destination Weddings in Sicily

Sicily is a great wedding and honeymoon destination but the eastern side of our island, around Taormina, gets most of the attention. It's a great town but for something different - in western Sicily - consider seaside Cefalù, with its medieval cathedral (shown here), or Castelbuono in the scenic Madonie Mountains, where civil ceremonies are performed in the hilltop castle. Alessandra Spampinato at Sicily Wedding is an exceptional, experienced wedding planner specialized in this part of Sicily where she is based.