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:


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, Cefal├╣.

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.)