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.