Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Here in Italy the Christmas season lasts through the Epiphany, a national holiday observed on January 6th. In Sicily this December has been cool enough, with a touch of rain, to feel like late autumn - that is, "autumn" in the central Mediterranean. (Our last post mentioned Sicily's first snow of 2011).

As one of our editors, who spent many years in London and New York, put it, winter in Sicily is like autumn in certain parts of the United States or Britain but without an overcoat. That seems like a good description of the weather, if not the atmosphere.

The picture shows the portico of Palermo's imposing, neoclassical Teatro Massimo, Sicily's largest opera house, decorated for this year's Christmas holiday. Fans of the gangster genre of films may recognise it as the setting of one of the final (violent) scenes of The Godfather Part 3.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the staff of Best of Sicily!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

First Snow of 2011

Okay, so Sicily's first snow of 2011 was on Mount Etna and then in the Nebrodi Mountains a week or two ago, but our annual "measure" is based on visible snow on the mountains around Palermo - which aren't nearly as high as the higher peaks of the Madonie or Nebrodi, not to mention Etna.

Yes, a few of Sicily's higher towns may actually have a white Christmas this year.

The arrival of the first snow heralds the true Sicilian winter, such as it is, with a touch of cooler temperatures and rain. For many of you reading this, that's comparable to autumn.

Here in Sicily it's a welcome event.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St Lucy's Day

Happy Saint Lucy's Day. In commemoration of prayers to Saint Lucy having been answered with the arrival of a shipload of grain during a 17th-century famine, only unmilled grain is served today. This is either arancini, or rice balls (shown here) or a wheat pudding known as cuccìa.

Patroness of Siracusa, Lucy (Lucia) was an early Christian martyr born in Sicily but widely venerated.

Today you won't find bakeries or pizzerias open, and few restaurants here in Sicily will even serve pasta. But there'll be lots of rice!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Magione

Located in the same part of Palermo as the medieval castles - or fortress-like palaces - of the Steri and Palazzo Abatellis, the Magione, constructed late in the 12th century, is one of the world's smallest basilicas. For centuries the monastic setting, with its splendid cloister, was a commandery of the Teutonic Order. These German knights arrived with the Hohenstaufen monarch Henry VI just a few years after the church was built for the Cistercians.

Overlooked by most "tourist itineraries," the Magione is open for most of the day, Monday through Saturday, with mass Sunday morning, and well worth a visit. Read about it in the current issue of our Sicily magazine.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Martorana Fruit and Sea Urchins

Bad as the Italian economy is, Italians can still allow themselves a few culinary pleasures - call them luxuries.

Pasta Reale or Martorana Fruit is a pastry made of almond marzipan shaped and decorated to resemble actual fruit. It's popular during the cooler months. Sooner or later, Winter arrives even here in Sicily. Read about Martorana Fruit in Roberta Gangi's article in the December magazine.

Another of her articles published this month is dedicated to sea urchins. Like Martorana Fruit, these are a Winter food in Sicily.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas Season in Sicily

The sluggish economy hasn't affected Sicily's Christmas season too much as far as we can see. It's true that a number of shops have closed, especially in Catania and Palermo (Sicily's largest cities), but the shopping season is upon us and people seem to be buying. Yet certain national trends can be discerned. Italian newspapers report that parents of young children are becoming more frugal than in the past in view of less money circulating. A series of budget cuts to be announced by the prime minister next week will certainly have an effect - with some taxes reduced while others are increased. Sales (value-added) tax was recently increased to 21% and in 2012 will probably be hiked up again, to 23%, placing it on a par with Denmark's.

It seems that somebody at the infamously mediocre University of Palermo, surely one of the worst institutions of higher learning in Europe, decided to give students an early Christmas "present" in the form of stolen exams, but not for free. Yesterday the Palermo edition of La Repubblica reported that around thirty professors and staff are under investigation for selling exams. Maybe they needed the extra money?

Friday, November 25, 2011

FIAT and other disasters

Yesterday FIAT's plant in Termini Imerese closed its doors after 41 years, laying off over 1500 workers. Coming on the heels of recent flash floods and mudslides near Messina, which claimed several lives, this culminated a week of what seemed like Biblical Plagues.

The FIAT debacle is more complicated than a generic natural disaster. At one point the workers were offered majority or even full ownership of the plant but refused. Instead, most preferred to remain employees rather than to become the owners of an automobile plant. And most had worked in the plant for decades. The fact is that the era of permanent blue-collar jobs is coming to an end, at least in Europe.

The plant was a rather unusual proposition from the beginning, propped up by loads of public money to "persuade" (read bribe) Italy's - and now the world's - largest auto maker to set up shop in Sicily. Even for Italy, which has bailed out FIAT many times over the years, this seemed excessive. By 2005 the plant's productivity and efficiency were being questioned, for a variety of reasons, while many workers were absent at rates far beyond the national norm.

Tragic as the closure is for workers and their families, 1500 employees are not very significant, statistically speaking, in a region (Sicily) of five million. While the human cost is obvious, this is part of a general trend as numerous businesses have closed across Sicily and around Italy over the last few years, with precious few successful new ones to take their place. FIAT just happens to employ more people than the typical clothing store.

Not a pretty picture.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bankrupt? Italy's Crisis & La Dolce Vita

Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone, while in trouble (read the insightful ABC News article published yesterday), probably won't reach the "meltdown" point of Greece, but changes are inevitable, beginning with the prime minister. Most changes will be budget cuts and tax increases. And perhaps a few more street protests, mostly by public-sector employees.

From a recent AP story: "Italy's economy is hampered by high wage costs, low productivity, fat government payrolls, excessive taxes, choking bureaucracy, and an educational system that produces one of the lowest levels of college graduates among rich countries."

Italy has more public employees than most European nations (per capita). The occasional street protest is a way of life here in Sicily, and in Italy generally, so for most visitors it's an annoying but "acceptable" inconvenience. The sights, sites and monuments will still be open.

That's not to suggest that the effects of the economic recession in Sicily are not evident to those who live here, but for the most part, Italy's economic problems aren't something you (as a visitor) would actually see unless you scratched beneath the surface. Even unemployment, though a statistical reality, seems "invisible" here in Italy. That's because most "young" people live with parents until marriage or placement in a decent job, even well into their 30s, so despite high unemployment there aren't a lot of homeless people about or, for that matter, twentysomethings struggling to pay the rent. And it's true that the restaurants are always full - of Italians, not just tourists - while Italians rarely deny themselves a vacation abroad. La dolce vita is alive and well in Italy. Viva l'Italia!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best of Sicily for iPhone and Android

Here in Italy, Samsung and Apple may be fighting over patent rights, but that hasn't stopped us from launching a site that works with both phones (Samsung's uses the Android operating system).

We've had a small mobile site since 2006, long before any other site here in Sicily (or even many dealing with Sicily). With the recent generation of devices - smart phones introduced since around 2008 - it's possible to access certain websites without much loss in quality. Luckily, Best of Sicily, with our simple design, is one of them, so the "iPhone site" is really just a few pages you're automatically directed to when you visit us using an iPhone or various phones that use Android.

The practical result of this is that it's easier than ever to take Best of Sicily with you wherever you go, including Italy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Crusades and Sicily

Debated even today, the Crusades were the ultimate expression of medieval adventure. Legend and literature may have idealized this kind of thing in some ways, but there's no doubt that the Crusades left their mark on history - even if scholars can't quite agree about what that mark is. Despite what some people think, the campaigns themselves did little to alter the course of European history generally. There's little to suggest that life in Europe would have developed much differently had the Crusades never taken place.

They were really little more than a violent side show, but they did touch Sicily in the person of such colorful characters as Richard Lionheart, Frederick II and Saint Louis. Read about them in our article on the Crusades and Sicily in the November Magazine now online.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Best of Sicily Site on Tuesday, October 18th

Best of Sicily is down for maintenance for a few hours. It happens.

In fact, our server has only been down for about five hours in the last five years. It's amazingly reliable.

Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Save on Sicily Tours in 2012!

We occasionally make announcements of a commercial nature on this blog, the point being that Best of Sicily is a commercial site that receives no money whatsoever from any public source and isn't part of a media conglomerate. It's independent but - like most newspapers and publishing houses - commercial. The site is free, but (clearly indicated) advertising pays the bills. So here's the news...

Until November 15th there's a discount on certain of our tours of Sicily for 2012. If you search the web for tours of comparable quality (and with relatively small groups) you'll find that nobody beats these prices. We hope to see you in Sicily next year!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sicily's New Synagogue

The city of Siracusa, in antiquity Sicily's most important Greek city and home to its largest Jewish community, again has a synagogue after five centuries. There is a Reform congregation in Calabria; the one in Siracusa is affiliated with the Orthodox community in Rome.

This revived community has made use of the ancient mikveh (ritual bath) in the city's Ortygia district, and a few of its "Returning Jews" are Sicilians descended from the Jews in Sicily before the expulsions and forced conversions of 1493. Tracing Sicilian Jewish genealogy is rarely simple, but in some cases these families might be described as anusim or even Crypto Jews. Labels aside, they're part of an important faith tradition that was hidden or lost for too long.

For more information visit their site, SiciliaEbraica.It.

Monday, September 5, 2011

First Rain September 2011

Last year (2010), almost to the day, it fell on September 6th - but far more substantially. This year Sicily's first real rain since late June fell tonight just around 11. Here it's shown as a drop of water on a plane tree (sycamore) leaf.

Bizarre as it may seem, this is always a quasi-mystical experience, even if it lasts for just a few minutes. Not only does the rain literally clear the air, it foreshadows a change of seasons. Of course, it'll be unbearably hot for another two or three weeks. I only wish we'd had a real shower...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Paradise on Earth

This sounds like an improbable possibility in a chaotic and modern city like Palermo (the 5th largest in Italy today), but there was a time in the past, during the reign of the Norman Kings of Sicily, when miles and miles of the area outside the medieval city walls carried this title in Arabic. I'm referring the the "Genoard" as the Normans called it giving its Arabic name "Gennat-al-ard" a French sound easier to pronounce in their native tongue.

Travellers during the twelfth century have left us descriptions of the palaces, pavillions (like the one shown here) and vast park. A visit to these places today really puts our imagination to the test, but you can still see the Zisa castle, the Cuba and more.

Read about all this in my new article in the September issue of Best of Sicily Magazine.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 9)

Libya's rebels have taken most of Tripoli, the capital, and while their struggle is far from over it is clear that democracy - in some form - lies on the horizon.

Peace and a decent government will be greeted with relief by all in the region, including Italy. Democracy comes at a price, and Libya's path toward better government is just beginning.

The effects of the Libyan conflict in Sicily were minimal - a few planes launched from air bases and (more significantly) the arrival of thousands of refugees off Sicily's islands.

Parts of Libya are still controlled by the dictator's forces, and this morning a few tanks emerged from the (former) leader's fortified compound in a final military effort. It'll take weeks to defeat or assimilate all of the regime's remaining defenders. But the future looks good.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Beaches of August

No better time than August to discover the beaches of Sicily. The season reaches its peak mid-month, the week of Ferragosto, as the 15th of August (a Monday this year) is commonly known nowadays. To Catholics it's the Feast of the Assumption. Ferragosto as a beach holiday emerged with Italy's "beach culture" in the late 1950s.

Beach addicts from cooler climes will tell you that Sicily's waters are warm enough to swim in well into September, even early October. Check out our Sicily weather page for current conditions.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Italy's Economy and You

Is Italy broke? Bankrupt? Ready to default on its public debt? Yesterday the European Central Bank promised to purchase some of Italy's debt in the form of its government-issued bonds, and this helped trading on the national stock exchange (the Milan Bourse) today. A few days ago the prime minister announced that a series of not-too-drastic economic reforms slated for 2014 would be moved up to 2013. As many of us see it, undertaking these cuts in spending in 2012 would be better, but that may be too soon logistically. There's no avoiding reality: The situation is serious, and a slight increase in the national value-added (sales) tax may be the next step - probably from 20% to 21%.

Will any of this have any significant effect on you as a visitor to our sunny shores?

No. Italy has not (yet) reached the point of actual default as happened in Greece and our great attractions - from the Alps to Sicily - still await you.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cuttlefish - Sicilian Seppia

The two happy creatures shown here are cuttlefish, which those of us here in Sicily call seppia. Though related to the squid, the cuttlefish only lives in warm waters and doesn't grow to the length of the rare giant squid. And despite its name it isn't actually a "fish."

The cuttlefish, which can change its color to evade predators or deceive its prey, produces an ink, nero di seppia, used in making black pasta sauce. Read about it in our online magazine.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tours of Sicily in 2012

Our commercial people are reminding me - as they do two or three times throughout the year - about the tours of Sicily offered by our partners next year. They all include Taormina (shown here). "Low season" begins in November and the tours cost less from then through March than they do beginning in April during (as you probably guessed) the "high season."

For years we've talked about visiting Sicily during the cooler months. Not that it's ever too cold in Sicily. The weather in Sicily is usually bearable, if not absolutely delightful, even during the coldest season. Most travel firms schedule their tours only during the high season. Best of Sicily's tours are available almost every week of the year, and for some tours the 2012 low-season price is the same as the price in 2010 . Of course, it's not too late to consider a tour this year.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Visit Greece - in Sicily!

As much as we love Greece, the strikes, protests and other situations in that nation across the Ionian from us make it a tricky vacation destination this summer. We hope things improve for our neighbors, who are experiencing a profound economic crisis, but for now...

Discover Greece in Sicily! Our island was one of the most highly populated Greek regions of the ancient world. Syracuse rivalled Athens in importance. The temple at Segesta (shown here) is considered by some archaeologists to be the best-preserved Greek temple in the world. And the temples at Agrigento are equally impressive. There are ancient Greek amphitheatres at Taormina, Segesta, Agrigento, Siracusa and elsewhere.

On a medieval note, Sicily even has a few churches - like the Martorana in central Palermo - that were built for Greek Orthodox congregations. Featuring walls covered with mosaic icons, they are jewels of Byzantine art and culture. Monreale Abbey, Cefalù Cathedral and the Palatine Chapel of Palermo's timeless Norman Palace boast similar architectural details. (At right, Christ Pantokrator in Monreale.)

While you're here, you might even try some Greek food. But Sicily's heritage isn't just Greek. It's Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Norman, German, Spanish, Italian and much more.

See our sights page for more ideas.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Grimaldi of Sicily

Monaco's royal wedding this weekend reminded our history editor that the "real" Grimaldi family is Sicilian. That's because the Sicilian branch of the family descends in the direct male line from the Grimaldi family that lived in Genoa in the Middle Ages, while the princedom of Monaco has been transmitted through female heirs twice. Today's rulers of the Principality of Monaco are actually de Polignacs. An academic issue, to be sure.

Read about Prince Albert's Sicilian cousins in our article on the Grimaldis of Sicily.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Villas in Sicily

We'd like to talk about two things - Sicily villas and country resorts in Sicily (agriturismo).

Our page dedicated to villas in Sicily doesn't just have links to some good villa rental agencies, it offers tips on finding and renting a villa. What's important is that you find the villa you want at a decent price.

"Rural resorts" are essentially rural bed and breakfasts, which in Italy are called agriturismo. They're also known as guest farms.

Both are great ideas for your summer holiday in Sicily.

(Shown here is La Rosa dei Venti, an agriturismo near Enna.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Golf in Sicily

Next week will bring us the longest day of the year. It's almost summer, time to discover the beaches in Sicily and also the island's golf courses. Some of these courses are in truly magnificent settings.

Golfers, like sailors, are a hardy breed who will travel the world looking for a perfect place to pursue their sport. Courses have sprung up in some pretty exotic locations, and the slopes of Mount Etna offer a great setting. While you're here in Sicily, don't forget to visit the sights.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Economist Special Report: ITALY

This week's issue of The Economist (June 11-17 2011) includes a lengthy special report on Italy's economic, political and social situation - everything from unemployment and weak economic growth to nepotism and the brain drain. Some of these articles are available online.

Most of these topics have been covered, to one degree or another, in the Best of Sicily Magazine. In fact, they sum up the reasons why many intelligent Italians leave Italy. Despite the report's (zealous) focus on the current prime minister, most of these problems existed long before he entered the scene. The point is that his government(s) really hasn't done enough to address these problems.

The insightful report is highly recommended for anybody interested in Italian economic or social affairs.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Palazzo Trigona-Celestre

The Mantegnas' Palazzo Gangi gets more attention for its baroque Hall of Mirrors, where the ballroom scene of Visconti's film The Leopard was filmed. Starring Burt Lancaster and a young Claudia Cardinale, it is a memorable movie based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy after 1860.

But Palazzo Trigona-Celestre, a recently restored jewel in Palermo's Via Maqueda is a splendid aristocratic residence - now in public hands - that deserves its props. With Palazzo Butera (facing the shore in the Kalsa district), it is one of the largest such mansions built in 18th century Sicily.

Our article about the Celestre family of Santa Croce, part of our Historic Families series, explains how the Trigonas inherited both the palace and the Celestre titles - marquis of Santa Croce and baron of Alia. Frankly, the palace was probably worth more than the titles of nobility.

As you walk along Via Maqueda between the Quattro Canti and the train station, Palazzo Trigona-Celestre is hard to miss. It is sometimes open to the public for art exhibits, and worth a visit even if you're not interested in the art on display!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Republic Day June 2nd 2011

Re-instituted a decade ago, Republic Day - observed on June 2nd - commemorates establishment of the Italian Republic by popular referendum on June 2nd 1946. Held under Allied auspices during the Anglo-American occupation of Italy, this event marked the first time Italian women could vote. Though sanctioned (confirmed) by a high court, the referendum results were questionable, and not only because of the vote-rigging in many quarters. To abolish the monarchy required more than 50% of the total ballots cast in favor of a republic. In fact, there were 12,717,923 votes counted in favor of a republic, and 10,718,284 in favor of the monarchy. If, however, the 1,509,735 blank ballots were counted into the total, the republic would have obtained 47% of the vote, not the 50% plus 1 required by established law.

The existence of the Italian Republic is beyond question, but this year, as Italians celebrate 150 years of unification, it's important to remember that today's Italy is a successor state to the Kingdom of Italy ruled by the House of Savoy until 1946. It is not the same nation state that was established by a far more dubious referendum 150 years ago - in which the Savoys were confirmed by an incredible 99% of the voting population.

Historical nuance of this kind escapes most Italians, who will simply enjoy an extra holiday.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More Refugees at Lampedusa

Boatloads of Libyan (or Tunisian) refugees arrived off the coast of Lampedusa last night, a total of 347 persons. About 900 have arrived from Libya over the last week. There's no telling when the Libyan civil war will end. This week the Russians offered to mediate with the nation's "official" leadership in search of a peaceful exit strategy following much bloodshed.

The Lampedusans are worried that the current state of affairs could destroy their summer tourism season. They have good reason to be concerned. In practice, however, the situation - serious though it is - need not complicate a holiday in Lampedusa or even Malta.

As we've mentioned elsewhere, the war has had little direct effect on life - or vacations - here in Sicily. Bizarre perhaps, but true.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cleanest Beaches in Sicily in 2011

It's almost beach season and this year several beaches in Sicily have received the blue flag rewarding clean waters. Most of these were also recognized for the award last year and all are in southern or eastern Sicily along the Sicilian Channel or Ionian Sea. While it didn't make the list, San Vito lo Capo beach (on the northern coast) is one of the overall favorites in Italy according to international popularity surveys such as those conducted by Trip Advisor.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bed and Breakfast in Palermo Castle

We recently published an article on a secret medieval tower in Palermo. The article does not mention that it is possible to visit this unique place if you stay at the bed and breakfast located there - though a link ad appears on the same page. This is operated by Count and Countess Federico. (Shown here is an arched two-light window and four loopholes on one side of the tower's exterior.)

Most of the tower is of late 12th-century construction - the Federicos have historical connections to Frederick II - but the lower part is actually a segment of a protective wall built along the Kemonia River by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. The ambience of the small but comfortable apartments in the tower is typically medieval. While Sicily offers numerous accommodations in historic settings, Palazzo Federico is a unique example of this kind in the city of Palermo.

Monday, May 2, 2011

May Magazine 2011

This month's issue of Best of Sicily Magazine is online, featuring articles on the (unfortunately) continuing war in Libya, Nebrodian swine salami and the extinct-but-interesting Branciforte family, whose distinctive coat of arms is shown here.

Reading about Sicily can't compare to actually visiting our island. If you reserve before May 20th, there's a 100 euro discount on our tours of Sicily scheduled this autumn. That's almost US $150 or UK £90. Check out our tours of Sicily on the page dedicated to them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day 2011

Following Britain's royal wedding, this weekend's "other" European big event, which will attract its share of royalty (though mostly Catholic), is the beatification of Pope John Paul II. This is the second step en route to sainthood, following veneration (a less formal process) and culminating in canonization. Venerable, Blessed, and then Saint.

In Europe at least, traditional events in church are still a big draw.

May 1st is, of course, labor day in Italy and certain other countries. Here in Sicily, this means that fewer stores will be open for business than on a normal Sunday, though pizzerias and kebab restaurants will be open in the evening as usual. There is no public bus service except for airport buses.

This year, with Liberation Day (April 25th) falling on Easter Monday - already a national holiday - and May Day on a Sunday, public employees have complained about being "cheated" out of two holidays. At the risk of sounding cynical, it could be suggested that even on a "normal" work day, many of Italy's "workers" only work a little between coffee breaks, and by law they get generous doses of vacation time (averaging around 35 days per year) so they really don't need any additional days off in these times of financial austerity. Anyway, Republic Day - the next national holiday - falls on a Thursday, June 2nd.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sicilian Royals in London

Today Prince William of Wales weds Kate Middleton, beginning what will, in effect, be a holiday weekend in Britain. There'll be lots of parties.

When one thinks of Sicily's royalty it obviously isn't a reigning royal family that comes to mind but kings like Frederick II. However, Sicily's royal family, a branch of the House of Bourbon (whose other flourishing branches are those of France, Spain and Parma), will be represented by Carlo di Borbone of the Two Sicilies and his wife, Camilla.

As head of his dynasty, Prince Carlo is Duke of Castro. His family's Constantinian Order of Saint George undertakes charitable works here in Sicily and abroad. The organisation's church in Sicily is Palermo's splendid Magione, erected late in the 12th century and used for several centuries as a conventual church of the Teutonic Order.

In recent years the Two Sicilies dynasty, which ruled until Italian unification in 1860, is ever more frequently mentioned, not in connection with the restoration of a monarchy but as a cultural point of reference in times when Italian regionalism is evolving into a political and economic federalism.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 8)

As the rebels and Libya's "official" government fight over Misurata, the Italian prime minister has announced, following a conversation with the president of the United States, that Italy will now send fighters to bomb specific targets in Libya.

Internally, this sparked protest from some leaders of the regionalist Northern League, an essential element in the current government's tenuous parliamentary majority. However, as part of NATO Italy has made its air bases available since the beginning of the conflict and also has a small aircraft carrier in the region.

Some of the background of Italy's position is mentioned in our article about the Libyan war, published in the May issue of the online magazine.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrection & Liberation

In Italy, as in some other European countries, Easter Monday is a holiday, so banks and most stores are closed. In England it's a bank holiday. Of course Easter falls on a different Sunday each year - and this year most Orthodox celebrate it on the same Sunday as Catholics.

This year Pasquetta (as it's known in Italy) coincides with Italy's Liberation Day (always observed on April 25th), and public employees are complaining about the holiday that's been "stolen" from them. As May 1st (Labor Day) falls on a Sunday this year, they're doubly angry. In consolation, they got an extra holiday this year on March 17th, which marked 150 years of Italian unification

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sicily's Best Good Friday Passion Procession

For Good Friday (April 22nd) this year, our best suggestion for a Passion Procession is the one at Erice, a charming town full of stone medieval houses and streets, a castle, some splendid churches and even a few Phoenician walls that were already standing at the time of Christ.

It's scheduled to begin at 4 in the afternoon but get there at least an hour early. Better yet, have lunch at Erice (seafood couscous is a local specialty).

It's true that few of these processions are as good as they should be, but Erice's at least offers an appropriate setting and for that reason we consider it one of Sicily's better ones. And scenic Erice is always worth the trip.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Italians banned from royal wedding

On April 29th nobody from Italy's royal family, the House of Savoy, will be present at Britain's royal wedding. Instead, the Head of the House of the Two Sicilies will be attending. An academic issue, to be sure - Italy's monarchy, which swallowed up Sicily's in 1861, was abolished in 1946. But slightly significant (perhaps disappointing) in a year that finds Italy celebrating 150 years of unification initially achieved under Garibaldi and the Savoys. The men who would be king are Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy and (on the Sicilian-Neapolitan side) Carlo di Borbone, whose family ruled Sicily from 1734 until 1860.

Both princes are contested by envious cousins, and it is thought that the Savoys have been blacklisted from Westminster Abbey because of an incident in 2004 between Vittorio Emanuele and his cousin, Amedeo, who has advanced a rival claim to headship of the House of Savoy. (The two Savoys came to blows at a reception at the wedding of Prince Felipe of Spain.) Squabbles and vendettas are hardly unusual in Italian families, even royal ones, but our Savoys should learn to behave.

The disputes are all highly theoretical, as Italians are unlikely to restore the Savoy monarchy, which brought Fascism and death to so many - both in Italy and abroad. The last king of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), Francis II, died in exile in 1894, survived by his queen, Maria Sofia, who lived until 1925.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Discounts on Sicily Tours this Autumn

Our commercial department informs me that for the next four weeks they're offering a discount on tours of Sicily this autumn, specifically those scheduled in October and November. Reserve before May 20th for substantial savings. Promotional messages aside, autumn is a great time to visit. It's warm but not hot, and there are - generally speaking - fewer "tourists" (large groups of visitors on super-low budgets) filling up the historical sights and sites. Think about it...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 7)

Refugees arriving in Italy.Libya's civil war continues. The main army of "rebels" demanding free elections has suffered a few setbacks in their advance westward, but a handful of government ministers have fled the country or resigned.

Refugees continue to arrive in southern Italy by boat. Last night a boat capsized en route to Lampedusa, leaving at least a hundred refugees dead. But where are they coming from? Many are actually Tunisians claiming to be Libyans. Since our last post on this topic, the prime minister has transferred six thousand temporarily housed in Lampedusa to other locations in Italy. The Tunisians (?) don't want to stay in temporary camps, and around two thousand "escaped" the one at Manduria near Taranto. Italy's prime minister was in Tunisia yesterday (Monday) to address the question of illegal immigrants with that government's leaders, and an agreement was reached for Italy to assist Tunisia financially.

Apart from this, the situation here in Sicily is as "normal" as ever. The high tourism season has begun and Spring has arrived. Trapani (Birgi) airport, which handles some passenger flights (including many Ryanair arrivals), is almost back to normal.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 6)

Since our last post on the Libyan conflict, the rebels have moved westward - though faced with the occasional obstacle - and today (Wednesday) NATO is officially taking control of the no-fly zone and other military operations. This may eventually include supplying arms to the rebels. The head of one rebel faction has met with the American secretary of state.

Refugees continue to arrive in Italy, especially in Lampedusa in the Sicilian Channel (that's Lampedusa's coat of arms, the Tomasi family's leopard on a red field). Most of the refugees are Libyan but some are Tunisians claiming to be Libyans. On Monday the Lampedusans protested the presence of over six thousand refugees on their rather small island. That means that there are now as many refugees as there are permanent residents. In response, the government promises to transfer most of these guests to other parts of Italy, including Sicily, and that announcement provoked outrage from other Italians.

But aren't Italians famous for our hospitality? Yes, if it's a cup of coffee or a plate of pasta offered to a visitor - less so when it's a large refugee camp a kilometre from our home. Until about fifteen years ago, Italy had very few immigrants to speak of. Right now, these North African visitors are the greatest challenge to Italy resulting from the Libyan situation.

That said, driving around Sicily, you'd never imagine that a military conflict is raging in northern Africa just a few hundred kilometres away.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 5)

Italy's foreign minister is pushing for a greater role in the Libyan "situation." As we reported in our last post on this subject, the Italians don't want to see the Brits and French - not to mention the Americans - getting all the oil as the rebels take control of the eastern regions where all that black gold is located.

That's understandable, even from the leaders of a pretty European country perpetually at war with itself (Italians are fighting over Garibaldi and whether to commemorate 150 years of unification). After all, Libyan refugees are arriving in Sicily by the thousand, and NATO is using its air force facilities at Sigonella, near Catania, to enforce the no-fly zone. Clearly, Italy is involved.

Rest assured, while the average Italian knows nothing about Italy's colonial adventures in Libya, the Libyan rebels just might have a basic knowledge of their own history. They've been flying the flag of King Idris, who led his country from 1951 until 1969, when Geddafi took over while the king was abroad. (More precisely, the Colonel overthrew the king's nephew, the crown prince, arresting every member of the royal family he could find.)

Is this flag a sign of the future? That's anyone's guess. But, with a little help from NATO, the "rebels" are making their way westward.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Time Change 26/27 March

A reminder that in Italy and most of Europe clocks are set ahead an hour at 2 AM Sunday the 27th or, if you prefer, late Saturday the 26th. Italy is on Central European Time. See the note on our Sicily weather page for further information.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 4)

Except for the island of Lampedusa, Libya isn't quite as close to Italy as it looks on the map, but it's close enough. And the fighting is real. People are being killed. It's just that foreign journalists are few, so the reporting "on the ground" is limited. In view of history (and Libya's regime is actually a relic of the Cold War), it's no surprise that the countries seeking to save Libyan lives can't quite agree on how to do it.

Over the years, Colonel Gaddafi's behavior has been as fickle as the European spelling of his surname. Despite moments of civility and even cooperation, he has piloted a repressive regime for four decades. Until now, many nations - especially Italy, his closest European friend - have tolerated his antics for two principal reasons:

1) Despite the funding of terrorists in various countries over the years, nowadays the Colonel generally keeps his aggression within his own borders. (He may have helped stir up trouble to the south of Libya, but he hasn't literally invaded places like Tunisia or Egypt, while Saddam Hussein did attack and "annex" Kuwait.) Apart from internal repression, he has actually decreased his support for armed violence in recent years, being eclipsed by others to the point that, by comparison, he often looks more like a crazed eccentric than a dangerous dictator. Some of his domestic economic policies have met with moderate success. Well, he has had forty years and plenty of oil profits, so we'd expect him to get something right...

2) The oil and gas reserves in Libya make it a worthwhile trading partner for wealthy countries, and Italy wants to maintain the advantage (over France, Britain, et al.) which resulted from the signing of a number of contracts and treaties with Libya in 2009 and 2010.

Those contracts are obviously at risk now, so Italy's foreign minister and defense minister are both trying to understate the country's contribution to the international military effort while at the same time insisting that NATO - rather than rival petroleum customer France - take control of the action as soon as possible. A contradiction: trying to "save" the convenient relationship with Gadaffi with one hand while hedging Italy's bets (as a responsible "team player" of NATO) with the other.

The Craxi government played the same two hands (or two faces) back in the 1980s. One of the reasons that Italy belatedly acknowledged its war crimes in Libya was to secure a better trade relationship. Of course, the French, Americans and British have also cultivated diplomatic and commercial ties with the Colonel in recent times. And that's the point. The eclectic, contradictory foreign policies of all these countries, and many others, leave much to be desired. Italy just happens to be the most obvious (and geographically closest) example. Expedience and opportunism are poor substitutes for statesmanship and a healthy respect for human rights.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 3)

Despite establishment of a no-fly zone, there is little question that the conflict in Libya will continue - in one form or another - for some time. Short of splitting the country in two, there seems to be no immediate political solution. The Italians, who want to see official leadership of the mission called Odyssey Dawn turned over to NATO as soon as possible, are (as usual) engaged in political infighting among various parliamentary factions, though Italy will likely continue to permit use of its bases for foreign military aircraft, and Sigonella (near Catania) is a NATO/US facility.

Birgi Airport, near Trapani, is now diverting civilian flights to Palermo. That includes, among others, Ryan Air. Apart from this, the conflict in Libya - which at this point can only be described as a civil war - has had little effect on travel to Sicily.

Refugees continue to arrive by the boatload, and Italy is doing its best to house them.

True democracies represent a minority of countries around the globe. Oligarchies seem to predominate, and many people living today have no memory of anything else. The Libyan rebels waving the Sanussi flag may be nostalgic about the monarchy (under King Idris, shown here) they knew before the current regime assumed power, but much remains to be seen in terms of what form a "new" Libya, achieved only after much bloodshed, might take.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 2)

After several weeks of meditation and debate, the United Nations Security Council decided to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and French, British and American forces are now undertaking the first air assaults on planes, tanks and other military targets. Meanwhile, Libyans and other refugees continue to arrive on Sicily and its islands in the Sicilian Channel. People on Lampedusa are protesting the presence of thousands of refugees being housed on their island for an indefinite period.

Will all of this have an effect on your visit to Sicily? Not at all. The island and the Mediterranean are a lot bigger than they look on the map, and in the event Libya doesn't have many missiles capable of reaching Sicily's southern coast. It is possible that some cruise ships might alter their itineraries in the central Mediterranean, though keeping their scheduled stops in Palermo, Messina and Catania. (Cruise lines cancelled calls in Egypt and Tunisia for the entire 2011 season.) Travel by air and sea to Malta is not being interrupted.

Here on the Med's largest island day-to-day life is mostly untouched by events in Libya except for more activity at the US-NATO base at Sigonella near Catania and the Italian air force base outside Trapani. That said, we hope the conflict is resolved soon though we doubt that it will be.

St Joseph's Day

Today is Saint Joseph's Day, which by tradition was also "Father's Day" here in Italy. Another tradition is the sfinge or sfinci, a fried cream puff filled with ricotta cheese cream, similar to Neapolitan zeppole. Indulge yourself.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Boar Attack!

A few days ago some hikers were attacked by several wild boars in the Madonie Mountains outside Castelbuono. Here in Sicily, when one thinks of boar, the Nebrodian Black Swine comes to mind. This domesticated species is part boar and lives in the Nebrodi Mountains. In fact, that more extensively forested area boasts far more boar than the Madonie.

In many parts of Europe it wouldn't be too unusual to encounter some wild fauna. In Sicily most wild boar have been extinct for well over a century, and there haven't been native deer in Sicily since the 17th century. These black boars seem to be a hybrid crossed with the more docile black swine.

In the event, the hikers climbed into some oak trees for safety. The boar, seeing that their young were not endangered by the hikers, retreated into the woods. All is well that ends well...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Free Museum Admission on Italy's Birthday

Today, while Ireland celebrates Saint Patrick (that nation's patron saint), Italy observes its 150th anniversary or, more precisely, 150 years of unification. Leaving aside the controversy this one-time holiday has provoked around Italy - from north to south - the good news for visitors is that many museums and historical sites will be open all day, from 8 or 9 in the morning until 10 (or later) tonight, and admission will be free. That's something to celebrate.

Shown: Antonello da Messina's Annunciation in Palazzo Abbatellis, Palermo's Regional Art Gallery in Via Alloro off Piazza Marina.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Palermo Concert Season at Risk

Yesterday the managers of Palermo's Teatro Massimo opera house (shown here at Christmas time) announced that a severe lack of funds threatens the current concert & opera season. They've asked the central government in Rome to fill the huge financial gap.

The situation is a reminder of the fragility of an economy where few apparently "private" businesses are really private. The Teatro Massimo Foundation, though "private" on paper, is actually underwritten almost entirely with taxpayers' money. Ticket receipts could never cover even a fraction of the operating expenses of such an organization. (That's also true of Milan's La Scala and other opera houses in Italy.) Apart from the usual problem of gross mismanagement and inflated salaries, the Massimo has suffered from reduced sales of tickets generally during a recession that has made its effects visible in many areas.

The Hotel Sole near Palermo's Quattro Canti has closed, while the Palms over on Via Roma is in receivership. Recently a hotel owner near Catania complained publicly that the government should "assist" his failing private business. Admittedly, this trend is becoming apparent in less "socialist" economies in recent times - with the US government bailing out investment banks and car companies. "Too big to fail," and all that.

But in Sicily it's normal, and with financial federalism (each region of Italy on its own economically beginning in a few years) the future may see a completely different environment. For now, let's just hope that the Massimo completes its season.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Touring in Sicily in 2011

Sicily's "high" touring season is beginning. Here are a few ideas for a great trip at a good price:

Tours of Sicily - Several guided tours around the island available directly from the company that plans and oversees them. Shop around and you'll find these offer the best value at the best price.

Tour Guides in Sicily - Great guides at good rates. (Here's a page especially for tour guides in Palermo.) If you check you'll find that our recommendations are affordable, while rates offered by guides currently advertised by firms running adwords links on Google are 30% to 100% higher than those of these guides. If you're a couple or a small group of 4 travellers, there's no reason to pay much more than a total of around €200 for a personalized walking tour of Palermo lasting 5 or 6 hours.

Hotels in Sicily - We also have a good page dedicated to Palermo hotels. These are hotels promoted by Expedia but selected based on our editors' reliable suggestions.

American Express Selects - Sicily Concierge hotel/tour packages and Sicily tours.

Sicily Concierge - Personalized travel in Sicily.