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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 1)

It's not something we can actually see from Sicily, where - except for the steady stream of refugees arriving by the boat-load on the shores of Lampedusa - everything is pretty quiet. But if the civil war in Libya is out of sight it's rarely out of mind. Yesterday Italian air force authorities refused to allow two Libyan fighter jets to land on the island of Pantelleria. In fact, they scrambled two F-16 fighters out of Birgi air field, near Trapani, to intercept them.

Refusing orders to fire on opposition ground forces, a few Libyan pilots have already defected. Two landed on Malta last month.

Italy has sent ships to eastern Libya to provide food and medicine to the people there, including many civilians who can't get supplies from any other source. The Prime Minister recently allocated former US military housing near Mineo (in eastern Sicily) to accommodate Tunisians and Libyans arriving here.

And the conflict continues.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Best of Sicily Magazine March 2011

The March issue of Best of Sicily Magazine is online. This month's articles talk about Palermo's imposing Steri Castle, sfinci (a pastry filled with cheese cream) and Kokalos, king of the Sicanians. We sometimes get emails asking about "hard copy" delivery of the magazine. It is exclusively an online publication.