Friday, December 28, 2012

Cicero in Sicily

Anybody who thinks that Sicilian government is corrupt today should have seen it in the days of Cicero. Appointed to an administrative post in western Sicily, the jurist made his name as Rome's greatest orator during his prosecution of the corrupt Verres, an incredibly greedy governor of the Roman province of Sicily.

In the process, he all but destroyed the career of Verres' mediocre lawyer - until then considered Rome's best.

It so happens that Cicero's distinctive surname was based on his wealthy family's cultivation of the ceci, or chickpea. That's the focus of our chickpea article.

Read about both in the January issue of our Sicily magazine.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Buon Natale!

It's just cool enough to feel like Christmas in Sicily, where the holiday season runs into January - though this time the Epiphany is on a Sunday so it won't feel like a separate holiday.

The Christmas trees and Nativity scenes are the same as always - well, almost. This year, the city of Palermo spent more than usual on a tree half the size of last year's (shown).

And in a sign of the times - colored by the economic recession - merchants want to begin their sales as early as possible, with a few even before Christmas.

The government is also offering a "Christmas present" to the public. At the end of the month Italians will have new "wealth taxes" to pay, including an annual deduction of 34 euros from each current (checking) account and over a euro for each thousand deposited in savings or investment accounts. Italy's bank fees were already the highest in western Europe.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Control of Sicily's Historic Sites

The Sicilian regional government has now taken back control of the historical and archaeological sites in its jurisdiction following a decade of incompetent administration by outsourced firms founded by the friends of politicians - several of whom are under criminal investigation - who misappropriated some 51 million euros.

Novamusa cannot account for 41 million euros it collected, while the Fondazione Federico II owes nearly 2 million euros to the city of Monreale from entry fees collected in the abbey's cloister. The kingpins running these firms have been arrested and charged, while the employees are gradually being replaced.

What this new accountability means to you is that various sites, such as Segesta (its temple is shown here), will be better managed in the future and it will be easier to address problems that arise.

Best of Sicily applauds the efforts of Sicily's new governor, Rosario Crocetta, in confronting this situation and others.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sicily Tours 2013

The main "gateway" page describing our co-branded tours of Sicily has been updated to include the principal Sicily tours for 2013. The Sicily Concierge service, offering personalized travel in Sicily, has also been updated.

In connection with this, a discount on the price of the popular 8-night Red Tour is available through American Express Selects at Sicily Concierge. This applies to early reservations. In an effort to stay a step ahead of the competition by including details - places and sights - that the tour planners at other travel firms don't know about, the Red Tour for 2013 features a visit to a "secret" medieval water mill that still functions after a thousand years.

Siracusa (its cathedral is shown here) is included in all of the one-week tours.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Two Shipwrecks

There were two near-shipwrecks yesterday.

First, during a storm that left Enna, Cammarata and other mountainous areas blanketed with snow, a ferry was nearly capsized by a huge wave as it neared the Port of Palermo, spilling several trucks and shipping containers into the sea. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

The second event, whose long-term consequences will be more painful, was the resignation of Italian prime minister Mario Monti, the banker who led the country away from the brink of financial disaster and possible default. If the United States is facing a "fiscal cliff," you can imagine Italy's situation!

Clearly, the financial threat to Italy's stability is not over, as demonstrated by reactions across Europe. An economist and professor, Monti was not appointed politically (by parliament), and whatever "negatives" are attached to his brief term during a single year (particularly tax increases), nobody elected in 2013 will be better than he was. That's a prediction you can bank on.

More immediately, inflation and unemployment are threatening to make this the most frugal Christmas season Italians have seen in decades

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sicily Facts

Our site is full of facts, but in response to requests for a relatively brief page listing some essential information we've published a Sicily facts page. Truth be told, these facts are available elsewhere on the site, but putting them on one page seemed reasonable.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Expats in Sicily Etc.

We recently updated our Sicily expatriate page and also another introducing Sicily from the point of view of its multicultural history. The former is quite current, the latter reflects the 16th century as its most recent event. Both are reasonably informative.

People choose to live in Sicily for all kinds of reasons. In our "introduction" for expats we make the point that - economically speaking - it's usually easier if your income derives from sources outside Italy.

It seems that many expats from English-speaking countries end up in small towns and rural areas. The majority coming from Asia and Africa live in the cities.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas in Sicily 2012

The Christmas season is upon us and there's even a light dusting of snow on the Madonie and Nebrodi Mountains - and of course on Mount Etna. The Christmas Holidays are a great time to visit Sicily. The temperatures are quite comfortable and because it's "low season" for tourism there are hardly any lines at the more interesting historical and archeological sites and museums.

That's just one article in our online magazine about Sicily for December.

Another looks at the subject of Sicily's status as a semi-independent political region of Italy.

As regards public administration, a recent development relevant to visitors was the announcement yesterday by the Sicilian Region's new President that historical and archaeological sites will now be managed directly by the government. For a decade, most have been administered by "outsourced" companies set up by the friends of politicians. Several "managers" of these firms are under investigation or on trial for embezzlement or misappropriation of funds - in one case almost 20 million euros are missing. President Crocetta hopes to bring greater accountability to the public sector and perhaps hire a few thousand unemployed Sicilians to operate the various sites and museums.

Best of Sicily has advocated this for many years and we applaud Mr Crocetta's initiative.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Circuito di Bacco Weekend

"The Bacchus Wine Trail" is an initiative promoting a series of events at several wineries in Sicily. Information for 2013 will be presented next weekend in Palermo at a conference open to the public at Villa Belmonte in the Acquasanta district near the Villa Igiea hotel.

At 10:30 on Friday, November 30th, there'll be a round table discussion followed by an informal luncheon featuring Sicilian culinary specialties. Then guests are invited on an excursion to the Baglio Donna Franca winery in Marsala. The next day includes tours of wineries and a chance for visiting tour/travel representatives to see the choices available for wine tours in Sicily - a field in which there is growing interest.

Il Circuito di Bacco is one of the better promotions of this kind in recent years. To reserve a place, or for more information, email (mentioning Best of Sicily) ilcircuitodibacco@tiscali.it

Friday, November 16, 2012

American Express Selects Sicily 2013

Through our partners at Sicily Concierge American Express Cardmembers can claim a discount on the popular Red Tour offered by Best of Sicily as part of the American Express Selects programme. This is a 9-day tour that visits most of the island's more popular historical/archaeological sights and sites.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

St Martin's Summer

Today is Saint Martin's Day, associated with "Saint Martin's Summer," an unseasonably warm period of Autumn. That was certainly the case today, with temperatures around 79 F (26 C) in some of Sicily's coastal cities. In fact, the entire season has been far warmer than average. It seems there is a hot day or two every week.

By tradition, St Martin's Day is celebrated with hard cookies and muscat or other fortified Sicilian wines. This is a good day to toast the new governor of Sicily, sworn in yesterday. (We mentioned his election in a previous post.)

Without expecting miracles, it's clear that there will be substantial changes in public administration. Sicily's newspapers continually report unproductive phantom consulting companies receiving millions from the Sicilian regional government, and millions of euros disappearing from public agencies. This week Mr Crocetta is firing all of the "external" consultants (there are hundreds) as well as all the public appointees of the outgoing regime. A clean slate is a good beginning.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reimagining Sicily

American film producer Mark Spano is in pre-production on a documentary with a focus on Sicilian culture yesterday and today. It is our sincere belief that film and publishing projects of this kind should be encouraged.

This is an independent production, and as you can imagine financing is difficult in the present economic climate. To read more about the project and make a contribution, visit its Kickstarter page.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Invisible Sicily

Over the years, we've published dozens of articles dealing with life in Sicily. We call it the "invisible" Sicily because these topics focus on things you won't see unless you live, work or study here for a few years.

Truth be told, most of these subjects are covered by Sicily's newspapers, which have websites, so you could read about them there if your Italian were reasonably proficient. In other words, it isn't "secret" information that we're presenting.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Autumn arrives in Sicily

Here in Sicily, Autumn actually arrives in November, when the daily highs in the coastal cities are around 69 (20 C) and there's enough rain in the country to turn the fields green. (The pic shows a place along the Platani River, the Halycos of the ancient Greeks, right after some rain.) Our Sicily weather page is good for details. This is a great time to visit Sicily.

The 1st is All Saints' Day, when schools, banks and offices of the Sicilian Region are closed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sicilians Elect New Governor

Rosario Crocetta is the new President of the Sicilian Region, effectively the "governor" of Sicily. A chemist by profession, he speaks several languages (including English) and in 2003 became Italy's first openly-gay mayor (of Gela near Agrigento).

He has been a European MP and taken a strong stand against the Mafia, living under full-time police protection for years. Crocetta, 61, ran with the center-left Democrats, but the elections for the Sicilian Regional Assembly (Sicily's parliament) saw a number of deputies from new parties win seats, including the anti-corruption 5-Star party.

Mr Crocetta is not like his opponents in any way, and wants to better develop Sicilian tourism by, for example, opening major museums during evenings and improving the administration of various historic and archeological sites.

Nothing will be easy in the current economic climate, but in this case change may be good.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Martorana Fruit: Pastry as Art

Unlike most of the sites that publish pages about art in Sicily or Sicilian artists, our page dedicated to that subject mentions culinary arts - and links to our Sicilian food page. One food is artistic by definition.

Martorana fruit or pasta reale (shown here), molded from almond marzipan, makes its annual appearance in late October. The best pastry makers color it realistically. Several Sicilian writers mention it in their historical novels and it could even be considered part of Sicilian culture.

Art, of course, is often controversial, but this is the kind that never fails to leave a good taste in your mouth.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Chestnuts

You can tell it's chestnut season when you see grey smoke wafting up from urban piazzas on cool October evenings. Wherever you are, autumn is a great time to relax with a book by one of the great Sicilian writers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sicilian Literature and Literary Parks

Recently, as we were updating our Sicilian literature page, the tricky topic of literary parks in Sicily came up. This led to an eye-opening "round table" discussion among four members of our staff in the courtyard of our favorite coffee bar off Palermo's historic via Alloro - the point being that we would like to publish a list of sites dedicated to (or associated with) famous Sicilian writers.

In practice, activities like the Tomasi di Lampedusa ("Leopard") tours mentioned in our last post are usually a good choice if planned well, while most of Sicily's literary parks and the related museums are, quite frankly, mediocre - though the ones near Agrigento dedicated to Sciascia and Pirandello are quite good.

There's no reason to explore in depth why certain literary parks are rarely very worth visiting. Often, it's a lack of resources (original manuscripts, etc.) or experience (the directors don't know how to operate a museum or tourist attraction). What's important is that Sicilian literature itself is exceptional, and that many of the places described by the authors can be visited.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tomasi di Lampedusa Leopard Tours

We get a fair number of requests for walking tours of Palermo with a focus on the places mentioned in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard and the sites that inspired the author.

Some members of our staff recently took such a tour with one of the tour guides mentioned on our site, and it was exceptional, even eye-opening. A lunch was included based on the kind of aristocratic cuisine popular in Sicily circa 1860. That in itself was unusual because very few chefs have any idea of what that cuisine was.

This is really the kind of thing that brings history, and historical fiction, to life. Visit the site for more information on these personalized "Leopard tours."

Friday, October 19, 2012

House of Bourbon Two Sicilies Redux

We're not monarchists, but on our pages you'll find plenty of information dealing with kings and queens. After all, Sicily was a kingdom until the nineteenth century, and then part of the corrupt, ill-fated Kingdom of Italy until 1946.

So we've put some links together on a Two Sicilies page dedicated to the kingdom and dynasty that was here until 1860, before the Savoys took over.

Incidentally, our editorial "position," for what it's worth, is that the Italian Republic is generally a good thing, and while today's Bourbons (that's Carlo and his Italian wife, Camilla, in the pic) engage in some worthy cultural and charitable projects and their work should be recognized, we really don't want to bring back a monarchy, and neither do most Italians. Nor do we believe that titles of nobility or any hereditary privilege should be recognized officially by the Italian state. That kind of thing never functioned very well here in Italy, and democracy is a good thing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sicily Books

We're a reasonably literate bunch, and we recently updated our Sicily books page. It's our unabashed opinion that our recommendations constitute the best Sicilian reading list available on the web for titles currently published in English. This includes some good guide books.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

November Magazine

It's been an unseasonably warm October but we're looking forward to slightly cooler weather and maybe even some elusive rain, so the November issue of our magazine is already online. Articles include:

New Books: Risorgimento, Unification, Regionalism. Has Italy ever really been a united nation, or is it still a land of very individualistic, disunited regions? Get some factual answers in these excellent, authoritative histories by David Gilmour, Christopher Duggan, Denis Mack Smith and Pino Aprile. These authors are the real deal.

Roasted Sicilian Chestnuts. From October through March, this is one of Sicily's most popular street foods, and has been consumed on our island for thousands of years. It's also a reminder that Autumn has finally arrived. By the way, the world's oldest chestnut tree is here in Sicily. It's at least two thousand years old.

Introduction to Family History Research. Sicily has the world's best genealogical source records, permitting many - perhaps most - Sicilian families to trace a line back to circa 1500. Find out what kind of documentation exists and where to find it. Discover your Sicilian legacy.

On a travel note, please see our notice about Catania Airport's special schedules beginning November 5th when they start a major construction project. You'll have to check-in earlier than usual.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Risorgimento Revisited

We have published a review of David Gilmour's recent book and several others dealing with Italian history, particularly the unification movement and today's very evident regionalism. The Pursuit of Italy is well-worth reading if your curiosity runs in that direction.

The Risorgimento isn't an especially interesting subject in itself but it is important in that it has shaped the Italy that exists today. Many of the nation's problems can be traced to the 19th century where their roots lie.

This is real history without the nationalistic platitudes.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Money and Mosques

A few days ago the mayor of debt-ridden Palermo hosted some officials from well-off Bahrain (that's their flag shown here) to discuss their investing in the Sicilian city. They're willing to invest two billion euros if the city permits construction of a mosque to accomodate five thousand worshippers.

Unfortunately, this will be more than a quid pro quo. We can expect loud if hypocritical protests from politicians "representing" the Catholic church - including a number of divorced, "devoutly-Catholic" middle-aged men who have fathered out-of-wedlock children with young mistresses - but considering that so many of Palermo's churches stand on the sites of what (until the 12th century) were mosques it shouldn't be too difficult to find a place for one now. At all events,  Italy's "Catholic" and "nationalist" politicians can usually be placated with coin, while Catholicism is no longer the nation's official state religion. During Sicily's multicultural Golden Age, Palermo was a shining example of a multifaith metropolis of religious diversity. Sicilians are descended from a diversity of peoples.

The city has become increasingly multiethnic in recent decades, in a sense returning to its medieval roots. There are many thousands of Muslims in Palermo, mostly from Tunisia, Morocco and West Africa. Providing them with a place of worship larger than those few smaller ones currently available shouldn't be impossible, and the city can use the money. There are plenty of churches; perhaps a few of Palermo's "Catholic" politicians could even visit one sometime, when they're not busy chasing skirts or embezzling public funds!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hotels in Sicily

We'd like to remind you that Best of Sicily has a page dedicated to Sicily hotels. This is nothing new; it's been online for years. What makes it different from most sites offering hotel reservations is the number of other services and planning features presented on the page - flights, restaurants, tours, even a currency conversion tool. With Sicily's weather getting (relatively) cooler, and the crowded summer season behind us, it's a great time to visit Sicily.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Best of Sicily on Facebook

Unlike most "travel guides" published by public tourism bureaux, Best of Sicily sincerely welcomes comments of any kind. It's simple enough to contact us through this blog, but we're also on Facebook. This may make it even easier for you to contact our staff. We do get a large number of emails, but some readers have expressed an interest in commenting on Facebook because they're already logged in and it's more convenient than emailing or logging onto this blog.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A great time to see Sicily!

It's finally October... Here in Sicily we're still enduring the effects of an unseasonal heat wave, but it is gradually getting cooler (check out our Sicily weather page). The arrival of the true Autumn is inevitable, and by November that means the beginning of the so-called "low season" for tourism.

What that means for you is that it's a perfect time to come to Sicily. It's not hot and there are fewer crowds and lines at the most interesting sights. We offer several weekly Sicily tours. The itinerary of our popular Golden Sicily Tour is shown here. In fact, we have more departures throughout the year than any other company, with special low season prices, so you have plenty of choice.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Knights of Malta

The Grand Master of the Order of Malta was in Palermo today, where he visited Steri Castle. Until they were expelled from Malta in 1798, the knights held the Maltese islands as a fief from the King of Sicily. This is just one tiny fragment in the complex mosaic of Sicilian heritage, but a fascinating one.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sicilian Wines for Export

While we were updating our Sicily wine page the other day, somebody suggested that perhaps we should mention that one of our advertisers now exports wines from Sicily. Read about Gorgo del Drago.

Of course, numerous Sicilian wine producers export to the United States, Canada and elsewhere. What's different about Gorgo del Drago is that Count Testa's family-run company has been in business for generations and produces exceptional wines, typically using such popular grapes as like Syrah and Chardonnay with Sicilian varietals - red Nero d'Avola and white Zibibbo (shown here). The result is something very different from what most wine makers around Europe are making and selling.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September Heat Wave!!!

Yes, we're in the middle of another heat wave, with hot African winds bringing us temperatures up to around 34 degrees (around 92 F). Highs this time of year are usually closer to 25 (77 F), still warm but at least bearable.

How long will it last? Probably until Monday, which happens to be the first day of October, but perhaps into the middle of next week. Nights are relatively cool, though.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sicilian Genealogy

We get a lot of requests from people interested in family history, and Rosy Bartolotta (see the Sicily tour guide page) takes visitors to ancestral towns to consult records.

Sicily has the world's best genealogical records, and we've published an article describing them. This introduction links to our more detailed Sicily genealogy page, which describes some of the sources and records available here in Sicily.

Useful as this information is, it does presume a knowledge of Italian. In most cases it's a good idea to hire a genealogical researcher.

Monday, September 17, 2012

October Magazine: Reality Checks

If there's one Sicilian publication - or one Italian travel/culture website - that doesn't insult your intelligence, this is it! In this month's magazine:

Was Frederick II an Atheist? He was certainly a complex ruler.

The Sicilian Diaspora and its identity.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (That's its coat of arms on the left.)

You're one of the web's most sophisticated readers. Thanks for visiting.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crowned Heads of Sicily

In the That's Nice department, a Sicilian girl, 19 year-old Giusy Buscemi from Menfi, was crowned Miss Italia on Monday evening. Her name, incidentally, is pronounced like "Juicy." Congratulations, Giusy!

Moving on to more historical crowns, our article on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies discusses the kings who ruled almost half of Italy from 1734 until 1860, with a glance toward the prosperity of the places they ruled - including Sicily. Even outside Italy, this topic is more important than it may seem because the end of the kingdom spelled the beginning of the "Sicilian Diaspora," the mass emigration of Sicilians and other Italians over several decades.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Grape Harvest 2012

This year's harvest has produced about 10% more grapes than last year, so there'll be plenty of Sicilian wine this year. What sometimes happens is that a rain storm or other fickle weather conditions in early September ruin part of the crop. This Summer was as sunny as ever, and hotter than usual, with little wind. It's still hot, but the nights are cooler than a month ago.

Though grapes were grown here in Greek times, Sicily's oeniculture was expanded further by the British around 1800 during the Bourbon period, when Marsala wine augmented the supply of Port and Sherry. Today most of the wines are estate-bottled varietals.

A bizarre problem this year is that grape thieves are stealing from some vineyards. These thieves are at least wine lovers!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Trinacria - by Anthony Di Renzo

American-born Anthony Di Renzo has written a novel that casts a sober glance toward the unification of Italy circa 1860. Like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard, published a half-century ago, Trinacria - A Tale of Bourbon Sicily paints the Risorgimento - Italy's bloody unification movement - in its true colors.

Trinacria is not "ethnic" or nationalist niche literature. It's an overdue reality check.

We've seen an advance (digital) copy of the book. Essentially, the story is told as a series of memories by a noblewoman present in Sicily in 1860.

(This isn't as esoteric as it may seem; Best of Sicily's publisher vividly remembers his own grandmother, who was related to the aristocratic Lanza di Trabia family, "setting the record straight" about the unification movement - a familial memory transmitted to the lady, born in 1904, by her father and grandfather. The result was a Sicilian identity rooted in fact rather than fantasy.)

Unfortunately, most of our Italo-American friends have swallowed the revisionist version of Italian unification history hook, line and sinker. Here in Italy, however, last year's celebrations marking 150 years of Italian unification were met with cynicism by northern ("Padanian") and southern Italians alike. Few challenged the idea of a united Italy in some form as a matter of principle, but a spate of books and conferences brought attention to the bloodbath and pillage that accompanied the unification in 1860.

In America, the only "Italian-American" organization intellectual and courageous enough to present this information accurately was the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere (New York), which sponsored a conference with Pino Aprile, author of Terroni (now available in English) and is supporting publication of Trinacria.

Publishing is always a financial challenge, and a fund drive is under way to bring Trinacria to print in November. To make a contribution, follow this link, where you can also read about the novel and its author.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

End-of-Summer Rain

Sicily weather.
Following the long, dry, hot, sunny Summer, Sicily usually gets its first real rain right around September 1st. It's almost like magical clockwork, and this year was no exception.

This morning around 4:15 a 20-minute thunder shower rumbled northward from Agrigento across the Sicanian Mountains to Palermo. After Italy's driest Summer in fifty years, the rain was a pleasure to behold. If anything, it didn't last long enough! But it was sufficient to clean the heavy air a bit, and there was more rain throughout the morning. It was also nice that the temperature dropped by a few degrees, at least for a while. For Sicily weather forecasts and climate information - with a chart showing annual rainfall - check out our dedicated page.

Incidentally, the leaf shown here is from a plane tree, European kin of the American sycamore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travel Safety and Purse Snatchings

In Sicily's larger cities, particularly Palermo, there has been an increase in the number of purse snatchings and the related assaults, though the crime rate is still quite low compared to larger European and American cities. This is discussed on our Sicily travel faqs and travel safety pages but we'll present it here:

If you're walking down the street, walk on the side toward (facing) oncoming traffic. On the sidewalk (on newer streets), walk toward the flow of traffic but not right next to the street, leaving some space between yourself and the cars and motorbikes. Hold your purse on the side away from the traffic.

Increasingly, purse snatchers work on foot (usually in pairs) rather than on motor scooters, especially during the day. The thieves generally prefer narrow, winding streets. Don't explore the older sections of larger cities (Palermo, Catania) alone if you can avoid it. While the thieves are less likely to try to snatch a backpack you're wearing, hand bags are tempting. Don't carry one at all if you don't have too; keep your money, credit cards and travel documents in pockets. Don't wear gold or pearl necklaces, which might also entice thieves to assault you for the jewelry. Better yet, don't wear any necklace or bracelet. Most assaults are directed toward women. Having one or two men with you is not a bad idea. People in tours of Sicily (groups of six or more) are rarely targeted.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Meltdown...

A good word for two things - the heat and the state of the Sicilian economy.

With any luck, the torrid temperatures will subside in another week or two.

Sicily's economic situation is another matter. Apart from huge shortfalls and gaping deficit holes in the regional (island-wide), provincial and local budgets, it's getting difficult for the public sector to pay salaries.

Granted that many of these ridiculous "make work" jobs probably shouldn't exist in the first place (Sicily has more forest rangers than British Columbia and obviously just a fraction of its forests), the moment of truth is coming...

Will this impact your visit to Sicily? No. Amazing as it seems, the effects of this crisis are all but invisible.

Friday, August 17, 2012

In Praise of Siracusa

Taormina gets big play, and it's a great town, but we'd like to make the case for Siracusa. Ancient Syracuse was the most important city in Greek Sicily and a rival to Athens.

Both of these fabulous towns are appealing - Taormina on top of a mountain and Siracusa along the sea. Ortygia, Siracusa's most popular historical district, is largely closed to traffic, like Taormina, and consists of charming, winding streets. Apart from an important archeological site and museum, and Sicily's only remaining Caravaggio, Siracusa offers great restaurants and shops, while Syracuse Cathedral (originally a Greek temple) and its mikveh are among the oldest structures of their kind in Europe, representing two important faiths - three if you count mythology.

Siracusa is a great "intellectual" alternative to Taormina's crowds. We like to think that Hemingway would have preferred it as his favorite Sicilian city.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

WindJet Passengers' Fate

Yesterday (Monday, 13 August) found thousands of WindJet passengers stranded at Catania airport - its hub - and elsewhere in Italy as the Sicily-based airline failed to cover its operating expenses and cancelled all service at the height of the Summer holiday season. Following attempts at a sale to Alitalia, the company has now become a victim of the current economic recession. It may not be the only one to do so.

Another "private" airline in Italy, Rome-based Blue Panorama, has also sought acquisition by Alitalia.

WindJet customers who purchased tickets for future flights (through November) may request refunds but, frankly, receiving them may not be simple.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ferragosto!

Here in Italy, this week is Ferragosto. More precisely, the national holiday is on August 15th, which began its life as a religious holiday, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church, "morphing" into a holiday/vacation with the evolution of Italy's "beach culture" in the early 1960s. So much for religion in "Catholic" Italy...

History aside - and because Best of Sicily prides itself on being the kind of Sicily travel guide that presents accurate information instead of clich├ęs and platitudes - it's worth considering what you should expect this week, when half the country is on vacation. After thinking about how ridiculous it is for tens of millions of Italians to choose the same week for their holiday, you'll want to think about what to avoid.

Beaches will be crowded, especially close to the largest cities. Mondello, outside Palermo, is the worst in Sicily.

Many restaurants will be closed all week, especially in the city. Most stores will be closed Wednesday, the 15th. All banks and public offices will be closed that day. Check out the Sicily weather forecast to see how hot it'll be. With any luck, you can find a place in the shade and a nice gelateria.

You've been warned.

Friday, August 10, 2012

American Express Selects Sicily Tour

Our partners Sicily Concierge, in cooperation with American Express, are offering a discount on the Best of Sicily Red Tour this year and in 2013. To get the discount, you must pay for the tour at least 90 days before its start date with the American Express Card®. While these tours are not the same as hiring a private tour guide in Palermo, Agrigento or elsewhere in Sicily, the group size is small, so they're the next best thing.  Check it out.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

MORE Sicily Tours in 2013!

Yesterday we overlooked to mention the Golden Tours: Sicily East to West and Sicily West to East. Next year these popular tours across the island will consist of seven nights instead of the present six.

These are very convenient tours because they have only two check-ins. Instead of a "circuit" around Sicily, they begin and end in Taormina or Palermo, crossing the island instead of beginning and finishing at the same point.

As self-serving as it sounds, it's absolutely true that no other company in the world offers the dozens of start-dates of the Best of Sicily tours, and very few market anything this accommodating. In fact, these tours are the result of seven years of experience with these particular itineraries and lots of customer feedback. Check them out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sicily Tours 2013

Our commercial department, the folks who promote Sicily tours, have told me that the description of Best of Sicily's 8-night tour of Sicily for next year is now online.

This is a small-group tour - with a maximum of 16 participants - with high-end lodging and an exceptional itinerary that covers most of Sicily in just 9 days with only three hotel check-ins. A number of lunches and dinners are included. There are start dates from March through June, and in September, October and November.

For 2013 the tour includes a few cultural sites that nobody else offers. Our favorite new feature is the flour mill near Ragusa, which also includes an old country home full of 18th-century furnishings and details. Read about the Red Sicily Tour.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Heat Wave!

Sicily is experiencing exceptionally hot weather, even compared to what we normally see in August. Temperatures in some areas, particularly Catania, are expected to reach 40 C (104 F) degrees. The Siracusa area may also be fairly hot.

The high temperatures have aggravated a few isolated wildfires.

Check out the Sicily weather forecasts for Palermo, Catania and Messina on our weather page.

How long will the heat wave last? Probably through the middle of the month, perhaps until September.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Alcantara Gorge

It's so hot in Sicily right now that two days ago we were actually suggesting a visit to Syracuse's mikveh hypogeum to keep cool - but that obviously isn't the only solution!

The Alcantara Gorge is one of the few places in Sicily where you can swim in cool, natural  freshwater. Yes, it's open to the public and our article has directions.

This is a canyon formed by a river running through volcanic rock and other geological layers in the Etna region. Unlike most Sicilian rivers, which have become seasonal run-off streams, the Alcantara has water all year. If you go in search of it, note that in Italian it's pronounced al-CAN-tar-a, not the Spanish way (al-can-TAR-a). Mispronounce it and people who can help you find it won't know what you're talking about.

However, a search with Google maps works with alcantara+me+sicily.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Mikveh of Syracuse

Torrid temperatures are forecast through the middle of August, and anybody who lives in Sicily knows it'll be hot through mid September. That makes it a great time to visit the mikveh of Siracusa, Europe's oldest surviving Jewish ritual bath. Siracusa - and its beautiful Ortygia district - always makes for a great "cultural" holiday.

The mikveh is located about 20 meters underground, carved out of limestone in a hypogeum that was discovered five centuries after the forced expulsions and conversions of the Jews of Sicily and Spain. While you're in Siracusa, don't miss beautiful Syracuse Cathedral, a unique edifice that bridges the gap from classical mythology to early Christianity.

Read about it in our article.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wall Street Journal Reports on Sicily

The financial crisis in Sicily worsens with over five billion euros of debt that the Sicilian Region cannot pay from "regional" funds. It used to be that these "domestic" matters were not widely reported in the international press. Those days are gone.

Following reports on the financial insolvency of Spain's autonomous regions - most notably Catalonia - the Wall Street Journal reports on Sicily's problems and the reasons for them: public sector overspending, corruption, generally poor administration. In effect, Sicily is bankrupt and Rome is tired of bailing out this money pit in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

It's no "secret" when everybody is writing about it, but back in the "old days," before the advent of the world wide web and localized news going global (especially during the last decade), Sicily's politicians managed to keep most of the world in the dark about their antics. It was only the local or national news agencies that reported anything.

But change is good. Monitoring by a presidential appointee is a good idea, though it probably won't be realized until at least September. For now, Prime Minister Mario Monti will begin to restrict some of the endless subsidies being sent down the pipeline to Sicily, with serious cutbacks if the Sicilian politicians don't effect serious changes soon.

The only detail in the WSJ article that is obviously inaccurate is the unemployment rate in Sicily. In realty, it's at least 30% (not the 20% reported) because here in Italy anybody who works even one day of the year is considered "employed." That's obviously a ridiculous standard. Likewise, the Sicilian Region employs far more than 17,000 people, while the Sicilian public sector in general (national, regional, provincial and local agencies) employs several hundred thousand - not that they all actually do much work.

Will this debacle negatively influence your visit to Sicly? Not at all. It's easy enough to ignore the politicians and their cronies. Sightseeing in Sicily is as interesting as ever.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rain in July

Okay, we must be crazy to be blogging about the weather!

Only in a place with a divine climate like Sicily's would a touch of rain in late July actually be news. Realistically, considering the sinking state of Sicily's economy, perhaps we should be grateful that the sunshine is free!

If nothing else, the few drops that have fallen across the island today - in Summer it's usually only the Nebrodi-Etna region that gets any rain at all - serve to clean the air a bit. In much of Sicily there has been no rain since early June, and most years there is virtually no rain at all during July and August.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sightseeing and Reality

It's a subtle process, but we constantly update the pages on Best of Sicily. We recently updated the Sicily sightseeing page as well as the one for challenged visitors (and those having dietary restrictions, etc.).

Some of the pragmatic advice we offer on these two pages may differ from what is published elsewhere on the web and in travel books. Our philosophy (such as it is) is that it's best to provide you with accurate information reflecting what you can realistically expect when you arrive here in Sicily - instead of "promotional" material based on a publicist's fantasy.

Day to day, we see a number of what might be termed "tourism disasters" that could have been avoided with better planning before the visitors arrived. Or if they had read those two simple pages.