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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is Sicily Bankrupt???

Yes! At least that was the story that made national headlines in Italy today, in newspapers like La Repubblica. The simple fact is that the Sicilian Region's government has a deficit bigger than a sink hole - literally billions of euros - and no ready source to tax, rob, coerce or beg for revenue. As it is, most of Sicily's public sector actually survives on "national" funding; it has been so since the 1940s. If Sicily were a country (it hasn't been since establishment of the Two Sicilies in 1816), it would be another Greece, facing a crisis very similar to that nation's troubles.

The national "central" government (in Rome) is reluctant to bail out Sicily without attaching at least a few strings to any "emergency" funds. Until now, a few Italian towns have faced default but never an entire political "region." Not that Prime Minister Mario Monti would permit a literal default, but he is talking about sending a special "commissioner" (super-manager) to audit the books and administer any bailout funds from Rome. The special commissioner would temporarily replace the Regional President, who has tendered his resignation effective by October. Figures vary, but the shortfall (the deficit) is estimated by disinterested economists at some 21 billion euros while the people running the Region claim a less credible 5 billion.

For now, the Prime Minister is sending Sicily a hundred million euros in "emergency" funds. That doesn't change the fact that the island - which after Naples was the wealthiest region of the newly-unified "Italy" in 1861 - is an economic "charity case."

Last week, newspapers reported that the European Union is also talking about more closely overseeing EU "development" money sent to "under-developed" Sicily. Amidst the endemic, chronic public corruption, payoff scandals and thousands of jobs-for-friends (Palermo province alone has more public-sector employees than the entire Lombardy region, which includes Milan), both these moves point to a single ideal: Accountability.

For now, it's just a question of the Regional Assembly's offices cutting back on the air conditioning and perks.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

(Real) Tour Guides

Walking around central Palermo yesterday, I was struck by the number of small three-wheel passenger vehicles (based on the Ape or bee made in Italy) driven by "taxi drivers" offering tours to visitors. Needless to say, these are not very sophisticated "tours" of the city. The (often obnoxious) drivers can't even speak English and know very little about local history. What is more, their mediocre services are ridiculously overpriced. Frankly, it amazes me that anybody would want to see Palermo this way.

Instead of this improvised solution, get a small group together - even if it's only 3 or 4 people - and hire a real tour guide in Palermo or elsewhere in Sicily. These college-educated professionals speak at least three languages and are highly qualified to do what they do. Some are actually published historians or archaeologists. They are authorized to accompany you around the city and to lecture at historical sites (in churches and museums, for example). Check out our Sicily tour guide page for listings. This requires some foresight, but why leave your visit to chance?

And for realistic, reliable information on transportation and sightseeing in Palermo, check out See Palermo's sightseeing page.

Monday, July 9, 2012

St Rosalie Festival

This week, beginning Friday, Palermo celebrates its patron saint, Rosalie. The festival culminates Saturday at midnight with fireworks near the Mura delle Cattive (near Porta Felice and the Kalsa district) with the arrival of the St Rosalie float, but the stands will still be up through Tuesday, July 17th.

Sicily has a number of these religious festivals throughout the year, their size generally corresponding to their city's population. Palermo's is larger than Catania's - and generally crazier. Much as we enjoy these events, they are chaotic, crowded and not organized very well. Nevertheless, they're a great place to sample the local cuisine and get a taste of "popular" folk culture. (Enjoy your visit but beware of pickpockets.)

Otherwise, avoid the Via Crispi and Foro Italico area near the shore from the Cala (bay) to Via Lincoln, especially during the evenings.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Odo of Bayeux

Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William I "the Conqueror" of England, died in Palermo where he is buried. We felt he was worth an article.

In the Questionable Usefulness Department, we're introducing some short, simple pages which break up lengthier ones into bite-size morsels of a paragraph or two each. When might these be useful to the typical reader? That's difficult to say because, after all, Best of Sicily already has mobile versions for iPad, iPhone and Android.

At some point in the near future, we might direct all mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) to these shorter pages - or something very similar - rather than to the longer (desktop) pages on the site. For now, it's something of "a solution in search of a problem." Check out our Short Page Index.