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.