MAY 2021 – I’m delighted to present the latest update from Europe with a definite ray of sunshine and light in the air. This time we are focusing on Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. An island of history, art and culture. Homeland of the fabulous fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana. A place where the blue of the sea meets the brilliant reds and greens of traditional Sicilian ceramics, textiles and mosaics. An island whose cosmopolitan culture has been created over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish.
The people of Sicily are ready to get back to normal. I sincerely hope that I’ll be back in Sicily with a group of intrepid travellers in September and October, 2021. Here’s an update from Maria Cristina, a writer and journalist in Palermo and a selection of my photos from the last couple of years. A feast for the eyes.
UPDATE – Here’s the latest from the desk of Maria Cristina – Journalist and Writer, based in beautiful Mondello, Palermo, Sicilia….
”…When the pandemic broke out last year, Sicily was far away from the Italian main outbreak place, in Lombardy. We followed the tragedy on tv, but at first, we felt as if we weren’t touched. I remember my sister Carolina, who works in tourism, trying to understand what was happening and, at the same time, striving to reassure her clients, showing pictures of her everyday, normal life on social media. But, in the end, we had to resign and suffered lockdown, along with the rest of Italy, for almost two months. We had a relatively normal summer. Not that many tourists, almost no foreigners, but we managed, and we were sure that, in a short time, this would be nothing more than a bad memory. But we’ve had a second, and a third wave.
Now we are here again. Spring is over and summer is rapidly approaching. I live in Palermo, not far from the beach of Mondello, and when I go for a walk I usually go down to the seaside. The water is crystal clear, and the beach is full of seagulls, competiting for space with sunbathers. I feel hope in the air. We’ve been locked down, again, for several weeks, but now the vaccination campaign has been brought almost up to speed, and the restrictions have been eased a bit. You can go to a restaurant or to a bar, you can visit a museum or have your hair cut, and you can see people smiling, even from behind the face masks we still have to wear.
Sicily was a land of agriculture with very little industry. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were entrepreneurs (even foreigners, like the Whitakers and Inghams, coming from England) who started exporting Sicily’s famous Marsala Wine to the British Isles. Then tuna fishing, wine making and salt panning became important. But World War II wiped out everything. Today our richness is our history and our natural environment, and tourism is fundamental for the local economy. People start every day looking at how the vaccination campaign is going, to forecast the future, hoping for a good touristic season. The fact is that this HAS to be a good season. The Sicilian economy depends on that, and we all prefer to think everything will be ok. The opposite is not even a possibility. Now I am receiving news about festivals which are going to be held in our ancient Greek theatres, starting at the end of June. About exhibitions and events and guided visits. Usually, when I talk to people arranging such things, they start by saying: “If everything goes well”, trying to be wary, but after a few moments, life and energy and optimism triumphs, outweighing caution and transforming us all with a great big smile…”
You can read more from Maria Cristina by visiting her blog: www.sicilystoriesandmore.it
WELCOME – There’s no doubt that the people of Sicily are eager and ready to welcome visitors to the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea this summer. Certainly I, as a tour guide am very keen to get back to work. It’s been almost a year and a half without customers travelling in Europe. It’s been a lonely time and a very sad time, as people have stayed at home and come to terms with new restrictions on our daily lives. However, in recent weeks things have definitely improved in Europe. I’m hoping to be leading a group or two in Sicily in the autumn, and I for one, really feel that I’m ready to get back to normal. There are so many dedicated artisans, restaurant owners and businesses ready to welcome tourists. It’s so important now that we are adventurous and start poking our noises over the parapet.
HISTORY – There is so much to discover in Sicily that it is actually quite difficult to know where to start. Usually I suggest flying into Catania, in the south-east of the island and then staying a couple of nights in either Siracusa or Ragusa (Val di Noto). The south-east of Sicily is the land of Montalbano, the famed TV series. For lovers of Montalbano it is easy to visit numerous locations from the series including his house on the beach which, most conveniently, has a world-class ice cream shop almost next door. The Baroque towns of Ragusa, Modica and Scicli are scenic and elegant. All with towering 18th century churches and great local pride. Just to the north is Taormina, the most picturesque hilltop town with stunning views of the sea and Etna, an active volcano. Taormina has an annual music festival and has long been a haunt of sophisticated travellers from all over Europe. In the summer the Greek theatre offers a range of concerts and plays with the spectacular backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.
When I’m travelling in Sicily I always enjoy visiting the Greek Temples at Agrigento. These temples are similar in style and age to the Parthenon in Athens. They were built by the Greeks high on a hillside as a symbol of power and strength to deter approaching invaders. The park surrounding the temples is green and lush. There’s even a kind of curly horned goat, unique to the area that lives in the orchards and fields next to the temples.
Other essential stops when visiting Sicily include Cefalu, a delightful medieval seaside town and Bagheria, s suburb of Palermo with an incredible number of historic villas. Palermo of course is unmissable. Trapani and Marsala in the west are also fascinating for their salt flats and sweet, amber wine respectively.
CROSSING the island of Sicily from south to north is a little like stepping back in time. Remote villages dot surprisingly green mountain sides. This was a land of emigration to America. Many, many North American families return to Sicily each year to discover their roots. There’s a number of local specialists offering geneology tours. In recent years many young Sicilians have returned to their homeland too and started organic farms. In fact there’s an organisation called ‘Cento Passi’ which offers parcels of land to young people to farm in a sustainable and sensitive manner. The land has often been ‘repossessed’ from mafia members who systematically bought land in the past as a way of laundering money. As my friend in Palermo tells me, ‘…..the mafia are still here, but they are not on the street anymore, instead they are hidden, deep within the system…’
MARKETS – in the street markets of Palermo visitors can taste and smell numerous local and traditional foods. Some more mainstream than others! In these markets I discovered that Sicily now has more than 400 active vineyards producing wines. In the 1980s there was only about a dozen. A tour of the markets of Palermo is a ‘must do’, I hired a local guide ‘Giorgio’ who introduced us to an incredible array of stalls and stands. It was a stroll through the history of Palermo sampling the food and wine of the centuries. Absolutely delicious!
LAST YEAR during lockdown I kept myself sane by reading a novel by Stefania Auci ‘I Leoni di Sicilia’ a family saga about two brothers who arrived in Palermo, Sicily in the early years of the 19th century. They’d travelled by sea from Calabria (Southern Italy) in search of a new beginning and new opportunities. The story traces the lives of the Florio family from 1800 up to the 1860s. It is an intricately woven tale of hard work and determination, blood, sweat and tears. It is also a tale of loyalty and taciturn obedience. The characters are strongly developed and not always endearing. However there is an unspoken conviction that they will succeed, regardless of the challenges they face. This book is now available in English translation and I’d strongly recommend it.
INSPIRATION – a visit to Sicily always fills me with inspiration. From the markets of Palermo to the Baroque charm of Val di Noto. There’s two thousand years of history here and something interesting around every corner. I’ll be back in Sicily in September and October so if you’d care to discover the flavours of this fascinating land with a tailor-made itinerary or as part of a very small group tour then let me know.
OTHER ARTICLES – A selection of other articles I’ve written about Sicily:
- Sicily – La Sicilia: Mediterranean jewel
- Sicily – Montalbano and Val di Noto
- Cefalu, Sicily – a smart little waterfront town
- Palermo, Sicily – discovering the unknown unknown…
- Our own personal Jesus – guiding us through the markets of Palermo, Sicily
- Sicily in the Movies
IMPORTANT – The Treasures of Sicily – This is a tour that I will operate in early October, 2021 in conjunction with Doni Belau of Girl’s Guide to Paris. Just a few places remain. Contact me or Doni directly for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org OR visit Doni’s web site: www.girlsguidetoparis.com
Special thanks to: Gabriella Costa, Giorgio, Karen LaRosa and all the many fans of Sicily who have helped me to learn and discover a little more on every single visit.
16th May, 2021