Sunday, November 04, 2012

A guide to Sicily that only mentions the you-know-what twice

© Simon Poulter 2012

Welcome to the thick of Autumn. Summer Time has officially ended and the first frozen fingers of Winter have already caused "travel misery" in Europe. Across the northern hemisphere, firewood and electricity bills are being stockpiled for the chilly weeks between now and the next hosepipe ban, which should be declared around March.

For most people who took a summer holiday this year, memories will have evaporated as fast as that small epithelial rug of peeled skin that formed beneath them. All this means it's time to start thinking about your next holiday, if for no other reason as warming autumnal spirits like a 40-tog onesie.

My own summer escape this year took place, as usual, in September, when it is still summer enough to feel summery, but with the majority of tourists back home packing children off to school. For me, it has historically been the perfect time for a summer break. Most places are still warm and sunny, hotel staff appear generally relaxed, and for the impatient, must-see attractions are unimpaired by the midsummer hordes.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Apropos of any particular reason, apart from the fact I like the place, I returned to Sicily, that flaccid rugby ball perched on the toe of Italy's stiletto-healed boot.

Extending Europe to within 100 miles of Africa, and covering an area almost the size of Belgium, Sicily ticks all the boxes an Italianophile might seek - warm sun, beautiful beaches, dramatic scenery, Mediterranean ambiance, gallons of history and a richness of culture.

September and October are also, in my view, the best months to visit the island. The searing mid-Summer heat it shares with its African neighbours will have subsided somewhat, as will the crowds that flock here from Italy's northern reaches, presumably to escape the posh Brits in their Jags and panama hats who, each summer, turn Tuscany into a branch office of Chipping Norton.

September is, according to statistics, notorious for two life-changing events: firstly, it is second only to January for divorce spikes as, clearly, two weeks of enforced togetherness is too much for some. Secondly, September is when more people decide to change job or career than at any other time in the year.

Visiting Sicily, however, is unlikely to have you to jack in your moribund accounting job to live the dream as one of the island's traffic police, parking inspectors, road standards managers, driving instructors, highway code authors or refuse collectors.

Because Sicily contains, apparently, the most under-policed highways (many of which are more pothole than road), while chronically lacking anything resembling parking skills. And for all its natural beauty, every thoroughfare on the island seems to be uniformly decorated with piles of uncollected rubbish in plastic bags.

All of which is a shame, really. Because before you've sampled the sumptuous wines, smelled the aroma of freshly grilled swordfish, or marvelled at the breathtaking landscapes that undulate throughout the Sicilian interior, you will have had your wits scared out of you by the drive to your hotel.

Once you've been on the island for 48 hours, however, you soon assimilate into the local driving habits. You may not come away feeling particularly proud, but at least you feel like you've both blended in and let your inner lunatic Italian driver out. And, on top of this, assuming you get to the hotel in one piece in the first place, Sicily will reward you with the some of the  warmest hospitality in the Mediterranean.

Sicily is an island of some complexity and more than a little mystery. It's an autonomous region of Italy, and yet at times you feel that you're not a part of Italy at all. At its narrowest, the gap between Messina and the Italian mainland is only three kilometres wide, but the distance between Italians and Sicilians is far greater.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Being large enough to consider itself a country in its own right. locals revel in their autonomy. But that independence may be more a product of the island's history of ownership, the deeds of which have been passed from one absentee landlord to another, from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, to the Moors, Byzantines,  Spanish and Normans.

Sicily has, obviously, long been a huge strategic prize, a large lump of half-volcanic rock jutting into the Mediterranean and well endowed agriculturally (and, latterly, in other resources worth plundering).

The Allies in 1943 chose it to mount the first major take-back in Europe against the Axis forces, with General Patton famously invading along the southern-coast. Rumours have rarely subsided since that the Mafia helped his advance. Whether that was the case or not, there are still signs of flimsy German and Italian defences dotted along the island's southern rim, from Syracuse to Agrigento, with pill boxes and bombed-out, bullet hole-ridden buildings in evidence still today.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Sicily's more interesting history, however, stretches back much further. Having first been settled by Sicanians from Iberia, Trojans from Libya and then Siculians from the Italian mainland, all so far back vinyl was still the preferred medium for recorded music, Sicily is rife with heritage, if you go looking for it.

Some of it is obvious, like the stunning, partial remains of Greek temples at Agrigento, or the eight UNESCO World Heritage of Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli.

Noto, Ragusa and their provincial capital, Syracuse, are amongst the undisputed highlights of Sicily's south-eastern hump, an area rich in forests, valleys and olive and lemon orchards, as well as these stunning towns that were rebuilt to pristine condition after a massive earthquake in 1693.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Noto is breathtakingly beautiful. Situated in an area first settled during the Bronze Age, and the adminstrative centre of the Val di Noto since the Arab occupation, the city was completely flattened by the earthquake.

It was rebuilt, literally from the ground up, some 12km from the city's original location, exclusively adopting the Baroque architectural style prevalent in 17th Century Italy.

Entering via the Porta Reale, the city's main gate on its eastern side, Noto's beauty becomes instantly obvious as you wal up Vittorio Emanuele, the Church of San Francesco to your right and, further down, Piazza Municipio and the Noto town hall, Palazzo Ducezio.

Heading back out of the Val di Noto and into the Sicilian interior, you head towards the towering city of Enna. I say towering as it sits on top of a 1200-metre summit, like a giant lookout post erected in the middle of the island. Unsurprisingly, this mountain-hugging city has been besieged more than any of Sicily's much-fought over territories, and one can't help being reminded of Edoras in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, towering over the vast plains of Sicily's interior.

© Simon Poulter 2012

They say that on a clear day you can see the entire island from the citadel at the top of Enna. It's certainly possible to see across to the east and the permanently smoking chimney that its Mount Etna, Europe's only active volcano.

To the south you can make out the grim oil refinery at Gela, a much-needed employer in Sicily's increasingly impoverished southern half, but still a visual blight on the coastline. To the north you should be able to see towards the Palermo coast, but given the size of the island, it's optimistic at best to hope to see much further than the hills around Corleone. Yes, that Corleone.

Which brings me back to the Sicilian driving culture. Speed limits are, much like red lights in Amsterdam, more of a suggestion than an enforcement: the polizia stradale does exist, but like hen's teeth.

Their speed traps, too, are bafflingly predictable: see a bridge coming up? Slow down. If a pair of constables are waiting for you, they'll be doing so conspicuously, under the bridge with their Alfa's tailgate up. The officers themselves will be standing around smoking, talking animatedly and admiring their over-polished caps and sunglasses in the windows of their vehicle. As you zoom past.

However, should you find yourself driving too slowly for the tastes of a local, you'll soon know about it. Overtaking in Sicily is something of an art form, a skill that sits somewhere between using The Force and possessing the flying skills of pilots in the Red Arrows' Synchro Pair.

White lines, double white lines and no overtaking signs are mere decoration. If you are deemed to be driving too slowly, regardless of your place within or outside the speed limit, you'll be overtaken. The vehicle overtaking you will be of indeterminate age or roadworthiness, but you will be passed. This is fine, until you encounter a motorist overtaking someone else coming towards you. On a fast bend. Which you haven't yet gone round.

It's at such moments that you actively consider the possibility that those piles of rubbish everywhere are in fact crash barriers, much like the tyre wall on a Formula 1 circuit  and have been benevolently left - replete with fetid contents - to absorb the force of your hire car being forced into it by an oily-haired male wearing oversized Aviators.

Regardless of which side you choose to drive, some of Sicily's roads are truly awful. That said, there also some truly wonderful driving roads that the island's breathtaking interior, winding in and out of the hills, mountains and moors before crossing bridges that span vast, chasms of draw-dropping, Monica Belucci-cleavage depth.

Some are so high, such as the Guerrieri bridge at Modica, you see towns far below you, giving you the closest experience to flying a car short of joining Bo and Luke Duke for an afternoon out in the family ride.

It does make you wonder how a nation which, in an earlier form, developed almost half a million kilometres of roads to improve communications throughout its empire, and which turned bridge building into an art as much as an engineering skill, could now have roads in such indecent repair that you understand why even the most modest of hill villages has a small platoon of car mechanics.

The Sicilian driving experience is a decidedly clutch-testing application of all gears your car might possess. With the exception of reverse: stopping in towns rarely seems to require the application of parallel parking skills. On any street - especially those main thoroughfares that cut through each town, you pull in nose-first as soon as you see a space, and without any consideration for whoever might be behind you, or for the fact that you've left your backside out in the middle of traffic for the duration of your pitstop to grab groceries or a quick espresso. Quite why Italian drivers need any more stimulation eludes me.

These are, however, relatively minor gripes. There are worse things to complain about. Sicily is a beautiful island, and its people warm and welcoming. But it is an island being dragged increasingly into poverty.
Graphic courtesy of Business Week.

The small mountains of rubbish everywhere, while not as bad as the refuse crisis that engulfed Naples some years back, is still an unfathomable eyesore. Everywhere there are half-finished buildings, construction projects that appeared to have stopped abruptly.

It's not uncommon to see a row of shops with the skeleton of three or four stories of unbuilt apartments above them, looking for all the world like buildings shelled by heavy armour, but in reality have just suffered from a downing of tools. What - or perhaps whom - is the cause is never clear. Some blame the economy, some blame the unions, some blame the Mafia, some blame the government.

A recent Business Week article, Sicily, a Portrait of Italian Dysfunction, noted that the town of Giarre on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna today boasts 27,000 incomplete building projects - the most in Italy and the equivalent of two-and-a-half for every 100 residents.

Five years since my last visit to Sicily, and the signs of Italy's economic struggle loom large. Myriad restaurants and pizzeria that sit in every town and dotted along the highways stand empty and abandoned. Even for September, when most of the tourist trade has gone home, there is a weariness about some bar owners, as if they'd rather be closed than taking in business from the occasional visitor that calls in looking for a cheap meal.

It can be - and is - at times depressing to see Sicily like this. But if you can ignore the increasing signs of man-made shabbiness, there is so much to love about this island. What it lacks in the party spirit of the other rocks that dot the Mediterranean it more than makes up for in culture and heritage and more.

My two weeks there last September were two of the most relaxing two weeks I've ever spent on holiday. That's the magic of Sicily: if you want to go tearing about in a hire car for a couple of adrenalin-rushed weeks, it's there for you. If you just want to sit on a quiet, secluded beach, reading a book to the sound of the sea gently washing ashore, it's there for you too. Either way, you'll never get bored.

© Simon Poulter 2012

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