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Traveling in Sicily

Dr. Phyllis Masciandaro

Four of us went to Sicily for the last week in September and the first week in October, 2000. I have spent two months thinking very hard about how to write about the experience without sounding like a whiner. We stayed at two different villas arranged through The Parker Company, September 23 to October 7. We were amazed, delighted, and dismayed at Sicily, all at the same time. Sicily is a gorgeous island; the people were wonderful, as was the food. Our disappointment lay with how poorly the island is maintained and the lack of care for its antiquities.

Both the villas we stayed at, one in Mondello/Palermo and the other a farm outside Ragusa, were lovely. We spent a week in each, driving from Palermo to Agrigento to Gela (the Italians call Gela "Beirut") to Ragusa. We spent two days at Giardini Naxos and Taormina, then drove back to Palermo to fly home.

We four are experienced, independent, extremely flexible, easy-going senior citizen travelers who have driven throughout the US and in foreign places as diverse as Tokyo and Rome. We avoid tours and really enjoy the freedom of being on our own. We take it as it comes, go with the flow, hang easy, stay loose, do not get frustrated easily, etc. - all that good stuff. This was our first to Sicily, but our sixth trip to Italy. I am the family "tour guide" and do my homework thoroughly. I speak Italian. I studied guidebooks, had a detailed map of Sicily and a street map of the Palermo area, and took it all with me. I had worked out our itinerary and had studied the maps and guidebooks and was satisfied that I was ready for Sicily. Little did I know how different Sicily would be from the rest of Italy. In Sicily, "dolce far niente" has been taken to the extreme!

Let me say that my husband and the other driver are both retired New York City Police Department detectives who started out as traffic patrolmen in Manhattan. The other driver trained NYC police officers how to safely drive patrol cars in city chases and crisis situations. They both agreed that they would never ever try to drive a car in Sicily again because of the disorganization, poor signs, and incredible lack of any kind of physical planning and maintenance of roads and highways.

I know, I know: When in Rome, etc. But even with that in mind, the complicated Sicilian/Italian bureaucracy, criminal control, and the resultant careless attitude towards public services and general maintenance of this beautiful place combine to make Sicily into a difficult place for independent travelers. In addition, the lack of care for the magnificent antiquities (e.g. Greek and Norman ruins) and public places, such as beaches and churches, is astounding. I have never seen anything written about this sad reality of Sicily. All I have found before and since in guidebooks or on the internet is the warning not to drive in Palermo because of the heavy traffic, much the same as is said about Rome, Naples, Tokyo, New York. It is true that the traffic in Palermo is totally unbelievable, but the Palermitani are incredibly good drivers. I am convinced that the Italians have a very different sense of personal space than we do. They drive within six inches of another car and do not even turn their heads to look. They just seem to know!!!

We met a lovely ROMAN couple and even they could not cope with the Palermo traffic and the lack of traffic signs. They left their hotel in Palermo early for this reason. We got lost every time we left the villa and every time we tried to return. The traffic circles are unbelievable.

But the difficulties go far beyond just heavy traffic. There appears to be virtually no road or highway maintenance and the traffic signs are inadequate, to say the least. Most highway or road signs were difficult to read (poorly placed, too small, or covered with tree branches and/or graffiti). Evidently there is no highway department for tree trimming in the Italian bureaucracy. All over Sicily, what signs exist are too small and are placed AFTER the intersection so that the driver finds him/herself past the middle of the intersection before being able to read the sign - too late to make a turn.

In addition, all over Sicily one sees a general deterioration of public places. For example, there are many lovely seaside towns, some quite famous and popular. At some point in time after WWII boardwalks were built, trees planted, and beautiful brick sidewalks were set along the beachfronts. But evidently nobody maintained anything. As a result, the sidewalks are broken, bricks are missing or out of place, the plantings or trees are dead and the planters are empty except for garbage. These conditions were endemic throughout Sicily. Although we certainly did not expect the same standards in Sicily as on the mainland, we were very surprised at the extent to which everything is neglected and allowed to deteriorate, especially given the growing popularity of Sicily and the efforts of Sicilian tourism to encourage more visitors. Of course, people on a tour bus would not see many of the things we saw nor would they have to cope with the problems of getting around that we had. They are given a much more romanticized view of Sicily, I think.

Another problem was that for the whole second week, every truck in Sicily was on strike to protest the price of gasoline. The trucks blocked off one lane of all the highway entrances and exits, forcing travelers to go very slowly. Then the problem became whether we would have enough gasoline to get back from Taormina to Palermo. There was no gasoline, the markets were empty, hotels could not get clean laundry, there was no milk. Only medical emergency supplies were being allowed in and very little gasoline. Now, to tell the truth, we have never been in Italy when there wasn't a strike. However, this strike was more serious and longer than usual. We were lucky that we had just enough gas to get back to Palermo. We had to cut short some side trips that we had planned.

As another example of how far the Sicilian tourism industry has yet to go, let me tell you about Taormina. Taormina is now the "in" place to go and it is beautiful, beautiful. However, our first impression came from a large public parking garage halfway up the mountain that was recommended to us by our hotel. It started out to be a five story garage, but only the lowest two underground stories were in use. There were two elevators, neither of which worked. We walked up to the top (fifth) story, which was supposed to be an open parking area. It was unfinished, and obviously neglected for a number of years. There were rusted metal pipes, broken cement pieces, bricks and various other materials all around, and grass growing through the cement. Very sad. There is a free shuttle at this garage to take one up to the center of Taormina, but there is only one small typewritten sign in Italian to inform tourists of this shuttle and that sign is on the window where one pays to redeem one's car upon leaving. So, because many tourists probably do not see the sign or cannot read it if they do see it, they end up walking up an extremely long wooden staircase to get into Taormina. And Taormina is one of the best, most popular, and most sophisticated places in Sicily.

The guide maps and books all note the location of Tourist Bureaus in each of the sightseeing areas and recommend that tourists stop in for information and local walking tour guides, etc. When we found one that was open (before 1PM or after 4PM), we rarely got anything useful. Local tourist maps were generally not available, so we couldn't even get directions if we needed them. Nor could they arrange for tours or personal guides. We also tried a couple of commercial travel agencies and they couldn't help us either; they did not arrange day tours or overnight tours. In addition, there was not one Greek or Norman ruin that we saw (there are more Greek ruins in Sicily than there are in Greece), whether free or with an entry fee, that had any written material or walking guide available. If you do not bring your own general guidebook, you are sunk.

The first Greek settlement in Sicily, presumably a very important site, is in Giardini-Naxos, just below Taormina. It covers quite a large area right on the beach. There was an admission fee to enter (only $2 US). I asked for a map of the ruins, but there was none to be had. The ticket seller said they are not printed anymore. There were two arrow signs (in Italian only) - one to the Museum and one to the Ruins. We entered the small museum, one large room with glass display cases all around the walls and two guards sitting at a card table watching TV. Every glass case was completely empty and had a handwritten sign (in Italian) that said the glass cases were being renovated, although there was no sign of any work being done. At this point we had to laugh; it had become typical of our experiences. I asked the guards if there was anything to see. They laughed and pointed at a small staircase. We went up and there were some artifacts on the second floor, but no sign downstairs to lead visitors upstairs. There was another small building that could have been anything, maybe a Roman bath or a farmhouse (no signs). In this building were many artifacts that had been salvaged from the harbor, including petrified wood and metal parts from ancient ships and amphorae (clay containers). Everything was just lying there. Anyone could have picked something up and broken it or stolen it. Astounding!!! If you walk around the ruins, there are no signs telling you where to walk or what kind of ruin you are looking at: Greek, Roman, Norman, or later. The ruins are overgrown with grass and weeds. Again, very sad and frustrating.

One more issue: garbage. As in most of rural Italy, there is no house-to-house garbage pickup. There are small, totally inadequate dumpsters placed out on the street, maybe one or two on a long block. Pickups must be infrequent because the dumpsters were all overflowing and had garbage all around them. Most open fields in neighborhoods and pull-off rest areas on the highway were covered with plastic bags of garbage.

All in all, as Italian-Americans, we were dismayed at how ill kept the magnificent antiquities were and how poorly the government serves the Sicilian people. We greatly admired the scenery, the mountains, the color of the small towns, and the people. The food was excellent and very reasonable; we ate mostly seafood. The pastries were indescribable; even the Italian pastries available in Little Italy and other Italian sections here in NY cannot compare.

Now that I have finished complaining, let me also say that we enjoyed every minute, despite our disappointment at certain things; we know that such experiences go with traveling. I do not want to discourage anyone from going to Sicily. It is well worth the trip, but be aware of what is missing from the guidebooks.  We were left feeling ambivalent about the strange mixture of beauty and neglect that we saw. There is still so much we did not see that we would go back in a heartbeat, despite the tinge of sadness we felt for this neglected island that has suffered so much through the centuries. Sicily is truly still the stepchild of Italy.

Follow Up

Pauline: What would be your advice for someone wanting to see Sicily (like us)? Maybe to not rent a car and just go for a few days to one place? What would you recommend?

Phyllis: The last thing I want to do is discourage people from going to Sicily. It is well worth the trip. It is just very different from any other place I have ever been. If you are inexperienced travelers, I would absolutely encourage you to go on a tour only.

For experienced travelers, if you have the time, combine trains with a car. For example, fly into Catania and day trip by car to see Aetna, Taormina and Siracusa. Limited use of a car on the east coast is doable for experienced travelers. While it is not easy to drive around because of the problems I cited, the traffic and the roads are a little better on the east coast than around Palermo and the highways are very straight north-south. (It is the darned signs that lead you astray.) Perhaps this is because the east is more industrialized and populated and Catania is the major airport for the island. Distances between the cities on the east coast are short.

Perhaps the warnings I presented will enable experienced enough travelers to avoid being blindsided like we were. The most useful travel book I had was a book that had detailed maps of every city in Sicily. Unfortunately, I left it behind somewhere, so I can't tell you the name, but such a book is absolutely, positively, essential if you are on your own. Not that the streets anywhere have street signs and street names posted to guide you, but I found the maps invaluable for founding our way about at least sometimes, when I could find a landmark or tourist site to orient us.

If you have time after seeing the major sights on the east coast, then go by train to Palermo and stay in the heart of Palermo at a hotel. You can day trip to a lot of places from central Palermo by day tours from the hotel or by train on your own (e.g., Trapani, Segesta, Erice, Agrigento, Monreale). Just do not stay in a hotel in La Kalsa quarter. We were warned by natives to stay out of that area after sunset and to be very careful there during the day.

Plan B might be just to fly into Palermo and spend all your time there. There certainly is enough to see in and around Palermo. Outside Palermo the towns are more spread out than on the east coast, where they just go north to south practically on a straight line, as you will see by studying the map.

Plan C would be just go up and down the east coast and do the west coast on another trip. I think you will want to go back.


www.bestofsicily.com: More information about Sicily

Phyllis lives in New York and Boynton Beach, Florida and she and her husband love traveling.

© Dr. Phyllis Masciandaro, 2001

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