Last week, I was in shorts. It is fair to say I got a few strange looks from the locals. A few old people shivered and drew their coats up around their necks as they passed me, but it was 22c and for me that’s summer.
That was last week though. The temperature has dropped significantly and winter has rocked up, shocking us to the core. Most Sicilians now look like they are about to go on an expedition to the Artic. It surprises me how many winter clothes they have, considering they get such a relatively short winter. Like it or not, old ladies are wearing fur which has passed down generations, mind you, I have seen fur coats being worn when it is 20c.
The best thing about this cold snap? Snow. Snow has turned parts of Sicily into a winter wonderland, especially in the Madonie mountians and on Mt Etna. Schools have closed and everyone is grappling with snow chains or rushing to buy them. Avid skiers are looking for news as to when the ski runs will open. It is exciting that you can ski on an active volcano while marvelling at views of the sea in the distance. It is also quite scary, not just that the volcano could erupt at any time but also when you are up there it looks as though you are going to ski right off the edge into oblivion! But if that’s not for you then there are other places to ski in Sicily, such as the Madonie Mountains at Piano Battaglia. If you want to know when the slopes are open then you can check out www.pianobattaglia.it and Etnasci.it.
And if skiing isn’t your thing, then you can partake in the popular pastime of Catanese and drive up to Etna, pile a load of snow onto your car bonnet and drive down the mountain and see how long it takes for it to melt!
The thing about living in Sicily is that there is so much to discover, yet only a few people seem to be ‘in the know’. So much potential, tourism-wise, is just wasted, ruined even. Take the Salinelle di Paterno, for example! Little exploding mud volcanoes in other countries are made into tourist attractions. They are nature’s little wonders. They are to there to be seen, admired and wondered at. You don’t have to be a vulcanologist to be excited by them. In Paterno, on the slopes on Etna, their beauty, their fascination is lost on the locals who seem to view it as a place to dump their rubbish. People have tried to make it an attraction. The Inner Wheel Club of Paterno erected a detailed information sign in 2014. However, if you went there today you would see rubbish strewn around it. It is located next to an abandoned and vandalised stadium which probably should never have been built there in the first place. You can peer through the fence and glimpse the mud spurting from the ground like we did but the rubbish is off-putting and you really feel let down by the whole experience. Many of my students are unaware of their existence even though they made the local news the other day with new explosions splashing mud all over cars and a mud river running, or should I say, slowly moving down the street (see link to article here).
I was a little bit hesitant about going to Lampedusa this summer. The Sicilian island is hardly out of the news as a result of the desperate attempts by migrants to reach Europe and escape their war torn countries. Who can forget the terrible image of a migrant’s body lying on the beach while tourists sunned themselves nearby? How could I justify enjoying myself on holiday when so many were arriving after enduring terrible conditions at sea and probably even worse on land?
Yet, Lampedusa is an island that relies heavily on the tourist and fishing industries. It is a popular holiday destination that thousands of Italians flock to every summer. I was told that I would not even notice the arrival of migrants by boat as this all happened away from the main tourist area. It wasn’t that I was worried that it would spoil my holiday but more a case of was it right to go there? I’m still not sure if we should have, but we did and it is the plight of the migrants that has remained with me.
On our first day we hired a boat and as we were leaving the port we passed the coastguard towing a boat of migrants alongside them. I didn’t take any pictures out of respect. There were about a dozen migrants standing in the boat and the coastguards were beginning to remove their white forensic paper overalls and masks. I have always wondered how strange that must look to them after a long journey at sea. I have thought about them often, about where they are now, what they have been through, what kind of future they might have.
That evening, we saw their boat being towed away and learnt that the captain of a tourist boat had spotted them close to where they had been picked up, in front of the port. He couldn’t believe they had gotten so far with no-one spotting them and he had called the coastguard. I am not sure what I would have done in that situation, I am not sure I would have called the coastguard unless they looked as though they were in need of help. I wanted them to get where they were trying to get to. Maybe they would have voluntarily gone into the port but as many are sent straight back I doubt that. They are sent back if they have papers showing that they are from Tunisia, I think there is an agreement with their government. Otherwise they are ‘held’ in an immigration centre on the island before being processed. That is if they are ‘lucky’ as we heard stories of fishermen finding migrant women at sea and keeping them at home to serve their ‘needs’. I so hope this isn’t true but I would be naive to believe it isn’t. I can’t cope with how depraved humans can be.
There was, and probably still is, a lot of resentment on the island towards the migrants but how can this be? How can people abandon each other, not be empathetic and try to help their fellow man? All of us need to admit that if we found ourselves in the same awful situation that they do that we would try and do everything we could to escape it, to survive and to build a new life somewhere else.
In October 2013, 366 migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa. We came across a memorial garden so that this tragedy would never be forgotten. It wasn’t easy to spot and we stopped there by chance. For every one of the 366 who died they have planted a Mediterranean plant in their honour. It seemed a nice idea. Unfortunately, the plants were not in a very good state and I am unsure as to how many will survive the heat and battering wind that they get there. The weather on Lampedusa can be unforgiving just as the conditions at sea that led to their deaths were. For the plants that were put there in their memory to die as well is just too insulting.
Another, more poignant reminder of the migrants’ sea crossings, is to be found next to the new port. Here you will find what can only be described as a boat graveyard which you can’t fail to spot or be moved by. Hundreds of boats are grounded there, many in pieces or with giant holes, as a permanent reminder of those who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to reach the gateway of Europe.
Thousands of migrants arrived when we were staying on Lampedusa, many at night. Italian TV crews were there filming their news reports. On the last day we visited a small cove where the water looked clean and inviting. Instead there was litter everywhere and more disturbingly, and the reason why we promptly left, washed up on the rocks there were clothes and a suitcase.
You can’t escape the migrant story at Lampedusa and nor should we ever try to. Society needs to open its eyes to this tragic situation and face the problems that cause people to become refugees head on. We need to open our arms and welcome them and give them the comfort and hope that they so desperately seek after such a perilous journey. We need to be selfless. We need to put ourselves in their shoes then we might begin to understand and show more compassion.
I have just returned from Lampedusa. One of the many islands that make up Sicily and one that is actually closer to Tunisia than it is the Italian mainland. It is well-known among Italians as a holiday destination, especially those from the north of Italy but less so among other nationalities. I didn’t hear any other language spoken bar from Italian (and of course Sicilian) the whole time I was there although I was reliably informed that a few Canadians were on the island. And you know what? I loved the fact that this island has not succumbed to mass tourism! Although as RAI 24 were there reporting that tourism had suffered a significant fall in recent years it would be better for the island if more people knew about it. Of course, Lampedusa is never off the news due to the desperate plight and continuous arrival of migrants from Africa. Lampedusa is an island of tourists, fishermen, migrants, turtles and dogs. All of which will be covered in separate posts as this island left a lasting impression on me and I have so much to say about so many of the issues it faces.
So, where do I start when I have so much to say? I guess with tourism and what there is to do and see. Well, the main draw of Lampedusa HAS to be the sea and its coastline. That obviously includes the famous ‘Rabbit Beach’. The island itself is small, easy to get around but doesn’t really have anything of interest. It is hugely devoid of trees and gets blasted by the wind in winter so it looks desert like, a huge slab of flat rock floating on the sea.
The town is very small, most of the action is centered around Via Roma which is where you will find boutique shops, cafes and restaurants. There are the old and new ports which I loved just walking around at different times of the day. The island is geared towards to the tourist. You will find bike, jeep, scooter, car hire places in the new port and boat trips in both ports. Don’t expect the scooters to be top notch or for everything to work. This is an island after all and they are much more relaxed about everything. The speedometer on our scooter didn’t work and the brakes squeaked like mad but the price was reasonable and the island is small so it doesn’t really matter. Petrol is expensive and on the day we arrived the petrol station had run out. This meant HUGE queues the next day when the tankard arrived on the island so bear this in mind when choosing which type of vehicle you want to hire, also make sure you aren’t running on empty as you can’t guarantee the petrol stations will have fuel. The island is dotted with coves and small beaches.
To help you decide how to spend your time, here are my top ten things to do:
1. Hire a day boat
Ok, so we were a little anxious about this as we had never piloted a boat before but it is a great way to see the coastline at your own pace. Strong winds on the north of the island meant that we could only visit the south of the island but the best swimming spots are on the south so it really didn’t matter. Having your own boat means you can avoid or keep ahead of the crowds. If you are lucky, you’ll have a cove to yourself for an hour or two. Dropping anchor causes the most stress as in the coves if you anchor in sand you will drift, you’ll get thee hang of it but keep an eye out on the boat when you go for a swim. We had to return to our boat when someone else hadn’t anchored properly and were drifting towards our boat. There are a number of companies who hire boats. We used DAG and they gave us a little test run first to make sure we knew what we were doing. They provide a handy cooler for drinks. Cost depends on how much petrol you use. The hire of the boat is 50 Euro plus petrol. We ended up paying 80 Euro for a day’s hire.
2. Dolphin Watching
It is possible to see dolphins off the coast of Lampedusa. We took an organised tour and went on the lookout for dolphins. It was a memorable experience and the sunset on the way back unforgettable. We spent a good hour, perhaps more, watching the dolphins with La Perla del Mare. The cost of the trip was 20 Euros a head.
3. Round the Island Boat Trip
Yep, yet another boat trip but a nice, relaxing way to spend a day and meet some fellow tourists. There are loads of boat operators offering pretty much the same tour. We went with Perla del Mare and were not disappointed. We got to the most popular areas before the other boats and left when too many boats came. The food was excellent, plenty of it including some leftover for the fish. Giovanni was a gregarious host and although we had slightly more people on our boat than the max of 12, we didn’t really notice. At 40 Euro per head it was definitely money well spent.
4. Rabbit Beach
Most people would be surprised that Rabbit Beach, named best beach in the world in 2013 by travellers on the TripAdvisor website, would come so far down the list. Well, the thing is, it is too popular. We headed there early to beat the crowds but as the turtles are laying their eggs there at night you are not allowed down to the beach until 8.30am. By then, quite a few people had arrived. We were lucky to be among the first to lay out our towels and walk into the crystal clear sea but after an hour or so Italians being Italians we were surrounded. Now, this wasn’t just the inconvenience of having a family or couple close by, they were on top of us. Towel touching towel so to speak. One family plomped themselves in the shade of our parasol advising us that the shade would soon move. There was space further back, but everyone wanted to be as close to the sea as possible and they would have plonked themselves on our towels if they could have. Some Italians like to stand around in the shallow of the sea which also meant that I was staring at an old man’s bum for quite some time. We enjoyed the beach and the water is amazing BUT two hours after arriving we left. If you can’t beat them, leave them to it! Seriously, go early morning to make the most of it (8.30am) or outside of the months July and August.
5. A sunset aperitivo
An aperitivo at O’scia whilst watching the sun go down is a MUST. Drink a cocktail or two and take advantage of their buffet and you won’t need to eat out later.
6. Explore the island by scooter
The coastline is just as spectacular from above. The roads may be a bit bumpy now and again but you will get almost empty roads when you leave the town and stunning views out to sea.
7. Visit the turtle hospital
The turtle hospital is located in the old port and is open Mon to Fri in the evening. Informative volunteers are on hand to tell you about each turtle they have in their care.
8. Cocktails at Turkez
Another great place to have an aperitivo and close to town. You will find it at Cala Croce.
9. The Sanctuary of Our Lady
Worth a look as there are some old previously inhabited caves and a little church.
10. Archivio Storico Lampedusa Whilst the museum in being reconstructed there is a very interesting studio to visit with old photos and newspaper front pages which tell the story of the inhabitants of Lampedusa.
Aci Trezza and Aci Castello are seaside towns north of Catania that merge into each other but each have their own feel and stories. Towns where people drive to from Catania and around to go for a ‘passeggiata'(a stroll which in most places is more to be ‘seen’ than for exercise, undertaken quite often on a Sunday evening when people get dolled up in their Sunday best; people walk so slowly that they barely seem to be moving and stop often). They are also great places to have a granita or an aperitivo as the views over the sea are stunning.
Aci Castello is dominated by a Norman castle which sits on a large rock that seems to have come from no-where. At the base of the rock, people sunbathe or fish. Along the coastline of both towns you find people perched on the lava rocks, soaking up the sun; they rather remind me of seals basking. In the town square you will find Sicilian men passing away the hours, chatting and sitting in the shade beneath the trees whilst the women clean the house and prepare lunch or dinner. When we were there a couple arrived to film their pre-wedding video. It is customary to film a short video telling the story behind a couple’s romance. It is also a popular spot for wedding photographs with the castle and the sea as the backdrop. The castle is interesting to visit and contains a small museum.
You can sea Aci Trezza from Aci Castello but alas in the summer you can’t walk along the seafront from one town to the other due to a rather large, private lido commanding all of the available space and blocking any walkway. It is a shame as I think it would prove to be an added attraction and benefit for both towns. Aci Trezza is the busier of the two and in fact a borough belonging to Aci Castello. Instead of a castle it is dominated by – I Faraglioni dei Ciclopi – the rock of the Cyclops, as local legend would have it that these are the rocks that were thrown by Polythemus at Odysseus when the latter was making his escape. It is not difficult to understand the reasoning for this legend. You can see Mt Etna from the town and the lava basalt rocks do look like they landed there but in fact they rose up from beneath the sea due to volcanic activity. The rocks are an interesting feature on the seascape and provide a perfect place to dive into the sea from for fearless local boys. There are many other interesting volcanic features to see in Aci Trezza but my favourite activity here has to be people watching. In the harbour you will see fishermen tending their boats, bringing in their haul, selling their fish or just relaxing in the shade out of the glaring midday sun. Large yachts, big fishing boats and small wooden boats are moored next to each other. Giovanni Verga set his novel ‘The House by the Medlar Tree’ or ‘I Malavoglia’ here which Luchino Visconti based his film ‘La Terra Trema’ on. I haven’t read the book or watched the film – yet! It is a MUST do on my list as I completely understand how this tranquil but busy seaside town could inspire a writer.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, apart from the granita this is a great place to eat fish! Obviously!
Vendicari is a nature reserve in the South East of Sicily, near to Noto and Siracusa, which was created in 1984 and is well looked after, although tread carefully on the wooden walkways as the wooden planks can sometimes be a little loose or rotting away. The reserve is tranquil and a nature lovers delight. It offers many activities throughout the year and so attracts many visitors, especially in the summer months when the majority of people go there for the beaches. Although, beware the summer months as you have to walk a wee while to get to them and there is little shade once you are there. At Calamosche, my favourite beach in the reserve, the water is so clear that you can see the fish swimming around your ankles. Set in a cove it is a great place to soak up the sun then cool off with a swim or you can take a gentle stroll out in the sea as it is relatively shallow for quite some distance.
If you are more of an active person and want to do more than merely sunbathe then there is a nice coastal path that will take you from one end of the reserve to the other.This path takes you past archaeological sites; old salt pans which now act as an important wetland site for a variety of birds including flamingos and the common spoonbill; and an old tuna processing factory. There are a number of bird observation points along the way, although you are more likely to see flamingos in the autumn months.The nature reserve is open all year round; go outside of the popular summer months and it is possible that you will have the reserve to yourself. In spring there are an abundance of wild flowers, herbs and sand-loving plants including wild orchids, poppies, thyme, juniper and rosemary.