Saturday, 19 May 2018


I have just returned to base-camp after three weeks of touring Sicily and, even as I digest the experience, I have a hunger for more travelling. The next trip, however, will be within the UK and will include a sea crossing to the Orkney Isles. This means that I will have to take with me more than the shorts, sandals and lightweight shirts that sufficed for the Mediterranean. Prudent tourists in Britain must be prepared to dress for a variety of climatic conditions.
Whatever we wear and wherever we are, however, we always stand out to the locals. We may shun brightly coloured leisure clothes, cagoules and funny hats; we may even hide our maps and guide books; we might discard our backpacks, shoulder bags and (worst of all) bum bags but they will still recognise us – fish out of water, fair game. The natives of Devon and Cornwall used to call us “grockles” – perhaps they still do – a name that has a whiff of contempt about it. But who can blame them? A once proud community of seafarers, miners and farmers, reduced to the ignoble roles of providing B&B, cream teas and boat trips to spy on seals might well feel resentment. Then there is the invading army of second-homers that has exiled their children – but that is another chapter in the story.
The business of tourism certainly provides an income for locals but, if over-exploited, it can destroy the attractions that created it in the first place. Destinations that rely on the appeal of beautiful landscapes, historical buildings or quaint cottage industries must safeguard the integrity of such assets or risk losing their customers. Some of the places we visited in Sicily balance on the knife-edge of this dilemma but we also spent time in ordinary, every-day places, where life goes on without tourism. Milazzo, for example, is a port from which tourists catch ferries to Lipari and the other Islands. We stayed there for a week and soon learned to avoid the area around the port if we wanted to buy anything. Just a few streets back, where tourists do not venture, we could pay local prices – our presence an unexpected curiosity, not an opportunity to overcharge.
One morning, we screwed up our courage to buy from a traditional looking fishmonger’s shop. On the counter was the head of a swordfish, displayed vertically so that its “sword” pointed a metre into the air: behind it was a massive chunk of its torso and, next to that, a large slab of tuna. It was clearly a family concern, the labour divided so that the husband wielded a very sharp set of knives to cut the portions, while the wife took care of the wrapping and payment side of things. On the walls above were images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and assorted angels, all of whom looked down upon us to ensure an honest, Christian transaction with no cheating or extortion. And lo, it came to pass that we had a delicious, reasonably priced supper of tuna steaks that evening.
The contrast with a mainstream touristic experience was to follow: we went to Taormina. The old town is certainly cute and unspoiled but the retail outlets are exclusively devoted to serving the tourists who throng the streets in search of what I am not sure, though there is a spectacular Greek theatre on the edge of town. We soon left the crowds to seek the house where D.H. Lawrence lived for a while and Casa Cuseni, the villa saved by another Brit, Daphne Phelps. Both locations were deserted. Likewise, in Lipari, the quaintly winding streets were the main attraction and, after a short while, we found interest in the archaeology museum, along with a few Germans who struggled to translate the captions.
Before leaving, we had a drink at a cafe. When I asked our waiter for the bill, he went to get it from the till and I distinctly heard the cashier ask him “Touristi?”  We were charged accordingly.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Tourism Industry

At the ticket office of Palermo’s Archaeology Museum, the attractive, engaging young woman at the desk mistook us for French and addressed us accordingly. Perhaps she was misled by some detail of our dress, which is not quite as M&S as might be expected of British cultural tourists of a certain age. However, my partner, who fantasises about being of more exotic extraction than she actually is, was flattered anyway. Having expected to converse in either Italian or English, I was momentarily thrown and responded with some stuttered Franglais. The charming lady soon had us sussed and switched effortlessly to fluent English. She explained – after we had paid the entrance fee – that the two upper floors of the museum were closed for restoration (our guide book had predicted, hopefully, that the work would be complete by 2016) but not to worry, the most important treasures were all on display. I thanked her, in what I hoped was confidently spoken Italian, determined to salvage some dignity since I felt we had been outed as regular, monolingual Brits masquerading as continental polyglots.
The economy of Sicily depends heavily on tourism, yet there appears to be scant public investment in the business. While private enterprise exploits every opportunity to operate bars, cafes and souvenir shops at all the catchment points, officially operated facilities are minimal. The Valley of the Temples, for example, attracts 600,000 visitors each year yet, when we visited, the queue for tickets was 45 minutes long and there was just one toilet – attended by a chap who expected a tip. What becomes of all the entry fees? Sicily’s archaeological sites generally are unkempt and devoid of wardens to safeguard them. Likewise, some of the palazzi, though stuffed with ornaments, furniture, paintings and other objects, have few, if any, curators to dissuade thieves and vandals. In one such palazzo there is a bedstead, supposedly slept on by Garibaldi, with a makeshift “Do Not Touch” sign hung on its headboard. I stroked it anyway, just to make my point.
The paucity of investment in the heritage business reflects a more general observation: that while there is much private wealth, public squalor is everywhere evident. Country roads are dangerously eroded, but tattered tape and faded warning signs remain in place of the repairs that ought to have been made long ago. Lay-bys and lanes are treated as drive-by rubbish dumps. Public beaches and urban spaces are similarly scattered with garbage, while, alongside them, private lidos and terraces are lovingly tended. And on this island, the contrast between public poverty and private wealth feels ironic considering its archaeology, which evidences a tradition of public splendour in the ancient temples, amphitheatres and fortifications.
While Sicily’s governing body lacks either the will or the means to invest in its tourist infrastructure, it does have an organisation that could, if it chose, help to sort it out. I refer to the Mafia, a collective that amasses vast amounts of illegally acquired money, much of which could be invested in the legitimate growth-industry of tourism instead of being furtively laundered. Furthermore, the Mafia has considerable business and organisational skills and, assuming that its business goal is profit, it should have no objection to taking on the job. It is said* that the American branch of the Sicilian Mafia ceded the heroin trade to the Sicilians in the 1980s, with the result that Naples, for example, was ruined, its traditional economy and family structures laid waste by addiction: surely it is time for a corporate social responsibility makeover?
We are currently in Milazzo, where the heights are dominated by an enormous complex of defensive walls and towers, founded by the Arabs, and added to by every subsequent invader. When we visited, we found the ticket office staffed by a lady who took the fee, a man who tore off the tickets and several hangers-on. One them greeted us with a grin and a torrent of Italian, the gist of which was are you Germans? “No,” I said, “Inglesi.” She smiled and said welcome, then gave us an old brochure translated into German. It was all she had.
*Peter Robb: Midnight in Sicily

Saturday, 5 May 2018

City Living, Past, Present & Future

I love predictive text: the algorithm on my phone has taught it to anticipate my words, thereby saving me the tiresome task of typing my full name and lots of other obvious stuff besides. However, I am not sure when or how it learnt to suggest the word ‘Richard’ after ‘cliff’. It’s not as if I’m a fan. The place we are staying in overlooks a flat roof where a family of seagulls has nested and, while watching the youngsters stretching their wings, I typed a note into my phone thus: “Are seagulls aware of the difference between a parapet and a cliff Richard edge?” Whether they are or not is of academic interest, since it is apparent that seagulls do not care. However, without the building (there being no cliffs in the vicinity) there would be no nest.
The appropriation of our buildings by wild creatures is an unintended consequence of urbanisation – a subject that currently fascinates me. I am staying in the Sicilian fishing port of Sciacca, which is halfway between two of the Mediterranean’s most significant and extensive archaeological sites – the Valley of the Temples to the east and Selinunte to the west – both of which were founded by the Greeks between 600 and 400 BC. The Valley of the Temples is actually a misleading description, since the temples themselves sit high on a ridge, where they were visible to sailors from the sea; but the city they served, Akragas, on the slopes of said valley, was once the fourth largest in the world. Nothing remains of it, save the outline of a few streets, whereas the main temple, Concordia, has survived almost intact. Likewise, at Selinunte, the city of Selinos boasted 100,000 inhabitants and was, at its peak, one of the richest and most powerful cities in the known world. All that stands above ground now is a fragment of a temple (reconstructed in 1958) and parts of its defensive walls. There is also a musealisation (a novel word for my algorithm) of a religious sanctuary. A musealisation is an arrangement of ancient stones set out by archaeologists in an interpretation of what might have been there. I would have liked to see a musealisation of an ordinary, humble dwelling but perhaps that is deemed too mundane to draw the crowds.

It seems that these ruined cities were victims of their own success, sacked by covetous invaders, though it is true that earthquakes, the silting-up of ports et cetera also contributed to their downfall. On a less epic historical scale, the modern, hill-top town of Favara (near the site of Akragas), whilst never in danger of being sacked, did suffer economic decline in the latter part of the 20th century – a common fate of towns dependent on industries that disappear. Two of its residents, however, aim to kick-start a renaissance. They have bought a block of run-down dwellings in the centre and turned it into an arts-cum-creative complex which hosts events, exhibitions and workshops. The morning that I visited, there were just a few other tourists but, by lunchtime, the place was overrun by boisterous Italian families (it was a public holiday), which may be evidence that their plan is working.
The main exhibition there featured the work of Japanese architects who are preoccupied with resolving a particular problem of urban living: lack of affordable space for housing, especially for singles. Miniaturisation is one solution, but it comes at the cost of social isolation so, to counter this, they are experimenting with purpose-built shared houses which minimise bedrooms but make the most of communal spaces to encourage sociability and creativity. It may be reminiscent of student accommodation but they are optimistic for its future. They have even coined a word for their vision of modern urban living – “co-dividuality”. It’s an adventurous concept but my algorithm just cannot get the hang of it.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

SA - Sicily Again

My partner rises early to go running or to workout at the gym and, when she returns, I get up. Am I lazy? I think not: I just do not feel the necessity to indulge in extremes of physical exertion to keep fit. Nor am I alone in this belief. Recent “research” confirms that there is an alternative to HII – or High Intensity Interval training. It is called LISS – Low Intensity Steady State training - and it comprises simple, everyday activities such as getting up, yawning, stretching one’s limbs and going for a walk. It works well, so long as you do enough of it. Of course, I suspected all along that this was the case – my own “research” had always tended to verify it – which is why I had no compunction last Sunday about spending the afternoon at the cinema, watching three films consecutively. I had, after all, walked there. Besides, it was the last opportunity to catch the new releases before flying off the next day to spend a few weeks in Sicily.
We have been to Sicily before but, because it is a big island, full of historical interest, we are back to visit the places we missed last time. The flight was fun, being packed with noisy, excited Italians who, when we touched down in Catania, burst into applause and song. However, it was past our bedtime when the girl at the car-hire counter began hectoring us into paying extra for insurance we probably don’t need. We signed up anyway, eager to get our heads down in the nearest hotel and, when she had triumphed, she switched to friendly mode. She revealed that she had until recently lived in Manchester, where she waitressed at our favourite local Italian restaurant. We took her photo and promised to hug the proprietor for her on our return. We drove half a kilometre from the airport, where I scraped the car bumper trying to park in a tight space, then slept fitfully amid dreams concerning car-insurance claims.
Things looked brighter after breakfast, as they often do. The sun shone, and the temperature quickly reached 25 degrees – and this is just springtime. We drove inland to visit the remains of Villa Romana del Casale, a former palace of imperial standing. Though there is not much left of the buildings, the extensive mosaic floors are in a good state of preservation thanks to a landslide in the 12th century which covered them over for 700 years. Excavation in the 1950s revealed remarkable work, famed for its narrative style, complexity, colour and extent. A few hours later we arrived at the fishing port of Sciacca, where we have rented a flat with a terrace overlooking the harbour, and did what one does on terraces – relaxed with a drink while watching the sun go down.
The next morning, we strolled out for coffee to the main piazza, where there were rows of gleaming, vintage Fiat 500s lined up for all to admire. They really are so cute that it is impossible not to want one. We realised that we were, of course,  in the midst of a club rally, though surprised it was happening on a Wednesday. Only later did we discover that it was actually a full-blown festa day and that all the shops were closed for the celebration of San Fiat dei Cinquecenti. Still, shopping was low on the priority list, way below getting one’s bearings.
Later, I joined the early evening passegiata along the section of promenade recently restored with funds provided by the EU (or ‘us’ as Brexiteers may prefer to think of it) and finally, exhausted by my efforts, I sat at a pavement cafĂ© and drank a foreign beer – which was not too bad, actually. I looked out at the sea and contemplated the state of my fitness regime, which I now see as morphing into BLISS – Bloody Low Intensity Steady State.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Lifestyle Challenge

The sudden transition from cold weather to hot this week prompted a hasty reassessment of my wardrobe – including bedding and pyjamas. A good night’s sleep is dependent on many factors, some of which are psychological and difficult if not impossible to control. But the physical ones can be addressed and so I went shopping for cooler pyjamas. I could have gone online but, when it comes to clothing, I prefer to feel the quality before buying and, fortunately, there are still some shops in town despite Amazon. Gents’ outfitters have long since been incorporated into big department stores, where pyjamas may be found in the “sleepwear” section. Sleepwear, these days, covers a wide range of options, so it took a while before I decided on the (for me) radical choice of cotton shorts. In and of themselves, they will not guarantee a good night’s sleep, though the promise is seductive.
Sometimes sleep comes effortlessly, especially when unscheduled. This happened the other evening while I sat watching an episode of Civilisations on TV. The last thing I remember is seeing huge statues of Egyptian pharaohs – selfies in stone – and contemplating a celebration of the fact that the smart-phone has finally brought egalitarianism to the art of self-promotion. When I awoke, another programme had begun and I had pins-and-needles in one arm. I retired to bed, where I spent the next two hours trying to induce a return to slumber, during which time I tried not to fret, for fretting about sleeplessness, as we all know, only exacerbates the problem.
As with sleep, so with wakefulness: you make all the preparations you can to create your ideal conditions but a positive, happy result cannot be guaranteed. “Life,” as they say,” is what happens to you when you are busy making plans” and it is sometimes advisable, therefore, to go with the flow. Nobody, however, can be fully prepared for the unexpected, as is illustrated by a certain news story I picked up. A householder came home to find an intruder taking a bath in his tub, cocktail in hand. He called the police, who arrived in time to apprehend the naked, fleeing bather, saying afterwards “the man’s safeguarding needs were addressed.” Just how the householder reacted subsequently, one can only guess: I suppose he fitted extra security locks to the premises but it would have been heartening to learn that his experience had led him to a different conclusion and that he had decided to hold regular ‘open bath’ days to celebrate the occurrence. Naturally, prudence would require that he make some sort of identity check prior to admitting strangers but bath nights could be a fun way to meet new people. He could even extend them to friends, instigating an evening of socialising, Finnish style, but without going to the expense of installing a sauna.
Such a course of action might be held up as an example of questioning the assumptions and habits upon which one’s lifestyle is founded.  Experimenting in this manner is a healthy exercise in combating complacency and encouraging the spirit of empathy in the interest of social harmony. Some of us are keen to challenge ourselves in this way in order to jolt our systems, get out of a rut, or simply test our capabilities. However, I would not include bungee-jumping or other forms of extreme physical activity, as these fall more into the category of ‘gambling with death’, where the reward for winning is euphoria and the ultimate adrenaline buzz requires an ever-escalating stake. No. What I have in mind is a more cerebral kind of challenge: ordering something new in a restaurant; visiting an unfamiliar place, where everyone but you has a weird haircut; or diversifying into a new style of sleepwear, for example.