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.