Wednesday 6 August 2008

Under a Sicilian Sun

A deep blue sea, blue sky above with a wisp of cloud - or to be precise, the smoke from Mt Etna and I'm sitting on the hotel balcony with my blackberry doing a blog! On holiday in Sicily and I'm glad to say that a general Mediterranean manana has descended. Any emails that last week seemed so urgent have been consigned to oblivion.

Now let me describe a general day in the Bubb holiday itinerary: late and lazy breakfast followed by serious "Culture" leading nicely to a late but leisurely lunch in scenic spot (you know the type of place - small Piazza by crumbling Baroque church, table under awning strategically placed to view passing folks) then siesta and possibly, a swim, with an optional late visit to mind improving Gallery and with the grand finale - dinner in splendidly recommended gastronomic delight of a restaurant.

My partner is having a "milestone" birthday so Saturday was a day of indulgence - dinner in a Dominican monastery. Or, to be precise, the Monastery of San Domenico in Taormina which echos now not to the swish of the monkly habit but to the cash registers of American Express. Where once God was daily worshipped now wealthy tourists come and go intent not on God but the next tour stop; for this is now a top quality hotel. But of course we must remember that champagne was invented by that excellent monk, Dom Perignon, in Epernay - though he was of course a Benedictine!

We come for dinner and sit on the terrace which runs the length of the monastery and faces out across the valley to the sea. A more splendid vista it is hard to imagine and viewed over the top of a chilled glass of Prosecco life seems suddenly so very wonderful.

Palermo, the Sicilian capital, is a marvellous down at heel but splendidly vivacious city. Crumbling Palazzo, not yet availed of the healing hands of an Italian National Trust and somehow all the better for that, and a glorious mix of churches; Norman, Byzantine, Saracen and Baroque. The Cathedral holds the tomb of Frederick 11, King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor. He was the first official champion of vernacular Italian and Dante devoted an entire canto of the Divine comedy to describing the glory of his Court. And let's not forget the ashes of St Rosalia inured in a vast silver reliquary which goes walk about every July on her Feast day. But the real highlight is a visit by hot and dusty bus to the Cathedral of Monreale. It must be the most perfect Byzantine church in Europe, built in the 12th century by the Norman kings and employing local Arab craftsmen. The cloisters are a wonderful fusion of Christian Romaneque and Arab architecture and there is even a fountain which clearly owes a debt to those you will see in any Mosque in the middle east - it's a reminder of the vitality and magnificence of Islamic culture.

Of course the city is deeply immured in criminal venality and the grasping hands of the Mafiosa. You see the results in the unfinished building projects and the grossly underfunded municipal infrastructure. But there is a splendid organisation: the "addiopizzo", which has been set up and is campaigning against the injurious mafia tax levied on all business, known as the pizzo. I have a coffee in the quaint restaurant on the Piazza San Francesco whose owners, the Conticello, are one of the main organisers of the campaign and who gave evidence against the Mafia in a major trial in 2007. This means that the restaurant has its very own police protection; two moody Caribinieri stand guard 24 hours a day! I go several times to both show support but also to eat the superb pane con la milza. Long live solidarity and gastronomy!

We have been travelling by train, much against the advice of all locals who insist this is crazy! It will be "slow, late, crowded" etc. But we are English and we invented trains so feel affectionately for them. And they have been rather splendid. And it is so much better than risking your life on the roads where the rules of the road are made to be broken in as inventive a way as possible. The train from Taormina to Messina hugs the coast and leaning out of the window feeling the sun and the breeze is a delightful, if frowned upon activity.

I have realised on holiday that Public Service Reform is never going to catch on in all of Europe. Here there is simply no concept of a client or citizen focused public service. Whether you are in a bank or a post office, a train or bus station, it is abundantly clear these institutions exist to provide employment. What they serve is incidental. So in a bank I was in a queue behind the one teller - there were, of course, plenty of other people "working" as you could see them as they sauntered from office to office, or to the Expresso break or to call home to Mama about the pasta for lunch - it was clearly not a concern that there was a large queue. It is equally so in the post office and at the train station, where you can't get a ticket in time for your intended train! There will be another one along in a couple of hours!

Still, I'm on holiday - what's the rush!

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