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Italian Islands
Italian Islands
03.29.12

Life’s different on the islands. Getting around, cuisine and even signs can be different than the mainland—and, at least in the South, you’ll find fewer English speakers. Here are some travel tips to help you acclimatize.

Foods of Sicily to Try

Arancine: fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella or meat
Cannoli: tube-shaped pastry filled with ricotta cheese (made of sheep’s milk) and sugar
Caponata: vegetable salad made of fried eggplant and celery (maybe olives or tomatoes), flavored with sweet vinegar and capers
Cassate: Sicilian cake filled with candied fruit and ricotta cream
Crocché: fried potato croquet (dumpling) of cheese, eggs, and parsley
Gelato: a cross between ice cream and sorbet
Granita: flavored crushed ice
Maccu: creamy garbanzo bean soup
Meat dishes: lamb, goat and veal marsala (vitello alla marsala) are traditional specialties
Panella: fried garbanzo bean paste
Salsiccia: Sausages
Seafood: of all variety!
Sfincione: flat, soft bread topped with any combination of: sauces, olive oil, cheese, herbs, spices, tomatoes, breadcrumbs, onions, anchovies, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, peppers and more.

Language Issues

Although many Italians speak English the further south you go, the less English is heard or understood. Villages, museums, major points of interest, shops, restaurants, roads and even tourist information centers in Sicily may have no signage in English (Dutch and Germans are the most frequent visitors), and locals often only speak Italian. Even websites are often solely in Italian. Bring a good guidebook with detailed city maps and have a phrasebook or translator handy on your mobile device and practice some phrases in advance. Locals will greatly appreciate your efforts. It will also prove invaluable in getting directions and service. Tours or local guides are the best way to get the most out of Sicily’s treasures.

Agritourism

A popular phrase in Italian travel is agriturismo (agritourism)—a uniquely rural and cultural form of accommodation letting visitors stay on a working farm or ranch. These are often family-run establishments that produce their own wine, grow their own fruit and herd their own livestock. The bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations range from mills and historic farmhouses, to estates and even monasteries encircled by olive groves, vineyards, oaks or citrus orchards. They offer a range of activities, amenities and accommodation levels, but most will require a car to access since they are in the countryside. Note that the Italian government calls for a distinction between agriturismo and turismo rurale (accommodation that may be rural but is not a working farm). Look for the designation when researching. www.agriturismo.it/en/farmhouse/sicily
sicilyguestfarms.com
en.agriturismo.com/sicilia

Driving Conditions in Sicily

Roads in Italy engineering marvels that cross gorges and cut through mountains, revealing stunning scenery. However, drivers accustomed to courteous road habits need to prepare to shift gears. More akin to a grand-prix road circuit, Italians drive aggressively with a need for speed. Expect reckless and highly chaotic traffic conditions in Palermo and Naples—avoid driving there if possible. Roads are frequently poorly maintained, traffic signs difficult to read or non-existent, and street names not posted. Cars and mopeds madly circumvent obstacles (by inches), pass and honk around blind hairpin turns, and race through ancient narrow alleys and heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Take public transportation, hire a native driver or join a tour to avoid stress. If you feel bold, rent a car to travel outside the city. Despite the chaos, Italians are very good drivers with incredible instincts. Buckle up, say a prayer and have a great time.

Transportation Around the Islands

Main rail lines connect Messina, Taormina, Siracusa, and Palermo, while secondary routes offer transport to other points in Sicily on slower trains. While orange buses provide local city service, blue buses travel between cities (the main companies are AST and Interbus). Hop-on Hop-off sightseeing buses in Palermo and Messina make touring easy and are wheelchair accessible. Offshore, extensive ferry service extends to all islands, where transportation options at the ports range from taxis, buses and cars, to mopeds, bicycles and funicular (Capri).
General: http://sicilyguide.com/plan-your-trip/getting-around/
Rail: www.trenitalia.com
Ferry: www.tirrenia.it/en/Pagine, www.siremar.it
Hydrofoil: www.snav.it
City Sightseeing Buses: www.city-sightseeing.it/eng

Attire

Comfortable shoes are the first order of the day in Sicily. Streets are often poorly maintained, cobbled or dusty, and sites like Agrigento uneven. Because Italians have a legacy of fabulous footwear, they reserve tennis shoes for the gym and carry themselves with elegant chic on evening strolls through the piazzas, in restaurants and cafes and even while sightseeing. The Sicilian countryside remains more traditional. Women should cover their shoulders and wear knee-length attire in a church and lean toward conservative to avoid unwanted advances from men. The blazing Sicilian sun is notoriously hot in summer, so pack lightweight clothing for daytime and wear sun protection. A cardigan or light wrap goes well in the evenings, while a light jacket may be handy on the cool elevations of Mt. Etna.

Business Hours & Afternoon Break

Sicily’s legendary three-hour afternoon break between 1 and 4 p.m. has thwarted many a traveler trying to follow a timeline or agenda. Except for a few restaurants, most everything closes during this timeframe meant for lunch and nap. Sundays are still sacred for most shops, as are holidays. Be sure to check a holiday calendar before planning a trip. The following is a general list of business hours (irregularities often occur):
Archaeological Sites:  Mon. –  Fri., 9 a.m. – noon; 4 p.m. – 7 p.m.; Sat., 9 – noon
Banks: Mon. – Fri. 8:15 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Churches: Daily, 8 a.m. – noon; some open after 4 p.m.
Museums: Tues. – Sat., 9a.m. to 1p.m.; some open weekday afternoons
Restaurants: Tues. – Sat., lunch from 12:30 p.m., dinner from 8 p.m.; often closed Sunday and Monday
Shops:  Tues. – Sat., 8 or 9 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m.; a nd 4 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.; closed Sundays and Monday mornings; some close in the afternoons in August or for a two-week period in mid-August.
Supermarkets: throughout the day to 8p.m., usually closed one day of week.

Restaurant Tipping and Cover Charges

Standard tipping is usually 10% since service charges are normally not included in restaurant prices. However, visitors are often surprised to find an added charge called coperto (cover charge—normally a few euros) that includes anything used to “cover” the table, like tablecloth and table settings. Bread may or may not come included: pane e coperto indicates that it is. Remember that bread plates aren’t used; so don’t ask and let the crumbs fall where they may.

Cultural Differences

Time runs on a different platform in Italy, especially in Sicily. Tilted more toward social and socialist, the Italian system doesn’t emphasize punctuality, strict timelines or orderly customs like standing in line. Service comes when it comes and people push their way forward. Don’t expect warm courtesy from public officials (e.g., ticket collectors; rail station, post office, government employees), who often have a brusque manner. Overt, lustful advances from Italian men may also cause consternation for women, who often receive unsolicited male attention or remarks, even with a male companion! If you can’t laugh it off, try to ignore it and avoid eye contact. Otherwise, try not to be out alone, especially at dark, and push firmly past aggressive advances—a few loud and emphatic Italian words like “no” or “stop” may help.

Goodbye Mafia

The Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s notorious mafia network, controlled Sicily with an iron grip and deadly violence that resulted in night curfews as recently as 1993. When two anti-mafia judges were assassinated in 1992, public opinion soured as did relations with the government. Since then, the Cosa Nostra has reassembled itself to be less visible (and less violent) through white-collar industries like tourism. Collecting pizzo (protection money) from hotels, restaurants and bars across Sicily allows the Cosa Nostra to rake in revenues of billions. According to reports, 80% of small Palermo businesses pay pizzo. The association Addiopizzo (Goodbye Pizzo) asks locals and tourists to choose ethical consumerism and support pizzo-free businesses. Visit: www.addiopizzo.org

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