Now that I’ve recovered from the disaster that was torrone making, I’m ready for my promised post about my personal thoughts on Palermo, and how it affects Sicilian travel. I’ll apologize now if this post isn’t the most organized… I have a lot of thoughts, and I really don’t know how I want to organize them. I want to be honest and write freely, so that’s what you’re getting. Also, this post is all personal opinion based on the rare experience of getting to live like a local in this culture for an extended period of time. You may find differing opinions from other people on the internet, but I hope that you take my opinion to heart. I do not know a single other person that has had such a strong cultural experience in Sicily, and I think that it’s important to consider my thoughts before traveling here if you want to truly have THE BEST experience.
I feel passionate about writing these thoughts for others to see because much of the world does not give Sicily a chance, and it is a huge loss for anyone that doesn’t take time to know this wonderful place. I honestly cannot imagine a place that has better people and better overall atmosphere than Sicily. Sicilian life is beautiful and simple, but there is a complex culture that tourists do not understand. I feel compelled to share what I have learned from living with a family, becoming the best of friends with locals, and having deep, meaningful conversations with these people. My ability to speak (a little bit) of Italian, but understand nearly everything that is said, opened up the local people to me tremendously, and I have learned so much from them.
Since day one of this experience, I have asked myself infinite times, “How do more people not visit the south of Sicily?”. Ragusa, Modica, Siracusa, Scicli, and other nearby towns, are absolutely stunning and completely underrated. I couldn’t fathom how so many people leave this part of the world unseen. The people are so special, the food is THE BEST, and the weather is perfect. I knew that there must be reasons why, and I slowly began to discover them.
There are a few obvious reasons why this area of Italy does not have the same amount of tourism as the north. One major reason is the lack of airports. Catania is the most busy airport of the three, and then Palermo, and then Comiso. Comiso is about twenty minutes from Ragusa, but it is an extremely small airport with only a few flights per day. The other main issue is that it is controlled by the mafia. The mafia doesn’t allow more flights to be added, so it is not an airport that many tourists can book flights to. Palermo is in the north of Sicily, and it’s not an easy drive to the south of Sicily. The driving here is another big problem… you have to know how to drive a manual car, and be ready to be aggressive. The Sicilian’s are CRAZY drivers. I think that after being here for so long, I could do it if I knew how to drive a manual. However, I think that it is far too daunting for the average tourist to take on. I know that many of Elena’s guests at her villa’s hire drivers, so that is a plausible option for local driving, but not long distance.
The overarching issue of traveling to Sicily (and Italy) is the lack of organization, which is partially a cultural issue. Some of the younger, more modern Italians yearn for more organization because they know that it will improve tourism and the economy, but older, traditional people want to preserve the lackadaisical attitude of this country’s culture. Both stances have their pros and cons, but it is further complicated by the presence of the mafia.
This is where this post becomes difficult. Clearly, I don’t understand every intricacy of the mafia’s intertwining into Italian life and culture, but I’ve learned a lot. I don’t want to share too much of my opinion on this topic on the internet, so I want to try to simply explain the complexity of how the mafia works with Italy and its people. To the average tourist, it’s not completely obvious when there is mafia influence or control. There are still times when I am completely oblivious to it. For example, I flew out of Comiso airport before. I had no idea that it was completely controlled by the mafia when I was there. In other places, such as Palermo, it is glaringly obvious if you have any knowledge of this culture. If you research the area that you’re traveling to, it will help you gain a better understanding of what you could experience. Generally, the mafia poses no harm to tourists whatsoever. They typically only care about you if you’re a wealthy or prominent local person, or if you try to infringe on their power. I met a few mafia men in different places around Sicily, and they were actually some of the most polite people that I’ve met (even though they didn’t speak English). The moral of this section is to research where you travel, respect the mafia if they are present, but don’t be too worried about danger caused by them.
This is where I have to be honest about Palermo. I actually felt very overwhelmed and sad when visiting Palermo. I was extremely happy to visit the land of my ancestors and learn about the history, that was incredibly important for me. I wanted to love this city the most of any place that I visited in the worst way. I really tried to change my heart about this city. However, it was not what I was expecting. It was dirty, chaotic, and harsh. The weather was so intensely hot that I wanted to cry. The people are not nearly as nice as in the south of Sicily. Palermo is intense, and the people who live there are intense. The mafia has a bad influence on this city. I then realized that if I feel this way, I know that other tourists or non-natives would, too. Given that Palermo is the capital of Sicily, and the most popular tourist destination for Sicily, it is most people’s first impression, and shapes their thoughts about the country.
This is why I felt so sad when I was in Palermo. I’m not trying to give the impression that the city is terrible and that the people are mean, but it’s certainly not the best place. The people in the south of Sicily desperately want tourists to visit their hometowns because they beam with pride for them, but Palermo puts a sour taste into many mouths (including my own). I am so happy that I got to know Ragusa, and other areas, first because it left a completely different impression in my mind than what it could have been if I visited Palermo first. If a person visits Palermo first, and has a similar experience to me, then it is easy to understand why they might never try to explore other areas of Sicily. I know that not all people would think this way, but I understand that it is easy to feel discouraged, especially when you visit a place with high hopes of it being great.
Through all of these thoughts, the summary of my advice is to go off of the beaten path when you travel. Google a map of the country that you’re going to. Find a name of a town you’ve never heard of. Google some images of this new town. Have wanderlust for a place that is different than what most people visit. I had no idea that Ragusa existed before getting my fateful email from Greenheart about where I would be this summer, but now I can’t imagine a life without having been here. I Googled pictures, did research, and had severe wanderlust for this place. I know my words about my love for Ragusa sound sappy and cliche, but it’s true. I’m so happy to be in a place that is a true hidden gem for most of this world. I love it like it’s my hometown, and I will forever beam with pride when I talk about Ragusa.