Thailand – Amazon saved me

Sunset at Cape Panwa - 850km later
Sunset at Cape Panwa – 850km later

The Coral Hotel was an engaging experience; way off the beaten track and a minuscule enclave of clipped grass and ‘Le Monde Sauvage’ artifacts. But whilst the surroundings were delightful there was an undercurrent of self-indulgence surrounding it that was essentially French. The food was – well – Thai but subtlety bastardised and so allowed guests baguette with their morning coffee and Gauloise. I guess that once you’ve made that sort of concession you’ve lost the neighbourhood, so to speak. But the hotel setting – little chalets scattered among the trees and facing a tropical pool – was very pleasant and a refreshing antidote to the traffic. A few steps from the elevated dining terrace took you into rural Thailand, the forest edge and onto a long, deserted beach. It was exquisite but all the time, though, my mind was drawn to that Emmanuelle film from the mid 1970s and its idealised, romantised and eroticised representation of a perfect, but unashamedly Francophile, Thailand.

We left the hotel with its French contingent in a smokey huddle, intensely debating the day’s issue, to continue our drive south. We were off the tourist beat and on minor roads that would eventually connect again with the still ‘under construction’ Phet Kasem Road. There were few vehicles and the drive took us south through villages and plantations, past small fields with single livestock and wretched buildings whose purpose and product were frequently unidentifiable. And at every point smiling kids waved while some of the dustiest and most contented-looking dogs I’ve ever seen either slept the morning away at the roadside or sat up somnambulantly and scratched with enthusiasm.

Rubber trees tapped
Rubber trees tapped
A family's income can be dependent on one animal
A family’s income can be dependent on one animal

The poverty we witnessed was a stark contrast to the smug complacency of the previous night’s acquaintances and, as the vista unfolded alongside us, made for some deep thoughts about the nature of tourism in the country. Most people I’ve spoken to about Thailand haven’t ventured outside the fleshpots and tourist-orientated centres that exploit the indigence and deprivation of a largely subsistence agricultural economy in which something over half the population is engaged. Unemployment is officially ‘low’ but those without jobs frequently gravitate towards rural family occupations or unskilled work that are outside Governmental influence and aren’t recorded formally. The economy was projected to grow and revitalise the tourist industry with the announcement of the ‘Thailand 4.0’ initiative last year but the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has imposed a year of mourning on the Nation. This has had a direct and adverse effect across most sectors. In practice the slowing of the economy means less for rural regions and encourages further population drift towards areas where tourist-related employment promises opportunity. That in turn generates social, cultural and economic pressures with consequential demands on natural resources and the environment. Tourism and its income are increasingly important to Thailand but the pressure imposed on its population and environment is unsustainable. In some respects the Thais are their own worst enemy although all tourism doesn’t need to be exploitative; some travel companies take a more circumspect approach and you gain a sense of this if you look at what Responsible Travel has to say.

Intensive cultivation along the road
Intensive cultivation along the road
Getting dinner
Getting dinner
Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine

Back in the traffic on the main road the landscape became open and expansive. Roadside shrines glimpsed between heavy trucks and rickety buses were set against a distant backdrop of verdant hills and plantations. We passed through the outskirts of unglamorous Surat Thani, a regional transport interchange with an airport and ferry access to Ko Samui and the Gulf islands. These larger towns present a very different Thailand from the beach resorts that come immediately to mind when tourism is mentioned.

Roadside cattle
Roadside cattle


There were still extensive areas of uncontrolled – and unattended – roadworks but I became a little more comfortable with the erratic and occasionally heart-stopping manoeuvures of other road users with the help of a gem in the madness – Café Amazon. These surprising and charming road-stops with their green and black uniformed baristas are associated with PTT service stations and are built on a standard layout that includes shops, toilets and food stalls. The coffee – ‘do you like your cappuccino cold or hot, sir?’ – came in biodegradable cups if you didn’t sit in the pretty little cabins and was passable, if not entirely authentic, but then I wouldn’t order pad thai at a Sicilian Autogrill. The invariably winsome staff more than made up for any inadequacies in the product and the banana cake set us up perfectly for re-entering the fray.

Watch for trucks and other traffic
Watch for trucks and other traffic
Yeah, OK
Yeah, OK
Off Cape Panwa
Off Cape Panwa
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown

Once we’d turned off towards Phang-gna, however, the traffic cleared and we were frequently on deserted roads. The driving experience changed, the road became less straight and the scenery more spectacular. As we neared Phuket the influence of the tourist-dollar began to show itself in improved roads and street lighting, better building and a veneer of increasing opulence – and fewer dogs. Then we were over the bridge and onto the island. The main drag avoided the worst excesses of the place but as we approached and passed through Phuket Town the traffic intensified, smiling children were replaced with crowds; mopeds were interspersed with tourists on scooters and emboldened Westerners sporting distasteful tee-shirt slogans appeared among the Thai faces. But we were soon through it and at Cape Panwa, with 850km completed and the sun setting across the bay.

Thailand – a walk in the park

Bang Rak backstreet
Bang Rak backstreet

I like to walk and, in my view, the best way to acquire the feel of a place is to walk it; just pick a couple of points and walk between them. You set the pace, take your time and if you’re in a city like Bangkok, where you get to hear, see [and smell] it, the experience is completely immersive. We had a couple of days before we started the drive to Phuket so I wanted to show Mission Control an aspect of the city that was just a little off the tourist route and busy with life; people working, eating, shopping and living. So we took our shuttle boat across to the right side of the river and threaded our way along backstreets towards Lumphini Park. You could debate whether temperatures approaching 30C and humidity in the high 80s combined with continuous traffic, unsettling aromas, flea-bitten dogs and hawkers reduced or enhanced the intensity of the experience but I struggled to get her to engage; it was, in fairness, a little sweaty.

Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements
Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements

The walk from Chao Phraya river takes you through the Bang Rak district; past housing and go-downs, local restaurants and hotels, shopping malls and street-food stalls. It’s bustling, noisy and surprisingly colourful in the muted sunlight, providing as it does a rewarding and instant snapshot of Bangkok. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders with locals and tourists; there are temples, a Hindu shrine and even a cathedral as well as Patpong, which is famous for its night markets and red-light area. Bang Rak feathers out on either side of Silom Road; an artery of heavy traffic and public transport that forms a spine running through its centre.

Different businesses
Different businesses

On the eastern side Lumphini is the biggest area of green in the city with massive trees, clipped grass and secluded paths. The park provides shade for myriad gatherings; jogging, cycling and group aerobics. People meet to improve Tai Chi, others are boating and some are simply giving their kids a day in the park. You can get dance lessons or watch free concerts and there was even an all-join-in singing session in progress when we arrived, not that I could follow the tune or understand the words. The tourist authority offers birding in the park and it does have a reasonably long list of recorded species, despite there always being more people than birds. It needs a bit of luck and an early morning but it provides a glimpse of Thailand’s rich avifauna but unlike the parks in London, where we sprinkle crumbs for sparrows and encourage squirrels to feed from our hands, Lumphini is overrun with two-metre long water monitors that seem to just about tolerate the human visitors, as long as we keep our distance. It really does feel foreign.

Remember the noise and humidity I mentioned? Bangkok can become very oppressive and uncomfortable after a day plodding through its atmospheric neighbourhoods and so a culture has evolved that provides for an altogether quieter and more tranquil environment – the roof terrace. There must be at least twenty sky bars in the city, each expressing its own degree of cool and each striving for a unique identity that tends to make them all, well, a bit similar. Nonetheless, a sundowner high above the cacophony as the sun sets in spectacular hues through the befouled atmosphere is an essential experience. At the corner of the park we were near the So Sofitel hotel and so, leaving crowds of joggers and monitor lizards in our wake [and after taking our lives in our hands by crossing Rama IV Road], lost no time in getting our feet under a table at the Park Society. The drinks were perfectly chilled, the music was ‘Buddha Bar’ American and the clientele mostly Western; none of it was really Thai at all but then, why would someone from way down there want to sit on a rooftop drinking white wine when you have a business and a family to feed?

Bangkok excites me and it is exhilarating but a walk through Bang Rak has me wondering how many of the aficionados of cool at Park Society took a moment to count their blessings.

Even if the telephone line doesn't work someone will be around to fix it
Even if the telephone line doesn’t work someone will be around to fix it

Thailand – the wrong side of the river

A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river
A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river

It was an original and exciting thought to celebrate a birthday abroad although when Lars told us where we’d meet I had conflicted views. You see, I like Thailand – a lot, to be truthful – and was very enthusiastic about visiting again but I’d been in Phuket before and anticipated finding it further down the toilet than it was last time. As a centre of gravity for the worst kinds of tourist activity it has form and, despite retaining areas that remain essentially Thai, it embodies most if not all that the dark side of Thailand has on offer. The island is continually ravaged by development – much of it illegal – that ranges from pretty bad to goddamn awful and is a prime example of what I strive to avoid.

The shuttle boat
The shuttle boat

But the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa looked good; it ticked a lot of boxes and had hosted our fellow revelers before. It also provided, we were assured, a very nice beach, excellent bar service and egg and bacon at breakfast. But what attracted me most was its location at the southernmost point on Phuket, which is far, far away from the Gomorrah-like Patong Beach.

Dining terrace alongside the river
Dining terrace alongside the river
The city from the quiet cool bedroom
The city from the quiet cool bedroom

Mission Control hadn’t seen Thailand and flying into and out of Phuket without experiencing something more of the real thing seemed a wasted opportunity. We had to work out how we’d make the trip and enjoy the celebration but still see more of the country than Phuket had on offer. I wanted to see Bangkok again and there was also the not inconsiderable opportunity to get some exotic birding under my belt, so to speak.

The answer was simple – we’d aim for Bangkok and have a few days there either side of renting a car and driving south. That way we’d see some of the country and enjoy the freedom of the open road. The eight-hundred and fifty kilometres would present wonderful opportunities to see aspects of the country that tourists often miss and we’d be able to take in a few sights while we enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Of course, anyone who’s seen the traffic in Bangkok or feared for their life in a tuk-tuk would appreciate that there was a downside to the idea but, what the heck? All I had to do was keep the traffic accident statistics out of any conversations.

The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
Chao Phraya traffic
Chao Phraya traffic

Bangkok looked and smelled as I recalled it. It is exotic and quintessentially Asian; a heady combination of decrepit buildings and spectacular temple roofs; spice, traffic fumes and drains. The monsoon was about done and the humidity was promising to reduce – in fact, every Thai we mentioned it to assured us with absolute certainty that the rainy season had finished the previous day! Bangkok is evocative and mesmerising but it’s also crowded, dirty and noisy. To enjoy it fully you need two essentials; a bedroom that insulates you from the noise and a refuge from the humidity but with those essentials taken care of you can get on with absorbing the essence of a wonderful city. Just watching the busy and congested river as well as what floats down it is an experience in itself.

Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon
Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon

So we parked ourselves centrally, alongside the Chao Phraya River, in the Peninsula Hotel – a place that gets it and knows how to take care of you. And we made that point to a manager over chilled drinks on the dining terrace one evening. He was preoccupied, however, with a recent post on that bane of hoteliers, TripAdvisor. Apparently the hotel [together with it’s complimentary, atmospheric and liveried river shuttle] had been marked down by a recent American guest because it was located ‘on the wrong side of the river’. I guess ‘wrong side’ implies there is a ‘right side’ but after several visits I’ve yet to work out what there might be a right side for.

Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right
Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right

Sicily – a last fling; Modica

EtnaA blog ought to make a reasonable effort at being contemporaneous; this post isn’t – it’s more an excuse for posting some photographs. As soon as I’d left Sicily I was travelling again and a note closing the island adventure was put on the back burner. Our last flirtation – and perhaps a determining factor in ensuring a return visit – was the superb Modica, where antiquity and ambience provided a perfect counterpoint to the noise and pointless urgency of Dubai.

The long drive from Taormina to Palermo provided time to consider what Sicily had been for us. We were captivated but had been ambitious in attempting a brief glimpse of every part of the island; it was just too big and with each region having such a strong identity, pin-balling from one location to another had proven frustrating and self-defeating. The uncomfortable autostrada to Palermo – Sicily’s main route – was little better than we’d experienced elsewhere. We never quite got used to the bumps in the surface but, ruts aside, the journey wasn’t too unpleasant; lots of tunnels, Etna beyond the mountains on one side and misty views to the Aeolian Islands on the other. But Pollina and Sicily’s remaining forest were relegated to the bucket list as we’d arranged to meet Greg and Vibeke for dinner, who were flying to Palermo that evening for our few days together.

Along the way there was time for a nervous peek at Cefalù and its Romanesque cathedral. The coastal town is described as the ‘second most popular tourist destination’ in Sicily and the immediate impression as the view opens up across the bay goes some way to explaining why. Its picturesque setting and medieval profile, nestled in the lee of the rock from which its ancient Greek name and original settlement originate, suggest why all the tourists that weren’t in Taormina were here. Even the guidebooks offer gentle warnings about the crowds but mass tourism and narrow streets make for an uncomfortable marriage so you’d need to be tolerant of the hoi polloi to enjoy spending time there. The number of visitors dwindled significantly as the sun went down and there followed an enchanted hour when the streets quietened and became populated only with local residents. Most would have been of an age, I guess, that could recall an economy based on fishing and a life centred around the port and communal wash-houses; I wonder what they make of it all now.

In Taormina, where we’d enquired about our forthcoming evening in Palermo, Villa Belvedere had directed us to a restaurant where we and our friends could have a ‘real’ Sicilian dinner, free of tourists. It was called Frederick III and located way off the beaten track in a neighbourhood marked by seedy streets, darkened shop doorways and occasional eye-contact with a brooding picciotto. We were welcomed like old friends; an open bottle of wine was set on the table and replenished until we protested that we really had to leave. In between, animated conversation with the other customers punctuated with a variety of excellent fish dishes made every aspect of the evening memorable. It was interrupted only by the arrival of three suited men who sat briefly around a table at the far end of the room, engaged in a hushed conversation over a glass of vino bianco and left without eating or saying a word to anyone else. Maybe I’ve watched too much American television but I had the feeling, as they slipped silently into the night, that they worked in waste management and were about to make someone an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Palermo was regrettably a short visit so we limited our outings to walking the markets and visiting the superb Norman cathedral at Monreale, yet another site that deserved more time than we afforded it. Mission Control had found us bed and breakfast on the south coast at Selinunte so we drove through a vast expanse of olive groves, vineyards and rolling hills where EU funds were replacing trees with wind turbines. The Villa Sogno was ‘award-winning’ [there are a lot of award winners around these days, aren’t there?] due to its high standards of accommodation and home-made food and, indeed, that’s exactly what we found. The manicured garden was set in a walled compound and it proved a tranquil place to swim and enjoy wine, cheese and salumi from the store in Selinunte; a pity, then, that our hosts dealt with the garbage – in a manner common in Sicily but by no means limited to it – by throwing it over the fence into the olive grove next door. Villa Sogno delivered on comfort and food but pleasant as that was, our hosts clearly had an eye on the next award as they were just a little too busy making it the best bed and breakfast in the region to tolerate, with any degree of enthusiasm, encumbrances such as guests.

Just down the road however, the little port of Marinella di Selinunte was far more welcoming. It was quiet in the off-season but relaxed and very pleasant without tourists to trouble the friendly residents. We ate one evening at a local hostelry with the unlikely name of ‘Boomerang’. It looked a little dubious but was busy and clearly very popular. No one managed to explain where the name came from but the fish – fried or grilled in more varieties than you could shake a stick at – was as fresh as it was unpretentious. This part of Sicily caters mostly for local visitors so development tends to be limited even if occasionally, er, illegal. The coast, archaeological sites and small towns are unencumbered by the hoards witnessed at Taormina and Cefalù, which was very pleasant.

Throughout our tour of Sicily we had been surprised by the number and variety of good quality wines that were produced. Some were very good indeed. Greg is something of an aficionado when it comes to matters oenological so in short time we were at the excellent Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, tasting some of the quality wine produced at this small, local casa vinicola. The south-west corner of Sicily and the Vallo di Mazara in particular is a principal area of viniculture and as a result the island produces about a sixth of Italy’s total.

Nearby Mazara del Vallo is described as being the town with the largest immigrant population of Arabic origin on the island, harking back to its roots when it was occupied by Arabs in 827;   it’s further south than Tangier and nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome or Naples. The centre of town is known as the Kasbah and it does have the feel of an Arab town even though there are remnants of several occupying cultures. And typically, while the Polpi in Umido might just have been the best we had in Sicily, the driving was certainly the worst – we saw two serious accidents as we parked.

We wanted to see Modica before we left Sicily; it would be the last stop so we drove the interesting and at times picturesque coastal road that would allow a pit-stop along the way at Agrigento and the Valle dei Templi. This is an impressive site and worth seeing but it’s popular and very much on the tourist bus route. That means crowds, souvenirs and expensive gelato but at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, from Japan or Korea will have captured your embarrassing image as you crouched in diaphoretic inquietude whilst trying for that one photograph of the Temple of Concordia that didn’t have a small crowd leaning against it.

The route from there, through Licata and Gela, before the land rises to the west of Ragusa and Modica, is a microcosm of the chaos and uneven distribution of wealth that’s prevalent on the island; a seemingly random pattern of new and unimproved roads, uncontrolled development, an occasional high-quality villa juxtaposed with a decrepit ruin, piles of rubble and garbage, agriculture that is, on the one hand, well-funded and thriving or, on the other, almost medieval in its lack of facility. It made one wonder how those people not on the Sicilian gravy-train could ever improve their lot. Ashleigh Brilliant had it about right when he wrote ‘I either want less corruption or more chance to participate in it’.

After winding our way up from the coastal plain and traversing the Ponte Irminio – 140m above the valley floor – Modica came into view, raking down the hillside in a breathtaking, Baroque backdrop. Not content with seducing us with its pastel splendour, the townspeople were preparing for an annual street race that had filled the centre with every living soul in the region. Our spritz on the crowded terrace along the Corso Umberto was taken amidst hoards of runners; young and old, experienced and novice. Teams in matching tee-shirts exchanged banter with shopkeepers and waiters while individuals in Lycra shorts – altogether more serious and focussed – worked their stretching routine. And in-between, coaches, water carriers, mothers, hangers-on, small children and dogs wandered between participants. We watched with growing enthusiasm as the motley throng sped easily or, in some cases, limped back and forth up the road, the event eventually being won by a very slim and very competent young woman. As the evening drew on the crowds were supplemented with students from the local university, filling the pavements, cafés and bars. We picked our way through the milieu for the essential visit to Modica’s famous chocolate shops and especially L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where it’s made in a fashion said to date back to the Aztecs. Cadbury’s it isn’t and the shop is an experience in itself. Modica’s sense of self was further reinforced when we ordered dinner after the race; the offerings on the menu at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti were described in the local dialect, served with enthusiasm and were superb examples of local cuisine.

That was our last evening with Greg and Vibeke before spending a couple of nights in relative luxury at Donna Carmela before heading to Catania and the Emirates. Sicily had delivered. There were some aspects that irked us – the stripping of the native vegetation and loss of natural habitat [not unexpected after a couple of thousand years of cultivation, I guess, but still an issue]; the shooting; the corruption and the consequences of nepotistic and self-interested authorities. But there was so much more to savour – the history and the culture; in the broadest terms a friendly populace; a unique cuisine; a surprising variety of wine and, eventually, more birds than I’d expected to see with no ‘serious’ birding on the agenda; 109 species in all. Yes, we’ll be back.  

Aeolian islands Lipari and Vulcano


Cefalu Duomo

Cefalu laundry

Palermo market - gamberi-a secret artist-lamps and pesce

Palermo market - old buildings

Monreal duomo - apse of Christ Pantocrator

Monreale duomo - nave with ornate golden mosaics

Monreale duomo - mosaic detail

Monreale duomo - window

Selinunte olive plantation

Selinunte acropolis looking over the site of the port

Valle dei Mazara cherubs

Valle dei Templi

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Concordia

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica Alta

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio dome

Modica - housing in Modica Alta behind Duomo di San Giorgio

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio ceiling detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio sundial - noon, average midday, time in Italy and signs of the zodiac

Modica - church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa

Modica - roofs

Modica - tiles

Modica - looking up to Modica Alta

Modica Alta

Modica - bicycle

Sicily – a tantalising taste of Baroque

Although we were aware of just how big the island was the poor quality of the roads, appalling traffic in towns and difficulty in parking when we actually got somewhere meant that we were in the car far too much. It was an important point that we’d remember for next time as it became a little frustrating, especially when we didn’t get as much time to explore as we would have wished. We’d planned a trip that would take us through as many places as possible and while that has good and bad aspects, on balance we were satisfied that we were seeing as much of Sicily as we could and were getting a real impression of the place.

We liked the south-east corner of the island and before embarking on the long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo we spent a few more days looking around. We stayed at the very pleasant La Corte del Sole. This is a country hotel in a rebuilt masseria, set on the side of the flat river basin of the Val di Noto. A masseria is a farmhouse that is fortified or, at least, capable of being defended and typically dates from the late middle ages. The appellation is used somewhat loosely but then the marauding hoards that invade Sicily these days come with easyJet or Thomson so a degree of poetic licence is forgivable. To be fair, Le Corte doesn’t look old and actually feels pretty new but it has a satisfying solidity that we liked nonetheless. The rural location balances country walks to the relatively empty beach with a short drive to nearby Noto, one of Sicily’s Baroque towns. It’s also well-placed to see most of the region between the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari and Isola delle Correnti, Sicily’s southernmost point. A very pleasant dining terrace overlooks the verdant valley and has views to the sea. We had a memorable dinner; spada alla griglia con finocchio selvatico [grilled swordfish with wild fennel] for Mission Control and maccheroni con le sarde for me. This is one of my favourite Sicilian dishes – local pasta, sardines, saffron, currants, pine nuts all turned in fried bread crumbs. The food and substantial breakfast were actually very good. La Corte del Sole is a bit off the beaten track and quiet but well worth finding.

Noto is a particularly attractive town that was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and we liked it a lot. The splendid buildings are faced with the local honey-coloured limestone that develops a unique luminosity in evening sunlight. It’s laid out on a grid and this adds a formality to the ornate architecture that is frequently absent elsewhere on the island. Noto’s UNESCO world heritage status is apparent when wandering its streets; taking time with a cool aperitivo delivers, in many respects, both the charm and the acute fascination of Sicily in a single bite. During our visit it seemed that all of Noto’s residents were either strolling back and forth along the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele or watching life pass by from church steps or the piazzas. And Caffé Sicilia produced simply the best cannoli that we found, with the finest scorze [that’s the pastry shell]. Equally interesting, however, was to walk off the main streets and find, as I did, evidence of a less comfortable side to life away from the mainstream. Browsing a row of local shops I found myself gazing at a display of weapons. Not small guns for target shooting or keeping the sparrow population in control and not a few but dozens of AK series assault rifles, carbines, Berettas, machine pistols and shotguns – the kind of weapons that are used to kill people. And there they were, on open display between a hairdresser and a pharmacy. It was sobering to ponder what ‘I’m just popping to the shops, dear’ might mean in Noto.

We resolved to return as the town deserved far more time than we were able to give it but we had a rendezvous and there were more places to visit on the way. I wanted to see Messina again after gazing at it under a smouldering Etna from across the straits as a student. And now that I’d finally decided to visit the island there was also that remaining piece of endemic woodland in the Nebrodi Mountains.

Getting to Palermo from Noto was tortuous; driving between the ‘three points’ of Palermo, Messina and Catania makes travellers heavily dependent on the autostrada network, which peters out away from these centres. Fortunately Noto is linked to it and getting to Palermo by way of Messina would take about the same time as using the cross-country route through Enna we’d arrived on. We headed for Messina and north of Catania the autostrada became a toll road. The rates are not high but not for the first time I found myself wondering about how the fees don’t appear to resurface as improvements, maintenance or repairs.

While we were thinking about that and trying to keep our Autogrill coffee in the cup – almost impossible on Sicilian roads, by the way –  Taormina and its teetering, cliff-top buildings came into view.

Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.


Sicily – the boys from Syracuse market

I avoid being an itinerant tourist, preferring to stay in one place and getting to know it inside out even when it means missing something just down the road. Sicily made that difficult; with so much on offer we’d decided before we travelled to get as big a picture as possible and, if it delivered on its promises, come back and stay for a while. Consequently, we didn’t plan anything in detail because on the one hand there would be so much to see and on the other, plenty to avoid; we’d stay light on our feet.

We’d arranged to visit with friends and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks together but despite best intentions and a year talking about it over ‘Sicilian-themed’ lunches the plan was disrupted by business commitments, migration in Sweden and our forthcoming trip to Dubai. By the time we’d eventually fixed flights it worked out that they would arrive a week or so after us and we’d have to leave several days before them, leaving just a few days together in the middle. Mission Control eased us through this by booking a few places to anchor the Grand Tour, between which we’d drift in the direction the wind took us.

Pozzo di Mazza was perfect for our introduction to Sicily. As well as being handily located to visit some of the sites recommended by Andrea Corso, it was close enough to Siracusa to spend plenty of time in the city. The agriturismo provided a relaxing and authentic springboard to the south-east corner of the island.

Agriturismi are a popular and relatively inexpensive way of holidaying in Italy. The term, in a statement of the obvious, means ‘agricultural tourism’ and was formalised in the mid 1980s as a means of putting some life back into the rural economy by allowing working farms the opportunity to supplement their income with tourist accommodation. Given this basis it means that standards can vary and whilst that is clearly part of the charm our experience in using them over many years has been excellent. And so it was at Pozzo di Mazza. We were provided with good and satisfying food derived from local produce and near-perfect preserves, a lot of which we’ve hauled back. The rooms were spotless, the staff simply charming and there was also a refreshing and welcome absence of television. That meant that guests were left to their own devices although it clearly didn’t suit one Dutch couple who bleated about the place being too quiet, too isolated and too far from any bars. It was actually very pleasant to sit under the quiet, shaded terrace outside the room or in the garden although I was frustrated at the lack of internet access, as all my information for the trip sat in the cloud and was consequently inaccessible.

We knew something of Siracusa before we arrived but weren’t prepared for the sheer magnificence of the crumbling and decrepit buildings, matched in intricacy of detail only by the service and communication cables strung along and between them. Siracusa and its adjoining island Ortigia were largely rebuilt in 1693 after a devastating earthquake in a style that became known as ‘Sicilian Baroque’ and this forms a chiaroscuro backdrop to Greco-Roman and Norman relics. Together they create an intense ambiance of history and immediately we’d absorbed the initial visual impact we knew we’d be back for a longer stay. Like many Italian cities, Siracusa makes one want to live and breathe it. We walked narrow streets and courtyards and, in the Piazza Duomo, watched a Siracusan tableau unfold as its residents married or enjoyed an evening stroll or, like us, simply sipped a slow Spritz.

Siracusa was established on Ortigia in about 734BC and was the most significant city-state in the Mediterranean. I guess the vendors in the market were probably shouting much the same thing then as we heard when we squeezed between the stalls below the market hall. That isn’t in use these days – due, I suspect, to the endemic lack of maintenance – but we did spend a lot of time in the not-to-be-missed delicatessen I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti. Our only regret was that we didn’t have a nearby kitchen as I can’t wait to get back to the widest range of Sicilian wines I’ve ever seen and an exquisite olive oil scented with orange juice, but that will be remedied next time. Walking Mercato di Ortigia and coming out the other end without buying something was a frustrating experience but in brief but sublime compensation we had lunch in a market restaurant supplied by one of the fish vendors; Ristorante Il Porticciolo in via Trento. We ate fried baby fish, risotto with saffron, pistachio and prawns and ravioli of minced prawn in a tomato and ricotta sauce. The [of course] local wine was recommended by the restaurant and was exactly matched, making the entire experience perfetto.

A lot to see and come back for but before that we’d be taking a long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo.

Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.



Sicily – forget about it

A trip to Sicily has been on the back burner for quite a while and here I am, at last.

The Mediterranean’s largest island has been high on my list of places to visit, not least because of the combined attractions of wonderful food and wine, a vast wealth of history and a sun-drenched landscape that is clearly spectacular in parts. But despite all that and as well as it being the archetypal holiday destination I’ve tended to put off visiting for a couple of reasons. First, the locals have done a pretty good job over the past 2500 years in eradicating the native vegetation and, second, they shoot anything with feathers that’s not a hat or a bedspread. I know there are worse places – Sicily’s not as bad as Malta, for example – but when considering the undoubted delights that I’d find here I’d struggled with the notion of developing a lasting affection for a land bereft of birdsong and comprising nothing but olive groves, vineyards and endless rows of cultivation. For someone who finds equal joy in an unsullied natural environment as he does immersion in a cornucopia of culinary and cultural abundance this would present, you’d appreciate, something of a dilemma.

The excellent Andrea Corso helped on the birding front. As the foremost expert of everything that is birds or birding in Sicily he was the man to call and duly provided both reassurance and guidance on where I should visit and, perhaps more importantly given my fear of being seduced by the gods of a land that played host to tourisme de masse, where to avoid. It was disappointing that he would be off the island while I was there.

I didn’t have to be in Sicily for long before feeling the first, subtle headiness of intoxication; I was captivated right from the caffè and cornetto at Palermo airport. There are birds – not a lot, but some and worth travelling for, too – and there are a few areas of native scrub and woodland – again, not a lot – that remain more or less as they were when the Greeks first settled here around 750 BC. And in-between, the vast, cultivated landscape is bespeckled with towns on precipitous cliffs, evocative vistas disappearing into heat-haze, breathtaking Baroque extravagance, awful road surfaces and scruffy, litter-strewn villages.

And then there’s the food and wine – enough to make even the most reluctant suitor submit.