Sicily Unlimited

14.09.17

Former Philosophy Football FC 'Gaffer ' Geoff Andrews has set up a network of study tours to explore Sicily’s rich culture. His latest idea is to join with Philosophy Football in opposing commercialised tourism.

I used to spend a couple of weeks a year tutoring on Open University summer schools, the most rewarding teaching environment I have ever experienced. Sadly the OU don't do these schools anymore but I was keen to continue the idea, talking about Sicilian history, film and food, which I had picked up travelling and writing about Italy over the past decade. In addition, running Philosophy Football FC had brought home the simple pleasutes of the beautiful game in contrast to the power of big companies. Happily I can now bring these two experiences together in a way which celebrates culture for the non-conformist traveller. 

Sicily is being rediscovered by the British. Once popular with Victorian and Edwardian travellers on pilgrimages, seeking convalescence or on a ‘Grand Tour’ of another ‘exotic’ culture, today it appeals to a new cohort of Brits. Perhaps tiring of ‘Chiantishire’ and persuaded by the charm and scenery of the Inspector Montalbano series on BBC4, increasing numbers of discerning travellers are making their way south. But what do they find when they get there?

It is a poor island economically, not only in comparison to Italy’s more affluent north but by wider European standards. It still suffers from poverty, unemployment and organised crime, while it has carried a large economic burden as one of the main arrival-points for migrants from North Africa. Yet it is extraordinarily rich in culture, with its unique and complex history of being dominated by different powers evident in its Greek temples, Norman castles, Baroque architecture and, of course, its food, which varies wildly right across the island. It was the home of some Italy’s most distinguished writers, including Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, whose ‘Gattopardism’ (‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’) still helps explain political inertia; Leonardo Sciascia, whose novels on the search for truth and justice in the face of Sicily’s problems helped bring the mafia to serious public attention, and the feminist writer Dacia Maraini, brought up in Bagheria, near Palermo. The playwright Luigi Pirandello, who might be considered one of the first to portray ‘post-truth’, was from Agrigento, in an area now categorised as the ‘strada dei scrittori’, a land famous for its writers. Sciascia and Andrea Camilleri, the author of the Montalbano novels (and it is best to read the books in advance of the TV series), are both from the wider province. Some classic Italian films, among them Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino as well as classic neo-realist ones, Stromboli and La Terra Trema, were set on the island. Taormina, Sicily’s top tourist venue, perched high over the Ionian Sea, with its wonderful Greek theatre in the shadow of Mount Etna, an active volcano, was once a haven for writers, including D.H.Lawrence and Truman Capote.  

But what is the best way of exploring Sicily? Sicily’s unique history and contemporary predicament – rich in culture, relatively poor economically – makes it ideal for sustainable tourism. If you want a laid-on corporate experience, then it is not for you. Yet, the quality of the accommodation in agriturismi, (basically, family-owned ‘farm hotels’, often of 5 star quality), the food – an endless menu from streetfood arancini and panelle, to many varieties of fish, fruit and vegetables – and the renowned Etna wines, would put to shame much of what is counted as ‘luxury’ in today’s elite tourism. Sicily is famous for its hospitality where visitors are often regarded as guests rather than tourists.

Recent years have brought a new generation unwilling to wield to past problems and restraints. For example, there has been an open challenge to the power of the mafia by groups like Libera Terra, which produces and sells quality olive oil and wine on land confiscated from the mafia, and Addio Pizzo, which says ‘goodbye’ to protection money by increasing visible resistance and selling items produced by victims of mafia violence who suffered because they refused to pay it.

Sicily Unlimited was set up to explore this rich culture and work with local associations to help promote a sustainable vision of the island. Each year, we offer summer and Easter courses on Sicilian history, film and food, taught by myself,  awriter and historian, and the London-based Sicilian journalist Francesca Marchese. We stay on an agriturismo and collaborate with groups like FAI (the Italian National Trust) and Slow Food, in order to bring local knowledge and experience to the course. In the Kolymbethra Gardens in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, for example, FAI has done magnificent work in restoring an abandoned area of outstanding natural beauty. Nearby, at the Scala dei Turchi (Turkish Steps), a familiar site in the Inspector Montalbano series, it has led a successful campaign to remove illegally-built eyesore buildings which threaten the environmental heritage of a UNESCO protected space.  In Sicily Slow Food has been a grassroots movement which has done much to get just pay for small producers, defend traditional foods at risk, promote ‘eco-gastronomy’ and celebrate the simple pleasures of eating local food in a period which has seen the inexorable rise of global fast food corporations. The film and food week we organise on the Aeolian Islands in May combines visits to film locations with tastings of local food and wine during ‘Salina Isola Slow’, a Slow Food weekend. 

Sicily Unlimited shares a similar outlook to Philosophy Football in promoting alternatives to corporate culture, offering a different idea of ethical consumption and working with a range of progressive organisations. In this light we are delighted to offer a 15% discount off the fees of our courses together with a free Philosophy Football shirt of your choice if you join us in Sicily. For details and bookings for next year’s Easter trip to Etna, Catania and Taormina and the Salina film and food trip please visit Siciliy Unlimited  you can also email us here

 

Geoff Andrews is a writer and historian, specialisiing in twentieth century British and Italian politics and culture. His latest book, The Shadow Man, was a biography of the communist intellectual James Klugman. His next book will look at the so-called 'fifth man' of the Cambride spy circle, John Cairncross. You can follow Geoff on twitter @andrewsgeoff and Siciiy Unlimited @siciliyunlimited

 

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