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On to way to Sicily
Shkodra (Albania) to Palermo (Italy), September 2014

The crossing by ferry from the Albanian town of Durres to the Italian city of Bari went smoothly. What a difference with a few years ago, when we crossed from Igoumenitsa in Greece to Brindisi in Italy. At that time, the loading of the ship with cars and trucks was a huge mess and the delay was more than four hours. But this time everything was well organized. There was enough staff to manage the loading process and the sporadic Italian who tried to jump the queue was friendly asked to get in line again. On the Italian side, the immigration process took over an hour. And that is understandable when you see how many shabby Albanians in even more shabbier vehicles make the crossing to Italy. Two young Albanian men, covered in tattoos and driving a new red Ferrari, were taken out of the queue just in front of us. Probably for further questioning.

Our first destination in Italy was Matera, a beautiful little town in the heel of Italy’s boot. Matera is famous for its so-called Sassi houses; stone houses that have been carved out from the rocks and caves. Today, this town is one of the biggest tourist attractions of southern Italy. But that was very different 50 years ago. Matera was then a poor town in a malaria area, with an infant mortality rate of 50%! This was partly caused by the appalling sanitary conditions in the often extremely sober Sassi homes. But times have changed for the better and nowadays the city earns a good income from the busloads of tourists who poor in every day.

A well organised boarding in Dürres (Albania) on our way to Bari in Italy

In Italy we also enjoyed the stunning supermarkets with lots of fresh products. That was different in Albania, where supermarkets are still a rarity. They have to import almost all products which makes them too expensive for the normal Albanians. But in Italy this is different. The Italians love extensive cooking with fresh ingredients, and that’s what you see in the supermarkets. But also here the time is not standing still. We noticed immediately how much fatter the Italians have become over the years by changing to the much fatter precooked food, especially if you compare them with, for example, the people in the Balkan countries. Most city buses in Italy are now equipped with extra wide chairs for obese people. Via the little lovely town of Tropea (see photo presentation on Tropea), we drove to the nose of Italy’s boot where we took the 30 minutes ferry to Messina in Sicily. Our guidebook from 2010 mentioned that the short crossing would cost only 12 Euro per car, but for some reason that changed: 41 Euro is what we, and the other passengers on the ferry, had to pay for a single trip. Welcome to Sicily.

We wonder why there is still no bridge for the short crossing between Sicily and the rest of Italy. It is already a hot topic in Italian politics for decades. The main reason is that many politicians are afraid that the bridge can’t be built without the interference of the mafia. In this part of Italy, the mafia is seemingly still so strong, that large infrastructural projects can’t be executed without the guarantee that not a significant portion of the budget disappears into the pockets of these guys. On the east coast of Sicily, we visited the cities of Catania and Syracuse, and we brought a visit to the Etna volcano. Especially Catania is a beautiful city and definitely worth the long trip to Sicily. The city is largely built with lava that devastated the city in 1669, when the Etna had its most devastating outbreak, which lasted for 122 days and resulted in 12000 deaths in Catania alone. But the city made a comeback. Led by the Baroque architect Giovanni Vaccarini, a truly beautiful city resurrected, of which the main square in the Old Town made it to the World Heritage List of UNESCO.

Us in front of Matera

In contrast, Syracuse was a little bit disappointing. This town is indeed very nice, but the old town is nowadays more a museum than a real city. All activities are aimed at tourists, which resulted in the squeezing out of the Italian life. From Syracuse we drove to Agrigento on the south coast of Sicily. This medium sized but atmospheric Sicilian city has a major attraction: the Valley of the Temples. Here, are a number of ancient Greek temples from the 4th to the 6th century BC survived and give an idea of how big this ancient Greek city must have been at that time.

From Agrigento it was only a few hundred more kilometres to go to Palermo, the largest city in Sicily and the city where we looked forward to, already for years. And the city has not disappointed us. Although Palermo has not the grand buildings and artworks such as Rome, Naples or Florence have, this is a real Italian town with some interesting rough edges; or should we say Sicilian town. The mix between old historical buildings and the real Italian/Sicilian life is the main reason to come here. A lot of tourists don’t come here yet, so the city is still pure. Old churches, chaotic traffic, piles of garbage in the streets, poor neighbourhoods and narrow alleys with drying laundry, is still the most normal thing in the world here. This is the Sicily we really wanted to see and Palermo gave it to us, making it the absolute highlight of our visit to this most southern Italian province.

Tropea is a very atmospheric little town in Calabria
A short ferry trip bring us to Sicily
Catania has a lot of character
Us in front of the Tempio della Concordia in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
The fabulous Piazza Pretoria in Palermo
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