At the ticket office of Palermo’s Archaeology Museum, the attractive, engaging young woman at the desk mistook us for French and addressed us accordingly. Perhaps she was misled by some detail of our dress, which is not quite as M&S as might be expected of British cultural tourists of a certain age. However, my partner, who fantasises about being of more exotic extraction than she actually is, was flattered anyway. Having expected to converse in either Italian or English, I was momentarily thrown and responded with some stuttered Franglais. The charming lady soon had us sussed and switched effortlessly to fluent English. She explained – after we had paid the entrance fee – that the two upper floors of the museum were closed for restoration (our guide book had predicted, hopefully, that the work would be complete by 2016) but not to worry, the most important treasures were all on display. I thanked her, in what I hoped was confidently spoken Italian, determined to salvage some dignity since I felt we had been outed as regular, monolingual Brits masquerading as continental polyglots.
The economy of Sicily depends heavily on tourism, yet there appears to be scant public investment in the business. While private enterprise exploits every opportunity to operate bars, cafes and souvenir shops at all the catchment points, officially operated facilities are minimal. The Valley of the Temples, for example, attracts 600,000 visitors each year yet, when we visited, the queue for tickets was 45 minutes long and there was just one toilet – attended by a chap who expected a tip. What becomes of all the entry fees? Sicily’s archaeological sites generally are unkempt and devoid of wardens to safeguard them. Likewise, some of the palazzi, though stuffed with ornaments, furniture, paintings and other objects, have few, if any, curators to dissuade thieves and vandals. In one such palazzo there is a bedstead, supposedly slept on by Garibaldi, with a makeshift “Do Not Touch” sign hung on its headboard. I stroked it anyway, just to make my point.
The paucity of investment in the heritage business reflects a more general observation: that while there is much private wealth, public squalor is everywhere evident. Country roads are dangerously eroded, but tattered tape and faded warning signs remain in place of the repairs that ought to have been made long ago. Lay-bys and lanes are treated as drive-by rubbish dumps. Public beaches and urban spaces are similarly scattered with garbage, while, alongside them, private lidos and terraces are lovingly tended. And on this island, the contrast between public poverty and private wealth feels ironic considering its archaeology, which evidences a tradition of public splendour in the ancient temples, amphitheatres and fortifications.
While Sicily’s governing body lacks either the will or the means to invest in its tourist infrastructure, it does have an organisation that could, if it chose, help to sort it out. I refer to the Mafia, a collective that amasses vast amounts of illegally acquired money, much of which could be invested in the legitimate growth-industry of tourism instead of being furtively laundered. Furthermore, the Mafia has considerable business and organisational skills and, assuming that its business goal is profit, it should have no objection to taking on the job. It is said* that the American branch of the Sicilian Mafia ceded the heroin trade to the Sicilians in the 1980s, with the result that Naples, for example, was ruined, its traditional economy and family structures laid waste by addiction: surely it is time for a corporate social responsibility makeover?
We are currently in Milazzo, where the heights are dominated by an enormous complex of defensive walls and towers, founded by the Arabs, and added to by every subsequent invader. When we visited, we found the ticket office staffed by a lady who took the fee, a man who tore off the tickets and several hangers-on. One them greeted us with a grin and a torrent of Italian, the gist of which was are you Germans? “No,” I said, “Inglesi.” She smiled and said welcome, then gave us an old brochure translated into German. It was all she had.
*Peter Robb: Midnight in Sicily