John Phillpott reviews a recent trip to southern Italy and Sicily. But something strikes a sour note when he gets an offer he can’t refuse…


SICILY has been invaded enough times, most people would think. Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Normans… there can be few races of people from the Ancient World that haven’t dropped anchor off this island’s volcanic shores at some stage and decided they rather liked the place.

I must admit that I felt the same after setting foot in Messina after the short ferry trip across the straits of the same name. It’s just like Italy, I thought, only a bit different.

What’s three kilometres of paint box blue sea between friends? Ah yes, I guess you can feel a ‘but’ about to intrude. And you would be right…

Our base was a hotel in Acireale, a pleasant but traffic-clogged town that seems to favour pavements of around a foot wide.

Thankfully, it is possible to escape the fumes and noise, mainly due to a number of strategically placed parks, one of which enjoyed glorious views across the Ionian Sea.

And even though the internal combustion engine is king here, as in so much of Italy, street traders still manage to hold their collective breath to avoid inhaling the exhaust fumes as they sell their fresh fish, meat and vegetables.

Watch out for rip-offs in cafes and restaurants, too. Some Sicilians don’t seem all that used to foreign visitors, and either over-charge, or fail to have prices included on the menu.

For instance, we had an argument in one hostelry over a shared platter. The waiter tried to charge us for two dishes and only relented – slightly – when we protested. This person then plucked a charge out of the air and we cut our losses and paid up. You have been warned.

Now, I am by nature a curious kind of cove, which of course comes with the turf after more than half a century in journalism. If the truth be known, I’ve sailed rather close to the wind on a number of occasions during my travels.

But down all these years, never once have I experienced serious hassle when plying a modest trade as a part-time guitar and harmonica player.

Whenever and wherever I go, I always carry a couple of the latter instruments either in my rucksack or pocket.

So when the mood takes me – on beach, hilltop, park bench, riverbank, street corner, hotel room or roadside – out comes my diatonic and chromatic ‘gob irons’ and I tootle a few notes.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. Railway stations, too – I reckon it must be the rambling bluesman instinct in me. In fact, I once accompanied a freight train crossing the Potomac near Hancock, West Virginia, as the great metal leviathan roared its welcome whistle… I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

All right, yours is much bigger, Mr Freight Train Man. I concede defeat.

Anyway, here we are in Giardini-Naxos, the railway station that serves the picturesque town of Taormina, arguably one of the jewels in the Sicilian crown, and I decide to give my harp a toot.

Big mistake. My wife says this has come to the notice of a policeman just along the platform, and he’s looking my way. So there I am, blowing a mean train blues, doing my finest Sonny Terry impersonation, when… the policeman is suddenly standing over us. And me in particular.

“Passports!” he barks. Luckily, I have mine in my bag, and produce it forthwith. He ignores me. Turning to my wife and a friend, he demands to see their passports. They just have photocopies and the policeman snatches them, whips out a tablet, and apparently starts to enter data.

This goes on for what seems like an age. I begin to think we’ll miss the train back to Acireale, but then I realise the name of the game.

He’s disappointed that we have evidence of identity and is just going through the motions of hassling us.

It seems to me that he’s now not quite sure what to do. He was probably banking on us not having our passports, which would offer the golden opportunity for a nice little earner.

Say 50 euros fine for each of us, plus the husband of the friend just up the way… that’s 200 euros. Not bad for three minutes’ work.

Of course, I have no proof whatsoever. Just a hunch. But this guy was decidedly unfriendly, officious, and I could read his thoughts. Yes, that’s right… it comes with age and experience.

The policeman thrusts the documents back into our hands and walks off. We catch the train back to Acireale and arrive at our hotel with a decidedly sour taste in our mouths.

The last day finds us in Catania, whiling away the hours before our flight back to Britain. We visit the cathedral and then watch a talented young woman busker entertain the passers-by, who soon form an appreciative, friendly crowd.

A nice day in the late afternoon sun, pleasant music and everyone chilling out… except then the police arrive and break the whole thing up. The afternoon falls apart.

Travellers beware. Sicily doesn’t appear to welcome buskers or any sort or impromptu musical offerings in public places, for that matter. For some reason – or reasons – the local cops just don’t like it.

Maybe it’s centuries of rigid religious control, the Mafia, a combination of both, or just too many invasions. Whether it’s scimitar-wielding Moors, broadsword-hacking Normans, or harmonica-playing, 70-year-old Englishmen with grey hair and beards complete with floppy straw hats, they just don’t want it.

Perhaps bear that in mind next time you visit Sicily. Arrivederci amici miei!

John Phillpott travelled to southern Italy and Sicily with Saga.