The Real Sicily

June 2013

Like other Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, the poet John Keats, who died in Rome in 1821, was obsessed by the interplay between the world of the imagination and the concrete world of experience. In his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ one of the scenes he describes is a wild dance, and he remarks that the pipes and timbrels seem more eloquently expressed by the silence of the art object than if we were to hear them in reality: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter’.

Organising holidays in Italy involves something of the same potential clash between an event or place as imagined, and then experienced, but at the moment a tour in Sicily presents the conundrum in an acute form.

For some time Sicily has been one of the preferred destinations for television crews offering cookery or art history, or a heady mix of the two. Chefs both laddish and corpulent have motored around the island sipping the finest of wines and wolfing down exotic dishes. Sometimes an art expert is there to help them appreciate the island’s natural beauty, its ancient buildings, and the pictures on display in its galleries. The aesthetes comment drunkenly on the food, and the cooks react admiringly to the sculpture and painting.

How can a tour organiser match these jaunts? In TV trips the inevitably humdrum aspect of tourism has been rigorously excluded, and we enjoy only the brilliant high points. There are no necessary but uninteresting journeys from A to B; no flies, litter and ugly modern developments; no indifferent snacks in dreary cafes; no less than perfect hotels.

Then there are the TV adaptations of Camilleri’s Commissioner Montalbano mysteries, in which our bald, energetic hero swims and strolls and drinks and eats (usually very well), for the most part in charmingly decaying Sicilian towns bathed in mellow sunlight, in the mountains or by the sea. Everywhere is strangely empty of people. Apparently you can now rent the detective’s flat on the beach (in real life Punta Secca) for a holiday (rated 3.5 on TripAdvisor, with the warning that it’s chiefly for fans of the series; ‘I can now understand why Livia spends so much time away from Montalbano,’ writes one reviewer).

Everyone who watches these programmes knows that they do not depict things as they really are (though of course there is no agreement as to how things ‘really are’ — we all have our own view). But perhaps television is a more subtle and dangerous creator of fantasies than a Greek urn or a romantic poem. It is a ‘realistic’ medium, in which the camera focuses on stuff that really does exist, and therefore it seems not to be dealing in dreams. It rarely suggests how much has to be edited out. Quite rightly: we wouldn’t want to watch the tedious and tiresome background of these seamlessly exciting travelogues. Travel writing can encompass the dull and the dreadful, but I doubt if travel TV can or will.

We all have hopes and ideas about how wonderful a holiday will be, but in organising someone else’s holiday the issue must be how to manage expectations. Sometimes I go too far in the wrong direction (‘Why are we going to Milan, if it’s as horrible as you say?’). But I fear that expectations of Sicily may currently be running at an irrational, TV-induced high.