When Matteo Renzi, the then Prime Minister of Italy, announced that the G7 Summit of 2017 would be held in Taormina, Sicily, it came as a big surprise to the citizens of Florence, where the meeting had originally been scheduled to take place. But Renzi, who would be Italy’s ex-Prime Minister by the time of the summit, was adamant. A joke had been told by one of the leaders at a previous summit. Something about Sicily being the land of the mafia. With Taormina, Renzi aimed to reclaim the island’s honour, to showcase Sicily as a land of great bellezza (beauty), volontariato (volunteering), innovazione (innovation) and of people like Pietro Bartolo,the doctor whose crusade to rescue migrants arriving by boat on Lampedusa Island was documented in ‘Fuocamare‘ Fire at Sea.
The Florentines weren’t the only ones taken aback by the announcement. Taormina, as we saw in my previous post, may be the ‘Pearl’ of Sicily but it is a very small pearl that barely manages to cope with the deluge of tourists that invade its narrow streets on a daily basis. And its location – perched on a promontory 200 metres above sea level – had helped keep the ancient Greeks safe, at least until the Romans came along, but made modern-day access a nightmare at the best of times. The challenges of holding a G7 summit here were so numerous and so obvious, even Renzi had to concede that some verifiche tecniche – technical verifications (hard to top that one for political ambiguity) – were still required to determine whether it would actually be logistically possible. But, he insisted, even if it wasn’t, the G7 would still take place in Sicily.
A few, rumour-filled months later, Renzi phoned Eligio Giardina, the mayor of Taormina, to tell him the town had been given the official OK. Giardina put on a brave face, declaring that ‘La Perla dovrà brillare’. The Pearl will shine. The locals were less enthused. They already had plenty of visitors. However would they manage with any more? And what, muttered a fellow standing close to the mayor, would they do with all the spazzatura (garbage)? There was also the threat of terrorism that events of this magnitude increasingly bring. The ever-optimistic Giardina dismissed such concerns. The ancient Greeks had chosen the site well. It was a natural roccaforte, a ‘strong rock’ invincible even to modern terrorists. (In the end almost 10,000 police, army and security forces – essentially one for each citizen of Taormina – would be brought in.)
The first notice I got about Taormina hosting the 2017 G7 was as upsetting as the source was unlikely. On February 7, 2017, a month after I had made a reservation for a special treat – a one-night stay at Casa Cuseni, the villa whose gardens I had visited on an earlier trip (see previous post), I received an email from Booking.com. They were ‘spiacenti di informarLa…’ it began. Spiacenti is not a word you want to see in an email from a booking agency. Piacere and all its derivatives have to do with pleasure. Tack an ‘s’ on the front of any of them and you have a bunch of unpleasant opposites. They were sorry to inform me that on the day of my reservation, the G7 would be taking place. More specifically, the G7 would take place on May 26 and 27 and the historic centre of Taormina would be completamente blindato in order to host the delegations of the countries involved’. I had heard of una macchina blindata (an armoured car), but not an armoured historic centre. Besides, my reservation was for May 25. But the email continued. ‘In order to guarantee the safety of the parties involved, the centre would be chiuso dal 22 al 28 Maggio.’ Closed from the 22nd to the 28th of May. To be sure there were no misunderstandings, they added the word ‘compreso’. Inclusive.
I picked up the phone. A mellifluous voice from Georgia soon had me calmed down. Yes, it was true. All the hotels in Taormina – as well as in many surrounding towns – had been requisitioned for the G7 leaders, their delegations, journalists etc. Booking.com had cancelled all the reservations made on their site for the duration and were scrambling to help customers find new accommodations far from the turmoil, some in Catania, others as far south as Siracusa, 120 k down the coast.
There was still one thing that concerned me. Casa Cuseni was well beyond my normal budget. To secure the room, I had taken the less expensive, no cancellations allowed option. The payment had already been withdrawn from my bank account. Not to worry. Booking.com had this eventuality covered as well. Even in cases involving un pagamento anticipato, the money would be refunded. And finally, in the event I didn’t receive the refund within 15 business days of the date of the cancellation email, I was invited to contact the Team di Assistenza Clienti.
Disappointed, but resigned, I started looking for a place to stay in Siracusa. I’d been there before. Its historic centre, Ortigia, the island where the ancient Greeks first landed, was a charming labyrinth of narrow alleys perfect for meandering. It would be perfect for a one night visit. It didn’t take me long to find a nice B&B overlooking the harbour. I booked a room – free cancellation within three months of arrival – and reprinted my itinerary.
The following day, still fuming over the way these meetings, which often don’t seem to accomplish much, cause so much inconvenience to others and involve a enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars, I did something I would come to regret. I wrote an email to Francesco explaining how much I had been looking forward to staying at Casa Cuseni and how disappointed I was to miss the experience and also how sorry I was for all the other tourists whose plans were being scombussolati (scom-boos-soh-lah-tee), all messed up, as well as for the inevitable disruption for the locals.
Francesco got back to me right away. I expected something along the lines of yes, it was a disappointment, too bad, perhaps another time. But to my surprise he was on the attack, didn’t understand how booking.com could taken it upon itself to cancel a reservation in his hotel; it was an arbitrary decision, and even though the city would be blindatissima con reali disagi per i nostri ospiti be the hotel was still open and booking.com had no right to cancel the reservation.’ I didn’t know what to make of the bit about the city being not just blindata, but blindatissima. Extremely armoured? And what did he mean by ‘real inconveniences for our guests’? I called Booking.com again. Again they confirmed that my cancellation, along with those of countless other would-be visitors, was unavoidable. All of the hotels had been taken over by the G7. What still didn’t make sense was how Booking.com could possibly have a better idea of what was going on than a long-standing hotel owner right in Taormina? Not knowing who to believe, I stewed. And I watched my account for the refund which, by Feb. 21 was yet to arrive. But what did arrive was a second email from Francesco. Things had escalated.
‘Dear Madam, he began, I am obliged to inform you, in my role as Vice president of the B&B Association of Taormina, that unbeknownst to us, Booking.com cancelled your reservation, without us knowing anything, inventing a problem with the G7 causing limitations of the fruibilità of the city of Taormina.’ Fruibilità is a tricky word, it could mean enjoyment or access. In any case it was not good. He went on to list a slew of government and local organizations, none of whom were aware of any restrictions pertaining to hotels or any other commercial activities in Taormina and also did not understand on what basis Booking.com made the cancellations. He ranted on and on, culminating in the threat that if he was not contacted by the reservation office (no time limit given), deniunceremo Booking.com. Denunciare is not a word I’ve personally ever had to deal with so I double checked to be absolutely sure and yes, it means ‘to file charges against’. Now I really didn’t know what to think. Apart from the obviously misdirected vitriol – he seemed to have forgotten that I was a hapless bystander in all this – there was the fact that the refund Booking.com had promised had yet to come through. And why weren’t they answering his calls? Muddying the waters even further, in his closing remarks he suggested that in the meantime I might wish to make a reservation directly with the hotel, in which case they would refund the amount I had already paid.
Having used Booking.com for years, my understanding was that payments go directly to the hotels. But I’d met Francesco, spent time with him; he was there, on the ground, surely he would have a better idea of the situation than a faceless, international booking agency located who knows where and, probably what fatefully tipped the scales, I was really keen on experiencing life at Casa Cuseni. After a great deal of mulling things over I wrote back – this was Feb. 22 – asking him to reinstate my reservation.
Francesco replied immediately, confirming the reservation. He also made a comment about the disagio (dee-za-joe) that Booking.com was creating in their city. Agio means ease or comfort, so diasagio can mean discomfort. Or inconvenience. Or disturbance. By now I had the feeling Francesco had a bee in his bonnet and couldn’t help himself, so I just rolled my eyes and continued reading. ‘It is true that the G7 will limit the fruizione – (that word again!) – of the historic centre of our city.’ What?! Now the bee was buzzing around in my bonnet.
I started digging. You wouldn’t think you’d have to dig on the Internet, but those algorithms can be a real pain in the neck when you’re looking for something they don’t think you should be interested in. I started focusing on Italian language websites only and finally, Eureka! In ‘100NOVE’, a weekly newspaper published in Messina, there was an article about the G7. Italo Mennella, president of the Association of Hoteliers of Taormina had announced that ‘le strutture ricettive «di qualsiasi tipologia (accommodations of all classes) not just in Taormina, but also in Giardini Naxos, Sant’Alessio Siculo, Letojanni, and other cities would be reserved for G7 participants. All hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, Holiday Homes would therefore be ‘off-limits per turisti e visitatori‘ for the duration of the meetings and presumably for a period of days in advance.’ The article was dated Nov. 6, 2016, two and a half months earlier. Now there wasn’t a bee in my bonnet, it was a whole hornets’ nest.
I forwarded the article to Francesco, in light of which I asked him to please precisare the limitations I would find in Taormina, including how exactly I was to reach Casa Cuseni and where to park the car. His reply was much toned down. Almost conciliatory. And totally lacking in anything that could remotely be considered preciso, or an answer to my questions.
‘They had reinstated my reservation, but I was of course free to choose another destination given that Taormina would be interamente blindata …. ‘ (What!?) ‘However, despite the limitations – no access to the town’s monuments and historic centre, and restricted travel on the surrounding roads – Taormina and the hinterland would still be beautiful. It was up to me if I chose to come at another time in order to enjoy the town nel modo giusto. In the right way.’ In a final, flabbergasting flourish he added that he had taken it upon himself to inform Booking.com of the limitazione monumentale della fruibilità – monumental limitation of access or enjoyment or whatever that word means – that would be imposed. It was beginning to sound like a bad rewrite of ‘Gaslight’, an old black and white movie I’d seen years ago, about a husband who slowly tricks his wife into believing she was going insane by fiddling with the settings on the gas lights. I wrote back the same day to request that the original cancellation made by Booking.com be reinstated.
It took a long time and many emails and phone calls between me and Booking.com, and the Booking.com agent in Taormina and the hotel, before I got my refund, which, in the end, I received from Booking.com in what they characterized as an ‘Incorrect Charge Case’ and which is why, although I rarely do endorsements, I strongly recommend Booking.com for anyone who books independently as I do.
But my G7 woes paled in comparison to what the locals endured. All of the four and five star hotels that were located in what became known as the ‘red zone’ were prohibited from accepting any reservations from May 22 to May 28, and to remain exclusively for the use of the G7 delegates who would be present May 27 and 28. And the other three days of the prohibition? The hotels – all 23 of them – were to be vacant in order to facilitate security clearances.
There were also a few ‘kerfuffles’ caused by one of the delegations. (Take a guess.) Despite all the ultra luxury hotels that had been requisitioned for the G7, and unlike the six other G7 leaders, President Trump would not be staying in Taormina. American security agents had taken a look around Taormina and they did not like what they’d seen. (Back to Thoreau again!) The president would stay at the American Naval Air Base in Sigonella and be flown in every day by helicopter.
Apart from bruised feelings on the part of the locals, there were some problems with this plan. Sigonella is 70 k south-west of Taormina. En route to Taormina the helicopter bearing the American president would pass by a volcano, the largest and most active in Europe. It took a while, but eventually the American security agents agreed that Sigonella would not work. The particles that Etna routinely spewed out could easily damage the helicopter motors. Trump would have to stay in Taormina.
But the American security agents were not done. They also did not like the charming, medieval streets that attracted millions of visitors from all over the world every year. They were too narrow and had too many tight curves for the presidential car. By this point even the ever upbeat mayor Giardina was beginning to lose it. The Americans were driving them pazzi (pats-see). Corso Umberto was only 900 metres long, not much longer than the motorcade the Americans proposed to drive through the town centre. ‘There will be no room for them to move!’ The goccia (drop) that finally made the mayor’s vaso (pitcher) traboccare (overflow) came when the Americans requested that the road from the newly built heliport to the Hotel San Domenico where the meetings were to be held, be widened, which would of course have involved the ‘removal’ of some of the ancient building that lined the street. The mayor put his foot down. No roads, not even the road to the G7 venue, were to be widened. But he did agree to have the road, which was too bumpy for the Americans’ taste, resurfaced.
A few days after the summit, I decided to check out the Alcantara Gorge (gorgeous and so unexpected) and then go to Taormina for lunch. It was only 20 k and I figured the dust would have settled by then.
The G7 leaders and the thousands associated with the meetings had left, but it soon became clear that the dust hadn’t quite settled. When I asked the waiter if he had stayed open during the meetings, he gave me a look – almost of annoyance – and then he simply said, ‘Preferiamo scordarcelo‘. We prefer to forget about it. The fellow chatting with the attendant in the parking lot was more forthcoming. He was a chef, had been to Montreal for an international food festival, thought the food at the market was very good quality – probably because I was with the Italians, he said. Hanno l’occhio. They have an eye. What was not so good was people wanting everything all year long. (I thought of the strawberries I can never resist in winter.) I stood in the parking lot talking with him for a while about this and that, and then I asked him about the G7. His face darkened. His nonno (grandfather) had fought in two world wars and his father in one so they would not live in a police state, and despite their efforts and the hardships they had endured, for the week of the G7 they had lived in what was essentially a police state. He couldn’t even go out – on foot – beyond a VERY restricted area. Some locals had closed down their businesses and gone on a ‘holiday’.
Another thing the American security agents had insisted on was that there would be no moving their president around except by armoured vehicles. As for walking – out of the question! Too dangerous! So when it came time for one of the group photos, six world leaders, risking all, went a piedi (a pyay-dee) – on foot from the Greek Theatre to Piazza IX Aprile – a distance of 650 meters, where they then had to stand around, waiting for the American president to arrive. Not by armoured car, as his security agents had originally insisted, but in a golf cart.
Before going over to Isola Bella I thought it would be fun to go for a boat ride. But when I inquired at one of the little huts, things didn’t look promising. I waited around, while Sebastiano walked up and down the beach looking for other takers, but he came back and shook his head. Mi displace. I’m sorry, no-one wants to go out now and if you don’t go soon, the sun won’t be at the right angle to see the grottoes. I started to head over to Isola Bella when he called me back. He’d just spotted two people about to get into someone else’s boat. I rushed over to join them, amazed once again at the casual generosity.
While working on this post I was alarmed to learn that in 2018 the G7 summit will be held in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada. Let’s hope things go more smoothly for the Malbaisiens than they did for the Taorminesi. The two communities have a great deal in common. Like Taormina, La Malbaie is a small town (population 9,000 compared to Taormina’s 11,000) and is located – this may come as a surprise to my fellow Canadians – in an earthquake-prone area, in fact the most active seismic zone in eastern Canada. And although La Malbaie is not perched on a cliff, access is in many ways just as challenging. It is 150 k north-east of Quebec City, the nearest urban centre and international airport, three times the distance from Catania to Taormina. Access is via a two-lane road, a tourist train or the St. Lawrence River, which has led a security expert to describe it as a ‘beautiful nightmare’.
One challenge that didn’t come up in Taormina was language. Of the Sicilians I have encountered, many of whom speak siciliano as their mother tongue, almost all effortlessly – and graciously – switch to italiano or English when dealing with outsiders. It will be interesting to see how Quebec’s ‘Language Police’, of recent ‘Pastagate’ notoriety, handle things. If you haven’t heard of ‘Pastagate’, it’s the name given to an incident in which inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française (Quebec Office of the French Language) fined the owner of an Italian restaurant in Montreal for including the word pasta on his menu. (For more on this, check out an article by Sandy White in the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail – “‘Pastagate’ reveals the hypocrisy of Quebec’s French hardliners”, published Feb. 26, 2013, updated March 26, 2017)
On my first trip to Sicily so many years ago, I knew nothing about Isola Bella and didn’t have time to explore it, something I will definitely do on my next trip.