The new normal looks much like the old one when viewed through the glint of ice cubes chilling a negroni spagliato on a warm Sicilian evening. Masks are put aside and plump olives and bruschetta are being nibbled on a terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The volcano on Stromboli, some 40km away from where I’m perched on the Aeolian island of Salina, even puts on a show with random hiccups of fire illuminating the approaching night.
I am here on the inaugural trip of “Bellini Strolls”, a collaboration between Italy specialist Bellini Travel and Maremma Safari Club, a company offering guided walking holidays in less well-known parts of the country. The first outing was supposed to take place in May. Then June. Then early September. And now, at last, our group of British walkers has gathered in Sicily with October knocking on the door.
Leading us is a Tuscan-based guide, Rudston Steward, and Emily Fitzroy, founder of Bellini Travel. We get to know each other on the first night, dining on the terrace of the 16th-century Villa Tasca, owned by winemaker Giussepe Tasca, set in a 20-acre garden on the outskirts of Palermo.
It’s a popular venue for weddings and this year Tasca has opened up the grounds for alfresco food fairs with artisan craft stalls. Tonight it hums quietly with local families chatting, devouring arancini and drinking Sicilian beer and wine.
The following day we transfer along the coast to the port of Milazzo and then on a hydrofoil to Lipari and onwards to Salina, our base for the next five days. Salina is the second-largest island in the Aeolian archipelago, approximately 5km by 7km, and there are well-maintained paths stretching around its two extinct volcanoes, 860-metre high Monte dei Porri and 962-metre Monte Fosse delle Felci.
A few small towns cling to the coast, with whitewashed buildings and cafés serving breakfasts of watermelon and prickly pear granita topped with whipped cream alongside brioche and espresso. It’s easy to see the charms that lured filmmakers here to shoot the movie Il Postino (1994).
We set off from the village of Leni and soon begin our ascent of Monte dei Porri. Each day’s walk covers around 11km so it’s not terribly hard going, but there’s a lot of “up” and Steward has warned us in pre-departure emails to do some fitness preparation. The volcanic terrain is sometimes friable and requires concentration while many parts are exposed with little shade. The actual “stroll” part of the trip appears to be towards well-earned cocktails each evening.
Steward, 46, is evidently a fan of the islands, having first arrived on neighbouring Filicudi for a week in 2005 and ending up staying four months. He describes the flora and fauna in detail when we stop for water and to take photos. “For Italy, the Aeolian Islands are quite exotic,” he tells me during one pause. “They’re a good reminder for Europeans that you don’t have to go half way around the world to access off-the-beaten-track places.”
Not all the islands of the archipelago have their own water supply, but Salina does and in places the steep hillsides have been terraced for farming. Along the path we pass artemisia, sea squill, olive trees and cacti with prickly pears. A pair of Eleanora’s falcons fly above us, swooping out over the cliffs before their long migration to Madagascar. At lunchtime, we wolf panini stuffed with Sicilian cheese and capers, and juicy peaches, before picking our way down zigzag paths accompanied by the gentle click-click of hiking poles.
The start of the walk each day is relatively early to give enough time to rest and relax in the afternoon. In the town of Pollara, after our hike, we wander down to the sea, stopping to pick up ice-cold beers from a bar. We dive off the rocks looking for octopus, with the small craggy island of Scoglio Faraglione a few hundred yards away. I’m too tired to tackle the crossing, even though the thought of spotting its Aeolian wall lizards (only found on this and three other islands) does sound tempting.
The reward for hiking under a hot Mediterranean sun comes when we all gather round the dinner table to swap stories under the stars, either at that night’s hotel or a local restaurant. Menus are generally dispensed with and plates of pasta followed by swordfish or pork are just put in front of us and quickly mopped up, helped down by Sicilian wine, grappa and fennel liqueur.
My favourite evening meal is at the Principe di Salina hotel in Malfa where the owner’s mother, Silvana, who until two years ago was a gastroenterological surgeon, emerges from the kitchen with a huge metal pot offering seconds of her wonderful pasta. No one says no.
Another night, thanks to Fitzroy’s fit-to-burst contacts book, we are invited to the home of Giuseppe Mascoli, who set up the London private members’ club Blacks and pizza chain Franco Manca and now spends most of his time at his home on Salina. He’s a bon viveur and gracious host, treating us to pasta, slices of roasted pumpkin and sausages made from black pigs that roam in the Nebrodi mountains. He’s also evangelical about natural wines, making his own in amphora stored in the ground at his villa. He pours them for us liberally, the younger ones through a sieve.
Over the next days we continue to circumnavigate the island. We explore different sides of the volcanoes, chatting as we go, enjoying swims, picnics and post-hike massages, and relishing, above all, the chance to be out in the sun and fresh air ahead of what could be a long, dark winter.
Will Hide travelled as a guest of Bellini Travel and Maremma Safari, which can organise similar trips on Salina from £1,695 per person. This includes five nights’ accommodation, three days’ guiding, luggage transportation, most meals, a massage and a donation to the Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation
Entry to Italy is currently allowed from EU and some other countries but check the latest details at esteri.it
More autumn walking in the Mediterranean
Most visitors don’t get far beyond Corfu’s beaches but the island also offers great walking through hilly landscapes covered in cedar, willow and juniper forests. There’s even a 220km-long waymarked route, the Corfu Trail, established in 2001. Walks Worldwide can arrange self-guided trips staying in a mix of hotels, pensions and tavernas and with luggage transferred each day. A week’s trip, averaging 16km per day, costs from £519 per person; walksworldwide.com
In the Troodos mountains in central Cyprus, the Marathasa Valley is perfect for hiking. In 2019 a network of circular routes was set up, from 4km to 12km, looping out from the village of Kalopanayiotis, or you can strike out for the slopes of nearby Mount Olympus. Stay at Casale Panayiotis, a boutique hotel set across seven traditional houses in the village. Doubles from €106; casalepanayiotis.com; marathasatrails.com
Wild Frontiers is launching walking trips to northern Greece this month (and has plans in the pipeline for Spain and Italy too). Its 10-day guided group trip will take in Thessaloniki, the Unesco World Heritage site of Meteora as well as a day bear tracking. The next available hike departs on October 18 and costs £2,545 including most meals; wildfrontiers.com
This month might be a good time to explore the celebrated Cinque Terre (a Unesco heritage site and popular tourist draw) without the crowds. Inntravel can organise self-guided walks along the coast, with luggage transferred between hotels. The fishing villages and sandy bays that dot the coastline sit beneath precipitous mountain slopes, so be prepared for steep terrain and long flights of ancient stone steps (thankfully the views give frequent excuses for breaks). From £945 for a week; inntravel.com
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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.
Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.
Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.
But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.
Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.
In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.
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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.
EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.
Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity.
But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.
The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.
There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.
Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.
Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.
Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland.
“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.
The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland.
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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise
France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.
Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.
The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.
Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.
Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.
“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.
French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.
The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.
Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.
Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.
Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.
“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”
UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.
A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.
Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies
The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution
President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.
They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.
British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.
This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.
The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.
The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).
This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.
The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.
The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.
The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.
Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.
All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.
Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.
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