Sicily has long been a crossroads and kettle of Mediterranean culture, and the island today is a fascinating mosaic in which Greek temples, Norman churches and Baroque palazzos emerge from the rich fabric. But it also has natural wonders profusely, from the smoking craters of Mount Etna to the still relatively undiscovered beaches of the southern coast beyond Agrigento and the beautiful and vast countryside of Catania.
With parts of the island on the same latitude as the North African coast, Sicily has a mild climate that makes it an attractive destination for much of the year: spring and autumn are absolute delight and though high summer (July, August) temperatures really do soar, sea breezes in coastal areas take the edge off the heat.
A non-touristic tour
I won’t talk you about the huge monumental Palermo. Travel guides as Lonely Planet do it better than me.
You have to wander through the streets and gardens; the squares and slopes; churches and cloisters… the lights and shadows of a baroque city par excellence –one of the most beautiful (and spiced) baroque city in the Old Continent.
Here you can breathe the south at every corner. It’s one of the biggest old city areas in Europe, with a church every two steps and a half (approximately). Masterpieces of Baroque stay cheek-to-cheek with ruined buildings and debris. The strength of Palermo is its way of being cool, without trying to do it. As the capital of the street-food, you will find everything you were looking for, and probably more. With at least 333 days of sun per year, there are hidden places in town, so forget the cliché about the Sicilian mafia… or Palermitans will come after you, this is a proud place in which civil society is rising head –well if you insist, take a tour till Corleone or Caltanissetta, on the way to Catania and Syracuse, but you are warned, locals won’t appreciate that much.
My day in Palermo begins with a morning run along the seafront. I run down our street of 19th century buildings. Palermo, THE city of contrasts with a glorious past and the will to step into the future. I jog past well-dressed Italians drinking cappuccino in cafes, small children rolling their bright black shoes, a homeless man and his dog bundled in blankets in a doorway. I smell the harbour before I get there, the pungent smell of fish emanating from the warehouse-like market. A little further along I reach the horseshoe of La Cala, a mass of boats reflected in the still morning water. Elegant yachts float next to rustic fishing boats, their bright blue paint peeling. Fishermen untangle piles of nets, or sell their catch from a table in front of their boat; the buyers are all middle aged men. Palermo looks its best on the seafront. At a slight distance you can appreciate its setting, cobalt sea on one side, green mountains on the other three. It’s lined with grand but crumbling churches and palaces, with Porta Felice –an imposing 16th century baroque gateway leading you into the city.From our small balcony we can see the sea, a sliver of blue at the end of the road that’s often filled with a ferry or cruise ship. It’s 10 am but the temperature hasn’t dropped below 35 C since we arrived. We usually leave the French doors open, letting the sea breeze drift in along with the buzz of scooters, the occasional high pitched drill of building works down the road, the trill of the opera singer practicing across the narrow street, and the notes of the clarinetist downstairs. Often we hear the cackling laugh of our African neighbour. We’ve never heard someone laugh so much, so joyfully, and it almost makes us forgive her for playing Jesus music early in the morning. We’re nearer to Tunis than to Rome after all, and Sicily absorbed influences from its Arab invaders, reflected in the city’s diverse architecture, the spices in the markets, and even the menus—nowhere else in Italy do you find couscous listed alongside pasta.
A gelato van sometimes parks outside our building and draws a crowd without needing to announce itself with saccharine tunes, although inevitably this means we miss it. The flatbed truck is filled with aluminium tubs of different flavoured gelato—pistachio is popular here—and it’s served in cones or stuffed in brioche. Hmmmm. The cheapest place for us to shop though is at one of Palermo’s ancient markets—Ballarò is the biggest but Capo is closer. They are both bazaar-like mazes of stalls down narrow cobbled streets with piles of aubergines, cherry tomatoes, chiles, peaches, grapes, incredible metre long cucuzza zucchini. The markets don’t just sell fruit and vegetables. There are tubs of olives, green and black, spiced or herbed; wrinkly sun-dried tomatoes; dried cannellini and chickpeas; salt packed capers from the Sicilian island Pantelleria; pistachios and almonds and pine nuts, all grown on the island; the biggest range of spices I’ve ever seen in Italy; blocks of caciocavallo, ricotta salata, pecorino, and primo sale cheeses; and of course fish.
The vendors don’t like you to touch the produce so it’s good to practice our Italian asking for everything we need. Shopping is a leisurely, personal experience here.
Yesterday we’ve taken the afternoon off and went to the beach. It’s an easy 30 minute bus ride to Mondello, a beach town with a long curve of powdery golden sand and Caribbean-like clear turquoise waters, warm enough to swim in early August. It has a spectacular location between Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino and is the perfect place for a few hours relaxation. It’s popular though. Italians like their beaches sociable and convenient, and on our first visit in the morning the sand was crowded with sun beds and umbrellas. We decided to embrace the Italian way and enjoy the comfort of a lounger for €4 each (but after 2pm).
By 8 pm we headed out into the reawakening city. There are many churches, museums and palaces to explore but we prefer to just wander through the maze of streets in the old town. It has taken time to peel back Palermo’s layers, to see past the busy streets and decaying buildings, to discover fountains and piazzas and century-old banyan trees in gardens, and surprises like a street of colourful hand painted carts and rickshaws, which we later discovered was the workshop of artist Franco Bertolino, the fifth generation of traditional Sicilian cart painters. And then it was a shock to turn a corner and come across the apse of Palermo’s immense Cathedral, with its Arabic geometric patterns and castle-like structure. It’s the most unusual Catholic church we’ve ever seen. The miscellany of architectural styles reflects the city’s history as since it was built by the Normans in 1185 many additions have been made over the centuries and it now blends Norman-Arab, Gothic, Spanish, Baroque, and Neo-classical styles.
Curiosities of a non-conventional visit
A Santuzza. Every true Palermitan is in love with the patron saint of Palermo, Santa Rosalia, crowned with red roses. She’s also known as ‘A Santuzza’ (=the cute saint). Palermitans invoke her every time they’re in trouble, and when the problem is solved they go up to the sanctuary on Mount Pellegrino, where her bones are kept, to thank and give her some presents (ex voto). She’s celebrated every 14th July in a parade, called ‘U fistinu’, that is, ‘The festival’: Rosalia is on top of a triumphal baroque chariot (it stays in front of the Cattedrale for the rest of the year) going in procession from Palazzo dei Normanni all the way down Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Porta Felice (=Happy Gate) where spectacular fireworks are performed by the sea.
Riffa time. If you just stand in a central place of a market and observe for a while what’s happening around, you’ll notice little pieces of paper passing from hand to hand: it’s the inner market lottery, with a jackpot that is usually a box of fish, meat and vegetables of the day.
Caffè. It’s not just about coffee, it’s something more. “Ti offrò un caffè” (”I offer you a coffee”) will sound to Palermitan ears as “I have to talk to you”. The most important decisions, deals, resolutions are made standing in front of the counter of a bar. And dear adventurer, it doesn’t matter if it is an espresso stretto lungo macchiato decaffeinato corretto or cappuccino, it will always be better than what you drink at home.
0,99! Pay attention to signs indicating prices above vegetables, fish and meat: merchants are smart designers, and it’s common to find two zeros drawn with almost invisible legs aside! As 1 cent is not considered a real coin (even with the crisis), 1,99 € means 2,00 €
A farm indoor? It’s not uncommon to stroll about markets and hear horse neighs or see a chicken running away from its roost: many people hold their own in-town-farm, or breed horses for nightly clandestine races.
Palermo is not a city that you fall in love with at first sight, it takes time to get to know it, to see beyond the chaos, to walk its streets and find its hidden secrets. I am glad this is my fourth visit and that we have a week here so we could start again to do that, a little every day…
Palermo Things to Do at a glance at The Virtual Tourist