A jewel called Palermo


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

Dresden, a case of love at first sight

© Photocomunity Von Dennis Siebert

© Photocomunity Von Dennis Siebert

The first time I put my feet in this incredibly beautiful and inspirational old Saxon city (December 2010), I was completely stunned. May I say this is the nicest Baroque city in northern/central Europe? I would say Yes –with all due respect to Prague and Saint Petersburg…

Dresden is well worth a visit at any time of the year. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, over 2.5 million visitors come to the city. They’re drawn by the Striezelmarkt –one of Germany’s oldest and loveliest Christmas markets. It’s named after a pastry called “striezel,” a forerunner of the Christstollen –Dresden’s famous Christmas fruitcake.

The famous Christmas fruit cake is baked here right before visitors’ eyes. Children can knead the dough for their own cookies as well. The Striezelmarkt offers a host of traditional products. Wooden pyramids, incense burning figurines and nutcrackers from the Erzgebirge Mountains are especially popular as souvenirs. Traditional Christmas cookies, baked right at the market, are for sale. Children can also mix their own cookie dough. And the traditional Striezelmarkt wares are also here –the pyramids, incense figurines, and nutcrackers local to the region.

The rest of the city is also replete with cultural delights, with fifteen museums filled with works of art collected by 500 years of Saxon nobility. The refurbished Albertinum Museum contains works by old and modern masters (Raphael, Juan Gris)

It would take weeks to see all of Dresden’s art treasures. The palace alone houses 15 different museums with exhibits collected by the rulers of Saxony over the course of five centuries. In the Albertinum, the diverse collections ranging from antiquity to the modern era can be seen under one roof. Bearing in mind the Yuletide (Christmas) message of peace, a visit to the Bundeswehr’s Military History Museum can also certainly be recommended.

Just for the history, there is a particular relationship with Coventry in UK. Along with its twin city Coventry, Dresden was one of the first two cities to twin with a foreign city after World War II. The cities became twins after World War II in an act of reconciliation, as they had suffered incisive destructions from bombings considered to be both disproportional.

While breathing the Christmas touching atmosphere in the streets, do not (ever!) forget to :

• visit the Frauenkirche, an outstanding bijou of German religious architecture, and one of the Europe’s most exceptional examples of the Baroque period;

• gulp a sip of typical Glühwein, kind of mulled wine –since winter is really really cold in Dresden, -10 to -15°C at the very least !

The garbage orchestra from Paraguay

« The world sends us garbage – we send back music ». That’s the motto of Favio Chavez. He opened a music school in Cateura on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital Asunción. There’s no money for instruments – but no shortage of refuse in the neighbourhood.

Gomez turns the garbage into violins, guitars, cellos and other musical instruments. The orchestra he started has had invitations to perform around the world. A documentary film about the project called « Landfill Harmonic » has received backing from crowd funding.

Cateura exists virtually on top of a landfill site where residents make their livings recycling and selling other people’s rubbish.

Situated along the banks of the Paraguay River, 1,500 tons of waste is dumped in the area each day.
But despite the critical levels of pollution and the threat to their health residents of Cateura manage to find the most positive of uses for the rubbish.

Inspired to do something to help the inpoverished families, Chávez began using the trash in the landfill to create instruments for the children.

« One day it occurred to me to teach music to the children of the recyclers and use my personal instruments, » explains 36 year-old Chávez, who worked as an ecological technician at the landfill.

« But it got to the point that there were too many students and not enough supply. So that’s when I decided to experiment and try to actually create a few. »

Last Train Home. A hard life metaphor in China

Last Train Home (2009), directed by Lixin Fan, is a Chinese documentary, or possibly a docudrama. According to the film, over 200 million factory workers, who have left their homes to work in the city, attempt to return home for the Chinese New Year holiday. The film shows a couple’s conditions of slavery at work and the family life fragmentation, in the (vain) intent that their children can achieve education to access a better life.

When you ‘undergo’ the film that keeps track of the effort of the Chinese for export, it comes to my mind what Deng Xiaoping evoked: « It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. » It is true that in 1978, at the beginning of Deng’s reforms, China exported in a year what it now sells abroad in one day. But this success in catching mice – in other words, the transformation of China into a global largest exporter – is being done through an unsustainable human and social cost.

Last Train Home is touching, really inspiring, and documentary film-making at its best. Director Lixin Fan forces no comment, on no occasion partisan, as he tracks the lives of two Chinese migrant workers over a gap of two years. The camera is merely an observer- it’s this kind of focused observational film-making that makes this film so moving and poignant.

Inside Job – White collar mafia

Inside Job (2010), American documentary by Charles Ferguson on the financialization of the economy that led to the crisis of 2008 and that just received the Oscar for best documentary.

Beyond the director’s unrelenting demonstration, and the very accomplished mise en scene, the framework gravitates around film noir where mafia plots — this time white collar — are replacing  one another. Relying on true images, Ferguson’s work shows that deregulation of the economy, which began in 1980 with Reagan, was continued by Clinton, then by George W. Bush and now by Obama — the last avatar of a president who has forgotten his promises to reform Wall Street.

A lukewarm record of greed that caused the collapse of Wall Street.
On the downside, the movie oversimplifies the causes of the crisis. It focuses primarily on deregulation and Wall Street’s incentive structure and culture of reckless risk-taking and lax morals and ethics. It also briefly mentions poor risk assessments by credit rating agencies and predatory lending, without really explaining what it was or getting into any depth on the matter.

Sub-prime lending was mentioned only in a very cursory manner. There was no mention of the Clinton Administration’s push for sub-prime lending to expand mortgage loans to low and moderate income people.

There was no mention of the Federal Reserve’s contribution to the housing bubble as a result of its policy to ease credit conditions in the early 2000s to soften the impact of the collapse of the dot com bubble and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There was no mention of the shadow banking system; how it contributed to the crisis and how it greatly amplified the losses.

The film has the merit of showing how little has changed the U.S. financial world, despite Obama’s rhetoric. Rather than being held accountable for their role in the collapse, many of its architects remain in key positions of power. Recommended.

Bed sports for Christmas

I cannot resist the temptation to share the video that my adorable Click-Clack-Chuc-Chuc forwarded me a few days ago under the title “Sport en chambre” (which somewhat means “Sports at Room”).

It’s in fact Birth-day, a very funny composition, full of finesse, which the staging is definitely inspired by Mozart.

Performance was ‘committed’ by the Nederlands Dans Theater under the direction of its former (but always associated) art director, the famous Czech dancer and choreographer Jiří Kylián. It is watermarked by his Six Dances, a sort of facetious tribute to Mozart and the nonchalance of the Baroque period. Birth-Day was inspired in part by Sabine Kupferberg, who is one of the performers, as well as Jiří Kylián’s wife. The music is by Mozart, the dancers (who play in real time while the scene is performed in fast motion) wear period costumes and wigs. Here the duo recreates an endearing naughty bed scene.



Also, a frantic Charlie Chaplin-ish scene, always in line with Six Dances, is where two dancers are preparing a birthday cake competition that ends in smackdown.



That’s a great fun. Judge for yourself and enjoy it!

Cold Souls by Sophie Barthes, a refreshing proposal of surreal comedy

>> Haga click aquí para la versión en Castellano

Cold Souls is an off-beat intelligent, imaginative story that combines elements of magical realism, drama and mystery. It’s hard to describe this  surreal comedy. It doesn’t really fit in any specific category. It’s funny and sad at the same time.

Paul Giamatti delivers a beautiful and credible performance as, well, Paul Giamatti. Mastering a broad range of emotions and making his character delightfully amusing and sometimes heartbreaking. Exasperated with his general outlook on life, he does some research into the company who removes the soul from those like him. David Strathairn is the doctor at the soul removal clinic and he plays the knowledgeable, caring professional to perfection.

At different times, this one will remind of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, and Total Recall, it never really delivers the depth or entertainment value of any of these. It’s almost as if first time feature director Sophie Barthes has so many ideas that it became more important to include them all, rather than refine the best. The tone reminded me of Kafka, Julio Cortazar and at times Woody Allen and Kaufman.

Some might believe it is a science fiction film. I would rather talk of an existentialist film, a delightful chronicle of the absurd in the style of Albert Camus, dressed with Anton Chekhov sauce.

Go and see. Your soul will thank you.


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