Lost In Palermo
With its mix of grit and grandeur, the Sicilian capital has something interesting to offer wherever you wander
Part Greek, part Phoenician, part Roman, part Arab, the city of Palermo is strong stuff. Snugly spectacular in its bay setting at the foot of Sicily’s Monte Pellegrino, it looks, as a garibaldino* approaching it from the sea once said, like a city imagined by a poetic child. Colourful relics of Arab domination mix with the Norman and Baroque, so the back of a building might look entirely different from its front or sides.
This has always struck me as impeccably gallant: an acceptance of this, a pragmatic incorporation of that. Beauty, rot and salvage. Renaissance palaces next to hovels, more than 100 churches and oratories and the domed roofs of one-time mosques—all reminders of countless invaders.
Sunbathing one afternoon in the roofless remains of a Greek temple that sits by the pool at the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, I noticed that someone had drilled holes through its ancient columns to fix an electric plug for a minibar. Momentarily I was outraged. But as a cloud of cabbage whites [a type of butterfly] idled past an American supine on his lounger, time thickened with that drugging Sicilian intensity that comes on as though gigantic pyres have been lit on the surrounding hills, and I lost track of my indignation.
In the hot months, you notice the city’s rampant dereliction more. Streets and squares in the historic centre, still shattered from the 1943 bombardments, unpack their rubble like the innards of pillows, leaving little trails even into the famous La Vucciria market with its stalls selling multicoloured Slinkies and pigs’ trotters.
In the collapsed Piazza Garraffello you’ll find an anatomically immaculate, gigantic heart graffitied on the wall opposite what was once an elegant bank. Beyond a stretch of myrtle hedges off the Via Squarcialupo, outside the Conservatorio di Musica Vincenzo Bellini, students sit on 17th-century stone slabs, murmuring to one another, heads touching.
Where am I now? I’m lost. There may be a lovely simplicity to the old city’s layout—two straight roads dividing everything into four quarters—but my three maps each tell me something different, especially when the streets condense in the south-eastern Albergheria quarter into alleys where teenage boys race their boxer dogs alongside pimped-up scooters. Here I saw a man leading a harness-free, sun-tired horse into a dim Moorish courtyard, his fingers scratching its nose.
Horses are everywhere in Palermo. On the motorways in the early hours of the morning they are raced illegally, the survivors left to gently plod tourists in comfy little traps to and from the Catacombe dei Cappuccini, where the embalmed corpses of monks and city prelates hang from hooks.
One such tour, through the shabby grandeur of the streets radiating from the Quattro Canti—a grand, rounded intersection of elaborate balconies and cornices—which should have lasted 30 minutes, becomes an hour (roadworks, the milling of pedestrians). A furious argument rages between driver and tourist, and the police get involved, making flamboyant gestures in everyone’s direction. You feel sure it will end with a swipe on someone’s temple. But as usual it dissipates to nothing, overlooked, as everything in this city is, by stone saints and shrines to the Virgin, who is to be found even in the knife shop off the Piazza Caracciolo with her eyes raised in a peasant’s ecstasy, surrounded by a halo of candles and meat cleavers.
The remains of an ancient Greek temple stand next to the swimming pool at the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea. (Photo coutesy of The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea)
My friends Luca and Domenico tell me that whenever they pass a derelict building in the city, they feel a mounting rage. To the English, such a thing is an absurdly romantic prop of the past, but to a Sicilian it is an expression of the foulest moral decay. The mafia, for so long in control of the construction industry here, cares only for quick-buck new buildings, not old. They would raze the entire city to the ground if they could, rages Domenico, and stick up a forest of brutalist high-rises, like they already have in what remains of the olive and lemon groves that enclosed the old city walls. Mafia, mafia, mafia. It is the secret litany of every exchange.
In the afternoon, off the Piazza della Kalsa, I watch the evening begin. At 4 p.m. come the swallows in a rapid, swooping carnival. At 5 p.m. a man starts frying cockles in a cauldron. At 6 p.m. another man makes his chickpea pancakes for a few cents each, and people queue to transport bags of them away on Vespas. At 7 p.m. fresh swordfish is put on ice, and braziers are lit outside restaurants in readiness for early diners.
From the open doors of a nearby church comes the sound of choir practice. A waiter tells me that this is the choir of a priest once cherished for his ability to heal, for the laying on of hands. Apparently, some years ago he had gone to prison in connection with celebrating Mass with a mafia fugitive. “He has changed,” says the waiter solemnly. “Now he is sad.”
Struck by their seriousness in contrast to the wacky Neapolitans, I once asked Luca if he thought Sicilians were pessimistic. “Oh no,” he said, carefully shaking his head, “not pessimistic. But our wisdom lies in expecting the worst.” You can feel this grief in the churches. The statue of a spindly Christ with deep welts in his knees in La Gancia on the Via Alloro. The fake head in a glass case a couple of chapels along, made to look like Christ immersed in a fathomless sleep. In Palermo they love nothing more than a stricken Jesus, and a cherub, thighs rippling with so much fat you can scarcely believe that mere cement keeps the creature stuck on.
Even the food here tastes extra visceral. The spleen sandwiches. The caponata made with aubergine the colour of deep bruises, simmered until its skin eases away like a stocking in your mouth, leaving just the tanned flesh that feels slightly like cannibalism. Wild mulberries in the Ballarò market. Still-bleeding tuna, squashed, dripping figs and honey as rust-dark as henna.
Once, on a flight to the city during a blustery February, the woman across from me recited the rosary from take-off to landing with only a break to buy a scratch card from the stewardess. “In Naples,” Domenico says, “all hell is sure to break loose, but they know it will be OK. In Palermo, we just pray all hell doesn’t break loose in the first place.”
Palermo's mix of architectural styles is a reminder of the city's countless invaders. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Drive 30 minutes out of the city in spring to the fishing village of Sferracavallo, and eat fresh sea-urchin spaghetti while watching the multicoloured fishing boats rocking so intensely beyond the sharp rocks that when you get up to leave you walk with a sailor’s roll. A little closer to town is the resort of Mondello, where wealthy palermitani built elegant weekend villas in the early 1900s, and where from June to October crowds of school-free teenagers buy ice cream at the seafront gelateria Latte Pa. Fourteen-year-old girls with salt-mussed hair snaking down their slim backs stand about imperiously. The boys hold themselves more shyly, infinitely younger-seeming. In Sicily, says Luca, the girls are a nightmare. “Mio dio,” he sighs, “the bowing and scraping required, the declarations of eternal love—really they think they smell like paradise, it’s just ridiculous.” I console him with ice cream flavoured a tooth-raspingly sweet double-caramel nougat.
“Better than Naples?” Luca challenges. I nod. “Let them have their pizzas,” he mutters.
Ice cream is worshipped in Palermo, where many claim it was invented. In betting shops, hardened gamblers stand in front of TV screens with eyes screwed up in anxiety, licking frantically on a cone. In café after café, businessmen thrash out deals over hilariously fluted, whipped-creamed nostra coppas. At Ilardo, moments from the Piazza Santo Spirito, or at La Preferita further into town, mothers and daughters lean against walls silently eating brioche buns filled with mint choc chip.
After such a cold binge, the warm glow of Palermo’s stone hits the eye anew. The city was once known as the granary of ancient Rome—wheat was grown in vast estates outside the walls—and it’s as though the shimmering crop long ago cast the whole place a golden yellow.
There is nothing for it but to walk as far as your limp will take you, through the Piazza Magione with its lushly flowered cloister tucked into one corner, and marvel at how in the middle of this crammed city you can suddenly feel as though you are in some remote Persian village. Then out on to busy Via Guiseppe Garibaldi, past the cabinetmakers’ workshops and garages, faded palaces, and emporiums piled with panamas and trilbies (how Palermo adores a hat). Only here and in Rajasthan have I seen shops entirely devoted to men-ding the wheels on suitcases or the rope soles on canvas shoes.
Mondello Beach lures people out of the city during the hot summer months. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Palermo pulls you along with smells of roasting coffee and rotting boxes of oleanders. Street football games divide to let you pass, and housewives lower baskets from their high apartments down to fishmongers, sarcastically haggling five storeys up into the windless air.
This is the world’s best city to be lost in, the best place to be aimless. Sooner or later you’ll find a main street, or recognize the man who sells dried persimmons or the museum with the wall painting by the Inquisition-tormented sailor accused of romancing a mermaid.
This is a city that becomes familiar far faster than others, and with such a weirdly vivid intimacy it’s as though you had been here before, and each step and turn is already a memory.
*A follower of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the mid-19th century Italian general and nationalist
Lodging: Gorgeously romantic and elegant, BB22 lies behind a rundown square whose few remaining residents play tango records out of their windows at night and passers-by stop to dance. Via Pantelleria 22 (Angolo Largo Cavalieri di Malta), doubles from 110 euros, bb22.it.
Tucked away in the ancient Arab quarter, Chez Jasmine has a little roof terrace overlooking a church dotted with hundreds of swallows. Vicolo dei Nassaiuoli 15, there are only two rooms, priced from 75 euros, chezjasmine.biz.
Dining: Trattoria Torremuzza serves fresh swordfish cooked on braziers in the street, and a caponata with flaked almonds worth crossing the city for.
Walk to Ilardo around the corner for ice cream afterward. Via Torremuzza 21, about 40 euros for two.
Two minutes’ walk from the Teatro Massimo, the small Trattoria Del Massimo serves the best ragu or spaghetti with seafood. Plazza Guiseppe Verdi 25/26, about 40 euros for two.
What to Do: Via Chiavettieri is the best street for people watching. It comes to life after 5 p.m., when bar owners put out their tables and start serving wine and olives. By 11 p.m. the street is packed. The anti-pizzo (extortion) movement runs deeply personal walking tours about the history of the mafia in Sicily and the civil anti-mafia movement in Palermo that is finally rebelling against it, addiopizzotravel.it.
1 euro was Rs 80.64 at the time of going to press.