For 91 Days
we lived in Palermo. The capital of Sicily is as famous for its cuisine as its dark ties to the Italian underworld. But food and the Mafia hardly begin to describe this incredible city, which is Italy’s fifth-largest. We had three months to explore the culture, history, people, churches and museums of Palermo, and could have used a few more. Start reading from the beginning
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Jürgen and I pulled into Palermo at 6pm on a balmy Saturday evening in September, and were at a pizzeria exactly seventeen minutes later, forks in hand, napkins tucked carelessly into collars. Suitcases could be unpacked later; sitting down to an authentic Sicilian pizza was something we’d been looking forward to for too long.
Rather than have Chucky, our ten-year-old French Bulldog, endure another plane flight alone in the cargo hold, we drove from Rome to Palermo in a rental car. It was a long haul, but allowed us to see the mountains of Calabria and the northern coast of Sicily, and also provided an initial lesson in coping with Italian drivers.
The uneven, twisting alleyways which dominate the ancient center of Palermo are charming, but a navigational nightmare. Funny, then, that the dead center of the historic district is an impeccably laid-out intersection, and one of Europe’s earliest examples of urban planning.
There are things in life which you shouldn’t form an opinion on until after you’ve tried them. A new city, perhaps, or a job. Movies, acquaintances. Things that require familiarity before a sound judgment can be made. Arancine, however, do not fall into this category. As soon as I heard them described, I knew they’d be my new favorite food of all time. Didn’t even need to taste one.
North of the Piazza Verdi, the impossible alleys and medieval monuments of Old Palermo give way to New Palermo, which feels like an entirely different city. Modern buildings, wide streets, usable sidewalks, fashionable shops and trees. In the ancient center of Palermo, trees are rarity; our dog had to adjust to peeing on cement (she didn’t seem to mind).
Palermo, at least the port-side Vucciria where we lived, is loud. There were times I couldn’t believe the noise. Music was played at incredible volumes by our neighbors, including the 6-year-old below us who danced every night on his balcony in his underwear. People, standing close enough to kiss, shout at each other, because that’s just the way they talk. Perhaps they’re going deaf. That’s it, first impression #1: People in Palermo are going deaf.
Near Palermo’s Quattro Canti is the Church of Santa Caterina, whose modest exterior belies the Baroque magnificence waiting inside.
Construction on the church began in 1566, but the interior decoration dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, when Baroque was at its height, and the Catholic church was encouraging intricate detail and emotional themes.
Stepping into the neighborhood just behind the somber bulk of Palermo’s Cathedral feels like entering another country. An Arabic one, to be precise. Il Capo is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, and has managed to retain a distinctly Moorish influence in its streets and market.
On the streets of Palermo, the only things which stick out more than the ancient palaces are big Sicilian bellies. The sight of obese men puttering around on Vespas is a daily amusement, and even many of the toddlers have a few pounds on me. Of course, it’s all perfectly understandable. Along with pizza, pasta and ice cream, Sicilians turn out to be masters of fried food.
Whether winding through the narrow alleys of Il Capo, or pushing past tourists along the claustrophobic Vittorio Emmanuele, the massive Cattedrale di Palermo appears suddenly and always comes as a shock.