Once upon a time, Syracuse was the most mightiest city-state in the world. Ruled by famous tyrants like Dionysius the Elder, and home to Archimedes, one of history’s greatest thinkers, the power of Syracuse extended far beyond the Greek Empire, to which it belonged. The city’s influence waned only during the Arab occupation of Sicily, when the capital was moved to Palermo.
Among Palermo’s many qualities is an air of mystery, especially towards dusk. Perhaps it’s due to the city’s deep and often troubled history, perhaps the unpolished instability of its streets. Bars can disappear from one day to the next, and new graffiti springs up frequently. Battered doors which were locked yesterday are open tonight, revealing strange courtyards. This city would make a perfect setting for a chilling film noir.
Set atop a mountain overlooking Trapani, in Sicily’s northwestern corner, the town of Erice has a history rooted in mythology. We spent a few hours getting lost on the uneven stone roads and tiny alleys which curve senselessly about the town, and felt as though we’d stepped back in time. If only the weather had played along.
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.
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.
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.