Palermo, Sicily: A long walk in the clouds

by Arlene Rafiq
Palermo-architecture 01

by Arlene Rafiq

I have been to most parts of Italy but that was thirty years ago. I haven’t been to Sicily because when I hear the name, I only think of the Godfather stories of crime, hate and revenge and Don Vito Corleone’s famous quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold” so it wasn’t on my bucket list. However, thirty years ago was a long time, people change, circumstances differ and I have also grown mature and had travelled far and wide so now I knew better. My friend talked about Palermo, a city in the island of Sicily, I was intrigued. I have heard about it in passing, have not been there and have not heard of any friends or relatives who had been there so it was quite intriguing to find out about this place.

My initial plan was to be in Germany for the Christmas markets but I couldn’t possibly stay that long in a freezing temperature. I was waiting for any travel opportunities south so I could make the most of my vacation time.

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After a few days in Bavaria and Munich, my friend suggested a week in Palermo. At that time I was going to say yes, no matter what, as my body couldn’t take the weather. There was of course a bit of apprehension because of the crime stories but I thought “I am a grown up woman, I can take the challenge”. Off we flew to Palermo.

As soon as the plane touched down, my worries disappeared. I was telling myself seize the moment, appreciate the cool but sunny weather, have fun and not worry about anything. We stayed in an apartment with enough rooms for a family of six right in the heart of the Main Square or piazza overlooking the first opera house in Europe, the Teatro Massimo Vittorio di Emanuele. Looking from the outside the teatro is gigantic… I thought it would be awesome to watch an opera and of course the chance to enter and see for myself the interior of this magnificent teatro dressed to the nines. Bought tickets and made my wish come true. That was my first activity.

Looking at the guidebook and map, everything in the historic area of Palermo is pretty much in walking distance. Besides most of the sites we want to visit are all here. So the plan of renting a car was of no use as all the roads leading to most of the sites are barricaded in the early afternoon. Even if it was allowed the alleys are too narrow anyways to rent a car or you will end up parking it somewhere far away or hard to find.

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Palermo is a site to behold, no matter where I turn, I find cobblestone alleys, chapels, fountains, incredibly beautiful churches and basilicas or building structures that fills anyone’s heart with awe and you are purely in a world of your own to waste any time dreaming of anything else but enjoying to the max. My first impression was it felt like I was doing a pilgrimage as I plan to visit as many churches as possible during this visit. The most imposing architectural wonders in Palermo are the churches dating back the middle ages. As we were walking on the busy street, we passed about a hundred metres more on the crossroads four tall and impressive buildings called Quattro Canti. This is to me is like the centre of Palermo. It became our landmark because we came back to this crossroad so many times after going to places of interest.

After the tiring walk we sat in a coffee shop at the piazza to drink latte macchiato and a piece of Cannoli which is the most tempting of all the Sicilian pastries and also had freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice watching people go by. Just relaxing and engrossed in looking at people, both locals and tourists, loving life without qualms was already an entertainment. The day went by swiftly and the walking street suddenly turned congested with hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder walking or checking on the various vendor tables that were installed on both sides of the road. It also turned dark so quickly because at 5pm the sky was as dark as midnight. The following morning was welcomed with enthusiasm as I received a message from an excited friend suggesting to include the Chiesa Della di Martorana knowing I am interested in art and culture. It was a fifteen minutes walk to reach the World Heritage church but it was all worth it because what I saw was spectacular art form from different artistic styles. We stayed inside the church for at least close to an hour to take photographs and to view the colourful mosaic posts, walls and ceiling which was breathtaking. Just a few steps from the Cathedral is another World Heritage site, the church of St Cataldo, an example of Arab-Norman architecture.

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The church obviously has Islamic and Byzantine features as is evident in the red domes on the roofs and the ornate decoration typical of Byzantine art. The church is very simple and despite the statue of Jesus on the cross at the altar, it felt like entering a mosque because of its simplicity.

Continuing my historic tour on foot, just around the city centre is the Piazza Pretoria or also known as the Square of Shame. I thought it was beautiful, quite imposing and didn’t see why it was called the Square of Shame. The visitor’s guide said that in 1573 the government bought a fountain intended to be for the Palace of San Clemente in Florence. Obviously, it didn’t happen because homes were demolished to give way to this project and the fountain was installed on the square. The fountain was the central point surrounded by nude statues. Historical records say that the square since the 18th century became a representation of the corrupt government and nudities so they nicknamed it the Square of Shame.

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Quite a distance from Piazza Pretoria, is the Palazzo Real of Palermo. The main palace was not available for viewing when we came as it is now being used as a government office but we were lucky to see the Capella Palatina. It was used as the Royal Chapel of the Norman Kings of Sicily. The interior of the chapel is filled with elegant mosaic. It will take a historian to give an accurate description of the chapel which is of Byzantine architecture. But Islamic and Christian influences can be seen vividly in its art form. It was awe inspiring to say the least.

Two more days and we are out of this spectacular city. After a few days of strolling, sightseeing and being with locals, I could already tell that the people of Palermo are friendly and accommodating. They genuinely enjoy life and are not letting anything get in their way. I had that same feeling… it was contagious! That love for life is seen vividly in a market place. Nothing gives me more pleasure than being in a market and to me a Sicilian market like the ”Mercato della Vucirria” completed my day as a foodie. We were forewarned though that this market is the watering hole of pickpockets and snatchers but when we got there we felt safe. It was lunchtime and the smell of grilled fish was enough to pull us to a table. We had steamed sea bass with just olive oil and squeeze of lemon and pasta aglio Olio. After a hearty lunch, our opera singing waiter disclosed that the area used to be a notorious mafia den.

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Palermo-cooking

Wanting to sample more of the real Sicilian lifestyle, we decided to go on another market adventure… go where the locals go. On foot we went to Mercato Ballaro. To our disappointment, there were no activities so we sat in a family owned cafe and had cappuccino and a piece of pastry to share. It was almost ten in the morning so we reckoned that this was probably not a real marketplace. Before we even had our first sip of coffee, the place suddenly turned wild with throngs of people setting up their tables, singing or talking loudly. There was excitement and in less than thirty minutes, the market was there. Table after table of fresh produce like vegetables, herbs, olives and many other items are on sale. Vendors taking turn screaming at the top of their lungs calling attention to their products, such as fish and seafood. It didn’t disappoint after all. This market is a cornucopia of interesting activities and a happy place of exciting mix of people.

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My eyes feasted on a lot of food. If you are adventurous and have a strong stomach there are a lot of dishes you can try and one of the most popular delicacy is Stigghiola. Just the look of it, it can be disturbing especially when I found out it is made from either veal or lamb intestines, grilled to perfection and eaten on a stick. Another traditional Sicilian food is Frittola. If you are game enough to order this food, the vendor opens a basket covered with cloth and digs a mixture of greasy looking animal organs and then put in bread. Sicilians find this very delicious… hesitantly; I bought a sandwich upon prodding of the young vendor. I tried a bite. It wasn’t bad but knowing it’s pure cholesterol I decided to get rid of it in a subtle way. We walked the huge market with lots of excitement, then it started to rain. The bad weather didn’t hamper our spirits a bit… we continued strolling and went through the various eateries. We found all kinds of food, but we didn’t even know what to eat first. The rain had us seated in a corner street food area. We ordered marinated sardines in olive oil because it seems that this is their famous dish, sfincione a bread that looks like pizza but never make the mistake of calling it pizza… not to offend the Sicilians. It is bread that is spongy with olive oil on top and fresh tomato, a plate of pasta fruitta mare and fried calamari.

One thing I’ve noticed though… the Sicilians have a good sense of humour…

They seem to be all happy campers but they can be hot tempered when it comes to their food. It’s a big deal to them to be appreciated and to see customers enjoy their food. Appreciating the chef came easy to me as the food that was served to us was delicious to the last bite.

We spent our days wandering long hours through the streets of Palermo, chatting and being entertained by locals in the markets, going to museums, entering and appreciating the architecture of churches and almost all the buildings. Enjoying the food, the friendly locals and making new friends. Being in awe at everything we see, touch and feel. Despite the exhaustion, I went to sleep every night looking forward to get up and start all over again. That is how incredibly wonderful Palermo was to me. There is more to see in this beautiful city but in the mean time I just want to say Arrivederci Palermo until next time.

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