Our impressions of places we visit are shaped by the ones we leave behind. Sometimes, we delight in their similarities — driving through Wales, I am reminded of why Welsh missionaries, halfway across the world and almost two centuries ago, chose to settle down in Cherrapunjee, an hour away from my hometown Shillong in Meghalaya. The landscape is startlingly alike, with desolate, craggy hills entombed in perpetual rain-cloud dampness, while both their cultures are resonant with folk stories and music. Often, we relish the differences. As I step out of my shatteringly early (and delayed) flight from Gatwick at Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport, my faith in the world is restored by a glimpse of sparkling blue skies and honey-gold sunshine. Back in London, it has been raining every day for sixteen weeks. I’m travelling with Luigi, whose Sicilian family immigrated like so many others to the north of Italy. In turn, he left for England’s shores.
For the rest of the afternoon we seek the sun like svelte Mayans — on the forty-five-minute shuttle bus journey to the town centre, and while walking around Palermo’s wide streets flanked by tall, elegant wooden-shuttered buildings. Our landlady, owner of the small, artistic B&B ZC (and Mucia, the wizened old resident cat), recommends a place nearby for lunch. Through a block of twisting alleys, past tiny bars where people stand and drink their coffees and nibble on cannoli (crisp rolled pastry filled with creamy ricotta embedded with chocolate bits or candied fruit), a sunlit square opens where Antica Focacceria San Francesco has been doling out Sicilian snacks since 1832. Luigi settles for a tennis ball-sized arancini (‘little orange’; deep-fried rice balls with a gooey mozzarella- and- ragu-peas centre) while I brave a pane con la milza — fried calf-spleen strips and grated caciocavallo cheese sandwich.
Luigi lifts an eyebrow.
“It’s food,” I say virtuously. “Besides, when else am I going to eat an organ I didn’t even know cows had?”
Admittedly, the spleen has a strong, meaty flavour but it’s filling and salty enough to make me gulp down multiple granita gelsi (blackberries blended with ice and sugar).
Over the next few days, through our wanderings around Palermo, the sprawling, bustling capital of autonomous Sicily as well as the Province of Palermo, we find that the city is held together by magic. Almost three thousand years of history converge on its streets and achingly beautiful buildings. It meanders at the crossroads of Arab-Norman-Byzantine influence, evident in its food and towering mosaic-emblazoned domed structures of which the Cattedrale, built in 1184 with many later additions and renovations, is an astounding example. This extraordinary structure, replete with arches, geometric patterns and tapering cupolas, stands as testimony to the city’s tumultuous past, harried by Arab and Norman invasions and conquests from AD 831 through to the twelfth century. On one solitary pillar is an Islamic prayer engraving that survived when a mosque (also built on a chapel) was torn down to make way for the Cattedrale. Interspersed amidst all this are remnants of 1920s and ’30s Fascist architecture — bold, masculine and strong — and the odd detail, such as manhole covers stating their Fascist year of manufacture. The city is charmingly frayed around the edges; the polished veneer you see in Rome and Florence has rubbed away to reveal a ragged, jubilant heart, one that’s struggling to leave behind its mafia-ridden past. On several walls are official posters supporting businessmen who report to the authorities those who ask for il pizzo (protection money).
One evening, while we dine at Da Toto, a tiny roadside joint in the noisy, shabby, shady bar-studded Vucciria quarter, serving the freshest, cheapest seafood in the city, I share a secret thought with Luigi.
“Palermo reminds me of Shillong.”
It’s surprising enough to stop him from taking another mouthful of pasta nero di sepia (squid ink spaghetti that’s marvellously and, surprisingly, mild in flavour).
He allows me to explain. I tell him that Marketo della Vucciria (one of the four markets in the city) which we wandered through earlier that afternoon, teeming with fresh, local produce, odorous fish stalls, hagglers and coaxers, was like Iew Duh, the traditional bazaar of my hometown, built in similarly higgledy disarray.
“These boys,” I point to the youngsters riding their motorbikes to and fro relentlessly on the road next to us, “are what my mum would call khynnah dakaid — bad boys of the neighbourhood. Noisy and harmless.”
Luigi protests and says these things can be found in almost every city in the world. I say there’s something else, something less tangible, about the place that strikes me as familiar. Just then my pasta con le sarde (rich, spicy sardine pasta) arrives as does a refilled pitcher of chilled house wine and our conversation wavers in the face of such delectable distraction.
It is easy to walk around Palermo — to the northeast end is the sea, while the city centre, around which all the sights cluster densely, is marked by Quattro Canti (Four Corners). This intersection is surrounded by a circle of curvilinear buildings, gorgeous stone façades that disappear up into the sky. Before getting to this, we loiter around Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, with our cups of tart, succulent granita di limone, bought from the perpetually busy Caffé Opera — innovatively named to mark its location adjacent to Teatro Massimo where, as everyone knows, the final scenes of The Godfather: Part III were filmed. Built between 1875 and 1897 to commemorate the unification of Italy, the structure is apparently, after Paris and Vienna, the third-largest nineteenth-century opera house in Europe. Here, even a Wednesday afternoon has the languid, leisurely feel of a weekend — people smoke at graceful Art Deco tabacchino, a glamorously clad woman sips at a tiny espresso china cup, youngsters canoodle in leafy corners, a delivery man precariously balances a multitude of boxes on his Vespa. Despite a population of almost a million, Palermo has the relaxed air of a small town.
We saunter by Piazza Pretoria with its joyously nubile and naked nymphs, duck into a nameless trattoria for slices of Sicilian pizza — topped with potatoes, breadcrumbs or anchovies — and gawk, for an inordinately long time, at the mosaic work in Cappella Palatina, hidden within the lofty walls of the Palazzo dei Normanni. At this time of year, we’re one of a small handful of visitors and the chapel is almost all ours. It is resplendent. The walls tell Biblical stories, detailed and nuanced in colour and shade as rich, intricate oil paintings. Later, we head into Via Bara all’Olivella in the newer, more posh part of the city. At night, the quarter is lit up by trailing fairy lights, a restaurant or bar spilling over on to the sidewalk at every step. We bargain for terracotta pottery, hanging in bright, swirling rows. I have put thoughts of Shillong behind, convinced it was a fleeting feeling. Then, we wander into a dimly lit crafts shop. What catches my eye are several dramatic miniature scenes carved in wood — a fruit-seller, an old man smoking a pipe outside his home — they’re lovely little representations of life on Palermo’s streets. Overhead is a horse mobile, on the side a stack of hand-painted cards depicting characters from Palermo’s eight-hundred-year-old tradition of Opera dei Pupi (puppet theatre). Here, we meet Pepe, who is part of a trio of artists that runs the shop. He is in his sixties, with wispy white hair, and a wonderful smile. We get talking — turns out he’d lived in London for many years and then returned, “to do something at home”.
“But look at the state of this place,” he says. All the while his fingers paint wood pieces that he fits together like a jigsaw to conjure a landscape. “It is barely moving anywhere, no jobs for us here, nothing to do, like we are forgotten.” While I register this common refrain — how profoundly Shillong, and India’s ‘Northeast’ has felt the same — his friend Antonio walks in, a large chocolate gelato in hand.
“I thought you were on a diet,” laughs Pepe.
With suitable hand flourishes, Antonio says, “Yes, yes. I’ve stopped eating bread. Gelato… well, it’s like water.”
One hot morning, with roaring summer waiting around the corner, we’re on a bus to Monreale, about eight kilometres southeast of Palermo. The landscape flashes past, barren hills slowly browning in the sun, flashes of glittering sea beyond. In our hands we hold a packet of pistachios and freshly made panelle, deep-fried gramflour fritters. The bus driver, complete with elaborate moustache, strikes up a conversation with a young lady in the front seat ahead of us. They chat like old friends. Perhaps that’s what they are. The intonations are deeper, slower, different from the Italian of the north. Luigi whispers into my ear, translating their dialogue. It starts off small and somewhat petty. He complains about his kids, how they don’t listen to anyone, and gradually he gets more grandiose — they talk of their region’s political problems, about their homeland.
“Nobody wants us,” he says, “not even Africa.”
Sicily is a fragment of a country they don’t really feel they belong to, their past has been too different and their present circumstances a result of an unconcerned government. Talk switches to the upcoming elections.
“Whether we vote, not vote, at the end, there will be only two idiots left,” our driver says. “You and me.”
Monreale is perched on a hill, overlooking a splendid valley — ‘La Conca d’oro’ (The Golden Shell) — filled with almond, olive and orange trees. It’s a small town, with a single main street, and life, you can tell, once used to centre around its magnificent cathedral. Considered the finest piece of Norman architecture in Sicily, the Cattedrale di Monreale was built by William II in 1172, inspired by a divine vision of the Virgin Mary. The interior, adorned by mosaicists from Venice and Sicily, is a shimmering canvas for stories from the Old Testament — the creation of the world, the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden — while the dome cradles a stunning portrait of Christ. Around us the walls leap up to the sky, gilded in gold, recounting parables and miracles and, on that day, they also functioned as the theatrical backdrop for a German choral group, near the altar, gloriously performing Haydn’s The Creation. It is a story, as evident from the musical structure of the oratorio, of constant destruction and renewal — a fitting metaphor for the island, and, half the world away, my home. I realise that it’s what they share, these troubled spaces of the earth. An apocalypse that is never complete.
There are no direct flights from India to Palermo but flights operate from Mumbai and Delhi to Rome from where you can fly to Palermo on EasyJet or Blu-Express. A bus operates from the airport to the city centre.
You will need a Schengen Visa from the Embassy of Italy in Delhi or Consulates General of Italy in Mumbai and Kolkata. Check vfs-italy.co.in for more details.
Palermo is a great city for walking as its main sights are all around the centre. Alternatively, the orange city buses run frequently but are often crowded and slow due to traffic. Tickets can be bought from tobacconists or booths at the main bus station. There are two minibus services — Linea Gialla and Linea Rossa — that operate in the city centre. The 45-min bus ride to Monreale begins at Palermo’s Plaza Independencia and drops you off right in front of the stunning Norman cathedral.
Where to stay
Palermo offers several accommodation options, from the luxurious Hotel Villa Igliea Palermo overlooking the historical Bay area (hoteligieapalermo.com) to the comfortable dorm rooms at A Casa di Amici (acasadiamici.com). We opted for one of the many family-run hotels — the B&B ZC, Via Gorizia 8 (hostelworld.com), which has a terrace offering stunning views of the city.
Where to eat
You are spoilt for choice in Palermo: Osteria dei Vespri (osteriadeivespri.it) serves expensive and impressive Sicilian delicacies within a restored eighteenth-century palace. Or duck into a rustic trattoria/café for fresh street food. For aranchini, head to the open-air Nni Franco U’ Vastiddaru on Via Vittorio Emanuele. If you’re a seafood aficionado, eat at Da Toto in the crumbling yet charming Vucciria neighbourhood. The Antica Focacceria San Francesco (sito3d.it/anticafocacceria) offers many Sicilian specialities.
What to see & do
Marvel at the stupendous architecture of the Cattedrale, catch your breath at the Plazza Pretoria and wander around the opera house Teatro Massimo. If you have the time and the money, try catching a show here (teatromassimo.it). And you cannot miss Palazzo dei Normanni; if only to stare at the mosaic-work in the Cappella Palatina. If you’d like to chill out like the locals, wander along Via Francesco Crispi, the main road along the sea front, or head right up to the sea. For the more culturally inclined, there’s the Museo Archeologico Regionale with its amazing collection of classical art, and the Museo D-Arte Contemporanea Della Sicilia, which, apart from international exhibitions, has a fantastic café and bookshop. Galleria Regionale Della Sicilia is considered the city’s best art gallery, and gives an insight into Sicilian paintings.