Noting my empty glass, the waiter didn’t even bother asking, he just brought another small carafe of the house red. The first one had disappeared with antipasti and a plate of pasta ca ancióva. The second would be helpful in dispatching the coming purpetti ri sardi, balls of minced sardines, tomatoes and capers. I didn’t ask for dessert either, but the waiter silently placed a bottle of limoncello in front of me, with a mini cannoli, a cookie, and a wedge of watermelon. On the house.
I was in Altri Tempi, a classic trattoria on Via Sammartino in Palermo. After paying the check (unbelievably, only 15 Euros), I suppressed the urge to hug my waiter and headed out into the strong Sicilian sun. I walked through the perfume of flowering jacaranda trees near the Teatro Massimo (Italy’s largest opera house) on a sidewalk made of limestone slabs, shiny and smooth like melted gelato and I thought, huh, funny what a difference a few days can make. Tomorrow I would be heading home after having spent a week here, but I was already planning my trip back. Which was strange because when I arrived, all I could think about was leaving.
You see, Palermo is not a place you fall in love with at first sight. As the Sicilians themselves say, it’s “difficult.” Palermo is dirty, unless you take a wrong turn somewhere, in which case it’s really dirty. It’s also noisy. The traffic can be awe-inspiring, and crossing a street requires courage and good timing. Many of the graffiti-strewn buildings of the old town are derelict, thanks to a variety of reasons including Cosa Nostra, failure of government, and lack of money.
After having been there only a few hours, I decided to spend the next day in Cefalú, a nearby seaside resort. I had just arrived here and already I needed a break. But in the morning, I awoke fresh and realized I didn’t want to go to the beach. I wanted to explore more of the city. Palermo might be difficult, but it’s also fascinating.
For one, there is the history. Phoenician traders settled around Palermo’s natural port in the 2nd century BC, and ever since then empires from all points of the compass have colonized it. Sicily has always been an attractive prize–the largest island in the Mediterranean and centrally located, mountainous but fertile, with a mild climate in winter, nearly touching mainland Italy and only 155 kilometers from Tunisia. Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish have all had their turn, and have all left their mark.
The Palazzo dei Normanni is a good example. Built in the 9th century by the Arab emir of Palermo, it was later expanded by the Normans, who added the stunning Cappella Palentina with its glittering Byzantine mosaics. Then the kings of Aragon modified the palace, then the Bourbons had a crack at it too. The same thing goes for Palermo’s sprawling cathedral. It’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles–everything from Norman to Gothic to Baroque to Neoclassical–spanning six centuries of construction.
The historic center of Palermo is compact, so it’s easy to walk to most places. And for me, getting there was even more interesting than arriving. One afternoon, I wandered the Capo neighborhood, taking in the spectacle of everyday life. On a side street, a girl of about 12 was zipping around on a Vespa, giving rides to other kids much younger than her–one in front, one on the back, none of them wearing a helmet. Old men, dressed in dark baggy suits played cards on an overturned wooden crate. A man washed two gigantic skeins of fish roe in a fountain in the middle of a piazza. Two carpenters sanded down church pews in the street, and another man played the mandolin in his antique shop to pass the time.
Palermo feels like a real city, a place where people actually live and go about their daily lives as if unaware of the strangers with guidebooks and cameras. There are grocery stores and hardware stores and trattorias that don’t have pictures of the food and menus translated into four languages. Cities such as Venice, while beautiful, sometimes feel like adult theme parks, as though the entire place has been artfully staged to look the way tourists think it should look. Palermo–and this is the mother-of-all understatements–is not like that. For precisely that reason, it was growing on me.
The next day I went to the Ballaro market. Under the crumbling facades of old apartment buildings and abandoned, padlocked palaces, vendors crowd the already narrow streets with…everything. Food, clothing, electronics, antiques, cigarettes, cell-phone covers, hash bongs, unidentifiable rusted machine parts. Apron-clad men on scooters, while simultaneously smoking and texting, weave among grannies peeling artichokes, stray dogs sleeping in the street (at least I think they were sleeping), children, garbage, cyclists, fishmongers hauling 300-kilo tunas onto marble cutting tables, and bubbling milza stands, where you can buy Palermo’s favorite street food–beef spleen deep-fried in lard.
I also discovered my neighborhood had it’s own market, which I liked even better. I tried the spleen sandwich (just okay), but stopped short of having fritolla, a mystery meat comprised of the bits and pieces the slaughter house couldn’t sell to anybody else. Instead, I had a samosa and a couple of pakoras, with a bit of aloo on the side, and they were superb. Palermo is one of the most multicultural cities in Italy and there is a large Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi community. Africa is well represented, too. One night, on my way home, I stumbled on a elaborate Ghanian festival, with dancers and dignitaries and a DJ, all impeccably dressed.
And so the days went by. I visited Zisa castle, a 12th century Norman palace that houses a museum of Islamic art, and on the way stopped at the port, where leather-necked fishermen still in their boots and rain slicks sold moray eels and large, deep-red calamari. I circled the huge fountain in the Piazza Pretoria, with its marble statues depicting naked nymphs and monsters and gods and goddesses, and later tracked down a pastry shop I’d read about, Pasticceria Cappello. It was on a street that could pass for the set of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, but the pastries were the most beautiful, and delicious, that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was tough to choose among them. The marzipan pastries painted to look like fruit were visually spectacular (and extremely realistic) but in the end I chose a custard-filled tart sprinkled with forest fruits and circled with crushed pistachios.
With two days left in my trip, I finally decided to spend the day at the beach in Cefalú. It was less than an hour on a modern train from downtown Palermo. When I got there, and saw the medieval houses that lined the beach of pale sand, the water glowing green and intense blue, I instantly wanted to find a cheap hotel and spend the night.
But first things first. I walked down to the beach and had a beer, sitting under the shade of a gently billowing white canvas umbrella. Then I had another one. It was a world away from Palermo, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. But after a while I left. A few hours of watching the waves roll in was great, but I kept wondering what I was missing on the streets of Palermo.