Today we head to a place of my own, Italy. I’ve been a tour guide in Italy for almost 18 years, and studied there in the 1990’s. Our destination of the day, however, is a place that is fairly new to me. Palermo, the beautiful capital of Sicily.
My fascination with Sicily began about 7 years ago. Occasionally I have a few days between my normal tours and enjoy spending that bonus time exploring corners of Europe that I haven’t had the chance to get acquainted with. Unusually, I had a fully week, and a Sicilian colleague encouraged me to give it a try.
I hadn’t headed down that far south in my Italian travels before. The urban legends of trains being gassed and young women being abducted had scared me away from the south. As many people that have seen enough mafia movies, I had a pretty solid expectation of drug dens and fedora wearing mafiosi on every corner.
I couldn’t have been more absurdly wrong about Palermo, and Sicily in general. I found an island paradise, relatively untouched by tourism, and packed with historic treasures to explore. Really, I could not believe that Sicily was not on the top of every travel list.
The island capital is a short flight from Rome. The 50 minute ride costs almost nothing if the ticket is booked in advance. I’ve paid as little as $30. The descent onto the island is majestic, with mountains meeting aquamarine waters right near the airport runway…window seats are smart.
Western Sicily is dramatically mountainous, and Palermo is ringed by craggy peaks. Monte Pellegrino is the most famous near the city. It is where the bones of the patron saint of the city, Rosalia, were found in a cave. Her body now rests in the cathedral, but the cave has been converted into a church–a Baroque facade with a cave behind and rows of pews. It’s an oddity, but Sicily has no lack of oddities.
Historically, Palermo was one of the most important cities in Italy. It’s been continuously inhabited for centuries, established by the Phoenicians in 734 BC, about the same time as Rome. The natural harbor and river outlets made it a great trade outpost, and it was named “Panormus” or all port.
Sicily was ruled by 18 different invaders, and Palermo has been used as the capital from the time of the Norman (French) kings. Their palace, built after the conquest of the island in 1072, is still used to this day as a seat for the government, now as the Sicilian Parliament building.
Multiculturalism may seem like a new concept, but Palermo has always been a melting pot. Traces of past cultures that lived there are hidden all of the city. Arab-Norman fusion architecture sits next to Catalonian Gothic, Baroque and Liberty style buildings. Spanish kings glower down from the famous square of the four corners, just around the corner from the Jewish district adorned with hebrew street signs.
It may be hard to see or understand now, but the city was a real jewel 150 years ago, considered to rival Paris in beauty. It was a capital city in Europe, and many wealthy families from Europe had estates on the outskirts. Palaces lined the streets, with carriages and men in top hats flowing by.
Wagner lived and worked in Palermo for a time. The grand opera house of Teatro Massimo is one of the largest and most prestigious in Europe, which means that Palermo was the place to be seen in the 1800’s.
I always start with this vision when I begin my Sicily tours, because Palermo can be hard to love at first glance. World War II was not kind to the city (thanks, Patton) and the mafia take-over after was even worse. It can be hard to see that elegant city through the garbage, broken sidewalks and cracked facades, but it is there if you look for it. Look up at the elegantly decorated palaces, imagine how lovely they must have been. The families that owned them are almost all gone, but the ghosts still whisper.
Palermo was a very different place only a few years ago. It was gritty and decaying. Infrastructure wasn’t the best, tourist services were nonexistent, bombed out buildings from WWII still sat like forlorn holes in the urban fabric. Even with crumbling buildings and checkered history, the city had a spark, some sort of potential just waiting for a chance.
And then, almost out of nowhere, the city has blossomed. The transformation in the past couple of years has been dramatic. Buildings are being renovated. Streets are being closed off for pedestrians. Churches and museums are working to become more friendly to visitors. Events are happening almost all the time.
The city is not just alive, but really hopping. Tourism is becoming easier here every day. New hotels and B&Bs are popping up all over the place. More people are speaking English. New and innovative ways to show the city to tourists seem to materialize every day, bike tours, rooftop tours, food tours. It’s really stunning.
There are many things to do in the city, from the creepy Cappucin Crypt to the glorious Monreale Cathedral and its shimmering mosaics. I’ll be writing all about the options on my new blog, adventuresinsicily.net.
If you were to visit just for a day, the best suggestion I can give you is to skip museums and go on a walking tour. Not any kind of walking tour, but a food tour. Palermo has one of the top street food scenes in Europe, not a surprise considering how rich the island is in food production.
Daytime tours walk you through the bustling street markets of Ballaro or Capo. The fruttivendolo sings to attract buyers, small carts are set up selling all sorts of food oddities including, but not limited to, internal organs and veal penis. Yes. I tried that so that you won’t have to.
Evening walks can be a riot, as Palermo is a nightlife city. Vucciria is a dying street market by day but is a busy hub by night, selling fresh meat barbecued on outdoor grills. I had a blast with Marco of Streaty Food tours (http://www.streaty.com) who combines a lively walking tour commentary along with tasting local nibbles and chatting up colorful locals. Come along with us!
If you’ve ever thought about visiting Palermo, now is the moment. It is at its best in a century. Go before anyone else figures it out, while tourism is an oddity and foreign visitors are a lovely novelty to the locals.
Join us on an adventure in Sicily!
Complicated, misunderstood, generous, outrageous, sensual and seductive, Sicily is pure opera. If you think you know Italy but haven’t been to Sicily, you are in for a mind-bending treat. 3000 years of history piled up like a sweet cassata cake is waiting for your exploration. Andiamo!