Just steps away from the comforts of a continental, English-speaking hotel and I am suddenly in old Palermo. All around me, scooters brush alongside pedestrians in narrow alleys, street vendors hawk mysterious sea creatures and piles of ripening fruit, and impossibly large blooms and strung laundry hang from the balconies. What really gets to me is the noise – the buzzes, the clicks, the sirens, and that uniquely guttural Sicilian dialect twist and turn into a rhythmic hum, a city’s soundtrack to my Italian summer.
As a city, Palermo is a bold mixture of color, heat, noise, and a certain swagger. Several locals emphasize, “We are Sicilian, not Italian.” As a tourist destination, Palermo is adored, a place of baroque beauty still bearing the imprint of its former conquerors.
So what am I doing in a place like this? To be honest, I was chasing a man. Travel takes us to strange places, and in my pursuit I had accidentally stumbled upon one of the most fascinating places in southern Italy.
Sicily represents an exotic mixture of bloodlines and cultures, from medieval Normandy, Aragon Spain, Moorish North Africa, and the grand civilizations of Greece, Phoenicia, and Rome. The ancient past remains in the food, architecture, and even the language. It is said that Sicily’s ruins are surpassed only by those of Rome itself – the archeological beauty of Agriento’s Valley of the Temples and the towering magnificence of Mount Etna are worth the trip alone. In the cities where I visited – Palermo, Catania, Taormina, and a few others in-between – there was much to explore and wonder at.
Perched on the northwestern coast of Sicily, Palermo is the capital and most densely populated city on the island. In its golden age, it was once an oasis of red clay and palm trees, though most of this natural beauty has faded in modern times. At the time of my visit, restoration was slowly coming to Palermo’s historic areas. Despite the modern encroachments, Palermo is a treasure trove of hidden art museums, baroque oratories, lively outdoor markets, and the gateway to some interesting side trips.
If you want to feel the city’s pulse, visit one of Palermo’s bustling markets, where street vendors still practice the art of abbanniata (calling out your wares) against a backdrop of crumbling, WWII-damaged buildings covered in graffiti. In La Vucciria market, I caught a glimpse of an indoor animal farm behind Teatro Massimo‘s brightly graffitied doors. Like so many traditions in Sicily, it’s like a relic from another age. It seems the further I travel back in time, walking among the midday crowds at another market, Il Ballarò, the more I become drawn in. Such places are a street-eater’s delight – stigghiola (charcoal-smoldered skewers of lamb and calf intestines), arancine (fried rice balls), and sfincione (Sicilian street pizza) are just a few things to try.
Once you’ve had your fill of food, I would recommend exploring the finer side of Palermo. Hidden deep in La Kalsa is Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Regional Gallery), the largest and most well-kept art museum in Palermo. Housed in the dignified Palazzo Abatellis, the museum contains the most comprehensive collection of regional Sicilian paintings from the 13th to 18th centuries. One of their most famous works is the Triumph of Death, a large ceiling fresco that depicts Death trampling victims on horseback in the late Gothic painting style. Wandering around the museum halls and the tranquil medieval garden, I almost felt the traffic of Palermo fade away into nothing.
Later my would-be boyfriend suggested we go to Mondello, a small beach resort located about five miles north of Palermo. He didn’t much care for museums or antiques, but he knew where to find a good beach. As we boarded the bus wearing our flip-flops and swimwear, there were dozens of people who seemed to be doing exactly the same thing. Tired, weary, and worst of all, bored, I watched the scenery pass outside my window. Maybe it started with the heat and the noise, but Palermo was starting to feel tiresome to me. I wanted to plan my escape right then and there.
And then suddenly, Mondello emerged in my bus window like a dream – the turquoise sea trapped in a white moon-shaped bay, surrounded by rocky, verdant cliffs and lines of art nouveau villas. As the bus drew closer, I could feel a light, festive mood come over me and the other riders. By the time I stepped off the bus, I felt that I could give the city a little more of my time.
As I soon discovered, an excursion to Mondello is a ritual for many Palermitans. Even during the winter months, the beaches provide a relaxing escape for families, teenagers, and other city-dwellers. New visitors may have trouble finding entrances to varco pubblico (public beaches) in between paying establishments. In the midst of dozens of sunbathers and towels, the beach games are bouncy and boisterous.
Over and over, I dove into the warm sea and emerge, whipping my hair like a modern-day Ursula Andress. There’s nothing quite like diving into such beautiful waters, only to be greeted by mountains when you come up for air.
Tired and happy, we made our way back to Palermo on a crowded night bus. The riders seemed familiar with each other, chatting away and singing songs. When the bus pulled into the central station, it was strangely calm in the city. It was the end of a good day, and tomorrow held the promise of new destinations and discoveries in Sicily.