Plunging into Palermo’s Past and Present
If the pristine promenades of Paris are your concept of an ideal vacation destination, then mountain-ringed Palermo is probably not for you. But if you’re the sort of traveler who enjoys colorful, noisy street markets, medieval, maze-like neighborhoods, slightly crumbling churches, Arabic-influenced gardens and cuisine, and multi-cultural architectural treasures, then the capital of Sicily will do quite nicely.
The key to what makes up the unique mix of Palermo lies in its geographical location. An ample, all-weather port situated on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Palermo has been an attractive, strategic possession for a number of civilizations over the past two thousand years. It has withstood invasions by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Germanic tribes, Saracens (Arabs), Norman crusaders, the Holy Roman Empire, Bourbon kings, and World War II Allied forces. (One might also add the powerful, non-fictional presence of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra since the mid-nineteenth century.)
Throughout its long and turbulent history, Palermo has survived—and even thrived—by adapting to and incorporating these diverse influences. One million or so residents of the city live in a melting pot of Latin, Islamic and Christian cultures. Certain structures embody this curious combination, like the twelfth century Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace). Within its massive medieval walls is the exquisite Palatine Chapel—a beautiful blend of delicate, arabesque decorations with Byzantine mosaics and Romanesque architecture.
A multitude of street markets, still carrying the personality and exotic scents of ancient Arabic souks, can be found in every part of the city. The Ballarò, near the Piazza del Carmine in one of the five Norman quarters of the city, is perhaps the most famous. A sea of red tarpaulin-covered stalls, the Ballarò is a place to awaken every sense. From the yelling of sellers, to the sights and smells of fresh fish, vegetables, cheeses, spices, meats and local foods like flour and chickpea fritters, this open air cornucopia is the oldest food market in Palermo. But edibles aren’t the only commodity. Discount clothing vendors offer a variety of vintage and classic fashion items certain to tempt bargain hunters. And don’t be shy about honoring the local tradition of haggling over prices, or hesitate to shout if you can’t be heard over the din in a normal voice.
After gathering up purchases and being fortified with a panino con la milza from a local sandwich stand (soft, sesame-flavored bread stuffed with ricotta and veal’s liver and spleen!), visitors may wish to explore the famous, if macabre, Catacombe dei Cappuccini. In the mid-sixteenth century, the religious order of Capuchins ran out of room in their cemetery, so they excavated crypts below it. Initially only the friars were entombed there – some mummified – but later, it was opened to deceased city residents. Today, the catacombs are categorized into sections of Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Altogether, they house 8000 bodies, some extraordinarily preserved either through embalming or by being enclosed in sealed glass cabinets.
Upon re-emerging into the light of day, the calming, sun-washed, seafront promenade called Fors Italico invites an afternoon stroll or nap on a park bench. Visitors may also wish to walk through the prolific palm-studded gardens of Palermo, or (to spare the feet) relax in a horse-drawn carriage around ancient piazzas of the old city. Buying a 24-hour bus pass for approximately four euros is a convenient, affordable option for taking in a wider range of sites.
Just a few miles north of Palermo, Monte Pellegrino (Pilgrim Mountain) offers an excellent day excursion. A large nature park encircling the mountain is an ideal picnic spot. There’s also a sanctuary at the top paying homage to the local patron saint, Santa Rosalia, who lived in a cave there during the eleventh century. Her prayers are credited with saving Palermo from a devastating plague. And when her purported remains were unearthed in 1624, they were put into a small chapel built atop her retreat. If water from the cave’s roof drips on someone, it is considered lucky. The stunning views of Palermo, the Golden Shell Valley, and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean from Monte Pellegrino make the trip itself worthwhile.
Back in Palermo, music lovers would be in for a treat with an evening spent watching a world-class opera performance at the Teatro Massimo (Opera House). For those with more down-to-earth taste, live music and dancing can be enjoyed at outdoor bars and restaurants near the Piazza Garraffello.
On the topic of outdoors, perhaps the best time of year to visit Palermo is springtime—March through May—when the weather is sunny and balmy, before the encroaching heat and humidity of summer months. The city is easily accessible by overnight train from Rome or Naples, and the Stazione Centrale (Central Train Station) is conveniently located at the edge of the historical center of Palermo. Driving in traffic is generally classified by non-Sicilians as ‘chaotic,’ so think twice about renting a car, and consider opting for the less stressful bus, tram, or on-foot choices. Some words to the wise: keep in mind that English is not as universally used in Sicily as it is on the Italian mainland. There is also an unfortunate high level of theft in Palermo, so take precautions regarding personal possessions. All price and quality ranges of Palermo hotels and bed and breakfasts are available on major travel websites.
However you choose to experience the ancient-to-modern wonders of Sicily’s greatest urban center, be prepared for the unexpected, the unusual and the exciting. Because of its richly varied and complex past, it is a place that will surely surprise and broaden your travel horizons.