I almost cut short my visit to Palermo. It is an exhausting city. It is a noisy, dirty, chaotic, exhausting city. Motorbikes whiz past with reckless abandon, streets collect puddles of fish-water from frenzied seafood markets, garbage piles up on curbs in strange back alleys, and people hustle in and out of secret-looking doors and up and down thoroughfares on whatever business has called them. A vast plurality of them are immigrants from Asia, the East Indies, and Africa. In medieval or Roman movies there are always the smattering of transplants mixing among and trading with the Latins in their great cities. Palermo’s street scenes are a modern version of that tableau. I imagine it was always so here, though the majority population changed through the ages.
So many of its buildings look like sad memories of grandeur, and they seem to cast longer and darker shadows than they should. Amidst the chaos, Palermo’s baroque buildings are so close to the streets, and so unpolished (okay, dirty), that a walk down an avenue feels like one of those movies with close, tight, unyielding camera shots intended to keep the audience on edge. The result is a claustrophobia that makes one yearn for, well, for Trapani, which is where I’d been all the prior weekend. Ah, Trapani, with its sashaying passeggiata, its meandering, auto-free streets, its azure sea lapping lazily upon the tiny cape on which its medieval town sits. But I digress – that is for another post. This was Palermo. I almost cut short my visit…but in the end I stayed. You see, the second night at my hotel wasn’t refundable.
But – I’m so glad I stayed. While it’s not on my list of cities I’d move to, it is a fascinating place, and worth visiting. In fact, its craziness is endearing. So much of the West has been whitewashed, toned down, quieted, streamlined, the unique replaced with the drearily familiar. Palermo is of another era. Maybe it’s what Rome looked and felt like after World War II. The big roundabout in front of Palermo Centrale railway station reminded me of so many wild intersections in Morocco, where you just have to cross the street and say “Inshallah” and hope for the best. A cafe I visited for lunch seemed nice and relaxing at first blush, but once I sat down I realized it was the same as Via Maqueda outside – noisy, crazy, stressed. And even though I visited the street markets – such as the venerable Ballarò market – after their peak hours, they were still buzzing labyrinths of commerce. Again, not quite as crazy as the beehive-like medinas in Morocco, but certainly owing some cultural debt to them.
However, I did find quiet, beautiful places within the tapestry of activity. When in doubt, visit a garden or a church. Palermo’s botanical gardens and Villa Giulia to the east, and Villa Bonnana and Cattedrale di Palermo to the west, were all enchanting respites from the city’s never-ending hustle. The area near the imposing Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s famous opera house, also had a mellower vibe, with people lazing about and eating gelato at sunset outside its gate. I chuckled as I took a picture of Massimo, thinking of how poor Sofia Coppola took a bullet meant for Michael on its stairs in The Godfather Part III. Referring to criticism of her poor acting, Francis Ford Coppola had said that she took figurative bullets from the press that were meant for him. In any case, Teatro Massimo was peacefully free of bullets and Coppolas on this fine June evening.
My hotel, Orientale, looked promising in its Booking.com profile. From interior photos, it appeared to be a re-purposed Sicilian villa from the halcyon pre-unification days, straight out of the book (and movie) Il Gattopardo. That was partly true: in fact the old building had been partitioned for mixed use, so the Orientale only took up part of it. Its courtyard was now a sad parking lot, filled with autos and alley cats. The staircases and halls of the hotel certainly whispered of greater days, but overall the place failed to capitalize on its former opulence. My room was musty and dark, and neither the air conditioner nor the television worked. I didn’t need either, but not having something that’s “included” is annoying. Plus, the American in me didn’t want to sleep with an open balcony window, although nothing more than a pigeon was likely to intrude. And when I’m in a foreign country, I like having the TV on in the background so I can pick up the nuances of the language. There’s nothing better than a Simpsons episode in the local tongue. At the very least I’d have like to have had the low hum of the AC’s fan as white noise. Also, the shower backed up – that’s enough to put any hotel on my blacklist.
The hotel has a free breakfast, but like most Italian hotel breakfasts, there’s not much there. Just light fare like toast or yogurt, although they did have hard boiled eggs. The better bet was the second day, when I slept through breakfast and went to the cafe across the street, named Bacio Nero. The old man in this stand-at-the-counter joint served me two sweet pastries, an espresso, and offered a sample of a strawberry ice, i.e. crushed ice and strawberry syrup. “Watered down,” he said…with lemon syrup. After this latest trip, I’m convinced Sicily was formed not by volcanoes but by a terrestrial eruption of sugar, which settled into an island whose people feel compelled to consume in varied and creative ways. It’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain. As in much of Italy, breakfast in Sicily is light and sugary, often simply a croissant and a cappuccino. Sugar, milk, caffeine, with sugar of course. I admit, I admire that they reduce it to essentially an infusion of diabetes. “Screw the nutritionists, we’re having dessert for breakfast. We’ll balance it out with fish and olive oil later.” I admire it, but I can’t get used to it. I settled on apple croissants most days, although that’s still like starting my day with a Hostess fruit pie.
Well, this was a more negative post than I intended. I must sound pretty damned spoiled. Honestly, overall, I’m better for having experienced Palermo. Sure, it’s a shock to the system. A crazy crossroads of trade and immigration and history. It certainly doesn’t feel like anyplace else I’ve seen in Italy. It is unpolished. I would not live there. But I’d like to visit again, just to peel back some more of its layers.