Palermo: First Look

Palermo: First Look

I arrived late last night and checked into my wonderful B&B Bquadro, staying in this room:

The friendly young couple had two other rooms in red and blue. They lived in another part of the house. Breakfast was in their dining room which opened onto a balcony.The room and bathroom were spacious and comfortable.

They set out a good selection of pamphlets and maps which included a few leaflets on addiopizzo, a grass-roots organisation dedicated to stamping out the pizzo which is the protection money businesses in Palermo must pay to the Mafia. My hosts were proudly defiant of the Mafia’s crippling hold on the Sicilian economy.

My first evening I headed out to a nearby wine bar, Buoni Vini, to enjoy the house cocktail in their urban garden, munching  on chewy bread and fresh tomatoes. As I was to discover, every little bite of food in Sicily is prepared with care.

The B&B was in a rather upscale neighborhood a little walk from the town center. I set out today to explore the town, strolling down the Via Settimo, lined with major-brand shops. Around the opera house, the street became pedestrian only. Although I had always heard that Palermo was chaotic and traffic-clogged, I found it the opposite. Major arteries were gridlocked during rush hours but the old town was quiet and a delight to explore.

First up was of course the gorgeous opera house.


Sadly no opera was scheduled for my stay! But central Palermo had enough buildings of operatic grandeur such as the famous corner of Four Fountains, the Quattro Canti:

Palermo-Quattro-CantiAnd the Piazza Pretoria or “Fountain of Shame” for all the nude statues:

Palermo-PretoriaI decided to concentrate more on Palermo’s neighborhoods than its churches for the moment. There, the Use-it  guide provided by my B&B and map was great, pointing out local snack joints, arts centers, nightlife and off-beat sights. The map was large, colorful, and easy-to-follow, better than my Guide Routard and leaving Lonely Planet’s Sicily chapter in the dust.

I headed down Via Vittorio Emanuele towards the port which took me through one of Palermo’s older neighborhoods including the  Vucciria Market and some of Palermo’s best nightlife. But I was hungry and determined to try Palermo’s famous Panelle e Crocché at Nini Francu u’ Vastiddaru. Slices of fried chick pea floor with slices of fried mashed potatoes on a roll is peasant food at its best. Hearty!

Palerm-pannelleThe neighborhood around the port is a grim reminder of the “Sack of Palermo” in the 1960s when the Mafia took a wrecking ball to the old neighborhood and erected horrible concrete monstrosities.

There wasn’t much going on around here. WWII bombings and bad reconstruction drained the life out of the place except for this striking example of Islamic-Norman architecture. This is the Piazza Kalsa, part of the city fortifications which dates back to Islamic rule.

Palermo-KalsaAs I headed back to the center, I stopped in the lovely but strangely deserted Botanical Gardens

Palermo-botanical garden

By now I was starting to think about lunch so I headed to Ballaro market further north. Along the way I was surprised to discover a “little Chinatown” with Chinese shops and even a Chinese restaurant. The people seemed singularly gloomy however so I didn’t linger.

The morning Ballaro market was starting to wind down so I looked for a place to sit, have a bite to eat and cool off a bit as the day was warm. As I wandered toward a a modest but busy cafe with a terrace, a sturdy, carefully dressed woman with dark hair motioned to me vigorously from her seat at the café that I was in TERRIBLE DANGER from a potential necklace-snatcher and I must remove my gold chain IMMEDIATELY. I hesitated, nodded, hesitated and then she beckoned me to join her for lunch as the place was full. Of course!

Her name was Stella and she pointed out that necklace-snatching is a major activity around the market. She had just gotten off work. What kind of work? Stella was a nurse hired to keep an aged lady company at night which sounds easy but apparently not when the lady is waking you up every hour or so insisting on conversation. Anyway the job was ending in a few days and Stella was mightily worried about finding another one given the current “crise”. We fell to talking about our personal lives which, in Stella’s case, was not particularly happy. She had a husband but he had recently left her for another woman. Would I like to see a picture of the homewrecker? I pictured some version of Marisa Tomei. Stella pulled out her phone, flipped through the photos and pointed to the miscreant. “That’s her?” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The woman could only be described as morbidly obese, and not in a good way. Stella giggled too. It was incomprehensible. Stella was slightly stocky but with a pleasant, lively face and expressive brown eyes. I wondered whether the woman was rich and Stella seemed to indicate she was. We shook our heads about the ways of gli uomini and went back to our lunch of fried eggplant and stuffed zucchini. Living up to the Sicilian reputation for generosity, Stella insisted on paying. We took a little walk around the neighborhood and Stella pointed out the Chiesa del Carmine which was near her apartment.

Palermo-CarmineStella needed to rest so I continued on alone to check out the other major sights. As the weather forecast for the following days was dispiriting, I decided to save interior visits for later and concentrate on outdoor explorations. I took a look at the Cathedral, intimidatingly vast from the outside.

palermo-cathedralAlong the way, I came upon the stunning 16th-century Palazzo Castrone-Santa Ninfa, all the more beautiful for being so unexpected. I was ready to move in.

Palermo-PalazzoTime for some refreshment! Following a network of crumbling streets around the Capo district, I came upon the stall selling autista. I didn’t know what to expect but I ordered it and watched the maestro pour out some soda and some fruit juice so the glass was 3/4 full. He put it in front of me and approached with a teaspoon of powder. Beve! Beve! he ordered as the glass nearly exploded in bubbles. It was a delightful, fruity, fizzy mess as it burbled over the sides and I slurped as fast as I could.

Further along the Capo district became a market selling all manner of food, tools, clothes and whatnot. Here a sprang for a ridiculously cheap plate of prickly pears, already peeled.

Would I be hungry again at night? You bet!  There wasn’t a great deal around my B&B but the owner, Mario, recommended the Trattoria Tipica Altri Tempi which served up this plate of unphotogenic but scrumptious sardine balls with bread crumbs and pine nuts in sauce.






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