It takes us three rides and one afternoon to get to Palermo from which we wrongly assume that hitchhiking in Sicily is easy.
We say goodbye to two Spanish designers and their rented car in a narrow street paved with shiny blocks of stone. Palermo welcomes us with a mix of languages, noises and skin colors. Its decadent beauty reminds me of many places I´ve known, yet adorned with unseen patterns and people. We walk past the Palace of Justice, square in its fascist monumental architecture, and the main post office with massive white columns, to Via Roma where we are staying for the night.
Our host is a Turkish boy who is participating in an EVS (European Voluntary Service) project with immigrants here in the capital of Sicily. The roofs are tall and balconies run all along the patio inside of the old building. After camping on the beach for a few nights in Trapani and squatting in a ghost hotel in Erice we are eager to shower and grateful for the narrow bed.
During the next day, we hastily walk in circles in the center of the city; no matter where we go, we always end up among the rush of Quattro Canti. The roundabout is busy at all times, cars and horses swiftly take turns and tourists pass from church to church following their own pace.
We don´t mind running into this corner as it is nearby a café that offers the best pastries we manage to taste in the city, Café del Centro. It is tucked modestly between other buildings and doesn´t claim too much attention, but we devour canolos each time we pass by. The boss ends up filling our plate with extra sweets free of charge when he sees our enthusiasm for the local délicatesses.
The impressive white fountain near Cuatro Canti is filled with tourists and statues in equal numbers. Instagram couples pose in the daylight, but we get to see a different spectacle at night when the square is empty. Sitting on the stairs, we watch a group of black boys, exhibiting their skateboarding skills and laughing while cars, motorbikes, and bicycles pass by.
Another thing I mustn´t omit in my cityscapes is visiting churches. While my husband is not quite as excited about architecture as myself (read: doesn´t share my urge to enter every single temple and ruin I come across), he is patient enough to sit by, indulge in smoking fine herbs and watch people while I browse around the overly decorated houses of the holy.
As many other historical European cities, the heart of Palermo is sprinkled with them.
For us, their architecture seems unfamiliar – Santa Maria dell´Ammiraglio boasts an intricately carved tower and is full of vacationing retirees; San Cataldo right next door is recognizable by red, round Arab-Norman roof structures, simple in comparison.
Both of them ask for an entrance fee, but since we happen to get there in the afternoon, they have closed for siesta anyway.
One of those hot days, I enter a random gate. F. unwillingly follows me into the shadow of Chiesa Sant´Agostino, a gothic church with a fresh yard hidden away from the street. The garden is lush with roses and red carps swim in the fountain. All of this is encircled by arches with marble benches.
Read more: Original ideas for free accommodation (Hint: some of them are really weird!)
Another point of interest in Palermo for people who are not looking for anything in particular (such as us) is Teatro Massimo, the third biggest theater in Europe. There is a lot of space and benches in front of its impressive staircase – in the day, police officers smoke around the parked motorbikes and stray dogs lie in the sun, at night the place belongs to local youth who drink and party here. I am not sure if it is a display of joy or a result of not having much to do anyway, as the job situation of the city is not ideal. Many abandoned, crumbling houses are melancholic witnesses of this.
A bit further, the circular facade of Teatro Politeama is crowned with a statue of horses which immediately reminds me of Berlin.
In front of it, there are kids riding bicycles, flying kites and couples of all ages speaking in many languages. (And licking delicious pistachio ice cream.)
We sit to observe the reflection of the setting sun in its shiny windowpanes. I bend and kneel down in awkward poses to catch the right angle in my photos through a glass sphere, my recent toy.
The sea in Palermo is busy with industry. Passing along the swaying boats towards Piazza Marina, we get to a park with ancient trees whose roots twist and encircle each other as if to hide a secret. Their trunks are so thick even three people couldn´t hug them while holding hands.
Walking around the marina is nice and if you come late and leave early, you can even camp there. However, beware of the automated irrigation system on the lawns!
We come here again with some friends to try acro-yoga which is more fun and easier then it seems at the first sight. While we laugh frantically, hanging at each other’s hinges, newlyweds and a bunch of wedding guests do an overly organized photoshoot, complete with balloons, a drone, and a resolute bride.
It is only at night that we get to see the famous market zone which converts into a party place as the sky gets dark. However, for me it is most interesting for its street art, covering the crumbling walls of age-old houses that nobody rents anymore. The buildings barely keep standing, sewn together by iron screws and long wooden pillars. Crumbling windows are filled with gray bricks. I walk in these confined passages and look up to the thin stripe of the silent sky. The Padrino watches from the wall, along with a dark girl, yellow flower in her hair. Eyes of cats follow you as you walk past the writings on the disrupted stones that´ve been fitting together for at least seven centuries.
Clouds of steam roll from food stalls surrounded by hungry youngsters. The street is crowded in front of the shop that sells all drinks for one euro a glass and an elderly man starts scolding me in Italian for taking photographs of people, while he is not even in the picture. The Turkish girl who accompanies us and speaks perfect Italian somehow makes him turn away.
The decay of the historical buildings in the darkness is instinctively fascinating as if it were a movie scene from the twenties. I watch, I snap quick pictures, click, click, click, motorbikes engines howl somewhere close.
La Vucciria (which means “voices” in Italian, apparently) is said to be most busy early in the morning, but really, we are not the ones to get up with fishermen. Instead, we randomly run into stalls filling the sand-colored narrowness of streets with all colors of veggies and fruits. Along with eggplants, mushrooms, and tomatoes for sale, you can get a bunch of made-in-China goods. We opt for a soft version of dumpster diving and pick up what is left in the abandoned boxes – slightly beaten broccoli and soft dark tomatoes make for a good enough dinner for us.
Our favorite place of gluttony quickly becomes a small, rather discreet Cafe del Centro where we hungrily engulf all kinds of the local sweets – canolos, marzapan also nicknames as Sicilian fruit and delicious chocolate balls whose name I don´t know – most of them costing one euro a piece. The thin man who serves the customers laughs when he sees our lust for the typical high-in-glucose delights and gives us some more for free. In Palermo, a cappuccino costs 1,50 and immediately replaces our (Slovakia powered) beer drinking habit.
Arancini, cheap and greasy, serve us for lunch. Gelato of pistachios in a brioccia makes us happy and fat(ter).
Read more: Hiking from Trapani to Erice
During our visit to Palermo – which luckily extends to a full week as we unexpectedly land the couch of a great host Paolo, at the time healing from a broken heart. Paolo loads us in his car and takes us to his favorite spots around the city.
Sferracavallo is a natural park with beautiful rock formations and dark blue sea with patches of turquoise. You can get here with a bus too, but the place is not too frequented. We walk towards the small dock, pass by boats of various sizes and admire sharp rocks. We swim in the sea, still a welcome refreshment in the September heat.
A popular beach for inhabitants of Palermo, this village has a cute Lido, picturesque houses, bougainvilleas hanging from the fences and clear sea.
We finish our tour in a small restaurant, devouring pasta al forno, delicious with pieces of eggplant.
Siesta time: 13:30-15:00 (at least)
Bus tickets: buy them in the Tabacchi shops
Sweets to try: canolos, gelato in a brioche, Frutti Siciliani
Famous markets: La Vucciria, Il Capo…click for more details on outdoor markets at Palermo.com
One week in Palermo
I have a history with abandoned places. I find crumbling buildings all the more interesting – I don´t have to explain an interest in street art, I bet, as it has already taken over every travelers´ Instagram. Palermo is quirky, beaten and mysterious, filled with immigrants from everywhere, smells, voices, and foods. Some run away from it towards better work possibilities in the North, others come to finally reach Europe, be it for an Erasmus exchange or for a new life full of hope.
Have you visited Sicily? Do you find Palermo charming, repulsive or none of the above? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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