Population: 673,735 (2017)
Palermo is the capital of the Italian island of Sicily. The 12th-century Palermo Cathedral houses royal tombs, while the huge neoclassical Teatro Massimo is known for opera performances. Also in the centre are the Palazzo dei Normanni, a royal palace started in the 9th century, and the Cappella Palatina, with Byzantine mosaics. Busy markets include the central Ballarò street market and the Vucciria, near the port.
A growing alternative city break destination in Europe, Palermo’s reputation has moved far from the blood and bombs of the Mafia-led 70s and 80s. Now travellers arrive in increasing numbers to sample some of the best street food in Europe, in markets that feel like they don’t belong in Europe, get lost amongst crumbling baroque facades, learn to cook and eat like a Palermitani, and slowly start to uncover the oft illogical paradoxes and pleasures of the street life stories which you’ll find on nearly every corner if you just open your eyes to them.
Having landed in Palermo just before 930pm, we collected our bags (very quickly) and made our way to the bus to take us to the city centre. At 6 Euro per person, this certainly made for a cheap way of getting there. Given there was a stop about 150m from our Airbnb apartment, it was also convenient. So by 11pm we had entered the codes we needed to enter, found the keys and made ourselves at home in Carmelo’s spacious home.
Arancini & Cannoli (and other street food)
Next priority, food! Over the years, we have both fallen in love with the arancino and the cannolo without being aware until relatively recently that they were both famous Sicilian fare. With Italian food being regional, a lot of people fall into the trap of labelling these two items as “Italian” and being upset that they don’t see that many of them on mainland Italy.
So being in the land of arancini and cannoli, we set off to find some. Fortunately, life in Palermo was still buzzing, with plenty of people, old and young (children), still up and about. This meant we had little trouble finding somewhere that was open. The Antico Caffe Spinnato turned out to be a fabulous welcome to this vibrant city. The friendly waiter served us our arancini – salmon for Glenda and prosciutto & cheese for Walter – and ricotta cannoli as we sat outside enjoying the atmosphere and the perfect summer evening. Well, almost perfect, except for the mosquitoes.
A little before 1am after a little unpacking and a quick shower, we fell into bed.
Exploring the contradictions and incongruities
Just after 6am we woke to thunder, rain and the activity of our neighbours but hung out in bed for a while before getting going for the day. And once on the move, it was all systems go. First off, a café macchiato and a ricotta pastry and a nearby Pasticceria. Ricotta pastries are few and far between in Florence so we couldn’t resist.
There was something about the beautiful, huge, but somewhat decayed old buildings alongside the edgy, grungy graffiti filed streets that reminded us of Buenos Aires. We lost count of the number of churches with intricately decorated interiors.
When in Palermo, do as the Palermitani do – eat! We visited two of the three famous markets in the city. The first one, Il Capo, was filled with fruit & vegetables, seafood, spices and other bits and pieces. We’re not sure if it was the time we were there, but the next market we visited, Mercato di Ballaro, seemed a lot more authentic and we enjoyed it more. Good food has been made available to the masses for a good price. We weren’t specifically hungry yet, but couldn’t resist sharing a huge, fresh arancino filled with ham & mozzarella. We sat at a plastic table watching people go by and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere. The queue for the tripe sandwich (also 2 Euro) was long, but we didn’t get tempted to join it. However, we did get drawn to a stall selling fresh cassata and purchased two – one ricotta, one pistachio – to take away.
Moved to Palermo in 644 pieces as a debt repayment, the circular multilayered Pretorian Fountain (Fontana Pretoria) is quite the curiosity. At first look, it ticks various boxes for “beautiful Italian fountain of the 16th century” with its delicate statues and clean white marble. The nude and semi-nude figures, surveyed from the distance, appear to have had a spell cast upon them, doomed to keep a secret forever.
Gateway to the islands & mainland
The walk down to the seafront took us past the station and botanical gardens. Once by the water, we found a patch of shade and settled down on the kerb facing the ocean and munched on our cassata. There was little to disturb us except a hydrofoil coming in from one of the islands and a couple of Scottish guys that asked us if they could join us under the tree to set up their drones.
Happy but hot & tired, we decided to head back to the apartment for a break before doing it all again later. That is, after finding a supermarket to stock up on water.
Aperitivi in style
After a rest and watching La Vuelta a Espagna cycling race, we headed out for the evening. In true Italian style, an aperitivo was beckoning, so we went in search of a watering hole. We were rewarded with an amazing sighting of a brilliant rainbow, made even more spectacular by the backdrop of the old buildings.
One of the enoteca (wine bars) that Glenda had identified did not look as appealing as hoped – the outside seating was next to a construction zone and the owner / server was standing outside smoking week. In the end, we were not sad to have moved on. After finding a shop where Walter picked up some sandals for 5 Euro, we headed for the terrace of Rinascente, an exclusive department store, and were seated on a sofa with a view of the Chiesa San Domenica (church). Once again, the rainbow gave us a good showing as we sipped on a glass of Sicilian catarratto wine and nibbled on some snacks.
Being so hot in the middle of the day, we had left the waterfront and ventured up through the large Porta Felice gates into the city for the shade offered by the buildings. So now we had the opportunity to explore the part we’d missed, including the marina. Whilst Glenda had seen “Nautoscopio” on line and was interested in checking it out, nothing had prepared us for the cool bar on the edge of the water. With the waves lapping at our feet, Walter tried the salty Messina beer and Glenda sipped on a G&T.
The buzz of the Palermo nightlife
It is hard to describe the energy that exists in Palermo and the crazy buzz that extends into the night. There are people everywhere, music, eating, drinking, talking and laughing. Pretty much anything goes. No one even notices or blinks an eye.
A couple of final arancini before heading home and to bed. Early tonight, lights out before 11pm. Ready to wake up and do it all again tomorrow (starting with a run).
Early morning clean up
It was very different running down the middle of the main roads. Typically filled with noise, people, restaurants and street vendors, the main activity was the street cleaning after the action of the night before. One of the benefits of running is that whilst we’d walked a fair bit of it before, we did manage to go a little further along the beachfront.
We had a somewhat quieter final day in Palermo. That said, we did pay another visit to the Ballaro Market as we figured it would be a good place to try the fried seafood we’d been hanging out for. After waiting at one of the stalls that seemed to have the best polpo (octopus) and fritto misto (mixed fried fish) for a while without managing to work out the process or get served, we moved on to another. What we ended up with was fine but not outstanding but it ticked the box.
A better experience was the cannoli we had from a pastry shop in an old convent. This has been recommended by the owner of a bookshop / bar that we visit in Florence. We watched as the rich ricotta filling was piped into the crispy pastry then sat on a bench in the garden, savouring every bite of the tasty treat.