After visiting Monreale I finally went down to Palermo. I lived my whole trip to Sicily in anticipation for this. I had great expectations about Palermo, especially after its Arab-Norman Cathedral was listed by Unesco among the world heritage sites. Although that section of my visit fulfilled completely my expectations, all the rest was unfortunately quite disappointing.
Before my visit, Palermo was to me a great historic capital, first for the Arabs, then for the Normans and later on for the Spaniards, thus I expected it to look like a big capital whose streets and public decency were at their highest level. It wasn’t so.
Don’t get me wrong: Palermo is an incredibly beautiful city, however, its historic city centre shows so many signs of neglection, (from both private and public side) to make it look simply decrepit. Long term negligence made everything turn into a state that is impossible to ignore, even if the blame game between the public authorities and the local citizens tries to justify the circumstance.
I searched for an explanation to this, but I coulnd’t find one.
However strolling around the old town is a nice adventure. The first thing that captured my attention is that the old town of Palermo is made of very narrow alleys and backstreets: the two sides of the main street named after Vittotio Emanuele II (the first king of Italy), which is not very large, are surounded by an incredible number of small alleys that run towards the 4 quadrants in which the old town is divided.
I started my stroll in the morning and ended it in the evening, thus I managed to capture both day and night atmosphere. Thankfully my hotel was very centrally located, along Via Vittorio Emanuele II thus I could get out easily and roam around the old town without long transfers (traffic in Palermo can be really crazy).
One thing I understood is that if you really want to explore the city and get the most of it you have to forget about Google maps, and any other similar tool. Just keep walking nose up instead: surprising views will be around every corner. Another aspect of the old town which really captured my attention are the balconies. There is a unique technique here, which I didn’t see anywhere else in Sicily, to build the balconies with simple marble or lava stone plates supported by metal brackets. They created very long ones, most of which look like hanging gardens due to the large number of plants, flowers, and in some cases even trees, used to decorate them.
Don’t look for a specif city area to find these balconies because they are everywhere!!!
I decided to follow the signs pointing to the historic market of Ballarò which was one of the places I wanted to see since I planned my tour of Sicily. It is a very lively and coloured market, which meanders through the small alleys of the north eastern quadrant of the old town. What makes it very lively is not just the number of the stalls and the yelling of the vendors (some of whom are very loud) but also the fact that while walking alon the street you have to avoid bumping into a moped, a bike, even a small car…it’s funny but also a little tiring if you are not accostumed to give room to a motorcycle while buying eggplants at an oper air market.
I bought 1 kg of sundried tomatoes as the taste is different from the ones I get in Torino. They are not bad, but those from Sicily are better.
We had a quick lunch at the market, sat at one of the several little stands. I had some very good “Sarde a Beccafico”, one of the most traditional recipes of Palermo made with fresh sardines stuffed with grated and toasted crumbed bread. Then we moved out of the market area and ended up into a little square whose most prominent building was a Church. It didn’t look anything special from the outside but we saw a ticket booth close to the main portal thus we felt it was something good to see, althoguh neither I nor anyone in my family ever heard of it. We paid the ticket and entered the Church.
What a surpsise!!!! It was one of the most beautiful Baroque Churches I have ever seen in my life. Despite the simplicity of its design (it’s a very traditional latin cross-shaped Church) the monumentality of its walls and ceiling decorations made my heart lose a beat. The name of it is Chiesa del Gesù (the Gesuits Church), but the locals call it “Casa Professa”. Each column is a sculped garden aimed at celebrating the Glory of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. If one would be asked to count how many sculpted statues are visible on the walls he would end the count in one year from now!!!!
It was weird to us to find such a beautiful church round the corner from the market, almost hidden. In fact we were the only visitors inside while other places in town were pretty crowded. If you will ever go to visit Palermo don’t skip a visit here, the show is very worth the price, which is pretty low by the way, just 4 euros.
I walked to the so called 4 Canti, which is the very heart of the old town and started walking along via Maqueda unitl I reached the Opera House. It’s called Teatro Massimo and it is considered one of the biggest historic theatres in the world. This is one of those buildings that were accurately restored in the past decades and shows the grandeur of the past.
From here the street changes its name into Via Ruggero VII. I kept walking until I ended up into a square where another very famous theatre of Palermo is located: Teatro Politeama Garibaldi.
I wanted to see this theatre becase to me it looks like the Royal Albert Hall of London, on a smaller scale. However, when I reached the place and saw it, I felt pretty frustrated. Altough the picture I took won’t reveal much of it, the theatre is in such a state of neglegtion it might collapse any moment if actions won’t be taken shortly. It is very sad as this place was, and still is, one of the most unique theatres of Italy, originally conceived without a roof which was added at a later stage to also allow performaces in wintertime. It looks still amazing but very abandoned although it is the headquarter of the Philarmonic Orchestra of Sicily.
I went back to the hotel, had a shower (temperature was pretty hot) and went out again, but this time my destination was the oldest restaurant in town called Antica Focacceria San Francesco. It’s in the old town. Getting there is very easy as I simply walked along Via Vittorio Emanuele towards the sea. Almost at the end of it I took a left on Via Paternostro and ended up in Piazzaetta San Francesco.
This is the place where you can try all the most traditional recipes of Palermo and the entire Sicily, spanning from the Eggplant Caponata, Anellini al Forno (baked pasta), Sarde a beccafico, Arancine with ragout or butter and many many more. We decided to dine here. They do not accept reservations thus if all the tables are busy you may have to wait in line but not for long as the service is pretty quick.
My first day in Palermo ended here but more visits were planned the next day to the Unesco Protected area of the old town.