You know how you can have a really good friend, and they have another really good friend, and it seems like you would also be friends with their friend…..but it just doesn’t quite turn out that way, and you never really enjoy being with your friend’s friend? Well – that’s what happened to us with Palermo.
This was Alan’s first trip to Sicily, and while it was my third trip – I’d never been in Palermo, so we were looking forward to discovering it together. We’d heard good things about it. We both love big cities. And you might remember how enthusiastic we were about Napoli* – the town most often compared to Palermo in terms of its chaotic disorganization. But whereas Napoli’s confusion seemed to have a sense of joie de vivre mixed into it, Palermo’s just seemed mean-spirited.
As everyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows – museums are not our thing, and food definitely is. Palermo came at the end of our Sicilian trip, and up until then, I had eaten perhaps better than I ever had on vacation — anywhere. Our hotel was in what appeared to be a delightfully restaurant-intensive neighborhood, yet our meals – even at the restaurant that was recommended by a knowledgeable local — turned out to be mediocre at best. Lunch, aperitivi, dinner…..the only things that were even half as good as things in the rest of Sicily were a few of the pastries with morning coffee.
The “warm, friendly Siciliani” that you always hear about were all outside the city. Customer service? No sign of it in Palermo. Pride in the city’s buildings and monuments? We saw none.
The center of the town is a crossroad called the Quattro Canti, which has matching buildings on the 4 corners representing Palermo’s 4 districts. You would think the roads radiating out from this important intersection would be at least marginally cared for. But just a few blocks away are the remnants of what looked like World War II bombed buildings. We had heard there were still some around, but we certainly didn’t expect them to be in the town center.
There are 2 open-air markets – the Vucciria and the Ballero’. The Vucciria market is known for its street food – tripe, grilled spleen, skewers holding bits of this organ or that –which makes it sound like a very interesting place to visit. The Cadogan guide book on Sicily says of the Vucciria: “The market comes into its own after dark, when it is illuminated by strings of bare light bulbs; the pungent odor of the Vucciria at the end of the day lingers in the memory like no other smell in Palermo.” Perhaps Saturday was the wrong night, because it certainly had not “come into its own” while we walked its winding lanes, and the only memorable smell was of urine, which I kept hoping would not linger.
The Ballero’, on the other hand, really was a very interesting market. Almost all of the other street markets we’ve visited have the various products grouped together. But the Ballero’ – in keeping with the theme of disorganization — had gorgeous fruits next to fresh fish, next to a table selling cigarettes or old CD’s, next to cheap shoes, next to more gorgeous fruits, next to meats, next to……. You get the idea. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the arrangement, but if you looked long enough, you could find whatever you wanted…..although I must say we didn’t see any spleen.
Perhaps if we liked museums we could have found some interesting ones, and we would have felt better about the town. We did find a few nice parks (with the ubiquitous graffiti on their fountains or statues), and a few lovely tree-lined blocks of high-end shops. But they weren’t enough…..not enough to make us forget that we had not one single entertaining personal encounter with a Palermitano…..not enough to excuse the amount of decay that exists, even in the newer construction….
……and certainly not enough to forgive the fact of not having even 1 meal that rose above Olive Garden standards.
On our final morning in town, we headed for Monreale, a close suburb, to see the fabulous mosaics in its beautiful cathedral. As I was walking toward the church, a pigeon pooped directly on the front of my clean white shirt. I could not stop laughing because it so perfectly represented our stay in Palermo. Never let it be said that I’m one to ignore a sign from god. We got the hell out of there and drove to beautiful, friendly, Cefalu’, where we had an absolutely wonderful dinner for our last night in Sicily.
Next time I’ll tell you all about the great things we found during our vacation. It’s a safe bet that Palermo will not be mentioned…
*In case you want to revisit our adoration for Napoli: https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/napoli/