Sicily Part One – Palermo

Travelling by ferry, we discovered, is not quite the same glamorous experience as joining a cruise ship. To begin with, there are no fancy terminals manned by obsequious staff to shepherd you through the boarding process. Instead, we arrived at Naples ferry terminal, where, having obtained our boarding tickets from a little biglietteria hidden away in one of half a dozen nondescript buildings that line the shore, we and about twenty other passengers were left standing in the hot sun for an hour or so, prevented by a friendly but uncommunicative security guard from entering the dock while a seemingly endless stream of cars and trucks drove out. The scheduled departure time of 11:00 am for our ferry, the GNV Cristal,  had come and gone before we were finally allowed to walk aboard through the cavernous vehicle bay and make our way to our cabin, a dinky little affair with a couple of bunks and a tiny bathroom. To our considerable surprise, we and the other passengers with whom we had been waiting were the ferry’s only passengers on this leg – and astonishingly, there were no cars or trucks at all being loaded, so we had barely got ourselves settled before we were under way and beginning the passage out of Naples Bay, past the towering rock of Capri, and into the open sea, bound for Palermo.

Capri on the distant horizon seen from a deserted ferry deck

It’s a ten hour journey from Naples to Palermo, enough time to watch the passing scenery from deserted decks as the coastline gradually receded into the distance, have a coffee and a sandwich lunch in the bar, and retire for a couple of hours to the cabin for a nap or, in my case, watch a video or two on my laptop. By the time we had emerged for dinner in the buffet restaurant (one of two options aboard, the other being a proper table-service restaurant which looked decidedly empty when we went past), the Cristal was well within sight of the Sicilian coast, and we were sliding gently into Palermo harbour as the sun surrendered its last grip on the day, outlining in a luminous corona the massif of Monte Gallo, an immense rock that dominates the northern end of the harbour. By this time, the other mountains that surround the city had dissolved into barely visible inky shadows, below which the lights of the city blinked and shimmered around the bay. Rounding the mole that protects the inner harbour, we caught glimpses of the city as the ship turned in a circle to ease into her berth, the walls of a ruined fortress here, a palazzo or two, church domes and spires, half seen behind the yellow glare of the dockyard lights. Finally we were alongside and being disembarked onto an empty dock, left to fend for ourselves.

Exiting the wharf in a vain search for a taxi, we were confronted with a mass of cars and trucks of every description queuing up to board the Tunis-bound ferry that was docked alongside us. Many of the cars were crammed full of personal effects – one was not only full inside, but piled another four or five feet high on the roof with stuff, leaving barely enough room for the driver. Clearly they weren’t just going for a quick holiday on the Tunisian beaches, so presumably they were immigrants who were returning home, and for the first time we had an inkling of the scale of the human tide that washes back and forth across these waters, finding its locus in Sicily.

Having worked our way clear of this tangle, we started the fifteen minute walk to our apartment, following the instructions of Mr Google through darkened back streets that were jammed with parked cars and lined with ugly concrete apartment buildings, with only the occasional kebab shop open to indicate that there was any sign of life, until eventually we found our apartment and were greeted by our very solicitous host, Mari. Though the apartment was probably one of the best we have rented – two bedrooms, two bathrooms, even two living rooms – our unglamorous arrival had left us wondering quite what kind of city we had actually arrived in, and we went to bed a little apprehensive.

That apprehension was perhaps amplified by the usual description in guide books and elsewhere of Palermo as a “gritty” city, with the inevitable references to the presence of the Mafia and their role in holding back progress. Well, it may be that all of that is true, and there are certainly plenty of areas in downtown Palermo for which the epithet “gritty” is applicable, particularly once you get away from the main tourist areas. Yet the city that we found and explored was also charming and evocative, though distinctly different from any other Italian city we have visited.

Let’s start with the part of the city where our apartment was located. Politeama is in the so-called “new town”, that part of Palermo north of the centre that was laid out in the 19th century in a fashionable grid pattern, lined with Liberty-era apartment buildings, most of which seem to have survived the carpet-bombing to which Palermo was subjected during the second world war (by the Americans, and apparently needlessly, since the Germans had already left). Pierced here and there with pleasant parks like the leafy Giardini Inglese, the main street, the Via della Liberta, is tree-lined and provides a perfect locale for up-market brands to display their wares. At the southern end of the suburb is a vast piazza, dominated by the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, a theatre in the grand tradition. Beyond the piazza, the main street has a series of name changes until it emerges as the pedestrianised Via Macqueda outside the city’s equally grand opera house, the Teatro Massimo, reputed to be Italy’s oldest.

Via Macqueda, just outside the Teatro Massimo

Here one enters the old town, itself divided into four quarters centred in the Quattro Cantii intersection, an octagonal square with four fountains, guarded by four statues that are illuminated at night. It is here that, if you wander off the main street into the tangle of narrow lanes, you will encounter the more earthy world of workaday Palermo, where the building facades are dilapidated and crumbling, the balconies rusted, and the washing flaps above your head in the slight breeze that does little to diminish the summer heat. But here you will also find some of the city’s finest architectural treasures, like the beautiful Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 at the height of Normal rule of the island, a wonderful blend of Norman and Moorish styles.

San Cataldo
The Old Town

And just up the street are the other Norman treasures, the extraordinary cathedral and the Palazzo dei Normanni, from where the Normans governed the island and still the seat of Sicily’s quasi-autonomous legislature. All these buildings are a reminder that Palermo was once one of the most sophisticated and important capitals in the world. It is fair to say that without the protection that King Roger II afforded to the Islamic scholars who preserved the knowledge of the ancients in the fields of art, mathematics and science, the Renaissance and everything that came after it might never have happened. By way of contrast, just a block or two in the other direction is the Post Office, a fascist-era brutalist building that, ironically, survived the war and which, improbably, is regarded with some affection by modern Palermitans; for me it just underscores the sheer weight of history through which this city has lived.

The Cathedral (more impressive outside than in)

I think we would have found Palermo an enjoyable and welcoming place to visit under any circumstances, but it was made even more so by the presence of friends, both old and new. From Australia, our good friend Chris Ryan was visiting the city, accompanied by his friend Dorothy, a stranger to us but soon to become a delightful companion for meals and concerts, of which more below. And in Florence we had made the acquaintance of Glenn and Giovanni, the former an English art teacher and artist, the latter his partner and a native of Sicily; Glenn having just retired, they had moved permanently to Palermo from London just a week or so before our arrival. So for almost the first time in nearly nine months, Robert and I had more than each other for company! We had many lovely moments with all of them, but what follows are three little occasions that stand out.

Dancing in the Streets

For one reason or another, Rob and I have been starved of our usual diet of classical concerts over the summer months, and so when we saw that there was a concert by the Palermo Symphony Orchestra to be held in the courtyard of the Palermo Modern Art Gallery (an excellent institution, by the way, where we spent a very pleasant day escaping Palermo’s heat and contemplating the output of some of Sicily’s very fine 20th century artists), we just had to buy tickets. Dorothy was also interested, and so we all trotted along to join the crowd under the open sky to listen to a program that included a new work by a Sicilian composer, George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, and finally the centrepiece of the concert, his Piano Concerto. The performances were excellent, and the crowd loved it, but the evening was slightly disturbed for us because, sitting in the back row as we were, we became aware as the evening went on of quite a lot of crowd noise coming from the piazza outside. This seemed a little odd, since the square had been fairly placid when we arrived. However, all became clear as we left – it seemed that a small dance troupe had set itself up right outside the museum, performing dance routines to 50’s swing music. This had attracted quite a crowd, many of whom had decided to join in. Naturally we had to watch for a while, and Dorothy couldn’t help but join in the spirit of things with a bit of clapping and toe tapping. The next thing we knew, a young man who was clearly one of the members of the dance troupe presented himself to her, insisting that she join him in a dance. Dorothy feigned reluctance for a bit, but eventually bowed to the inevitable. I nearly fell over laughing at the look of surprise on the young man’s face as the redoubtable Dorothy, revealing a dancing technique that had hitherto been entirely unknown to us, gave him a thorough workout and earned herself a round of applause from the crowd at the end of the dance.

Dancin’ in the Streets, Palermo-style


An encounter with a literary giant

Over many years, Glenn and Giovanni have stayed, when they visited Palermo, at an apartment complex in the former Palazzo Butera, down on the waterfront. The Palazzo is owned by Gioacchino and Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi, or, to give them their proper titles, the Duke and Duchess of Palma. Today a wing is given over to apartments, which Nicoletta manages, while her husband pursues his scholarly activity as an expert on opera, among other things. When we first met Glenn, he had suggested that we might like to have a bit of a tour of the Palazzo when we got to Sicily, a suggestion on which he now made good, arranging for the Duchess to meet us and take us through the Palazzo. Now we have seen a few palazzi in our time in Italy, and this might have been just another were it not for a special connection, and that is the fact that Gioacchino is in fact the adoptive son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of one of the great works of Italian literature, The Leopard (in Italian, Il Gattopardo, though the translation is not exact), most of which was written in this very Palazzo, to which Lampedusa had moved after his own Palazzo was destroyed courtesy of the US Air Force at the end of the war. So not only did the charming Nicoletta give us a great tour of the private rooms of the Palazzo (telling us along the way several highly amusing anecdotes about various family members), but we got to see the original handwritten draft and the first typescript copy of the novel. Very special indeed!

Lampedusa’s original handwritten draft of The Leopard


And we visit the mansion of a wine baron

Finally, since I have to stop writing at some point, I wanted to relate another visit to another grand house, this one in company with Chris, to the Villa Whitaker-Malfitano. This grand house, built in the Belle-Epoque style that would have been at home in Newport, Rhode Island, was the property of a Sicilian-born scion of an English and American family whose wealth came from banking and from extensive vineyards near Marsala, on Sicily’s western coast. We had actually set out that morning just to have a wander through the various parks and gardens that dot the northern part of the city; I had picked out this particular park just by looking at Google Maps, and I had no particular expectations other than that we would see a nice garden. But when we got there, having been told by the guy at the park gate that we had to press the doorbell to get into the mansion, we discovered a fascinating time capsule. It was almost as if Giuseppe Whitaker had literally just popped out and left the place empty. There were only a few other visitors, and unlike most such museums, none of the rooms were roped-off, so we could wander around to our heart’s content; Robert and Chris had a particularly lovely time not just imagining life as it was here, but imagining themselves as the new owners, deciding who would have what bedrooms, where they would hold soirees, and how many people they would have for dinner.

The Palazzo Malfitani Whitaker


These three occasions were all shared with our friends, old and new, who happened to converge on Palermo, and they made that visit all the more enjoyable, for which I thank them all. And since I know that all of you will at some stage read this blog, I hope you will find no objection to being mentioned!

We had ten days in Palermo, and could easily have stayed longer in a city that, for us at least, exceeded our expectations. I hope we will be able to return at some point in the future.

Next blog entry: the rest of Sicily!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s