We left Petralia late morning and wound our way through the mountain towns to the Autostrada that would take us to Sicily’s capital Palermo, noted for its rich history, culture, architecture and gastronomy. It’s played an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old but today has some very worn out and decrepit undertones
The city was founded by the Phoenicians, named by the Ancient Greeks, part of the Roman Republic and then eventually part of the Byzantine Empire. For a brief period it was under Arab rule during the Emirate of Sicily where it first became a capital. Following the Norman reconquest, Palermo would become capital of a new kingdom from 1130 to 1816, the Kingdom of Sicily. Eventually it would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860. During World War II, in 1943, the harbour and the surrounding quarters were heavily bombed by the allied forces and were all but destroyed. Six decades later the city centre has still not been fully rebuilt, and hollow walls and devastated buildings are commonplace the main topic of the contemporary age is the struggle against Mafia.
The Italian State have to share effective control, economic as well as the administrative, of the territory with the Mafiosi families which results in a lot of standoffs over issues like construction and rubbish collection.
The so-called “Sack of Palermo” is one of the major visible faces of this problem. The term is used today to indicate the rapid construction period that filled the city with poor buildings. Instead of rebuilding the city centre the town was thrown into a frantic expansion towards the north and regulatory plan was largely ignored. New parts of town appeared almost out of nowhere, but without parks, schools, public buildings, proper roads and the other amenities that characterise a modern city.
Situated on one of the most beautiful promontories of the Mediterranean, Palermo is anyway an important trading and business centre and tourism is offering a bright solution to many of it’s past troubles.
Our destination was not in central Palermo, but rather up on one of the many surrounding hills that enclose the sprawling city against the ocean. We struggled to find our destination though because following sign-based directions is quite difficult (if you’ve ever driven in Palermo then you’ll know exactly what I am talking about) for a few reasons.
1. Drivers in Palermo upon first glance are quite frankly insane, winding, honking, driving two ways one seemingly one way streets and a general sense of no rules (after a days driving we uncovered the methods to their madness and Dad now drives like a true Palermite)
2. A sign (often half hidden by trees) flashes up and then the turn off it’s indicating is usually less than 50m behind – you have to be on the top of your gain to get the right turn off
3. We had only a vague idea of the layout of the city and where we were going and were not yet accustomed to the crazy experience of driving in and around Palermo
Due to this combination we overshot our turn by a long way and wound up in Mondello, a popular seaside resort that was originally a fishing village.
We had a quick lunch and then set off with great determination and a time restraint (we were to meet the owner of our accommodation at 2pm and it was now 1.30pm). So, after furious concentration, a lot of guessing and second-guessing and a great deal of teamwork we finally arrived at our destination! Feeling very relieved we were greeted by Catarina, the elegant owner of the incredible house perched up on a hill, overlooking the sprawling city that is Palermo down below.
We wandered through the houses stylish and spacious rooms (a BIG change from our little apartment in Petralia!) and feel very privileged to stay in a fully furnished and functioning house – a special insight into anothers life.
After getting refreshed and unpacking we set off in the late afternoon into Palermo with a vague idea of where we were heading for dinner.
First problem – Parking! We entered the Historic center through the Arch on via Victorio Emmanual that 3 lanes of traffic squeeze into and eventually spotted a ‘P’ sign which we would take as a parking complex. It wasn’t. It just meant you could legally park along that area, although, when we looked around there were cars squeezed in – EVERYWHERE, regardless of signage. We found a more promising ‘P’ in a back alley which was more of a parking area. We went down the wrong way of the one way street and an old man gave us a disapproving look and tapped the car to further communicate his displeasure. We got a park and the old man came over, we smiled and apologized for going the wrong way saying “Austaliani” with a friendly shrug of the shoulders. He cracked a big smile and doing my best to understand his dialect, we soon realised he was the carparks “watcher”. 5 Euro’s later he was our best friend and you genuinely got the sense that he would die to make sure your car was there when you returned (interestingly we later found we were very nervous and refused to park in area’s where we couldn’t see a watcher that would safeguard the car). A part of the Mafia’s daily activities that permeates into the tourist’s sphere
We walked along the busy streets and experienced the dirtiness and decay that many people talk about. But that’s Palermo – you accept it for what it is and try extra hard to find it’s hidden gems, and we did! I had heard of a wonderful little restaurant of Michelin standard tucked away (very very well) in the heart of the ‘centro historico’.
After much wandering we finally turned the right corner and found it, “Osteria dei Vespri” , set on a tiny piazza and surrounded by old, empty looking buildings. Casual and unassuming visually with incredible food and wine it’s our kind of place for a special night out.
It was about 8 and they couldn’t offer us a place until 9pm so we went around the corner and had a lovely old time at a chic little wine bar that had a great selection and free appetizers! At about 9.30 we trotted back to the restaurant to find there were no free tables as the group the manager had been anticipating would have left by now, hadn’t – No Problemo! We soon saw the waitresses struggling down the cobbled street with another table! 5 minutes after arrival we were sitting out in the Piazza enjoying the crisp night air (MUCH warmer than Petralia) The food was soooooooo good – Each day the sommelier and chef collaborate to make a special tasting menu built around Sicilian wines so naturally, we all ordered the tasting menu! It was consisted of……….
A Welcome appetizer
Five ‘taste and texture sensations’ of raw seafood variety
“Anelletti” (small sicilian rings of pasta) with Octopus poached in Nero d’Avola wine with wild fennel and saffron
A Beef dish served with a special tomato sauce
A selection of cheeses, served with prickly pear honey.
A “pre-dessert” mandarin flavored, crème brûlé
An apple and amaretti tart on a vanilla cream with black cherries in syrup
AND THENN!!! They bought out petit fours compliments of the owner as we had had some great discussions with him about the food, the restaurants history and the Sicilian wines – we all love the wines from Etna made with the Nerollo Mascalese grapes.
Each dish was small but added together it was a monumental feast! Alberto Rizzo, the restaurant chef, finds inspiration in tradition so we experienced many traditional Sicilian flavours but always with a twist and “that little something extra” Mmmmmm
We were there until 12:30 and somehow (we’d all had a reasonable amount to drink) found our way home – no map, not even knowing the name of were we are staying! And happily crashed into bed