Palermo – A city of contrasts


Wednesday was a day of discovery and experiencing the true essence of the pulsating, worn and in your face city that is Palermo. As it’s not set up as a ‘tourist friendly’ city in the sense that many other capital cities are, it’s much easier for the traveler to experience the real culture. We worked out and then felt comfortable within the organized chaos that is driving in Palermo. We found that with a sincere smile, the grumpiest of Sicilians would instantly become a friend. And we realized that amidst what looks like poverty and decay in the historic centre, lays the authentic vibrancy and community spirit that embodies the Sicilian people. The proudly hung soccer flags,

the happy old men gathered to play cards,
friends clinging to friends on the scooters that twist and turn through the narrow alleys and the ethnic diversity of people perusing the market place

After spending the morning searching the internet for, finding the address to and then upon arrival having to locate ANOTHER pool for Dad to go swimming in – we finally found one! An Olympic sized pool in the outskirt suburbs of Palermo, during our journey we were able to properly explore and see the suburban lives of Palermites unfold as they went about their day. After dad’s swim we had a bite to eat at a local café and then headed into central Palermo. Thanks to our experience last night, we perfectly executed our parking plan to go into the back streets and see what we could find, we ended up JUST behind the Cathedral and had a very nice “Watcher” keep an eye on the car.

Now, the Cathedral of Palermo which is known as “The world’s most eclectic ecclesiastical architecture” and rightly so. The monumental edifice, stands on the site of a sixth century Christian basilica which was later superseded by an Arab mosque. In Norman times the English Archbishop Walter of the Mill (Gualterius Offamilius) decided to erect a new building, which would bear witness to the claim to power of the Archbishop of Palermo. Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque. It’s all here, in one grand, inspiring setting, complete with soaring medieval spires.

In sharp contrast to the ornate exterior, the inside is like a huge, marble shell, austere and simple but majestic in this simplicity

We then headed up Via Victoria Emmanuel and through the gardens to the Norman Palace.

A few majestic corridors crowned by vaulted ceilings are the Royal Palace’s silent testaments to another era, when the Normans’ Kingdom of Sicily was the most prosperous country in Europe. Much of the Royal Palace has been modified beyond recognition but its walls also show some of the original.

Built on high ground on the site of earlier Phoenician, Roman and Saracen structures, the Royal Palace now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly, the parliament of Italy’s largest semi-autonomous “regional” government and it’s prized Norman jewel – the Palatine Chapel. With traditional Orthodox iconography and a painted Arabic ceiling, the Palatine Chapels mosaics glisten with intricate patterns and new testament stories. The lions on the wall above the throne resemble those used in the coat of arms of England’s Norman kings some decades later, suggesting that the symbol originated in Sicily or one of the other Norman dominions

After seeing the grand old remains we went into the Albergheria district and got up close with the somewhat harsher reality of day-to-day life as we wound our way into the Ballaro markets. It initially took us quite a while as we wound through deserted alleys, past crowded university cafes and along streets that any health inspector would have been horrified by – dead cats lying amongst rubbish bins take your fancy?

Eventually we found the famed fruit stalls that despite the later hour (we should have visited the market early in the morning) were still full of life and ancient tradition. In the Arabs’ beloved Bal’harm (today’s Palermo), the open air markets occupy narrow medieval streets and the local dialect bears the marks of the Arabic tongue. Here in Sicily’s markets, there are more churches and fewer mosques, more miniskirts and fewer veils, but the character has remained essentially the same over these last nine centuries. That’s remarkable if you consider that some of the outdoor markets stand on the very same sites today as they did in the tenth century.

Originating from the era when Sicily was occupied by the moors, the 1000 year old market has run in much the same manner for centuries. It has strong Arab influences, evident in the merchandise itself. Next to mounds of ricotta and caciocavallo cheeses, barrels of olives and fat slabs of swordfish sit saffron and other spices and sacks of chick peas. Following in the footsteps of their medieval predecessors, Sicily’s new North African immigrants –a growing presence in Palermo– feel perfectly at home here, and are beginning to establish businesses in the Palermitan “souks.” We wandered through and looked beyond the stalls to the apartments, many in disrepair

but any feelings of pity were wiped when we saw the sheer delight of the children gathered to play soccer

and locals in animated conversation. Amidst every crack and rubbish pile was a bright exuberance – I hope the following photos captured this

It was as hard to make our way out of the markets as it was to find them in the first place but we eventually found the car and churned through Palermo’s traffic to our temporary home, picking up some fresh groceries on the way.

We made a delicious antipasti

and sat out in the garden overlooking Palermo which looked truly surreal in the afternoon light and listening to some fun Italian Café music with songs like “Cannelloni” by Giorgio Conte and ‘Carina” by Nicola Arigliano

We then head inside and watched Dad work his magic with our fresh ingredients in un-chartered territory, inspired by our Italian/Arabic experience in the markets. After frying some capers and setting them aside he created a delicious sauce from roasted peppers, tomatoes, olives, garlic, parsley and a pinch of chili to go with the grilled fish.

Mmmmm. A few years ago you couldn’t FORCE dad into the kitchen and now look!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Palermo – A city of contrasts

  1. margaretbiggs

    i can’t believe i produced a great chef! I have an old photo of him in al ain cooking.your next journey will soon begin. much love margoo xx

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