Discovering the past in Palermo, Sicily

Having been to Italy twice before, I expected Sicily to be along the same lines as what we’ve already seen. I wasn’t really prepared for the mix of architectural styles, cultures and flavour that was a totally different Italy than what we were used to. 

We landed in Palermo after midnight.  Having just left a very busy, crowded and stifling hot airport in Santorini, the emptiness of this unexpectedly modern, air-conditioned place was a welcome change. As it was the middle of the night and transportation choices  were slim, we proceeded, along with everyone else who just got off the plane, to the deserted taxi stand.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Italy and I’ve forgotten how the Italian minds operate. There is no coherent order of lining up and waiting for taxis, which is what I’ve become accustomed to. In Italy, you can be in a line up, but when it comes to boarding (be that plane, train, ferry or any other mode of transportation), the Italians approach it in an en mass formation and with great urgency. It’s like a sport to them.

It only took seconds before the competitive instinct kicked in and we pushed our way to the front of the line like it was our job. Since one of us is fluent in Italian, the negotiations were handled swiftly and after an appropriate amount of outrage at the prices (20 Euro a person!) we were on our way.

Our driver, wearing a t-shirt with a plunging neckline, coiffed hair and cigarette in his mouth (who says you can’t be styling in the middle of the night while driving a cab), stuffed us in the back of his vehicle with two other couples. As we started driving, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour. It was then that I started to get a feeling that things might not end well.

The driver got lost after dropping off the first couple. The four of us watched in amazement as he stopped the car at the lights and got out  to talk to someone in the cab in front of us. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but at this point, what choice did we have? I was just hoping our Airbnb hosts would still be up to let us in.

At this point, it was close to 2 a.m. and we stopped at a corner of what I would best describe as a small, sketchy alley and a smaller, narrower and possibly more questionable one.  As it was our street, this is where we were left with our luggage, rain still pissing over us.  Despite my apprehension, we found our destination fairly quickly and with no issues. Our host, dressed to the nines and looking more like he was off to a party rather than his bed, happily handed us the key and left us alone.

Palermo, we made it. I was so excited to start exploring.

Palermo really took me by surprise. It was the unexpected mix of history, architecture and cultures that got me hooked.  I expected predominately Roman influence and remnants. It turned out to be that and so much more.

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Orto di Palermo

For centuries Palermo was dominated by various cultures. From the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, there were many that left their mark on the city. What fascinates me, is the fact that every new set of architects often incorporated previous styles rather than destroying and replacing them with their own. For that, I am very grateful.

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Fontana Pretoria

As a key port, Palermo played an important role in the ancient world. According to my DK travel book “the town prospered under the Roman, but its golden age was under Arab domination, when it rivaled Cordoba and Cairo in beauty.” How amazing would it be to travel back in time to see that splendour?

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San Cataldo
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Ahhh Palermo

The stark contrast between the many crumbling buildings that were once glorious and proud, and the newly renovated ones can be seen almost everywhere. According to my guidebook, the many years of neglect when the mafia controlled this area led to the current state of affairs. Slowly, the government has been taking steps to revitalize and renovate different neighbourhoods, but they still have a long way to go.

Probably one of my fave buildings was the Palermo Cathedral. The guidebooks don’t do enough to prepare you for this place. Built around 1185 as an early Christian basilica, it then became a mosque only to become a Catholic church once again. A blend of Christian then Arab and Norman influences can be seen in many parts of the building, both inside and outside. I was pretty obsessed with taking pics of this place. There isn’t a bad angle and it looks different depending on the weather and time of day. We managed to get on the rooftop walkway where the views were just amazing.

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Alex and I on top of the Palermo Cathedral

There were so many buildings that I wanted to take pictures of. I could spend days just walking around Palermo capturing the world around me. The cobbled, narrow streets, the peeling and crumbling buildings, the bars and filled with people and merriment.

Our apartment had an incredible three-level patio that we made a very good use of. At night, you could hear music, the laughter and clinking of cutlery in the distance. It was amazing. I go back to that moment every now and then, and the memory of that place gets me every time.

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One of the patios at the Airbnb in Palermo

Palermo as anywhere else in Italy, has an abundance of great restaurants, bars and coffee shops.  We definitely contributed to the local economy by partaking in these delights.

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You had me at gelato
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Biggest problem is choosing
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Patio life, Palermo edition

One of the interesting things I noticed about Palermo was that there were many Italian tourists, but not many others.  Italy is normally overrun with visitors from all over the world, but that wasn’t the case here. Sicily is still not as widely visited as the rest of the country, but definitely worth visiting.

I have a feeling we will be back in Palermo. It became one of those places that felt like home. Who knows what the future holds? 🙂

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