Palermo, Part I

This weekend I went to Palermo, Sicily. I do the blog entry in parts; because this is Mafia territory, and that’s how The Godfather taught me.

First and foremost, let me say something about the Palermanese? Palermites? Palermations (like dalmatians)? Palermitans. They are the kindest people. I thought the Romans were friendly, and they are, but the people of Palermo go out of their way to make you feel welcome. They’re a cheerful bunch. Whether that’s the projected safe-guard from il mafioso or genuine, it felt the latter.

To work somewhat chronologically, I’ll begin at the logical start: the plane ride from Rome to Palermo via Easyjet. This sparked a conversation about good discount-airline names (my favorite being Flimsywings), but that’s beside the point. Here’s where we encounter our first Palermitan, Andrea. He sustains conversation with Katie the entire flight, telling her what to eat, where to eat it, what to drink, where to do that, life goals, passions, etc. Yesterday was Andrea’s birthday – happy birthday, Andrea. He then accompanies us to the bus stop and we ride into town together. He points out the window showing us the marker on the highway where the Mafia bombed a judge’s car and points out the shack on the hill where it was detonated from. This comes after he had told Katie to lower her voice when her obvious second question to him was, “What’s about this mafia?” He said our chances for making it back to Rome were 90 percent to 10. This was a little low for my liking, in that I came to Palermo expressly to become a godfather.

Anyway, we find our hostel – Casa di Amici – we’ll get back to this, and decide it’s time to begin the Palermo eating adventure. A word about Sicilian cuisine: In the south, food is distinctly different from Lazio, where I’ve been eating for the past month. Sicilian fare is more fried, heavier, cheesier, more rice, more seafood, less panini, less pizza, more cannoli, and food mainly acts as a ricotta-transportation-device. So, we sample arancini – a specialty, fried rice ball stuffed with either meat and peas or prosciutto crudo and cheese. Spherical and delicious.

From here we try some sights, walking to the Quattro Canti, four facades left from palaces on four corners of an intersection. Right next to this is Fontana Pretoria, a fountain from 1573 later renamed the “fountain of shame” because of its numerous nude mermaid-esque sculptures. I made Katie cover her eyes.

At this point we’re walking and it’s looking like rain. Here, on the coast of the Mediterranean, weather changes fast, and we learn to quickly adapt – dodging into churches and museums to avoid quick rain/hailstorms. Umbrella-ing becomes a verb in its frequent opening and closing – another instance of trigger-happy Sicilians. (I’m going to keep running with these mob jokes.)

We decide it’s time for some puppetry, naturally, and head to the world’s only marionette museum – because, how can you not? Museo Internazionale delle Marionette welcomes us with numerous Sicilian and non-Sicilian puppets, most all are creepy. They also put on puppet shows. I walked in on rehearsal. We decided that was enough.

“How do you follow marionettes?” you ask. With prayer. We walk back down Vittorio Emanuele II street – our favorite thoroughfare – to Chiesa Capitolare di San Cataldo. This is an Arab-Norman style church, with three little red domes founded in 1160. It’s in the order of the Holy Sepulcher, aka Jesus’s tomb. I’ll get married here, I decide. It’ll be a small ceremony, quaint, as the church is tiny with unadorned stone walls and mosaic floors.

We walk back through the Quattro Canti to Chiesa di San Giuseppe de Teatini. This beautiful Baroque cathedral has a three-dimensional ceiling with frescoed figures reaching out and up toward God. It’s overwhelming and intense, and I’ll spend a good deal of Sunday mass here contemplating the physics of the figures.

We need coffee, so to a cafe we go. Kind Palermitan #2 buys a game of pinball for Chris. Modern-day Samaritan, he is.

We now need food, or to move toward food. Hence, we manage to find a bar, strangely scarse in Palermo. Here I order a glass of Nero d’Avola, Andrea’s recommendation of the special regional wine. I believe the toast is to “Palermo and puppets.” Now we find Trattoria ai Cascinari and kind Palermitans #3-6ish. They keep bringing us free food! – Fried Sicilian appetizers, powdered Sicilian cookies, and Limoncello – This, in addition to my meal of ricotta stuffed veggies and Sette Vele torta, a seven layer cake consisting of lots of ricotta. This is another Andrea recommendation.  With this success rate, I’m beginning to think Andrea either a prophet or an oracle. A sage, at least.

We hit another, grungier, hipster-ier bar after dinner and roam back to our “Hostel of Friends.”

First day impressions of Palermo: where Rome is a city of preservation, history has a conscious importance, Palermo is a city of destruction and erosion. It’s grittier. It’s tougher. The buildings are sooty; the sights aren’t polished. When the sun goes down, it’s not well-lit. The conception of the mafia fits. It’s beautiful, but completely different than Rome. The sights are sights, but the Palermitans are here to live. They do business, they joke, they speak Italian to us. To them, we’re more the novelty with our big cameras. The city is lived-in, practical, not all aesthetic, but creates an aesthetic because of that very attitude.

Curtain closes, dark screen. Intermission.


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