Sun rises on a sunny/rainy Saturday morning. Casa di Amici is astir with amici. We make one such friend, Chris, a guy traveling by himself who just missed his train and will be staying at the hostel another night. Do they welcome him back? Yes, because that’s what friends are for. Well, would Chris like to join us to tour Teatro Massimo? Yes, of course, he would.
So our foursome becomes five and we head out to look as the massive opera house. You may know this establishment as Italy’s biggest opera house, but more likely for its guest role in The Godfather III – again, no escaping mob references. The theatre STUNS. The circular walls are caved with private boxes. The ceiling still opens in a flower shape for circulation on hot days. Our conveniently private tour stumbles in on the orchestra tuning up. We see the haunted step and the room that echoes so that “businessmen” aka mobsters couldn’t be eavesdropped on.
It’s beautiful. I’m going back to see an opera. End of story.
Lunchtime means arancini time, so we oblige and head to Piazza Marina – on Andrea’s advice. Get this guy to Rick Steves, stat. There we meet kind Palermitan Tony who patiently speaks Italian with us and asks us to “fate la fede” or “have faith” in him. No problem, Tony. Minutes later he emerges with plates of food, mostly all fried and ball-shaped. Minutes later, it’s gone. We watch the stray dogs run in the piazza.
Sated with Sicilian street food and up two friends on the day, we head to Palermo’s Cathedral. A massive Arab-Norman style exterior opens to reveal a shockingly bare interior. Strange and intriguing in its missmatchedness. There we see some saint relics and get our incorruptible-hand sighting in for the day.
We transition from the bare to the incredibly ornate with an easy walk down the street to the Palatine Chapel. This Chapel from 1130 resides in the Palazzo dei Normanni, the palace that was once a medieval court and now serves as the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. Parliament kindly vacates four days a week to let tourists see the Chapel and Royal Apartments. Oh, kind Sicilians. The Chapel is covered in gold mosaics. Its ceiling is carved and painted 3D wood. The floors are a serpentining mosaic design. The eye cannot take in all the detail. Some disconnect occurs between sight and comprehension. The artisanship and intricacy is beyond understanding.
Again at odds, the frescos in the Royal Apartments are cracking and covered in bandaid-like gauze strips. We sit on the furniture and ballroom dance in the halls. This revelry puts us in the mood for mortality, so we step out to find the Catacombs dei Cappucini.
These underground halls, open to the public, house 8,000 bodies from the 17-19th centuries. Entrance is 3 Euro – probably too economical on a per-capita (per-ex-capita) basis. The bodies are extremely well preserved and they hang from the walls in their burial clothes. Some still have hair, others, eyelids, others still, eyeballs. There is a room for children. A room for virgins. We spend our time here quietly. Light streaks in from windows. It’s something that feels so unnatural, yet is a completely natural process.
We emerge a little shocked, and much more aware of our humanness. We awake the muted senses with a coffee, catch the Florentina soccer match at a wine bar, and head to Casa del Brodo for dinner. Here I tend my still-live-self with Sicilian appetizers of sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, artichokes, etc and a vegetable soup. Top things off with a cannoli. Out of respect for the place. We walk around a dark Palermo. To the shore, down ally streets, being rained on, or not. We make it back to a cold Casa di Amici and lay ourselves down for bed.
I awake for checkout and church. Post-service, we stroll through Mercado Ballaro, a windy street covered with tents and lined with fruit, meat, and seafood. The squid look at us from their cases, the oranges define their color. I buy dried fruit. Hail briefly beats down on us. And, it’s time to leave Palermo.
So, home in Rome, processing Palermo, I’m finding contrasts. Palermo’s aesthetic shouldn’t happen. It’s Arab-Norman. It looks semi-oriental, semi-African, semi-Baroque – resulting from the converging historical occupations of the place. Palermo is old, yet, it is new. The oldness shows its dirt on the outside, but shines gold on the inside. Here hang dolls and bodies, live people lingering in front of both. Here, a man juggles in the street in front of cars at a stoplight. Here, organ music waves out of Teatro Massimo late at night. Something out of the ordinary occurring in both instances creates some spectacle.
Here’s the biggest contrast: Palermo cradled the mafia, it looks gritty, dirty in some places – at night, tough in most – yet, the people there include you in a kinder community. They want you in their Palermo, in their circle. The living ones, above the ground, have a spirit to share. And in the people, Palermo preserves its impossible aesthetic.