Continuing her series on short breaks, Nancy Wilson visits Palermo in Sicily
My last island experience was Corfu. Beforehand I had visions of dancing Greeks downing ouzo to cries of "Opa! Opa!". That’s not what I found: my memory of Corfu is of obese English drunks, Brit-style bars and breakfast joints ... and not much sign of the Greeks.
Palermo turned out to be quite different: no English, no French, even at the tourist office where they came up with just one brochure partly in English. I had come to a new territory as it was meant to be discovered: untouched by foreigners.
Palermo - reputed to be the most conquered city in the world since its foundation in 700BC - has a complex history. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs (who made it the city of 300 mosques) and Normans have all invaded and ruled. Around 1100 it was the greatest city in Europe, renowned for its wealth and for being a centre of learning. Decline inevitably set in and with the rest of Sicily it became part of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1860 Sicily was made part of the newly United Kingdom of Italy and since 1947 Palermo has been regional capital.
And the Mafia? "People here used to be afraid of the Mafia," my Palermo-born guide told me, “and it was known that shop owners paid ‘rent’. It’s not like that anymore, though.” Hearing this, I recalled that just last June, in a scene out of Godfather III (which was filmed on the steps of Palermo’s spectacular opera Teatro Massimo), local Mafia boss Nicolo Ingararao was shot four times outside the Palermo police station in broad daylight. To the relief of local authorities, there were no retaliation killings but then they have other things to worry about: an overpopulated and noisy city with a high level of street crime.
History and architecture
Chiesa di San CataldoBut don’t be put off: as in so many places these days, you just have to be careful. Palermo’s history is to be seen in its architecture and there’s lots of it. Something unfamiliar for Europe is the Zisa - a castle in classic Arabic style, now being restored (actually for the last twenty years). And there are numerous piazzas often close to glorious churches of which the most impressive is the Chiesa di San Cataldo. A few kilometres above the city is Monreale, a magnificent blend of Byzantine, Arabic and Romanesque styles with 130 stunning mosaics which incorporate 2200 kilos of pure gold. Closer to the city - and for those with a taste for the macabre - there are the Capuchin Catacombs where visitors can view 8000 mummified corpses. The most recent, a child laid to rest in 1920, is so lifelike she’s been dubbed "Sleeping Beauty".
Cheaper than the Côte d’Azur
To sample today’s Palermo you can visit the am-to-pm markets such as the Ballaro. Selling everything from cloth and cucumbers to razors and radios, you’ll quickly realise that almost everything is cheaper than on the Côte d’Azur. And that goes for eating out as well. For a very good meal, try the popular Lo Scudiero, close to the Teatro Politeama. You can have a pasta special and your choice of dessert for €14.50 ... with a free glass of champagne to start. You’ll find wonderful coffee everywhere (pay €1.20 for a latte macchiato and a cornetto at the local café) but avoid Antico Caffé Spinnato, the oldest coffee house on town, where you’ll pay much more than in most other places and have neglectful and discourteous service.
Palermo is a great place to explore on foot (though advisedly not after dark) which is ideal because traffic is a nightmare. The city just wasn’t built for it ... so inconceivable congestion and parking problems (“triple parking” when drivers leave the keys in the ignition knowing someone will need to move the vehicle). If you hire a car, here’s a tip from from my guide: “We wear our sunglasses all the time when driving. This prevents other drivers from seeing your eyes which is key to advancing into traffic. If you make eye contact and acknowledge the other driver vying to advance as you are, you’ll never move. So put the glasses on, look straight and drive.”
Where to stay: I was a guest at the Grand Wagner Hotel (www.grandhotelwagner.it), named for the composer who spent time in Palermo. It’s a brand new property, opened in 2007. Rooms are clean and spacious though street noise can’t be shut out - this is Palermo. Very friendly service and a pleasant place to relax when you’ve been footing it around the city.
How to get there: I flew Nice-Palermo courtesy of Blu-express, who have discontinued this service after one season. You’re best bet now is Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) but book well in advance to get the best price.