…the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.* This quote from Sicily’s most famous novel just about sums up the island’s tormented modern history. Il Gattopardo commonly translates in English as the Leopard, although more precisely it refers to the serval in the author’s noble family’s coat of arms and according to some sources to a wildcat hunted to extinction in Italy in mid 19th century, more or less as the principal character of the novel contemplates the disastrous state of what should be Sicily’s leading class. A problem that prevails until now, and not only in Sicily, I’m afraid, and believing themselves the salt of the earth is common to them all, regardless their geographic whereabouts.
My short holiday in Palermo is over, and I am driving my white Cinquecento back to the airport. The little Fiat is as immaculate as it was when I rented it five days ago, which I am extremely proud of, because the way people drive around here is incredible (both insane and entertaining). They just about respect the red lights (while amber means “accelerate” and green stands for “sound the horn”), but apart from that, the purpose of road signs is mainly decorative (including one-way), signalling is considered a bad habit (“arrows are for Indians”**, as they say around here, and if they ever bother to use the indicator, they either leave it on for a couple of kilometres, or do the exact opposite of what they signal). Parking in double row is expected; a stop sign is merely a suggestion (as is speed limit), a double carriage road has enough space to accommodate four to five (constantly interchanging) lines of cars (and twice as many motorcycles), and of course the horn is the car’s most important equipment. I must have broken more rules in these 5 days of Sicilian driving than I’ve ever bothered to learn, but it’s the only way to survive around here (and the car doesn’t have a single scratch, well done, Kat).
The drive from the airport to the city is not only challenging, but also quite emotional. The former Punta Raisi airport is now Aeroporto Falcone – Borsellino, named after two palermitan judges who dedicated their lives and careers to fighting the mafia, which turned out fatal for both of them. Roughly half way through the approach to Palermo, by the exit for Capaci, the highway passes between two granite obelisks that commemorate assassination of Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three members of his escort, who were killed when over 300 kilogrammes of TNT were detonated under the highway upon passing of the judge’s car. It was 23rd May 1992. I was eight and I was watching TV in my grandmother’s living room. I remember the images on the news: the explosion completely obliterated the highway, there was a hole where the road used to be. Less than two months later, on the 19th of July 1992, Falcone’s colleague and close friend Paolo Borsellino was killed (along with 5 members of his police escort) by a bomb placed in a car parked outside his mother’s home. The violent deaths of these brave men and women, however, became the turning point of the campaign against Cosa Nostra. The umpteenth tragedy caused escalation of bad mood among general public and the state finally managed to fight back. It is different now. You don’t risk taking a stray bullet when you go out for a coffee and no one places explosives around anymore. Or maybe the mafia just learned how to hide a little better, or moved from collecting “protection” money from local business to some more subtle and elegant form of crime. If we want things to remain as they are, things will have to change, young Tancredi points out in the Leopard. Be it as it may, when you take a walk through the city centre, every tourist crap shop sells T-shirts labelled “I am the Padrino”, which is ungrateful and disrespectful to many brave Sicilian victims of the mafia and utterly disgusting for every other reason.
I lived in Italy for some time, and I have interacted with the Italians (ever since) more than I like to admit, it’s the country I know best and love most apart from my own. Sicily is different from the rest. Most Italians from the north will tell you that Sicily is not Italy, and they’ won’t mean it in a good way either. It’s Maghreb, they will most likely add, Northern Africa. I agree that Sicily is nothing like the rest of the country. While the mainland Italy still resents from centuries of competition between dozens of republics, duchies and city states (every Italian will probably feel more Tuscan, Neapolitan or Venetian than Italian – and even within regions, there will be rivalries between neighbouring cities), Sicily is an alloy of different stages of their rich history. A fertile island in the middle of the Mediterranean that everybody wanted and everybody tried to conquer and rule at some point. The Greeks, The Phoenicians, the Carthage, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs. Then in the 9th century, the Vikings arrived (the lucky crew, imagine their sheer delight to disembark on a nice warm island, as opposed to their unlucky predecessors on the first expedition some 80 years earlier who ended up in Britain) and the Normans after them (and many more since, but the brief review up to Normans is sufficient for our purpose). The northerners were conquerors, but no aesthetes, hence they left all the Arab and Byzantine artists and craftsmen in charge of embellishing their cathedrals. Nowhere else in the world heavy Germanic architecture encounters gilded byzantine mosaics and finest middle eastern geometries.
The region’s capital is an amazing mixture of old and recent. Palermo was heavily bombed during the WWII and unbelievably as it may sound, it is still visible. Sometimes only a facade was left standing and incorporated in a new (non necessarily strictly legal) construction, sometimes you will notice signs of what used to stand next door on the walls of buildings. You will find dozens of churches, more or less magnificent and more or less in desperate need of some conservation intervention. Interestingly, unlike other italian cities, Palermo did not get rid of explicit signs of fascist architecture. Building from 1920s and 30s still bear the foundation mark refered to the beginning of fascist era (as opposed to birth of Christ), most sewerage covers date back to the 20s (as the sewers themselves, as there were none before) and are adorned with fascist symbols. I don’t have an opinion, to be honest. The Sicilians apparently do not remove their history, they live with it (which is healthier than what most other nations do), and I can understand the logic of “why would we change something while it works”, on the other hand, I am quite glad that my country removed all the communist symbolism from public places, and it would feel a bit strange to go to Germany, for instance, and keep seeing swastikas all over the place.
One day itinerary:
We started the day with a walk through one of the city’s street market. The most famous ones are Ballarò and Vucciria, we opted for mercato del Capo, as we were advised by our guide Paolo that Capo is the last real market in town (Vucciria is better for aperitif and night life, and Ballarò is supposedly a bit too dodgy). Then we walked through the centre and visited the cathedral, Palazzo dei Normanni (nowadays seat to the city council) and Cappella Palatina, which was the first taste of the triumph of gold that we would later see in Monreale. Then I indulged in my passion for opera and dragged my mum to the guided visit of Teatro Massimo – biggest theatre in Italy and 3rd largest in Europe and the best view in town from the terrace on the cupola of the building. She may not have been entirely interested in visiting the theatre, but I am certain she enjoyed the view. Quick lunch in a traditional friggitoria followed. My friend Paolo and his wife Alessandra took us to a typical place that no tourist would ever stumble across (mainly because the place is hidden in a courtyard of an anonymous building). I Cuochini (literally “little chefs”) was founded in 1826 (therefore is older than Italy itself) and basically fries whatever can be dipped into boiling oil. Arancine (leftover rice reinforced with cheese, ham, ragu or whatever you want, breaded and fried), pannelle (chickpeas flour mixed with water and oil, and – guess what – fried), potato croquettes, panzerotti filled with anything you can think of and – surprise – fried. All amazing. After lunch we walked a bit more and visited some breathtaking churches – Santa Caterina, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (also known as La Martorana, the parish of the local Albanian community of many centuries, that celebrates the Mass in a curious mixture of orthodox and catholic rite), San Cataldo (with its mosque-like cupolas), Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and San Giuseppe dei Teatini. We concluded the day with a drink in the harbour of Cala, and a fish dinner at Gigi Mangia.
To you the photos:
Visiting Palermo the day before was a great idea. Better than we would have ever imagined, as day two reserved another Sicilian specialty for us. The scirocco. I will try not to copy too much from some Palermo-based novels I have recently read, but I will try to give you an idea. The previous day was cooled down by a pleasant fresh northern breeze. Then in the evening the air froze. Everything froze. As if the city was preparing for something bad to happen. Well, maybe not strictly bad, but definitely unpleasant. Imagine a giant hairdryer blowing over the island. That’s what scirocco feels like. Hot wind born over Sahara carrying fine red sand over the Mediterranean. The incendiary wind. Not that the wind itself sets things on fire, but for some reason (I heard a few, and each is more unbelievable than the other****), as soon as scirocco hits, wildfires start popping up all over the island. We opted for a visit to Cefalù (part of the joint UNESCO site that includes the Norman – Arab cathedrals of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale). Most people will limit their stay in town just to the cathedral (which is definitely worth the drive, and note the contrast between the ancient mosaic and the modern glass work in the cathedral’s windows), we opted for a short hike to the fortress on the rock above the city – which may not have been the brightest idea given the hot wind, but we were rewarded by a beautiful view over Sicily’s northern coast.
Only a short drive from Palermo (after you fight your way through the traffic of the city centre – chances are you’ll reach Catania in about the same time), but even if it was on the moon, visiting the cathedral is worth every minute you spend swearing at other drivers on your way to Monreale. The building is nothing much from the outside, but you will be left speechless once you enter the church. It doesn’t matter whether you are a fervent catholic or militant blasphemous by choice, unless you are a total insensible idiot, you will be overwhelmed. Imagine over 6.5 square kilometres of mosaics. An explosion of gold. Thousands, millions of multicoloured glass tiles together forming scenes from Old and New Testament, all of this dominated by a giant Christ Pantocrator in the front apse. The English visitors may be interested to learn that one of the saints portrayed in the apse next to Christ is St. Thomas of Canterbury, a clear influence of Joan of England, consort of William II who commissioned the cathedral’s mosaics (and daughter of Henry II who had Becket killed). The scirocco had calmed down during the night only to make space to atrocious humidity. The air was sticky and heavy with the fine african sand, which turned any activity into unpleasant hassle, therefore we quickly adopted the italian approach to life and spent the rest of the day at Mondello beach.
Mythical mountain Eryx, for centuries famous all over the civilized world as one of the most important centres of the cult of Venus, rises above the city of Trapani, about just over an hour drive south from Palermo. The temple of Venus stood until 12th century, when it was destroyed and replaced by a fortified castle. Nowadays the old town of Erice spreads over the plateau on the top of the mountain. Best way to arrive to the village is to park in Trapani and take a cableway that slowly reveals beautiful views over sickle-shaped Trapani below and the Egadi Archipelago. Then you can lose yourself in the winding street of old Erice, visit the castle (nothing is left from the former temple of Venus, except for a marble head of a female divinity which can be seen in the local museum) and an impressive number of churches (there must be something like 25 of them, while the old town counts about 500 permanent residents).
Conclusion: fascinating, beautiful piece of Europe, with fantastic sea, great food (and wine), and mostly lovely people. Of course, speaking italian helps to get the best out of Italy, but the language is always the key to really understand any culture different to your own. It’s of course not the only way. The will to understand is what distinguishes people who travel from people who just change places.
* and *** Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo
** in italian freccia means both arrow and indicator
**** in the past, mafia would start wildfires as part of building speculation – after a fire, any terrain was fit to build upon, but recently the state passed a bill that prevents construction on areas hit by wildfires. Alternatively, shepherds are said to start the fires to gain terrain for pastures. A bit extreme solution, if you ask me, but maybe the locals just like to play with fire.