Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A day in Palermo

Monday 22nd February, 2016

In forty years of inveterate travel it would be surprising not to have experienced the occasional failure or misfortune. Some have been spectacular, like the day we set-off from Las Vegas on a family road trip to the Grand Canyon, but misplaced the biggest natural feature on the planet. After almost a decade our kids still bring it up occasionally as a classic example of parental failure. Thankfully most of our travel glitches are not so epic in scale, and result in cock-ups rather than disasters. 

Today's cock-up involved a visit to the Palace chapel in the Palazzo Normani in Palermo. It's paintings and mosaics are famous as an amalgam of Arab and Christian traditions and the craftsmanship achieved in the 12th Century under the patronage of the Norman king Roger I. We first came across them when they were featured in the T.V. series, 'Sicily Unpacked'.. Then last year Sarah, our elder daughter, visited Palermo and insisted that a visit to the chapel was a 'must see' site. It was a bit of a walk from where the bus dropped us in Via Roma, but eventually in the oldest part of the city, beyond the cathedral, we found the entrance and ticket office. There were notices in Italian listing the parts of the Palace complex that were closed out of season. When we asked if Palazzo Normani was open, the somewhat surly chap in the ticket office shook his head. It was disappointing, but Italy can be like that. It was only after we returned to the van, and I re-read our guidebook, that I realised what the guy meant was that the Palace itself was closed, but the famous chapel was open. Now I felt just a little bit stupid. I suppose it gives us a reason to come back one day.

Palermo is worth a return visit, as the rest of the day was to prove. The place is not some insular, provincial backwater, but a vibrant and vivacious metropolis that oozes character. Like Naples, Marseilles, Athens or Valencia it is one of Europe's great Mediterranean cities, a place to be experienced and absorbed by rather than be simply gawped at as a detached sightseer.

Palermo Cathedral

Baroque splendour at every corner

Old shops

The city central library and archives
A big difference between British cities and continental ones is the extent the latter have retained a mixed population living in the centre. They have neither been entirely suburbanised, nor partially gentrified. In this regard Palermo has retained its characterful inner urban heart to an extent unusual even by European standards. Like many cities in the last couple of hundred years a rectilinear grid of broad avenues defines the city's layout. Behind these however, even more so than Naples, lies a closely packed, labyrinthine web of alleys reflecting the Arabic roots of the city.

We visited the cathedral which is an eclectic mix of styles reminiscent of Seville's. We sensed in the detail, especially the narrow arched porch with slender columns, hintsoft Islamic influence. We decided to cut through the warren of alleyways to find the restaurant in Via Venezia that Sarah had recommended as a good place for lunch. These souk-like districts are notoriously confusing and have been baffling tourists for centuries, most famously Goethe who in the late 18th century had to hire a local guide to extricate himself. We had GPS, but still struggled. However, it did mean we happened upon the Ballaró street market in full swing, utterly by accident.

Narrow streets run off the grander avenues.

Some of the alleys look somewhat down-at heel

Each district contains magnificent churches - that's the Counter Reformation - impoverished people, opulent churches.

The Baroque - never knowingly understated!

Ballaró market boasts scores of stalls sell mainly fresh produce, but much else besides, spread out across the narrow streets of the Albergaria district. Most of the food products are from Sicily itself, and mainly the northern and central provinces. The fish looked so fresh they must have been plucked out of the bay early this morning. We have grown used to consumer choice, if oranges are out of season in the Northern Hemisphere, fly them in from South Africa; if a Mediterranean diet is good for the well-being of stressed-out northerners, then secure a ready supply of cherry tomatoes by swathing the shores of mare nostrum in plasticulture. It can be different, it was different today in Ballaró market. Admittedly it does help that Sicily is so fertile and blessed with a sunny climate that Demeter herself was thought by Ovid to have chosen the valleys around Enna as her sanctuary. 

Not just superb local produce on sale, but garish pink handbags too.
The cheese stall
Ballaró has a real buzz - and is used by the locals as their main shopping place.

Eventually we found our way back to Via Maqueda and worked out a route to take us to 'Ferro di Cavallo'. It was now well past 2.00pm and the restaurant was packed. They squeezed us in at a small table for two by the door, rejected by the Italian clientele due to their morbid fear of draughts. There is no menu, it comes printed on the brown paper tablecloth. It's simple, 2 euros for starters, primi pasta 4 euros, with 50cl of local red the bill for both of us - just 21 euros. For that we had delicious simple local food beautifully cooked. Gill started with caponata, then had pasta with swordfish, fennel and aubergines; I chose sarda polpette, followed by Pasta Norma. The wine was a local light red of mysterious provenance, but quite palatable, even if it was a bit shy about its origins.

Ferro di Cavallo means 'horseshoe - great food, vibrant atmosphere - and very affordable

The place was packed - but we got the last table.
The swordfish and fennel pasta - yum!
After lunch we headed to the famous Vucciria market area, then down to the seafront. It's more grungy around here, the graffiti a little more edgy, the rubbish skips overflowing. Before heading for a the bus we stopped for a coffee in the Piazza San Domenica. As Gill sipped her machiatto, she glanced around at the unfolding minor theatrics. "It's sure lived in" she mused.

The area between the Vuccira market and the port is grafitti heaven.
A mixture of  Baroque splendour and crumbling tenements

Scruffy but quite hip I suspect - exhaust pipes and scrap re-invented as wrought iron fencing - Kurt Schwitters meets street furniture, this is not unsophisticated proletarian culture here - it's  boho zone really..
Piazza San Dominico
A quick coffee stop - then back to the bus before rush hour.

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