Palermo was lovely, the most beautifully situated town in the world…
~ Oscar Wilde
For a long time, I avoided going to Sicily. The largest island in the Mediterranean, it sits a less than two miles from the Italian peninsula at the closest point. There is evidence of human activity on the island dating back to 12,000 BC, and Greeks, Spaniards, French, Moors, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, and more occupied Sicily over its history. Sicily is, in other words, a true melting pot of culture, cuisine, and ethnicity.
Phoenicians founded the city in 734 BC, and Palermo has been capital of Sicily from a time before the island joined the Italian Republic. It sits in the Conca d’Oro (the Golden Basin) surrounded by mountains on one side and facing the sea on the other.
Before my first visit to Palermo, I thought I would find a dirty, chaotic, crazy city….and I did. That said, I found the chaos and craziness to be charming (although I could do without the dirt). Let me introduce you to what makes me yearn to go back to Palermo.
You can’t really tell by this photo, but La Cala is the horseshoe-shaped old port of Palermo. The Moors built a fortress there to defend it, and it eventually became a prison and then a private residence. Today, La Cala is home to everything from private yachts to small fishing boats. While La Cala does not have a promenade to walk, it does have a sidewalk. The small grassy area on the west side is a nice place to sit and watch the boats.
Walking the sidewalk around the port is calming and refreshing. Cross SS113 and walk. up Via dei Cassari, and the frenzy of the city will descend on you.
When the Normans ousted the Arabs from the area, they did not purge all things Arab. Instead, they tolerated the religion, embraced some of the culture, adopted some of the customs, and conserved many of the buildings with their unique architecture. More, they erected many structures fusing Arab architecture with Byzantine mosaics.
The Church of San Cataldo (above) is a beautiful example of Arab-Norman architecture which dates to the 12th century. Like many other churches all over the world, this one was deconsecrated in the 17-18 century and stood as a post office for years. In the 19 century, it was reconsecrated as a church and has remained as one since. San Cataldo was an Irish monk who became bishop of Taranto, and he was the patron saint of Sicilian Normans.
Today, Palermo still has four street markets that maintain the flavor and flair of ancient times.
Mercato Ballaró is a long, historic street market in central Palermo. Nestled among buildings and churches, Ballaró snakes through the streets. The market has everything from produce and meat to cigarettes and underwear. Vendors yell out to passing customers to try to attract them, adding to the frenetic atmosphere. There are dozens of “street food” vendors along the route, but the number of flies kept me from trying anything.
I love that you can buy fresh, handmade cheese at the market. The cheeses in the photo are (l-r) cacciocavallo smoked, cacciocavallo, ricotta fresca with pepperoncini, ricotta fresca with black pepper. Note that the ricottas are not the crumbly, soft kind. They are similar to ricotta salata which is harder and can be grated and sliced.
Founded over 1000 years ago when Africans ruled this area, the Vucciria was once a lively and busy market. It’s much smaller and somewhat calmer today, but you can still find spices, produce, fish, and meat mixed with household items, clothes, souvenirs, and food.
At night, the Vucciria becomes a hotspot full of eating, drinking, dancing, and gaming. We watched one evening as a groups of inebriated adults coached and cheered on a number of young kids in the art of boxing.
Two interesting side notes:
• Sicilians still say that something that is a madhouse or chaotic is “vucciria.”
• If you decide to eat in the Vucciria, make sure it is at a legal restaurant. Some vendors set up tables in the piazza and illegally sell food.
El Capo is another street market that dates back to Arab times. Legend has it that pirates and slave owners hung out in the area. Like the Ballaró, El Capo vendors sell everything you might want. Like the Vucciria, El Capo is not the most hygenic market around….not that the Ballaró is safe, either.
If you visit the markets, make sure you do not bring a lot of cash or valuables with you, and watch your footing around all of the booths that sell produce or fish as the water that falls from their tables makes the stones slippery. Finally, keep in mind the words of an Arab tourist who wrote about the Ballaró in the 10th century, “Forget about the bacteria. Just prepare yourself to live an unrepeatable experience.”
Next time: Sicilians and food