Thursday, March 24, 2011

Palermo and the Palermitani

We spent 6 nights in Palermo experiencing the city, the people, and making some side trips.  But visiting Palermo is really all about the people and the Sicilian way of life.  Not that we didn’t see and do things (we’ll tell you all about that in a minute), but the best thing about Palermo are the friendly and fascinating people.  The people of Palermo even have a word for themselves – the “Palermitani”.
"Signore Birra Moretti"
A few short human interest stories about the Palermitani will help tell what we mean.  For example, Frank tried twice to buy a lemon from fruit vendors on the street (we use it to flavor our bottled water).  Both times, the vendors refused any money saying, “A gift -- a gift!”  So now we think of Palermo as the city of “free lemons”. 
One day, we asked a little old lady (she was 4 feet tall tops) for directions to the bus stop, using our shoddy Italian.  She didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow understood what we were asking; she not only led us in the right direction, but walked us across a busy Palermo intersection.   Crossing the street is a bigger deal than you may think -- no doubt she was afraid we would be killed if we crossed by ourselves.  The traffic is horrendous – there seem to be no rules, and the speeding cars just keep on coming.  But this little old lady walked right out into the frenetic traffic, patting the air with her hand to halt the cars.  And the cars made way for her (and for us hanging by her side).  Traffic just flowed around her – it was like Moses parting the Red Sea!  We have the hang of it now – it’s all about the flow, and the one thing you never want to do is stop as you cross a street, or even worse, back-up!  If you do, you could end up as Palermo road kill.
One more Palermitani story.  We met a man who looked just like the guy on the Birra Moretti beer bottle (a real gangster type).  Our “Signore Moretti” spoke some English, and we managed a conversation of broken English (his) and fractured Italian (ours).  When we told him we were from America, he got all excited and started yelling, “Dio benedica America!”   (God bless America!)  Soon after this, we had a brief chat with two men who turned out to be bus inspectors – these guys are notorious for imposing big fines on anyone who fails to validate their bus tickets properly.   Well, they got on the bus with us and started checking everybody’s tickets.  Frank started pulling our tickets out of his pocket to show them, and they just laughed and waved him off.  It was like they were saying, “Forget about it!”  Maybe the inspectors saw us talking to “Signore Moretti” and thought Frank was “connected!”

Mosaics at Capella Palatina

Palermo is a hodgepodge of architecture reflecting all the different conquerors over the years ranging from Medieval to Baroque to a Norman/Arab combo.  (Plus too many ugly fascist-type cement block buildings).  The city is filled with old churches often decorated with colorful mosaics.  The most famous mosaics are found just outside of town in a hillside village called Monreale.  Every inch of the upper walls and ceiling are covered with mosaic “pictures.”  Anne had a ball wandering the church identifying all the Bible stories like “Jacob’s Ladder,” Noah’s Ark,” and one we never heard of (but that sounded promising), “Drunken Noah in the Vineyard.”  (Note: We did not make this up!)
Bodies on display in the Catacombs
Our favorite mosaics were in the Cappella Palatina, a chapel located within the Royal Palace.  Smaller and better lit than Monreale, the mosaics sparkled in the intimate space like a little jewel box!  And there too, high on an archway, was another mosaic of a drunken Noah laying out in the grape vineyards; I guess his task of loading animals finally got to him.

More of the skeletons in the Catacombs 

Our favorite sight of all was the Catacombs at Convento dei Cappuccini, the best skeleton collection we have ever seen.  As many of you might know, we love this gruesome stuff, and this place really lived up to its reputation.  Some 8,000 bodies are on display, tied and propped up vertically in niches along the walls.  Some are preserved, but most are in skeletal form.  The dead are all decked out in their funerary finery.  The best ones are men all dressed up in hats, ties, vests, jackets, gloves, and even shoes, with just the skull bones showing.  Very studly dudes!
Really, this is a creepy place, and the best part is that people used to come visit their deceased loved ones here.  Wouldn’t it be better to remember them when they were alive?  It was a big deal to “pick your niche,” and people would stand in their niche for hours just to be sure it was a good fit and a good choice.  One of the saddest bodies is a little girl who looks like she is asleep.  Supposedly, a doctor came up with a special preservation method but died before he could share it.
Okay, on to a happier topic.  How about food?  As you would expect, the pasta is fantastic – Anne especially likes Pasta Norma, made with eggplant and named for the heroine of our favorite Bellini opera, “Norma.”   “Arancini” are also a favorite snack, -- yummy fried rice balls about the size of a baseball filled with meat or vegetables.  Eggplant, pistachios, and capers are a big deal here, and they are prepared in so many remarkable ways.  We have discovered the joys of Sicilian antipasti: carponata (eggplant, capers, olives and tomatoes), lots of grilled veggies like squash and eggplant, roasted red peppers, and tomatoes topped with cheese.  All steeped in the best Sicilian olive oil.  What a feast (and this is just a starter!).
The sweets are simply out of this world (Thank God we are doing a lot of walking!).  Saturday was San Giuseppe’s Day (St. Joseph), and it is quite the holiday here on Sicilia.  Parades, closed off streets, special celebrations, fancy foods, music, and other hoopla engulfs the community.  We had to eat the special pastry made in San Giuseppe’s honor:  the “sfinci.”  This concoction is a cream puff filled with ricotta cheese cream, dotted with dark chocolate chips, and topped with even more ricotta cream and candied fruit.  All Anne could do was moan and say, “Oh my God” with every bite.
The cannoli are the best anywhere.  Anne’s favorite (so far) comes from a specialty shop called Spinnato’s.  These cannoli have a super crusty pastry tube that is lined with chocolate.  Plus, if you want it “to go,” the Spinnato boys place it on a little colored cardboard tray, wrap it all up, and tie it with a bow like a present.  At least this is what they do when Anne does the ordering LOL!  Italian men really know how to treat a lady, and Anne is lovin’ every minute of it!

Temple of Hercules at Agrigento

The favorite nightly entertainment here is the folkloric puppet show.  Frank was not a huge fan, but it was fun (really).  The highlight of the show was the big fight scene when the hero puppet killed at least half a dozen enemies, each one in a different way.  He lobbed off heads, sliced off a face, and even cut one poor puppet in two from head to toe.  Gory, but clever puppetry.

Temple of Concordia at Agrigento

Palermo is a perfect base for day tripping, and we made two side trips: Agrigento and Cefalu.  Agrigento was a large Greek settlement that once rivaled Athens.  The Greek temples here are some of the best preserved in the world.  We spent a wonderful day wandering the ruins and feeling as if we were touching history. 

Waterfront at Cefalu

Cefalu is the most popular resort on the north coast of Sicily -- a sweet little town of narrow, winding streets sitting between the sea and a huge rock looming over head called La Rocco.  We ate lunch in this incredibly scenic square in front of the stunning stone cathedral with La Rocco in the background.  After lunch, we browsed in the shops and walked along the rocky coastline.  A perfect day in Sicilia.
We could not write up Palermo without singing the praises of our wonderful stay at the B & B Amelie.  This B & B was perfectly located near transportation and important sights, and we had a large, sunny, quiet room, colorfully decorated with a big comfortable bed.  But the best part of staying here was the owner, Angela.  Angela is one of those special people who are born to be in the hospitality business.  She speaks English very well and has a great sense of humor.  Every morning, we would talk and laugh together over breakfast, and Angela would spend time helping us plan our day. 

Anne and Frank with our favorite hostess, Angela

On our last morning, Frank asked Angela to translate something he had seen written in Italian.  What Angela didn’t know was that Frank had copied it from a bathroom wall.  (Frank never misses an opportunity to learn some “street Italian” no matter where he finds it!)  The look on Angela’s face as she read his handwritten version of what he saw was priceless.  Apparently, some “Italian stallion” was advertising his well-endowed “wares.”  The guy promised to be discreet and even left a phone number for the ladies to call him!  Angela was a good sport, and she made our stay in Palermo unforgettable as well as fun.
More to come as we move to the western tip of Sicily for our next adventure in the city of Trapani.


  1. Hi Anne and Frank! Gosh, Sicily looks amazing. I love that they wanted to give you free lemons. I experienced the same thing -- Italians/Sicilians are SO sweet!

    The ruins at Agrigento look so wonderful. A tad older than the Gemeinhaus I suspect. Glad you're having a wonderful time!

    - Kristen

    P.S. Frank, I loved the story about the bathroom wall translation :)

  2. P.P.S. Those catacombs are out of this world! I'm looking forward to the other gruesome things you two find