04 Feb Palermo: in 36 hours
About 4 nanoseconds after sitting down at my desk after the Christmas break, I was already daydreaming about how to get away again (isn’t being an adult fun?).
One evening a few days later, as I was trying to distract myself from a particularly delicious-looking gingerbread house that I’d promised S that I wouldn’t touch until he was back, I found myself picking up my favourite book – 36 Hours in Europe, an absolute gem by the New York Times.
I thumbed between all my usual go-to pages, before my attention turned to page 408 – a map of the South East of Europe, including… Italy.
Until now, I’d been flicking through quite absentmindedly, more for something to do than as an actual attempt to plan a trip. But then I thought, maybe I should go away somewhere to beat these January blues…
If I really did want to travel somewhere, it’d need to be cheap, and it’d need to require precisely zero days off work – so, somewhere I could get to easily enough to spend just the weekend there, and somewhere compact enough that I could see a lot of it in very little time. And if I wanted to feel less miserable in this Monday of months, it’d need to be somewhere fun, somewhere exciting, somewhere warm, even.
Cheap, direct Ryanair flights from Turin, leaving early Saturday morning and coming back late Sunday evening. Seriously affordable Airbnb rooms, even cheaper arancini, undoubtedly great weather. And the ideal place for my first “real” solo trip (but more on that topic next time – stay tuned).
It was perfect. I booked. And a couple of short – oh, who am I kidding? seemingly infinite – weeks later, I was off to bella Sicilia.
I will admit that I felt a bit cross with Past Emma when my alarm went off at 4:30am, after one of my longest ever working weeks, and on the last weekend in my flat, when I really should have been moving house instead… but I had already forgiven the me of 2 weeks prior a few hours later when I was strolling down the sunny Palermitan streets, still in time for a morning coffee.
I was staying just down the road from the famous Vucciria market, right in the centre of the city; if I was only going to be here for 36 hours, I needed to be strategic.
In my excitement, I’d read a ton of articles, blogs, and online guides to the city and, before arriving, I had already made a shortlist of a few sights I’d like to see and – possibly more crucially – things I wanted to eat.
And so, after check-in, off I went first for a bit of culture, and then for a bit of lunch.
The first two stops were a couple of churches, conveniently located right in front of one another, in Piazza Bellini.
The first was the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also known as the Martorana. I’d heard good things about the inside of Sicilian churches, and this one was not to disappoint. A lot of Sicilian architecture is an impressive combination of a number of different cultures and styles, and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is no exception; from the outside, it looks a little bit French and a little bit Moroccan, at least to my entirely untrained eye. Inside, it’s full of exquisite orthodox mosaics and thousands of shiny gold tiles, while the floor is covered in an Arabic-style pattern which wouldn’t look out of place in the south of Spain. It’s a beaut, as you can see.
Across the road from the Martorana Church is the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, another fantastic example of Sicilian lack of restraint when it comes to the interiors of religious buildings. This one – unassuming from the outside – has one of the most insanely ornate interiors I’ve ever seen in a church. It’s light, bright, and covered in frescoes, marble ornaments, statues, arches, tiles, gold details, and more marble.
Not usually one for wanting to spend an entire weekend traipsing around churches, I was starting to wonder whether this city might change my mind. One slightly irritating thing about Palermo, however, is that pretty much every church charges to visit – it’s usually not that much – €2/3 – but if you do want to see a few, it does add up.
I’d picked Bisso Bistrot as Saturday’s first watering hole – it’s smack bang in the middle of town, right next to the Quattro Canti – a peculiar little square which acts as a crossroads between the two main streets in the centre of town. Despite its central position, Bisso doesn’t feel like the typical tourist haunt. It’s an adorable mix between old and new (as, it transpires, is much of the rest of Palermo), serves honestly incredible food, and gets bonus points for the super friendly waitress who didn’t bat an eyelid when I said I’d be having lunch alone, just putting me on a table with another solo traveller and bringing me a nice, big glass of local white wine.
I’d already decided not to make any kind of effort to make friends on my solo trip – not because I’m antisocial (although I definitely am that too) but because I really just wanted to enjoy this time on my own. So I pulled out my book, sipped my grillo and ordered some interesting sounding dishes from the specials list which the waitress reeled off at lightning speed.
I’d already had a roll of fried, cheesy tastiness, and was just tucking into the probably half kilo of pasta that had been plonked in front of me when another single lady traveller sat down in the seat next to mine. Probably in her 60s, this lady summoned the waitress in a way that made it clear that she was used to this quick lunch alone business. She didn’t seem particularly friendly, but when the girl passed by for the third time to ask me if I’d finished the pasta yet, the lady turned to me and made a joke, and we got chatting, totally going against that plan of mine.
It turned out that this lady is from Turin, but currently lives in London, and contrary to my first impressions, turned out to be not only absolutely lovely, but one of the most fascinating people I think I’ve ever met. We chatted away while we both ate, then had a coffee, exchanged numbers and promised to meet up the next time she came to Turin, and each went our separate ways. An unexpectedly great start to my weekend away.
A little bit tipsy after my one glass of wine (what the hell, 27!?) I went for a wander. I’d wanted to do a good bit of exploring on foot, to see as much of the city as I could, so the rest of the day was spent walking, walking, and walking some more under the brilliant blue skies. I walked up via Maqueda – a long, busy, pedestrianised street cutting through the city centre, lined with shops, cafés, and (naturally) places selling nothing but cannoli, and along whichever side streets took my fancy.
At a certain point, I took a long road leading towards the sea, for no better reason than because it’s there, and visiting an island of any size is a novelty for a mainland-dwelling city girl like myself.
I walked north from the seafront, to a part of the city a bit more off the beaten track (read: dodgy) because what is a city break if you don’t wander into an area where literally everyone stops what they’re doing to glare at you as you stroll down their road with a DSLR dangling from your neck?
I’d actually hoped to stumble upon some of Palermo’s famous street art in an area like this, but ended up just feeling a bit awkward as I walked past all the bizarrely front door-less houses (curtain doors are all the rage here, it seems) and heard various families shouting at each other, also witnessing a selection of 10 year olds and their friends riding around without helmets on mopeds.
Only in the south.
I gave up, and instead found my way back towards the centre, stopping off for an afternoon treat at the Antico Caffè Spinnato – a historic café at the end of via Maqueda, down an oddly Parisian-looking side street. I sat at a table outside, without a jacket (in January, may I just remind you) and ordered a nice espresso and a cassatina.
For those of you who don’t know, cassata is a little pile of marzipan, ricotta, sponge cake, chocolate chips, and icing, and is undoubtedly one of the most yummy treats known to man. It also originates in Palermo, so it really would’ve been rude not to have one here.
There’s no denying that Spinnato is expensive, particularly for Sicilian standards, but tucking into that little ball of delicious green goo under the Sicilian afternoon sun was worth every cent, let me tell you.
I walked back towards Vucciria, but by this time the famous market had pretty much wrapped up for the day – the streets were actually more or less deserted, apart from the odd fruit and veg stall and a couple of locals grilling what I’m reliably informed were internal organs to be used as sandwich fillings (one local delicacy too far, I’m afraid).
I took myself away from the questionable street fare and down some little alleyways, keeping my eyes peeled for graffiti along the way.
The cool thing about the street art in Palermo is that you really have to look around if you want to find anything; the streets here are narrow, with big bins, parked cars, and random, abandoned objects often blocking the view to the walls themselves, so you need to get into Sherlock mode if you’re going to have any hope of spotting something interesting.
Admittedly, I’d done absolutely no research, but trial and error led me to a few absolute beauties.
By late afternoon, my extremely early morning had started to take its toll, so I dragged myself back to my Airbnb to have a rest in my enormous bedroom, with the windows open and the noise of the neighbourhood below floating in as I scribbled away in my notebook.
I finally summoned the energy to get up for dinner and, after a nice chat with the Airbnb host on the way out, walked back in the direction of Spinnato, to find a restaurant I’d read about where I could – hopefully – have a cheap, yummy, local meal.
The Osteria lo Bianco has a couple of restaurants in Palermo, but only one right in the city centre. It’s by no means chic or stylish – wooden cladding on the walls, plates for decoration, menus printed in the 1970s and never changed since, that kind of thing. But this place has one thing I was looking for: red, checked, fabric tablecloths.
Let me explain: on a day trip somewhere, S had once explained to me that the only way to truly tell that an Italian restaurant will have good food is by looking at the tablecloths. We’re not talking about fancy looking eateries here – this technique won’t help you there – we’re talking humble, local places. Plasticky red and white checked tablecloths are no good, neither are fabric tablecloths in different colours, and paper tablecloths certainly don’t meet the standards. What you need to find are those typical, pasta-sauce-advert red and white cloth table coverings. And then, you know you’ll eat well.
Time to test out the theory. Well, if I could find a spot, that is. The couple in front of me in the queue had just been turned away because they hadn’t booked. I hadn’t either, but made a face at the lady at the entrance and said, “I’m alone for dinner, do you think you could squeeze me in somewhere?”. She took pity, and soon enough I was sitting down and listening to the second specials list of the day. Hooray for solo travel.
S’s tablecloth theory was spot on – I had the yummiest meal of calamari and vegetables, followed by baked cassata for dessert (I had no idea that was a thing, but it is, and it’s divine), and walked happily back to my home for the night to get some sleep before another day of efficient tourism.
After a night of being woken up every 30 minutes by Sicilians being stereotypically noisy outside, I got up, packed my trusty backpack, and headed out into the deserted streets.
It turns out that in Palermo, the only people out before 9 on a Sunday morning are a few dedicated joggers, so I had the city almost to myself for a little while.
There was one important local specialty that I hadn’t had here yet, and near the first stop of the day – the Palazzo dei Normanni – is one of the results that had up most frequently when I’d Googled “where to find a great cannolo in Palermo” – a little place called Pasticceria Cappello. It turns out there are two of these, just down the road from one another. I ended up walking to both before deciding I’d take the marzipan fruit that S had requested from the bigger shop in the dodgier road, and then head back to the other one (more like a regular café) for breakfast. No word of a lie, I had the best cannolo I’ve ever eaten in that place.
Go there, try one, thank me later.
All sugared-up, and it was time for some culture at the royal palace of Palermo (and current seat of the Sicilian regional parliament, FYI).
Except, this is Sicily, so there were no signposts.
I walked around in circles for about twenty minutes before a kind old man walking his dog took pity on me and pointed me in the direction of the entrance (it’s round the back, by the way). At the ticket office, I was told clearly to go first to see the art exhibition and the royal rooms, and to absolutely make sure that I left the famous Palatine Chapel for last. I did as I was told, finally arriving at the door of the Cappella Palatina (the thing I’d really gone in to see) to be told that Sunday mass was starting, and that I should come back in an hour and a half. GOOD.
A bit of bargaining, and the lady on the door let me in anyway, saying I could have a very quick look around as long as I didn’t disturb. I certainly wasn’t going to hang around until 11.30, so had to have a very fast peek – shame, because this Arab-Norman-Byzantine beauty really deserves more attention than a 5 minute speed-viewing.
Considering my visit to the palace had been cut a bit short, I decided I had time for the cathedral, too. Palermo’s cathedral is the total opposite of the palace – it’s spectacular from the outside, a kind of North African Hogwarts-looking thing, but is surprisingly nothing particularly breathtaking once you get in.
But the inside wasn’t what I was interested in here, anyway.
No, no – my sights were set on that roof.
If you climb a narrow, stone, spiral staircase, you can reach the top of the Cattedrale, and you’ll be rewarded with amazing views over the city (see the photo at the top of this page if you don’t believe me). It was a bit cloudy on Sunday morning, but visibility was still good, and it was refreshing to look out over the mountains and the sea after 24 hours in the alleyways of the city centre which, by the way, look much more confusing from above than they really are at street level.
Not having anyone with me to say they were bored, I stayed up at the top for a while, before remembering that I only had a few more hours to go and see everything that I was looking down at up close, and finally heading off.
I walked towards the Kalsa area – the so-called Arab quarter – which does at times feel more like Marrakech than Milan. Although apparently not the safest area to wander around after dark, Kalsa is great for a daytime walk and is visibly different from other areas of the city, so is definitely worth a nosey.
Tucked away in one of the streets of this district is the Museo delle Maioliche, an (inhabited) apartment covered from top to bottom in decorative tiles from Sicily and beyond, collected over the course of many years by the owner.
I hadn’t really figured out the opening hours of this place (in this country, the internet gets less and less helpful the further south you go) so had gone for the age-old technique of ringing the bell and hoping for the best. Someone buzzed me in and told me a tour had just started and that I could tag along. The internet hadn’t told me that the entrance fee was €9, and I possibly wouldn’t have gone if I’d have known (girl’s gotta budget), but it was too awkward to turn away now so I coughed up and joined the tour which, in its defence, was pretty good.
Tile envy over, I walked some more around the Kalsa area, eventually stumbling upon an antiques market in Piazza Marina. In terms of items on sale, this is a little like Turin’s Gran Balon market, but on a smaller scale and in less threatening surroundings – the square is lovely and open, with a little park in the middle and pretty houses all around, even better now that the sun had come back out. I walked around, eyeing up pretty antique boxes and other attractive but useless clutter, then reminded myself that I’d only brought a tiny backpack (thanks, Ryanair) and carried on my walk.
Back in the very centre, I stopped for lunch at a little arancini shop called Ke Palle (the Italian speakers amongst you will enjoy the pun) and stuffed myself with a €3 ball of carby joy, filled with sausage and friarielli. I had a moment of feeling like a native as I was tutted at by an American tourist for jumping the entirely non-existent queue, but this is Italy, pals – you snooze, you lose.
The rest of the afternoon, before my 5pm bus to the airport, was spent aimlessly wandering and on the hunt for postcards, caffeine, and treats.
I sat down for a while in Ai Giudici – a tiny, modern café in a side street in the historical centre – and caffeinated while finishing my book and people-watching.
Before heading home, I checked out the Ballarò area for a quick taste of the authentic Palermitano market experience, and finally forced down one last fried treat at Passami u Coppu; a stylish street food café fairly near the bus stop, offering a range of sweet and savoury nibbles – I went for an unidentified fried ball of dough stuffed with… pistachio something, and smothered in… um, pistachio something else (panic ordering at its finest).
So, 36 hours after leaving my house in Turin, it was time to head back to the frozen north, with hundreds of photos on my poor, broken camera, 38 more kilometres showing on my step counter, and probably 10+ more kilos showing on my scale.
It had been a whirlwind of markets, backstreets, and assorted fried goods, and my tired legs and I had come to the conclusion that it is officially impossible to see the whole of Palermo in a weekend.
…But it was an awful lot of fun to try.