What makes a city a soul city? The promise of sunshine, the reassuring presence of the sea, the houses built with the idea of home in mind, the views to allow for contemplation, the dedication of people in attending to life’s pleasures – every single day. These are the ingredients I need to feel happy in a city.
Part of me knew, even before setting foot there, that I would fall for Palermo. (The other part was busy dealing with the fear of the unknown.) It turns out, I was right.
I have finally put together my favourite photos of the city and the travel notes I made while still there.
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May 23rd, 2018
How exactly to put into words the joy of being in Palermo for the first time? The sea and the shipyard on one side, the misty mountains on the other, the people’s laughter, the scooters, the music flooding out on the streets from bars and restaurants, the wooden shutters and the geraniums on our balcony – so much life and so much beauty to take in.
Right now it is Wednesday, past midnight, and we are in bed before sleep. The city, however, has no intention to pause for the night. I love it. It feels as if in a resort at the seaside. I hope I can get a good night sleep though.
I was smoking a cigarette on the balcony earlier, gazing at the shipyard cranes by the sea, bright spikes on the night’s sky. Across the street, a group of nicely dressed young men (wearing a bit too much hair gel though) stopped for a selfie in front of the restaurant where they disappeared for a late dinner. Their happiness made me smile. For a few moments I got the impression I was somewhere else, in my hometown Bucharest maybe – this is how friendly and familiar the city feels to me. But then I knew I was in Sicily. I knew I was in Palermo. And I knew I would like to return one day because at that very moment Palermo asked for a place in my heart.
May 26th, 2018
Hard to believe tomorrow morning we’ll be leaving Palermo. I will miss the vibrant streets and the markets, the architecture, the rhythm of life – lazier during the day, animated at night – and most of all, the Palermitans, these agitated, warmhearted creatures.
On our first day, after stopping at a cafe for granita and brioche – the absolute Sicilian treat – we walked through the old centre to see some of the landmarks – the Quattro Canti, the Pretoria Fountain – then continued to Khalsa, the oldest part of the city and the richest in Moorish heritage. The streets led us all the way to the waterfront, where we sat for a while to enjoy the breeze.
On the second day, we headed south for more sightseeing. We started queueing for the Palatine Chapel but were immediately put off by the long waiting lines. We left and took a random route back home. We soon found ourselves walking along the most picturesque streets we had seen in Palermo: cobblestone beneath our feet, fresh laundry hanging from balconies, and the ubiquitous moving vehicles appearing out of a sudden and out of nowhere on the narrow alleys. “We are lucky if we are still alive at the end of this street,” we kept on saying while pushing ourselves against the walls to make room for the never-ending traffic those streets had certainly not been made for.
We headed to Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita, a chapel floor-to-ceiling covered in elaborate sculptures, the work of Palermitan artist Giacomo Serpotta. We were the only visitors and it felt both wonderful and intimidating to have the place all for ourselves. We took our time to admire the crowd of heavenly creatures adorning those walls since the 16th century. It was like nothing we had seen before.
We made an effort and woke up at 7 am today. We had to see the Palatine Chapel. This time, we were among the first to enter the building and, for half a minute or so, there we were, alone again – in the Palatine Chapel. Although not religious and never with the intention to visit everything there is to visit in the places we travel to, the Palatine Chapel left us speechless. The mosaics, the intricate carvings into the wooden ceiling, that exotic contrast of blue – turquoise almost – and gold, the blend of styles that formed Sicily – Norman, Byzantine, Arabic. What a marvel!
Happy to have finally seen the Chapel and with an entire day ahead of us, we headed to Mercato di Capo. While Vucciria might take the credits for being Palermo’s oldest and most famous market, it was, in fact, Mercato di Capo which blew us away. Even this superlative can be an understatement for the explosion of colours, textures, and smells that Mercato di Capo is. We bought pastries and fruits and tried to take as fewer photos as humanly possible in such appealing circumstances. And then, proudly marching through the fish and seafood stalls, among fruits and vegetables, a group of elegantly-dressed ladies and gents, most probably on their way to the church on the same street. There is always something to stimulate the senses at Palermo’s markets.
In the evening, we headed to Khalsa for one last time, then returned to our area to have dinner at a place literally around the corner from where we lived. The city streets were busier than we had ever seen them, not with cars, but with people. Traffic had been restricted in the centre, and so the people – young, old, tourists and locals – took over the entire space, just walking and talking, heading nowhere, as if they were marching for leisure. There, on the busy streets, and at the markets we had been to in the morning, I could feel the spirit of Palermo. I thought it could not be rivalled and I knew I was going to miss it.
I have mixed feelings as I am writing this. I wished we stayed longer than four nights. At the same time, I know we’ve seen so much of the city, without ever feeling rushed. And yet, I feel I could stay more. Not to do sightseeing, just to enjoy. My mood for Palermo is not over.
Palermo is not a popular destination. It feels like a real city. It is raw, “unsanitized,” and beautifully diverse, on both architectural and human scale. The people, however, are this city’s best asset. Watching them sometimes feels as if you are in a movie. So much drama. So much life. Palermo is a dream come true.