On my first afternoon, it sounded like a shoot out salute from the mafia: rifle fire, cannons or a firework show in broad daylight. It was followed by sirens and more politizi sirens. With some concern for my head, I peered over the balcony but all I could see was the Sunday afternoon footy match taking place in the Catholic Centre below. I was on our airbnb terrazza drinking tequila and orange having got the basics from Lidl (Tequila became a basic at only 5e a bottle). There were great views across the city to the Royal Palazzia, the Cathedral, and roof tops of red terracotta tiles, white walls, geraniums, TV arials (not satellite dishes) and cactuses. Sicilian chit chat wafted on the warm breeze…and clearly the tequila was going to my head.
The apartment was in the centre of historic old Palermo (as luck would have it). The maze of tiny lanes were strung with washing flapping in breezes and the piazzas were sunny and delightful, strung with cafes and markets. There were ornate churches, and most buildings were decorated on the outside with wonderful cornices, sculptures, ghouls, and on the inside with dark basements, kitchens and poverty. On the lane down to the cathedral, Ruth (the best friend) and I passed the family who had moved their armchairs and tables outside (along with their pile of ironing). Rather sensible, I thought. I think it is called charming poverty. I loved the huge wooden doors which had very shut tiny little wooden doors in them leading, I imagine, to beautiful courtyards and Alice in Wonderland world. It seems that it was only 25 years ago that this area got sewerage and running water. As a result, just before then the wealthy moved across town where the Mafia/bankers/developers built new Palermo and the immigrants and poor moved into Old Palermo.
On my way back from Lidl, I came across a Piazza where men and women were dressed up in 19th century gear (crinolins and all) They were waltzing to Strauss around naked white marble statues of men and women. The story I was told later by my cook tour is that the nuns and priests used to meet in the tunnels below the Piazza for secret dalliances but were discovered and the nuns were ‘defrocked’ (unfortunate term) and in revenge broke the penises off the male statues. It all happens in Palermo.
So, Ruth arrived and we headed out for our first night. We came across loud music and dancing almost immediately. The football match in the local catholic centre was finished and replaced by a seven year old girl, dressed up in white, sitting with her parents on a long table, at her communion, stuffing her face, while colourful, traditionally dressed African men and woman danced in a line in front of her. Staring from the gate at the party longingly, we were invited in and so we too jigged and wiggled our hips in front of the girl, waving paper serviettes. It was fun. Later that evening, in our square (the nearest) there was more dancing and Ruth and I flung ourselves into the melee with abandon, sadly not understanding the instructions shouted out by the woman caller, but we enjoyed it and people seemed to stay out of our way!
The next day, Ruth and I found art, sculpture, decay, glory and succulents around every corner. Cars and scooters nudged our arses in the lanes. The market was a cornucopia of chilis, oddly shaped aubergines, red blood tomatoes, elongated courgettes (3 feet long), tiny artichokes that looked like they might graze your throat and hills of fava beans. Ruth and I walked down to see the sea (a sparkling vista at the end of a tiny lane). It was a modern prom, child’s park and a cruise liner that reminded me of the blocks of flats on the side of the Thames in London, a grey navy military ship, all framed by the oddly shaped, dark limestone mountains that shield the city. They are knobbly peaks, like erratics, dumped by the receding sea of the ice age. Palermo unravels itself across the plain at their feet, square, pink, cream and beige. You can understand why the pirates, Pheonicians, Normans, Romans would want to conquer this place. It demands to be conquered!
We turned back to re-enter the city walls guarded her by two giant gargoyles, stone birds of prey protecting the palace and go to visit the Royal Palace of Palermo. The Palace Royal is a mix of palace, church and turrets. Arabic splendour coagulated with plain Norman, gold mosaics and stone, intricate Chinese lacquer, fresco ceilings, marble, wood and 19th century pomp. The Palatine Chapel was magnificent.
So, throughout the week, Ruth and I wandered these conquered streets and alleys stuffed with people, produce and motorbikes, gold and ornate, and talked of our own faded splendour, discussing the wisdom that comes with age, the disappointments, the loves and experiences, politics, value systems art and it feels very right.
One of the days we navigated ourselves on to a boat with two marine biologists who have found it more profitable to conduct ‘Mare and Terre’ tours. Mauro picked us up at 8.30am at the cathedral (a most beautiful edifice of Pheonician and Norman construction) and whisked us off to the sea giving us a breakdown of the social, political and environmental state of Palermo while skidding, halting and staccato-ing through the Sicilian traffic. I didn’t understand much as his Italian accent was thick as Marsala port. Within 30 minutes, Ruth and I found ourselves lying on white cushions on a boat, gazing at blue sky, trailing finger tips in clear green sea, staring at bottom white sands, sea grasses which Mauro told us were protected and worth thousands of euros. Throughout the trip he told us of nature reserves, molluscs, lagoons, pirates, protected sea grasses, Marello towers (like our Martello towers), caves, elephant skulls. He told us of fish, protected sea grasses, molluscs, nature reserves, pirates, fishermen…you get my drift and I was drifting until Eros (yes, Eros was the other marine biologist) threw anchor and suggested we swim. They gave us flippers and goggles and we flipped over backwards (I lie) into the blue green waters and swam with the shoals of fish through the sea grasses (well, that was the idea) but it was pretty wonderful…until I had to get back on the boat. I will leave that to your imagination.
We also went on a food tour. Six of us including a very irritating American woman who wanted to practice her Italian on our English speaking tour. Fabrizio and Antonio guided us through delightful markets and piazzas, providing tastes of traditional Sicilian food (you’ll have to come to dinner) told us many legends and myths (including the priest and nun story), and gave us advice as to where to go. It was fab.
We followed their advice that night and found ourselves seated in a cool bar, watching cool people. Well, I was watching because Ruth found herself a very miserable but cool looking Columbian (she used to live there) and was talking Spanish to him. It was all so cool, I wondered if the Palermo Tourist Board might not have set the whole thing up, employed students and the like to dress up in cool gear, and do cool drinking and smoking.
It was time to get out of town. The road to Trapani (on the North West tip of the island) travels the coast, then in-land through undulating hills of wheat, vines, olive trees. Traditional two storey brown stone farm houses stared across square fields of green and gold like an Impressionist painting. The centre of Traponi was beautiful. Wide streets lined with two storey buildings rather like a cowboy town. In the historic centre, it turned into New Orleans, elaborate stone, iron balconies, wide but cobbled stone streets and the blue, sparkling sea at every turn, calling to you. In the port was a Thompson liner twenty storeys high. It disgorged passengers across the town in a red double decker London bus. Ruth and I gorge on gelati and croissant in the sun and then board a boat for Favignara.
I had been hoping for a Cornish fishing village. It wasn’t. It was a Mexican fishing village: Plain wide tiled streets, white houses. I ate the most divine tuna and swam in a pure blue sea with lots of fishes. I lay on sand and corals, bathing in the sun and sea breezes. I came home with salt tight skin, a glow and cooked fava beans for supper. Happy.
Every morning the sea gulls woke me. I thought they sounded as if they were cackling with laughter at us poor humans. We are scurrying, wingless creatures, mindless, and self-absorbed. One morning, I got up and went up to the terrazza to see if it was a particular gull. The gull wasn’t laughing. It sounded snappy and cross. I found it squatting on the corner of the white sky, puffed up, strong and voluble. It sat on a red terracotta tile. I wondered if it was one of the soaring beauties I watched last night. White wings spiralling the ink blue, late evening sky, silent and graceful, flying between the stars. So un-sea gull like and very beautiful.
On our last day, we were invited into the neighbours. They happen to be the Fredericos – Conte Frederico, and live in a palace. The Conte gave us a tour but didn’t invite us for tea. The Palazzo was built in 1100s and rooms have modernised every two hundred years, in the 1400s, 1600s, 1800s so it has original hand painted wooden ceilings, painted frescos, beautiful tiled mosaic floors, ornate sculptures, wooden carvings, fabulous furnishings. There was so much light and glory. The current count’s father was a Formula One rally driver. His trophies are everywhere.
On our last day, we joined a political rally in ‘our’ square. We weren’t sure what the political party was (yellow shirts), but as far as we could work out, from discussions and reading its leaflet, it was a party that talked about the politics of participation, transparency. That used to be our language and still is but over the week we talked about how age has crept up upon us. How change seems so much more challenging and may soon have to take place without us. Funny, but I feel I have done it all before, and it is very sunny in Sicily, and the wine is rather nice. I think I have other things to do. I can now leave ‘change’ to others.