Arrivederci Taormina, Buon Giorno Palermo

Saying Goodbye

Last day of class and my head is already on the road with Don and not focused on the morning’s grammar lesson, trapassato prossimo. Yes, I already know this tense and yes, I do need to practice it but I really want to get on the road and start the next phase of our adventure, exploring the west side of Sicily starting with Palermo.

Finally break time has arrived and I say my goodbyes to all the friends I have made here, so many people in such a short time. One of the great pleasures of language schools is all the connections you make that in the real world would take months or years to achieve. I’ll miss my friends here at Babilonia. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

Starting a New Phase – Discovering Palermo

The drive to Palermo was uneventful and easy. For a poor island they have a great toll road that someone put a lot of money into. I’ve never seen a road with so many tunnels and bridges cutting through mountains and connecting the valleys. Reminds me of the Byrd expressway in West Virginia.

Driving in Palermo itself is tricky and I’m glad Don has experience with aggressive drivers. Even at stop signs the cars do not wait their turn, just as often following the guy in front of him as letting the other guy through. If you ever want to cross lanes you have to make your intention known and go for it. Amazingly we found our hotel, Hotel Porta Felice, without much difficulty and even more amazingly we were told we could just park on the street in front of the hotel.

Dinner at Le Delizie di Cagliostro

The night was warm and pleasant. Wandering the streets there weren’t that many people out but we would run across a popular restaurant or bar with its clientele spilling out into the street. We picked a restaurant from Frommer’s, Le Delizie di Cagliostro. I started with the steamed mussels and Don the spaghetti with squid ink, his mouth becoming jet black from the rich sauce. We both had swordfish, one grilled and the other alla Palermitana (breaded and seasoned with oregano). The food was good, not fabulous. After dinner we continued our exploration of the Palermo nightlife, stumbling onto a few more happening hot spots as well as a gelato shop.

Cappella Palatina

According to the guidebooks, Palermo’s top attraction is the Cappella Palatina, with gorgeous 12th century mosaics, that having recently been cleaned shimmer in the soft light of the chapel. The Palazzo dei Normanni , which houses this lovely chapel, is also worth a visit despite the fact that you can only see the chambers on a guided Italian speaking tour. I get some of the history but it is really above my vocabulary grade. The rooms are elegantly decorated, with scars of past earthquakes clearly visible.

I had so been looking forward to seeing the Vucciria market, but arriving there about lunch time the market was a bit of a disappointment. We really should have come earlier but really, we were on vacation, and according to the guide book the chapel was only open in the morning, which turned out not to be true.  Anyway, not a lot happening at the market. A few vegetable stalls open and a few fish left over from the mornings catch.

We did have a nice lunch at a restaurant in the market, Ristorante ai Maccherronai, with outdoor seating. Caponata, macaroni with an eggplant pesto, and bucatini (a thick hollow spaghetti) with sardines.

Street Market

Wandering the streets after lunch we found the type of market we were hoping to find in Vucciria. Some of the fish mongers had closed up for the day but there were plenty of fruit and vegetable stalls as well as spices and olives. I’ve never seen fresh olives in a market before.


One of the sites that enticed me into visiting Sicily in the first place was the catacombs I’d seen pictures of in a Rick Steves program. I couldn’t remember where in Sicily these catacombs were, but when I saw in the guide book that yes there were catacombs here in Palermo I had to check it out.

They are unlike anything I have ever seen. Other catacombs consist of impressive stacks of bones, but in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini the bodies are left intact, dressed and hung on the wall. Most are skeletons but some are mummified and still have their skin and hair intact, their facial expression hauntingly alive.

Most of the corpses date from about 1850 to 1900, with the oldest from the 1500s and the most recent from 1920. They are arranged in sections: women, priests, professionals and children. The section of children is the most haunting with their small bodies dressed in contemporary clothing of the day. There are even a few babies lying in their cribs. Pictures are not allowed. The photos I have here are photos of postcards.

As you walk through the streets of Palermo you’ll see stands on the street corners with a man boiling a large vat of something that he serves in a bun. This is a Palermo specialty called panino con milze (spleen sandwich). When I heard Donatella’s companion talking about them I knew I wanted to try one, so walking back from the catecombs we stopped at a stall to split a spleen sandwich seasoned with a bit of salt and lemon. Spleen is tasty and rich with the flavor of the meat soaking into the soft bread. If you like organ meats this is the sandwich for you.

Dinner at Giada

For dinner we found a restaurant, Giada, with an outdoor patio and nice display of fresh fish.  We went to pick out a fish from the display case and were talked into a sea bass that would be grilled along with a selection of vegetables: eggplant, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms. The fish looked a little large, but what the heck.

The waiter also recommended that we split one order of antipasto or pasta. As we were looking over the choices he asked, “what about the ricci?” Not a word I know, and he said,  “sea urchin”, one of my favorites. My eyes lit up, “yes”, “i riici”. The spaghetti con ricci had a delicate sweet flavor with just a few simply prepared sea urchins on perfectly cooked bed of spaghetti. The whole  fish, fresh hot off the grill, was huge and we asked to serve it ourselves. “But of course, enjoy!” Again, perfectly cooked and served with a side sauce of olive oil, garlic and parsley.

Our guide book said that locals dine at 9:30, and with our bellies full from the panino con milze we were in no rush to eat dinner, but here finishing our fish at 10:30 we were the last customers in the restaurant. No rush, we enjoyed the rest of our wine a yummy cabernet blend, Burdese by Planeta.

Depending on your point of view, the streets of Palermo either look pretty rough and dirty or not so bad. In Eat Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert describes Sicily as being much poorer than the rest of Italy. After spending months in South America last year, it didn’t seem so bad to me. The building are crumbly, but the streets in the center are mostly clean, and the people friendly.

Pope’s Visit

As we were walking we noticed that there were barricades along the main street and signs welcoming the Pope to town the next day. Wondering if it would be a problem driving out of town from the hotel, we asked at the reception desk and were told that we would have to move our car out of the city center by the 6am the next morning or it would be towed. Good we asked? There were no signs up along the street warning of possible towing, but we took her at her word. At the very least it would be a problem getting out of town as the hotel was quite near the Papamobile route.

The next morning we dragged our bags through the streets towards the car, with the masses of people flowing into town in the opposite directions. The stalls of panino con milze were also open for business – I didn’t realize it was also a breakfast possibility. We made our way through the crowds and found our car. Leaving town wasn’t so difficult as most people were already downtown. We did, however, have to go in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go to get around the blockades, but eventually found the right road. Not an easy task with very few signs to mark the way.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Sicily page.

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