Clarence Avoids the Mob and Eats Watermelon Jello: Palermo, Sicily

One of the dumber things we did when planning our trip was assume that we could easily take a ferry from Sardinia to Sicily, book our hotels, and then attempt to work out the ferry schedule. Turns out while you can indeed take a ferry from Sardinia to Sicily, it takes nearly 14 hours, is only offered as an overnight voyage, and is only available once a week. So at the last minute we had to book an Alitalia flight from Cagliari to Palermo via Rome. Which was annoying, but less expensive and fear-mongering than we imagined (though the Italians still do the thing of applauding when the plane touches the tarmac). After our sleepless night, I was looking forward to sleeping on the plane.  B, however, is unable to sleep on planes, so he instead had three double espressos at the airport. I suspect you can guess how this ends.

We arrived in Rome with no complications, aside from the fact that they wouldn’t let us bring our amazing pocketknife from Corsica in our luggage, so B gave it to a small child in front of the airport (not cool?). We had a few hour layover in Rome, not really enough to do anything but wait. I was fine with that, as I was now deep into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, which is quite good if you want a summer read. Unfortunately, I couldn’t focus on my book because of an enormous group of American college girls who were hanging out at our gate, waiting for a flight to Florence that left before our flight to Palermo. Have I ranted about study abroad here before? NO? Well then it’s high time. First of all, I’ll admit that I was among the worst of the worst, as I was at NYU for undergrad and did a semester in Paris. I was pretty grossed out by the culture of study abroad when I was in college and didn’t participate in the modus operandi of getting wasted in a new European city every weekend. But I know I can’t make the statement I’m about to make without sounding like a hypocrite, so I want you to know that I will effectively lump myself in this category.  Okay, here we go:  the best way for the United States to improve their image abroad is to immediately disband all study abroad programs.  I said it! Moreover, study abroad is entirely wasted on college students, even the smart sensitive ones that spend the whole time at museums quietly weeping into their Moleskin journal. For every one of those, there are twenty spoiled monsters in pink sweatpant shorts who act like Europe is a special branch of Disney with an all-you-can-drink alcoholic smorgasbord. I’ll take this argument further:  study abroad programs are why Europeans think Americans are entitled assholes! Those white sneaker wearing, aw shucks, “I’ve wanted to see the Eiffel Tower my whole life and now I can die happy!” tourists – totally harmless! Those kinds of tourists are so terrified of being “the bad Americans” that they spend most of their trip trying to be extra-polite.  You know who isn’t concerned about being a bad American? Kids whose parents are dropping forty grand for a semester in Florence, Prague, Barcelona, or Paris. Now look, I know that you, dear reader, were a total exception to this rule, as was your kid. But let me tell you about these girls at the airport.

B had arrived at the gate before I did, as I was in the ladies room trying to convince my face to stop resembling old Silly Putty. When I arrived, I found him sitting on our suitcases near a bank of empty chairs with a sour look on his face. “Why don’t we sit down to wait?”  I asked. “We can’t sit there,” he responded through clenched teeth, “Those seats are all saved.” “Saved?” I asked innocently,“Why would anyone need to save fifteen chairs?” I turned around and the answer clomped towards us in flip flops , Ugg boots, hoodies, and sweatpant shorts.  Some were clutching pillows, some stuffed animals. All looked as though they were ready to go to bed, even though it was ten o’clock in the morning. “Uh, excuse me!” one said snottily as she pushed our suitcase away from her “saved” seat. I turned to B and said we should head to a café before I lost my shit. He agreed, so we found the nearest place to grab some coffee and a panini. While I sat with the bags, B went to the counter to get our food. He came back sputtering, unable to speak with amazement.  When he finally came back, I asked what had happened.

“So one of those American girls…”

“Yes, one of those college girls. What did she do?”

“She pushed ahead of everyone in line.  She was speaking English to everyone, saying that she didn’t need to wait because all she wanted was water for her water bottle.”

“Oh, well, I mean, I guess…”

“No!  It’s worse!  So she gets to the front of the line and cuts in front of me.  I let her go because I thought it might be amusing.  And she thrusts her dirty little Nalgene bottle in the face of the barista and goes ‘I want some water.’”

“I’m sure she didn’t say it exactly like that…”

“No, SHE DID!  In English!  He obliged, and filled up her bottle and handed it back to her.  She didn’t thank him, but I thought it was done.  And then!  DO YOU KNOW WHAT SHE DID THEN?!”

“Urinated on the floor?”

“She inspected the bottle, pushed her way back in front of me, and then caught the barista’s gaze.  She held out the bottle, SHOOK IT AT HIM, and said “How about some ICE?’”

“NO!”

“YES!”

“We’re still in Rome, right?!”

“THIS JUST HAPPENED!”

After that I was done appeasing the spoiled children. We went back to our gate, stopped speaking English, and ignored two girls with visible thongs who informed us that the seats we were sitting in were “saved for our friends.” I gave one of them my patented “Little girl, don’t poke the cobra” face and we sat there until they boarded their flight. Not one of them attempted to greet the airline employee in Italian.  Out of over twenty girls, only one thanked the airline attendant who wished them a pleasant flight. I was mortified to be an American.

Fortunately, we finally boarded our flight with little complications and were soon headed to Palermo. We arrived and easily found the bus into town, a much better plan that a fifty euro cab from the airport. The coastline around Palermo is really amazing, with huge craggy mountains rising almost directly out of the sea. And while the environs of Palermo seemed somewhat shabby, they also seemed to be homes that people took pride in and care of.  As we entered the main part of the city, we drove through a rather fancy-looking shopping district and I immediately began formulating my theory about how everyone in my life that had said Palermo was gross and kinda scary was actually full of shit. “Look how pleasant this is!” I declared to B.  “My mom was completely wrong about this!” B, who is much better at reserving judgment than I am, merely nodded and said that this part of town did indeed look nice.

As we moved into the historic center of town, however, we quickly began to notice that things weren’t quite as nice or pleasant, and while there might be some high-end buildings, most everything else looked like it was about to crumble into dust from too much pollution. Getting out of the bus at the central station, the poor air quality hit us hard. I mean, you literally feel dirty as you are walking around outside in Palermo. At night when I went to wash my face, my white washcloth was covered in ash.

It’s actually really sad, because as B pointed out to me, Palermo is actually older than Rome and has a truly fascinating history that is reflected in the architecture.  But even the most important civic buildings are in a state of decay and the urban infrastructure that surrounds them is entirely not conducive to walking around. We were perpetually thwarted in our attempts to visit historic sites, often because they were closed for private events or just off limits to tourism more generally. B made the wise comment that Palermo likely looks today like much of Europe did in the fifties and sixties. It’s unfortunate, as it seems like a really fascinating city that is held back culturally by deeply entrenched corruption.  I mean, seriously. Our hotel only accepted cash.

Our first culinary stop was the Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (Via Alessandro Paternostro 58), described by our guidebook as a “Palermitan institution” and the first stop the Sicilian president made when showing Anthony Bourdain around town. We figured that if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. We were especially anxious to try the maritata, a sandwich of stewed veal innards and ricotta cheese. Lonely Planet also described a moffoletta of cherry tomatoes, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese, and oregano, that I had been fantasizing about all morning.

We had a terrible time finding the place, as we tried to be clever and take some side streets for the atmosphere. Can I just say to future visitors:  maybe be careful taking side streets for atmosphere in Palermo? While many of them are indeed atmospheric and a few are even flat-out charming, some are downright scary, including one we took on the way to lunch that appeared to be an informal sort of dump for the neighborhood. I was amused by our circuitous route to lunch, but I noticed B wasn’t quite in such high spirits. This was probably because while I had slept for three hours on the plane, he had drank six espressos and was now crashing from all that caffeine and lack of sleep. By the time we arrived at the chaotic Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, he was about to collapse. I rallied, figured out the complicated system of ordering, and got B his maritata.  The giant vat of milza (veal innards) dominates the center of the room and smells strongly of lard. In fact, everything smelled strongly of lard. I was in that cheerful, dopey tourist mode and happily flirted with the bartender when he handed me my beer. B in contrast was shaky, cranky, and obsessed with the lard dripping into his beard.  While the food wasn’t good, not even a little bit, I was impressed by the bargain.  Everything you see below cost less than fifteen euro.  Much of it tasted like sand, but that’s another story.

After a much-needed nap at the hotel, we explored the area around the Quattro Canti, the elaborate intersection of two of the largest streets that forms the center of the oldest part of the city.  Here is the Piazza Pretoria, the “scandalous” fountain that the city purchased in 1573 and subsequently had to modify to appease the prudish churchgoers:

It was empty and filthy, of course.  Why on earth would you want to fill, clean, or light one of the most important landmarks in the city?  How bourgeois that would be!

From left to right, this is La Martorana (which houses some really exquisite mosaics and some extremely annoying attendants) and the Chiesa di San Cataldo.  You can see the incredible hybrid of Roman, Arab-Norman, and gaudy Baroque ornamentation that characterizes much of the historic center of Palermo.

Let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?  For dinner, we went to Primavera (Piazza Bologni 4), a Slow-Food recommended trattoria that literally feels like a Fellini set, as you dine by candlelight in the midst of a ruined piazza.  The food?  Fantastic and startlingly affordable.  We began our meal with antipasti of polpette (deep fried balls of fresh sardines, pine nuts, and raisins) and eggplant parmesean.  For our pasta course, we shared plates of fettuccine in squid ink (our first encounter with this visceral dish that dyes your teeth and lips black) and in a light white wine sauce with fresh mussels, clams, and shrimp.

For my main course, I had charcoal grilled squid.  I can’t even express how tender and magnificent these were:

B sampled the spigola al sale, mainly because it was amusingly translated as “it gleans, with salt.” He discovered his new favorite dish, a whole fish cooked in a bed of famous Sicilian salt, which keeps all the moisture in the flesh and creates a crunchy crust of skin.  It became his go-to dish during our time in Sicily:

The whole meal, with wine and sparkling water, set us back about forty euros, a far cry from the cash hemorrhage that our lives in Paris and Corsica had been. While I can’t say that Palermo is much for sight-seeing, a real foodie could do some serious damage here on a limited budget.

The following day we attempted to do some sightseeing in the oppressive heat and dirt of the city and were confounded at every turn.  We started at the Civica Galleria d’Arte Moderna, less because of our deep interest in 19th and 20th century Sicilian art and more because we had read that the museum restaurant was “a hidden gem” run by the Michelin-starred chefs at Osteria dei Vespri across the street.  I’ll burst your bubble – it’s isn’t anymore.  The restaurant is closed indefinitely, likely because there is nobody in the museum.  While the structure itself is an amazing and obviously expensive restructuring of a 15th century palazzo, the collection is mostly made up of yawn-inducing hotel art.  There are more people working at this empty museum than I’ve ever seen before, and they stood around in huge uniformed packs and gossiped loudly.  Nobody knew anything about the art or could answer any questions about the building.  The museum guards were all surfing the internet at the various computer banks around the exhibitions and totally ignored our presence.  As B pointed out, we could easily steal some of the artwork, that is, if any of it had been worth stealing. We spent the better part of the afternoon guessing about what kind of ridiculous Italian government grant had spawned that monstrous collection and its enormous and inept staff.  It was the most impressive attempt at a tourist attraction that the city has to offer, and it was a mess.

Disappointed about our lunch failure, we decided to give the Sicilian eating house another try and walked to the Trattoria Basile (Via Bara all’Olivella 76) for lunch and found the kind of place that we had hoped the Antica Foccaceria di San Francesco might be.  Huge servings of antipasti and fresh pasta are the main attraction here and long lines wait for this excellent (and cheap!) dining experience.  We both had a plate of this simple and delicious corkscrew pasta with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella:

And we shared a delicious selection of roasted vegetables from the antipasti section, including the very fava beans that were a ubiquitous presence in my mother’s Sicilian family when she was growing up.

For dessert, we were anxious to try the gelo di melone, a watermelon gelatin dessert served with chocolate chips and fresh flowers.  They are flat-out obsessed with watermelons in Sicily and big slices are often served as a light summertime dessert.  For some reason I found it hysterically funny to see waiters at fancy restaurants carrying around trays with huge wedges of watermelon.  Likewise, gelo di melone is everywhere and considered the signature dessert of Palermo.

The verdict:  pretty, but totally weird. I was skeptical about the combination of watermelon and chocolate and found it rather off-putting in practice.  But I’m glad I tried it, once.

The damage:  two plates of pasta, a plate of antipasti, a dessert, two enormous German beers, and a liter of sparkling water cost twelve euro.  Twelve.  I was ready to move to Palermo after lunch.

Instead, we walked across town to the Palazzo dei Normanni, a giant Norman-style (duh) palace that houses both the main governmental offices of Sicily as well as the Capella Palantina, a supposedly-amazing chapel from 1130.  Except…it was closed for the day.  In the middle of high tourist season.  Because, wait for it:  the tackiest wedding in the history of time was taking place there! There was a gelato stand near the entrance, so B and I decided that our Sicilian culture lesson would not be in mosaics of Old and New Testament, but instead in the amazing hair weaves and polyester gowns of Palermo’s elite.  Oh my god, what a show!  I tried to take pictures, but was told by a bodyguard (!) that while we could sit there as it was indeed public property, there was no way I could take any photographs.  I acquiesced and B and I watched the spectacle of the wedding guests, each couple more amazing than the last.  It was too bad that we missed the best maintained chapel in Palermo, but I’ll probably remember some of those hairstyles long after I would have forgotten those inlaid marble floors.

After that, we gave up on the sightseeing.  Palermo didn’t want us to see her sights. We wandered into Albergheria, the residential area around the Palazzo dei Normanni that is essentially a slum, complete with full fledged corrugated steel shantytowns.  Atmospheric, I guess?  Actually it was my favorite part of Palermo, as we saw many interesting buildings and off-the-map medieval churches and mosques.

We helped two nuns that were having some trouble with their darling orange Cinquecento (this sounds like the beginning of a joke). We found an amazing ceramics workshop, the Bottega Dorte di Angelo Longo (Via M. Bonello 13), where I bought an beautiful plate with an image of the trinacria, the ancient symbol of Sicily that is comprised of a winged, floating head surrounded by three bare legs (talk about imagos of the fragmented body!).

We stumbled on the Mercato delle Pulci, a flea market that looks at first like a squalid rathole, but is filled with beautiful furniture.  The area is definitely worth a walk around if you find yourself in Palermo, but remember to do it in broad daylight and that this is a cash-only town.

Later in the evening, we walked north to see the Theatro Massimo (Godfather III, people!) and to eat dinner at Pizzeria Biondo (Via Carducci 15).

The sister restaurant to the much-pricier Trattoria Biondo, Pizzeria Biondo is a lively, unpretentious affair that serves big beers and even bigger pies at reasonable prices.  And the pizza.  Oh, my god, the pizza.  We shared two pies, the first a combination of spicy salami and homemade sausage:

And, the pièce de résistance, a mushroom medley that include huge slabs of roasted portabella, fresh bufala mozzarella, and large smears of tartufo nero:

That’s right, people.  Those dark-brown splotches are pure black truffle spread.  I think Manic Mushroom Boy died and went to heaven that night.  It was a nice way to end a strange part of our journey. I can’t exactly recommend you visit Palermo, but I’m glad that I did, if that makes any sense.

Next up:  Beautiful Cefalù and its not-so-beautiful beachgoers.  Stay tuned!

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One comment

  1. Hattie

    What an experience! I think I might have taken the pizza and left the rest. I had similar experiences in Malaga which well seemed unbearable at the time but which I now remember fondly.

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