Qlitz and Squalor and everything in between is compacted into Palermo. Mom and I ran head on into our own prejudice, fear and bias in an instant of being dropped off by our taxi driver in a ghetto near an open air market in the middle of Palermo center. The driver, unable to determine how to get to our Air B & B address, stopped the car, got our bags out, waved his hand and said “over there, turn left”. Over where?
No street sign to call our host with to guide us, wandering the streets with the phone in my ear trying to find ANY street sign, an old guy took pity, took the phone and talked to Jlenia (Elania) and within moments, she appeared and took ALL our bags, walked us three blocks this way, 2 blocks that way and around a corner to our flat. Our flat was half way down a narrow alley, all the neighbors being African, Indian and Indonesian.
The streets around our little alley are lined with street vendors selling umbrellas, luggage, purses, jewelry, whatever. Night time in the alley is filled with smells of Indian food being cooked in the tiny flats with doors and windows open, the residents use the alley as their front porch, kids riding bikes, babies hanging out in strollers, neighbors talking and many evenings arguing loud enough to be startling. Jlenia, our hostess gave us a bit of history of who these neighbors were, it was clear she knew them all well and she assured us we were quite safe.
So off we went to explore the capital of Sicily, invaded by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons, just to name the most influential conquerors. The architecture, some cathedrals and palaces dating to BC, reflects the combination of styles from each conquering nation.
It is a dance to walk in the center of Palermo, cars do not stop, but they also do not drive fast so we just move with the traffic and waltz our way around the cars to get where we are going. There really are no street signs on most of the roads. The major Vias; Roma, Maqueda, Emmanuel are named, but they may change names several blocks later, so we spent a lot of time lost with a view.
When it was time to leave Palermo, Jlenia our personal sherpa and hostess schlepped our bags to the train station, found the correct track for our train to Nicosia and waited with us until we safely boarded the train. Palermo is a melting pot of people, culture and architecture. Yes, it is gritty, I did feel safe and I am so grateful to have experienced this opportunity to explore my own internal landscape as well as an ancient landscape of Italy.
Everyone should Visit Palermo.