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You are Here: > > Much more than an Italian Island

Much more than an Italian Island

Photo: Chiesa di San Cataldo, Palermo 
By Amanda Barnes

Palermo is a city full of life and variation. It becomes clear very quickly that Sicily’s proximity to Africa has largely contributed to its culture and society. This is especially evident within the larger cities such as Palermo, where it is not unusual to see women wearing traditional African dress. The Arab influence is also quite heavily present in cuisine and culture and you won’t have any troubles finding a good kebab. However Palermo also remains in many ways a typically Italian city where Catholicism and the 'siesta' hour are taken very seriously! Sicily enjoys a much laid back Mediterranean pace of life; don’t expect a bus to stop or start for you, the timetable is simply a suggestion!

Local food here is fantastically genuine and the menus are refreshingly undiluted by tourism. Many restaurants remain family run and thus offer a very friendly welcome and a cheap bill — you can order a litre of wine for €3! Similarly local shops are often a family enterprise, don’t be surprised to see a bed and small table in amongst the tins of vegetables; many families convert their ground floor into a shop or bar, which is almost always run by Grandma and the grandchildren!

Sites to be seen, smelt and tasted!

Palermo is a beautiful city with stunning Norman architecture, colourful domes, monuments and (typical of Italy) shrines back to back, packed in from wall to wall. As with the majority of the cities and towns in Italy, there are so many places to visit that are well worth your time, however if you give each place the time it deserves, you would never leave! The best way to visit the wonderful buildings in Palermo is to pick the couple that you are most interested in, otherwise you will exhaust yourself visiting all the monuments and lose the will to live – or at least see another church or monument! It is more advisable to pick a few you are really interested in and focus on those, because inevitably you will stumble across many others on your way – so don’t make your list too long!

Palermo has some wonderful churches that need to be visited, such as the Cattedrale and the lesser known Chiesa di San Cataldo, however some of the best sightseeing has to be made down in the markets of Piazza Ballaro. The food market here is buzzing with people and flies; it is well worth a visit to see the unusual Sicilian cuisine -although a vast number of hanging carcasses makes it a little bit of a tummy churner for the faint hearted! The other market further down the road, has to be seen to be understood. Here touts attempt to sell anything and everything; from elastic bands to the odd well worn boot (matching pairs are a rarity). If you arrive early enough you may have the pleasure to see the tout’s merchandise being pulled out of the skip before being placed in prime position on the market stool (or market floor space).
On the main shopping streets in Palermo there are plenty of high street chains and the odd designer name to fulfil your shopping desires; however the best shopping is to be done in the jewellery wholesaler’s stores. Here you can buy your shell necklaces, bongos, buddas, ‘guccie’ sunglasses and other souvenirs for a fraction of the price given by the touts on the beach.

Palermo is famous for its puppets, so perhaps the best souvenir would be an exquisite puppet. However if you cannot afford that or don’t want to have to explain why you have a miniature person in your hand luggage, then catching a puppet show instead is an equally fulfilling option. There are many puppet shows around Palermo but the best are Cuticchio, 95 via Bara all’Olivella and Argento, 1 via P.Novelli which take puppetry to epic proportions! You could visit one of the many puppet museums, however if your interest in puppetry is limited then a show is where you should spend it and leave the museums for the fanatics.

There are many hotels in Palermo, but the number of hostels is limited so camping outside Palermo centre is a more budget option. During the summer months a hostel opens up (or rather students rent out their rooms) behind Piazza San Saverio. I fully recommend this hostel which offers single or double rooms for €20 a night including breakfast and free internet access. Typical of students, the hostel is run with minimum funding but maximum effort and in the courtyard (with a bar and 'disco lights'), free parties are offered a couple times a week. Whether it be a beach watermelon party or chilled out Brazilian music, it is sure to please — especially at the end of the night when the students kick up their heels and embark in a very impressive display of traditional Sicilian dance, fantastic! Although I would warn you that the free BBQ translates to salty tripe on French stick, not everyone’s favourite but the Italians seem to really like it!

Moving beyond the boundries...

Palermo is a bustling city but it is also worth your time to catch the bus just outside of the city to Sferracavallo, a quant fishing village with two great campsites. Always check with the driver that your bus is going to your destination, often they just do half the route. If you understand a little Italian (or can at least use 'mamma mia' half convincingly) locals are very helpful with directions! The small town offers a number of good cheap seafood restaurants; I encourage you to try the 'Ricci' (Sea Urchin) and see why it is a popular Sicilian delicacy — I am still trying to work that one out! During the summer the restaurants and gelaterias are packed with a very family orientated crowd who dine until the very early hours.

The coastline is rocky with small sand beaches and the water is an impressive colour however on closer inspection the many different colours seen in the harbour are various varieties of seaweed! If seaweed is your greatest fear than this is a great chance to get over it — or alternatively almost hyperventilate in the water, kicking and screaming after diving off your pedalo! Either way, from a distance and for the less seaweed shy, the water is a stunning mixture of blues and greens and snorkelling is worth looking into. Sferracavallo has fantastic views of a large mount, typical of the volcanic Sicilian landscape, which is worth a thousand photos as the sunset casts an orange glow over the rock and the town. The national park on the other side of the rock boasts some fantastic walks from leisurely trails to the more than adrenaline pumping climb to the top, which rewards you with fantastic views over the town, harbour and the city.

Whether you plan to beach it or wander through the streets of the city, Palermo offers a varied and colourful landscape of people and places from the baroque architecture and colourful markets to the picturesque fishing villages and the 'multicoloured' sea. Palermo is often just used as a departure city, but make sure you book some time here because this coming and going of different people has cultivated a fantastic mixed culture that will make you want to stay!


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