My first experience of Palermo and Sicily was the sparkling blue of the Tyrrenhian Sea contrasting with the terracotta dust of late-summer/early-autumn. Sicily, which I’d heard so much about but never seen, was rocky in its northwestern corner, with steep peaks rising straight out of the sea, and Palermo itself sprawled across a shallow valley caught between several of those peaks.
It’s not an easy city to get to grips with, because it doesn’t have a strongly defined centre. Instead, there are a few streets running north-south and one key one that runs east-west. Stray too far from any of these and you might find yourself among run-down quarters with narrow alleys full of street vendors’ stalls, rows of apartment blocks that can be either new or crumbling relics of ages past, or parched gardens that offer some shade in the heat that lingers on after the departed summer.
There’s no metro in Palermo, and the only tram I saw actually runs from the non-central train station to an outlying shopping centre, so if you’re going to explore, it’ll have to be on foot. (Forget about wheeled transport unless you’re willing to wait on buses or take your life in your hand on a moped. In fact, the very existence of mopeds requires pedestrians to be either vigilant or accepting of potential disaster.) I like exploration by foot though, so that suits me pretty well.
As far as another habit of mine goes—that of climbing on top of tall buildings to get a better idea of the city I’m in—there are some good options, albeit none too tall. The first and preferable is the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third-largest opera house. Take the excellent tour around the opera house itself and pay the extra to get up to the terrace. Courtesy of a slow elevator and some steep steps you’ll get to enjoy the best view of the city. Mostly unobstructed, it’s the best way to get a feel for how Palermo has spread out to occupy the space available.
Palermo Cathedral offers the next best thing when it comes to viewing the city, but the cathedral’s towers get in the way of the view, and the narrower space up there can get a bit more crowded. It is a good bit cheaper though, and as a bonus you also get access to the royal tombs that the cathedral holds (Sicily had its own kings up until Italy’s unification) and the crypt beneath, which contains relics dating back to the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Or possibly even earlier, given the Cardinals’ habit of re-using convenient sarcophagi.
The crypt is a good place to get a feel for how old Sicilian habitation has been and how many different groups have claimed it over the centuries. From the original inhabitants to the Phoenician and Greek settlers, to the following Carthaginians and Romans, who waged their first Punic War over the island, through the Arabs and the Normans to the European dynasties who fought over the island until Italy put its boot down, there are layers of warfare, trade, and settlement everywhere you look.
Getting an explanation of all of this history is a little more difficult. The Archaeological Museum is mostly closed for renovations at the moment, with only one out of three floors open. That one floor is free to visit though, and it’s a really well presented exploration of some of Sicily’s earliest history, with a particular focus on the Greek city of Selinunte. It’s really well laid out and explained, and as the rest of the museum opens up, it’ll be even more worth your time.
Palermo, then, is hard to get to grips with but worth the effort. If I had more time, it would be a great place to start an exploration of the island from. As it was, I didn’t get a chance to break out of the city, though the two days I had there were filled as far as I was able with the aid of two feet and a handy map. There’s great food to be had (especially seafood) and sights to see, but when my time was done, it was the Palermo Centrale train station that drew me, with the promise of a bed that would carry me east to Messina and across the straits to the mainland, to visit Naples, Pompeii and Vesuvius next.