Palermo, September 14-15

I hadn’t realised how tired I was until I got back to my B&B in mid-afternoon and fell asleep. Whether it was three hours of walking around Palermo, the hot weather, a hangover from having been at work the previous day, or the fact that I’d gotten up before 4am to start this holiday, I was evidently going to need more of a run-up to manage the first stop on this trip.

Thankfully, the destination was well worth the trouble: Palermo, capital of Sicily, tucked away on the island’s north-west coast. Having never been further south in Italy than Rome, I had few expectations with regard to what I’d see, and my initial sight of the island—steep, dusty hillsides rising up right from the sea—didn’t do anything to surprise me. Neither did the 30-degree heat, though that did call for a certain amount of acclimatising.

I’d managed a small degree of forward planning, all of which related to transportation. Hence the bus from the airport dropped me right at the Palermo Centrale railway station (where I’d depart from the next evening), no more than a few steps away from my B&B (the charming and convenient B&B White). Being able to discard my meagre baggage meant I was free to go walkabout before noon, and so I did. First down to the waterfront and then on a broad circle that took in the Teatro Massimo, the Cattedrale, and lots of tiny little alleyways and streetside stalls.

Though I’d only been there for a few hours, Palermo already looked to be a more dessicated version of many of the cities that I’d seen in Eastern Europe the year before: a mix of sleek shopping streets, fascinating architecture crumbling in all-too-many places, lots of graffiti and no small amount of other vandalism, and people abandoning buildings that were only a short walk away from others that were highly sought-after.

Which offered another potential culprit behind the mid-afternoon snooze that came immediately afterwards: a head dizzied by the collision of the completely new and the strangely familiar. Either way, I slept for a while and emerged to find both myself and Palermo in a more congenial mood.

As the sun went down, the city came to life, and those shopping avenues (mostly the Via Maqueda and the Via Vittorio Emanuele) became a lot more crowded. With most of the tourist destinations closed up for the evening, I was happy just to do some more wandering, eventually feeding my stomach as opposed to my brain at the welcoming FUD, where a cat and its kitten scampered around under the tables begging for scraps.

The next morning, I was rested and ready to make a proper dent in Palermo’s itinerary of sights. First up was the archaeological museum (oddly, right across the square from FUD), which was undergoing renovations and thus two-thirds closed. In recompense, entry was free, and what was there was worth the trip. Lots of classical-era finds, most notably from the southwestern coastal site of Selinunte, arrayed in visitor-friendly format around some very pleasant courtyard. A fun hour and a bit of brain expansion to start the day.

After that, I walked all the way up the Via Roma to the Giardino Inglese, which was shady if just as dusty as everywhere else. Back down the Via della Liberta then, peering at but not entering the Teatro Politeama before turning west up the Via Dante as far as the Villa Malfitano—likewise not open to visitors but with some extensive gardens (dusty? yes) that offered a pleasant stroll.

More interesting was the nearby Castello della Zisa, a blocky Norman castle adapted from an Arab pleasure palace. There were a few relics still to be seen inside on the three floors of the heavily restored castle, but the exhibits are all described in Italian, and the highlight is visible from the outside anyway: the eagle fountain that fed the original rectangular pool in the pleasure gardens outside.

A walk downhill past the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele Orlando brought me back to the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third biggest opera house. I sprang not just for the main guided tour but also the visit to La Terraza, the roof terrace, which offered some of the best views of Palermo. The opera house tour is well worth it on its own, and the roof was worth paying extra for. Up there, I got a real appreciation for the layout of Palermo as it sprawled across a valley with mountains rising on all sides. Its a shame that the horizon was as hazy as it was, but it was a spectacular view.

In lieu of an overdue lunch, i fortified myself with gelato next door, then moved on, down the Via Maqueda and up the Via Vittorio Emanuele. Once again, I sprang for a rooftop walk, though this one proved more crowded (less space, more people), more tiring (spiral steps, not a lift) and less impressive (large towers spoiling the view).

Luckily, the same ticket also gave me access to the royal tombs (Sicily had its own kings for a very long time), the treasury, and the crypts. Which, while fairly compact, still had some interesting sarcophagi dating back to the Norman times and perhaps earlier (Cardinals, it seems, are fond of reusing likely-looking cadaver receptacles.

All of this walking, along with the heat and some ill-fitting trousers were causing some chafing, so I chilled out in the Piazza del Parlemento for a while, then turned back east again. Just off the Via Maqueda was a church I’d spied the day before—San Cataldo—which didn’t look like any other I’d seen. It was another Norman relic, this time restored a little more sympathetically, with the original floor surviving and the look of the place from the inside more than matching the oddness of the outside.

This was the last of the sights I’d really wanted to see, and sun and strolling had combined to leave me tired and sweaty enough that I wanted to give walking a break. So I headed back down to Stazione Centrale and the tram terminus next door and hopped aboard. Less than half an hour later I was out in a suburban mall under the shadow of some nearby hills. That proved a decent place to stroll around, and when I took the tram back, the sun was finally setting.

I popped down to the seafront for a goodbye to the city and then back to B&B White to retrieve my bags. Some dinner at the excellent Trattoria Trapani next door rounded out my time in the city, before I returned to the station, found my train and my berth and climbed aboard. Less than 20 minutes later, I was on the train that would take me through the night to Messina and across the straits to mainland Italy.

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