A Travellerspoint blog

Magical Islands: Palermo

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One of the special features of Palermo is that the old town is divided into four quadrants by Via Vittorio Emanuele running east-west and Via Maqueda running north-south. Historically, the quadrants led separate social and commercial lives and developed their own individual characters which persist to some extent to this day. Except for the southeastern La Kalsa, each quadrant has its own street market which opens early in the morning and closes around 1-2 PM. After much research, I'd selected Mercato di Ballarò in the southwestern Albergheria quadrant and Mercato il Capo in the northwestern Capo quadrant as our prime targets. I expected that we would see one market on each of our two mornings in Palermo and ultimately have lunch there before moving on to sightseeing in the afternoon. The best known market, in the northeastern Vucciria quadrant, has apparently become much smaller and very touristy in recent years so I eliminated it from consideration. Vucciria and the Borgo Vecchio market north of the center have an evening street food scene as well.

Our Airbnb was very close to the Quattro Canti, the intersection of the four quadrants. It was only a five minute walk to Mercato di Ballarò, so we found ourselves there by eleven despite having flown in from Rome that morning. The market was laid out along lengthwise along Via Ballarò, eventually terminating in a slightly wider square. Despite the narrow passage between the stands on either side and the numerous shoppers, scooters and motorcycles regularly zipped and rumbled by the pedestrians so that I always had to keep one eye on Cleo, who was walking on her own. We were immediately impressed by the enormous, deep red strawberries which proved to taste as delicious as they looked. There were beautiful displays of meats, seafood, and vegetables everywhere.

Most of the seafood were familiar species of fish and shellfish, but we did encounter one strange variety of eel that made me think at first that I was looking at a box of decapitated geese.

I used my iVUE Horizon Pro video sunglasses for the first time at the Mercato di Ballarò. The advantage of this method of shooting video is that I can keep my hands free and I don't look like a tool walking around with my iPhone held in front of me. The disadvantages are that the video quality isn't as good as the iPhone, the camera is angled excessively upward, and the inevitable rapid head movements cause the video to be very jumpy. I'm hoping I can overcome the last two problems with practice looking slightly downward and turning my head slowly. It's also impossible to know if the glasses are recording without taking them off to look at the indicator lights, and sometimes they aren't off when I think I've turned them off which leads to a lot of wasted space on the memory card. I've included the decidedly limited results in the blog, because they're better than nothing.

We sampled some street food, including a salad of pork skin and viscera as well as stigghiola. Stigghiola is a Sicilian specialty of grilled and chopped lamb intestine that we found to be delicious.

Before leaving the market, we had our first taste of Palermo restaurant cuisine at a small place on Via Ballarò, with serviceable if slightly undercooked seafood pasta.

We walked a few blocks west through the atmospheric Albergheria district until we reached the Palazzo dei Normanni, This palace dates back to the 9th century and was the residence of the Kings of Sicily during the period of Norman domination, and is currently the seat of Sicily's regional legislature. On the day we arrived, most of the interior of the palace was off limits which was fine with us. We decided to go inside just to see the Cappella Palatina, which is famous for its luminous mosaics.

We re-entered the old town via the massive Porta Nuova city gate and almost immediately came to the Cattedrale di Palermo. This enormous, intricate, and beautiful edifice defies attempts to encompass it in one photograph. Originally constructed beginning in the 12th century, it was modified by additions and renovations until as recently as 1801. The current structure is considered to be predominantly Norman-Arab in design but contains elements of almost every European architectural style that followed including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

Across the street from the cathedral we found a tiny, colorful gelateria that was being swarmed by Palermitan high school kids. The frantic proprietor somehow found the time to squeeze us blood orange and pomegranate juices between his other clamoring customers. The blood orange was great but the pomegranate juice was filled with little bits of pith that we had to spit out.

We walked north to the 19th century neoclassical Teatro Massimo opera house, but the only performance we saw was provided by a stray dog pretending to have been decapitated.

We continued up the main avenues of Via Ruggiero Settimo and Via della Libertà, the extensions of Via Maqueda, to the Giardino Inglese park. We'll often try to hit the main central park of a European city in the afternoon. It's a great way for the kids to stretch their legs and have some fun and for the grownups to get a little relief from walking. A park is also a good place to absorb the rhythms of daily life of a city and get a general sense of the local aesthetic. At the Giardino Inglese, there was the added bonus of a small amusement park which delighted the kids.

By the time we were done with the park we were ready for dinner so we walked back south through Borgo Vecchio to see if we could find any street food. We soon found several produce stalls and fish grills in the center of the neighborhood. Our first stop was the octopus guy, who was boiling and slicing two different kinds of octopus at his stall. A little salty, but nevertheless delicious.

We finished our octopus and selected a sidewalk grill for dinner. The owner took an immediate shine to the kids and ran off with Ian and Cleo to a nearby grocery from which they emerged with big bags of Cheetos. All the kids got a chance to fan the smoke from the grill and then we had a great meal of barbecued mackerel, shrimp, and chicken.

On the way back home we passed through the Vucciria quarter where I had planned to get dinner the previous night but had my plans altered by Alitalia. We found a hopping nightlife and street food scene there was well, including another variety of stigghiola in which the pork intestine was wound around scallions before being barbecued. We filled whatever empty space was left in our stomachs and walked back to our Airbnb.

The temperature dropped into the mid 50's overnight and it wasn't much warmer indoors. Fortunately there was a space heater so Mei Ling and Spenser were able to keep warm, but I couldn't turn ours on in the other bedroom without tripping the circuit breaker so the rest of us had to huddle together under a pile of covers. Between the cold and the two kids trying to steal the covers on either side of me, I didn't sleep very well. In the morning, I was able to take a little better stock of our Palermo pied-à-terre. It was quite a beautiful apartment with detailed molding on the ceiling and a fresco in the classical style. One of the advantages of Airbnb is it allows a traveler to integrate himself into the regular city life while in a hotel one always feels like a tourist.

We were going to pick up the rental car and leave Palermo at 3:30, but we still had more than six hours to explore the city and I had a great itinerary of exciting destinations. We packed everything up and stacked the suitcases by the door and headed out into the city once again. Our Airbnb was right next door to La Martorana, a 12th century church famous for its Byzantine golden mosaics. Adjacent to La Martorana was the Norman-Arab Chiesa di San Cataldo with its distinctive three red domes.

Just north of La Martorana was the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance fountain that was sold and transported to Palermo by its Florentine owners in the 16th century. The beauty of the white marble fountain and the surrounding square is somewhat spoiled by the black metal fence that has been erected around it.

For the next ten minutes we strolled through the narrow, flagstone streets of the Capo district until we came upon a vendor preparing one of Palermo's most distinctive street foods, pani ca' meusa. In the back of my mind, I always thought of this fat-drenched sandwich of boiled calf spleen on a sesame bun as the "Panic Amuser". It's terrifying and hilarious at the same time. Mei Ling loved it, although I could only manage a couple of bites due to the greasiness. Here's more about Palermitan street foods.

As soon as we arrived at Mercato il Capo, we found a tiny barber shop. We were eager to get started on the market, but Ian and I both needed a haircut badly and lately we've had a tradition of getting our haircuts while traveling.

As with Mercato di Ballarò, most of the action at Mercato il Capo took place along one street, in this case Via Carini. It was a beautiful market, but a little smaller and less intense than Ballarò without much in the way of street food. We decided that if a visitor to Palermo only had time for one market, it should be Ballarò.

We still had a few hours before we had to pick up the rental car so we walked back south down the pedestrianised section of Via Maqueda to the Quattro Canti. Despite the fact that it was midday on a Friday, the street was quite crowded with locals enjoying the warm day. At the Quattro Canti, I took some extra time to marvel at the beautiful matching neoclassical facades of the four buildings at the street corners.

We dived into the Kalsa quadrant, which we hadn't explored at all to this point, and attempted to get lost by choosing the narrowest possible streets while still maintaining a general southeasterly direction. The area was satisfyingly quiet and devoid of tourists, and a little more run-down than the rest of central Palermo.

We eventually emerged from the old neighborhood just down the road from the Villa Giulia public park, which is adjacent to the botanical garden. The park was green and pleasant enough to render a paid visit to the botanical garden unnecessary. I was able to elevate Cleo just high enough to reach the oranges on a row of trees near the path, but they turned out to be too sour to eat.

On the way back, we encountered a seafood grill on the sidewalk in front of Trattoria da Salvo. We selected a whole crab and a sea bass, along with some raw clams and sea urchins. The crab ended up being over-grilled, with tough meat difficult to separate from the shell. The sea urchins were pretty enough to look at, but the roe sacs were tiny and didn't have much flavor.

Back at the Airbnb, we collected our bags and I walked out to Via Roma to flag down a cab. Nothing appeared except for a three-wheel taxi which made a sharp U-turn and pulled over eagerly. I was rather dubious about fitting everyone along with the bags and strollers but the driver dismissed my concerns and piled everything precariously into the small space behind the bench. The five of us huddled together behind the driver, who immediately took off and began zooming frantically down the narrow side streets and blind turns of Vucciria. I have no idea how he managed to avoid all the cars, motorcycles and pedestrians but it seemed to me that we were on the verge of disaster for the entire journey. The mercifully short ride was so jolting that I completely forgot I was still wearing my video sunglasses until we were almost finished with the wild part of the ride. It would probably have been the most thrilling video of the trip.

I wasn't surprised to find out from the Avis rental agent that we wouldn't be getting the promised BMW 218D but rather a Peugeot 308, which I wasn't familiar with at all. The agent recommended that I upgrade to a Mercedes 5-seater which he said was roomier, but naturally that would have meant more money. Feeling like I was getting bait-and-switched, I told him we would try our luck with the Peugeot and see if our child seats fit. I had to walk a quarter mile to the lot to pick up the car, so it would have been a huge pain in the butt to have to switch cars, but fortunately all three car seats fit across the back bench of the Peugeot and we were able to shoehorn all the bags and strollers into the trunk and behind the front seats. We broke out our GPS and set a course for Caccamo.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:56 Archived in Italy Tagged palermo

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