A Travellerspoint blog

April 2017

Magical Islands: Palermo

View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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 Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Sicily and Malta

View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Easter vacation is tough when it comes to choosing a travel destination, because it raises the question of whether it's worth the two 9-10 hour flights across the Atlantic to Europe and back for a one week trip. Most of the places we want to visit in the US are too cold for us in April, and Latin America gets repetitious (we were just in Nicaragua in January). I was thinking about Malta for a few reasons: it was probably going to be acceptably warm with lows in the 60's, there seemed to be a lot of fun things for kids, it was tiny and isolated so we probably would never get there on a longer European road trip, and it would be a new country for everyone. However, as usual when I look at Google Maps I can't keep my hand off the scroll button and my eye kept getting drawn to Malta's larger island neighbor Sicily to the north. I'd been there twice before: with my parents when I was about five, and for a couple of days in my twenties. My memories were very vague from both trips. I had planned to include Sicily on a future road trip from Rome down the Amalfi coast, but after doing a little research I realized I didn't want to wait. I started working on an ambitious itinerary that would cover all the main attractions of Sicily as well as Malta and determined that the absolute minimum time for the trip would be two weeks. We don't like taking Cleo out of school now that she's in pre-K, but eventually we decided it wouldn't upset her to miss about a week. Of course, there were no direct flights from Miami to Sicily or Malta but I found very reasonably-priced two-leg itineraries to Palermo with a connection in Rome. The rental car ended up being inexpensive as well thanks to our discovery in Munich that a larger car could accommodate three car seats across the back seat, which meant we wouldn't have to go with a costly and cumbersome minivan. I did my best to confirm that our seats would fit in the promised BMW 218D and decided we would deal with the issue at the rental agency if that turned out not to be the case.

We did a great job on our end of preparing for the trip. After forgetting a few things on our last two road trips we had made an exhaustive checklist of all the essentials which ensured everything got into the bags before we left. We had an evening departure which meant the kids would sleep most of the flight and take much of the sting out of the nine hour ordeal. I had booked flights on KLM but the check-in desk redirected us to Alitalia which was apparently the actual airline we were flying on. At Alitalia, the check-in agent sent our bags through but then found herself unable to assign us boarding passes for our flight from Rome to Palermo. She called over another agent and after much scrutiny of their computer screen the second agent informed us our second flight had been canceled due to "a strike at the airport". While Mei Ling tried to get more information from the agents I Googled the strike and found it it was actually an Alitalia strike and had nothing to do with the airport. I brought this to the agents' attention and the second agent smiled and nodded. "Yes, it's an Alitalia strike." Apparently these strikes have been a fairly regular event lately and last for part of a day. Alitalia then cancels a whole bunch of flights, screws over hundreds of their passengers, presumably rebooks them, and business continues as usual until the next strike. At that point we decided to proceed to Rome and hopefully rebook on a later flight to Palermo. If worst came to worst, we could take a ferry or drive down to Sicily and salvage most of our vacation. Rome isn't the worst place in the world to be stranded anyway.

The flight to Rome wasn't too bad, although the kids didn't sleep as much as I'd hoped and I didn't sleep at all. Once we landed, we quickly found a desk where Alitalia agents were supposed to be helping people rebook their canceled flights. After about a twenty minute wait I came to an agent with a shaved head. He looked at my itinerary and immediately passed it back to me, telling me that since I booked through KLM I would have to go to KLM check-in in the departures area. That seemed to make no sense to me. It's an Alitalia flight, I told him. He just shook his head and gave me a very insincere sympathetic look, the kind of expression that is intended to make it very clear that it is not meant sincerely. He wouldn't talk to us any more. We would have to go to KLM. I asked him if we should go to baggage claim first and get our luggage. No, he answered, your luggage will be going on to Palermo. How does our luggage get to Palermo if the flight has been canceled? For a second, his smirk was replaced by a look of confusion. Then the smirk reappeared, and he told us that yes, we should go to baggage claim. We were pleasantly surprised to find all our bags piled up next to the empty baggage carousel. We schlepped everybody and everything to the KLM check-in where as expected, they told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with domestic flights within Italy which were exclusively conducted by Alitalia. They were courteous enough to take us directly to Alitalia check-in, where a long line of displaced passengers awaited reassignment, and prevail upon the agents there to attend to us immediately.

Despite cutting to the front of the line, we still had to spend an hour sprawled in front of the check-in desk while the agent scrutinized his computer screen wordlessly aside from barking nastily at any coworkers who spoke to him. Eventually he informed us that all flights to Palermo the rest of the day were fully booked and the best he could do was ten in the morning the next day. I asked him if that was the first flight to Palermo that day and he told me there was one at eight. I asked him if there was space on that one and he said there was, with no explanation regarding why he had just told us that ten in the morning was the best he could do. It actually made a huge difference for us, because the earlier arrival meant we would be able to catch one of the morning markets in Palermo that we were desperate to experience. We booked the tickets and the agent told us that we would be comped for a night at a Holiday Inn close to the airport. During this long interaction there was only one other agent tending to the queue of refugees in a similarly slow fashion, so the line didn't move at all the entire time we were there. I felt a little guilty about cutting to the front, but when you have three exhausted little kids you accept any favors you get. Hopefully none of those folks ended up spending the whole night on that line.

We got to the Holiday Inn shuttle stop only to find out we'd have to wait an hour for the next bus, so we took a taxi instead. The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about twenty miles from central Rome, and our hotel was in an isolated business park halfway between the two. Once we were settled in the hotel, we had to decide if we were going to simply use the hotel dinner voucher we'd been provided or find a restaurant. Eventually I decided that the Holiday Inn dinner was probably going to be awful and I didn't want the Alitalia fiasco to have a permanent impact on the quality of our trip, so I used the "Restaurants near me" function of TripAdvisor to pick a place to eat. I wasn't sure that Uber was reliable in Rome and I already had the European Mytaxi app installed on my phone. Mytaxi showed me a very inexpensive fare and I summoned a taxi which took about 15 minutes to arrive. When we arrived at the restaurant, the taxi driver entered his own fare into the Mytaxi app which was about three times higher than what I had been quoted. Later I determined that Mytaxi is basically a dispatch app and the fare estimate they provide has no basis in reality. At the end of the ride, the taxi driver determines the fare and he charged us for the mileage he drove to get to the hotel as well as the mileage to the restaurant.

Fortunately, our dinner at Scuderie San Carlo was quite good and the restaurant was beautiful and peaceful, which made me feel like the effort to drag ourselves from the hotel had been worthwhile.

We took a Uber back to the Holiday Inn which was less than half the price of the Mytaxi. Mei Ling used the voucher to get more food from the hotel restaurant, but the overcooked rigatoni in canned red sauce and baked chicken thighs ended up in the trash can. I felt a small sense of victory that we hadn't let Alitalia reduce us to eating garbage on the first night of our vacation.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and took the shuttle bus back to the Fiumicino airport. One cool feature in the departure area was the rectangular columns with LED screens that displayed a continuous loop of sharks and fish moving inside a large tank. Very realistic.

Overall things went much more smoothly than the previous day and we got to Palermo without any issues. As we approached the airport, I was amazed by the topography that was visible from the airplane window. I could see the two massive cliffs of Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino bookending the beach of Mondello. Behind were rows and rows of low mountains with towns and villages occupying most of the valleys between them.

We had arranged for our Airbnb host to pick us up at the airport for about the same price as a taxi, which meant we didn't have to worry about the driver locating our apartment in central Palermo. We unloaded our stuff into the apartment as quickly as we could. Our first market was just a short walk away.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:01 Archived in Italy Tagged italy sicily malta Comments (0)

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