We don’t get off to a great start in Sicily’s capital, Palermo. Our taxi driver can’t get his card machine to work so he hauls the husband off to find an ATM. Our hotel, the Porta Felice, is down a tatty backstreet and the welcome from the front desk is underwhelming. It’s as hot as Hades, sweat dripping down our backs. It’s all a bit of a downer after happy days in Mondello.
We venture out into the airless streets of La Kalsa, the old Arab quarter of the city. There’s no-one around, it’s like being the only survivors of a nuclear disaster. We decide to stop for lunch in a local restaurant and order the specialty of a grilled seafood platter, but our enjoyment of some really tasty fish is spoiled by a table of local guys shouting at each other and playing bad music on their phones. Oh dear, this isn’t going well at all.
I blame Rick Stein. We both love his Long Weekend programmes, particularly the cheesy theme song – Hey Rick, where are we going this weekend? Palermo! He makes places look great, especially if you love food as much as we do. But the reality, as we explore the neglected streets of the Old Town, is not living up to expectations.
There are some beautiful buildings arranged around paved piazzas, but none of the street life we’re used to finding around Europe. Try as we might, we can’t find a nice shady bar in a square to do some serious people watching. There just aren’t many bodies around full stop. Perhaps everyone is at the beach in Mondello? In the harsh light of day, Palermo feels uncared for, empty and sad.
We pass forlorn Piazza Pretoria with its famously scandalous statues to the Quattro Canti – the heart of the city, where the four main districts meet at a lavishly decorated intersection. Heading west on Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main thoroughfares in town, the absence of tourists is palpable. I suppose this is the new normal for cities around the world, but it has taken me by surprise. I haven’t visited London since lockdown eased, otherwise I might have been more prepared.
Palermo’s cathedral is spectacular, and presumably usually besieged by visitors. We have the luxury of a private viewing. Originally built in 1185, but much renovated since then, this amazing building has been both church and mosque over the centuries and the different influences are plain to see.
The Palazzo dei Normanni or Royal Palace is likewise devoid of visitors. This is even more ancient, with parts dating back to the 9th century. It’s the oldest royal residence in Europe, which is quite a claim to fame considering how liberally palaces are sprinkled around the continent. It now houses the Regional Assembly, what a come-down!
We’re feeling a bit dejected as we head back through deserted streets to our hotel for a break from the heat, passing the famous Ballaro Street market. Alas, it’s far from the bustling chaos of promotional photos. There’s no point in the traders calling out – there are no customers to tempt here. We’ve seen some of the big sights of this city today, but we haven’t got a feel for it yet. However, neither of us is being negative – no moaning allowed. We’ve travelled enough to know that every city has something great to offer, and it’s up to us to find it.
Thankfully, when we head out for the evening, the city is transformed. In the soft evening light scruffy becomes romantic, and the bright young things of Palermo are out in force for the aperitivo. Thank goodness for that! The husband likes a bit of atmosphere, or ‘Russ’ as he calls it (remember Russ Abbot’s 1980s anthem?). It’s also a bit cooler, which is a huge relief.
We have an Aperol Spritz at A’Cala overlooking the pleasure harbour and watch the Palermitani tucking in to huge trays of appetisers. They look amazing, but we wouldn’t be able to eat dinner if we joined them. Most menus here are accessed via a QR code on your table which links to an app. It’s a coronavirus change, but it makes perfect sense, let’s get rid of paper menus! In Palermo, you may just order a drink but you can guarantee there are snacks coming too.
The streets around the Piazza Marina have come to life with bars and trattorias. We eat melt-in-the-mouth melanzane parmigiana and plates of delicious pasta listening to an elderly bloke singing Italian love songs. It’s corny – like Lady and the Tramp, although the husband might object to that comparison for obvious reasons – but we love it. We’re starting to get a feel for Palermo now.
Heading home for bed through the atmospherically lit Garibaldi Gardens, we are tired, full and happy. And tomorrow, as Scarlett O’Hara said, is another day…