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Palermo: Sicily’s Grand (and Gritty) Capital

I didn’t like Palermo. There, I said it.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I actively disliked it, but we definitely didn’t bond. As much as I liked Sicily as a whole, I won’t be prioritizing a return to its capital. And I feel kind of bad about this, because I think I’m faulting Palermo–at least in part–for not being an “easier” kind of place. But I definitely breathed a sigh of relief upon leaving, and that’s never a good sign.

Palermo, crowded, debris-strewn, noisy, smelling of garbage, and described by one guidebook as “unapologetically gritty,” is a challenge for visitors. But I am not (usually) one to be put off by big, chaotic cities, and believe that most “urban jungles” are really more like urban treasure hunts. Dirty and charmless exteriors often conceal friendly locals, dives with divine food, and obscure museums to delight even the quirkiest traveler. And really, nobody who proudly claims New York City as their hometown has any business complaining about trash and general grime.

And yet…

Urban environments require a certain amount of “just rolling with it.” There’s always going to be something, or several somethings, that will be irritating. Cities assault the senses, and usually that isn’t what people want out of their vacations. Big cities are noisy, often smelly, and visually overwhelming. Additionally, you want to be careful about what you touch (did you hear about the plague bacteria possibly found on the NYC subway a few years ago?), and don’t go licking any lamp posts. Like any other shock to the system, it’s best to relax and absorb it; holding yourself rigid only intensifies the blow.

My problem was that I was never able to relax into Palermo. Petty crime—and mafia lore—aside, Palermo is a pretty safe place. I never felt threatened, but I also never felt very safe. I had no trouble getting to my hotel from the airport and walked about for hours during the day, but I had no desire to wander on my own at night (Luckily, Palermo has an amazing outdoor market, so I just had my own small feast in my hotel room).

Yellow brick building with flags and banner

The Sicilian mafia is not gone, but in the last 25 years it has been weakened considerably, and more Sicilians are willing to speak out against it. Palermo’s mayor is aggressively anti-mafia and cooperates closely with the Italian authorities. This banner was hung by ordinary Sicilians to demonstrate their commitment to the mayor’s policies. But the mafia is still a sore and complicated topic. Tread cautiously around it, or maybe just don’t bring it up at all.

Maybe the root of the trouble was being followed by three young men making kissing noises (how do you say, “shut up, I’m practically old enough to be your mother!” in Sicilian?). Despite ducking into two different shops, it took a full fifteen minutes to lose these guys. Whatever it was, a general sense of unease set in early and I was never able to shake it.

And Palermo’s famous traffic didn’t help matters! Rome and St. Petersburg used to be tied for my top “cities I will never drive in” spot, but no more. Palermo’s traffic laws are treated more like suggestions, one-way streets are anything but, and I don’t think anybody even knows if there’s a speed limit. Even if you’re just walking, it’s an unnerving experience. The best strategy I could work out was to look, look, and look again—and then hope to find a local to attach myself to when dashing across. You eventually get the hang of it, but enjoying your surroundings is tricky when you’re feeling mildly preyed upon by those same surroundings!

Between extensive Allied bombing in World War II and a couple of centuries of poverty and administrative neglect, Palermo–with some exceptions–is not a very attractive place either. Sidewalks are cracked, buildings abandoned, and graffiti is everywhere (I mean scrawled messages, not street art. Palermo may have that too, but I didn’t see it). Armed with UNESCO and European Union funds, the city is making a big effort to clean up, but it has a ways to go and, unsurprisingly, the historic center has benefitted most. Wander beyond the tourist district and the state of the “real” Palermo comes sharply into focus.

Bombed-out building

The bad condition of many of the buildings cannot be blamed entirely on neglect. Palermo was bombed nearly seventy times during World War II. This building was deliberately kept in its bombed-out state as a reminder of the war. Today, with tourism exploding in Palermo, there is a heated debate on whether it should be treated as a landmark or an eyesore.

I’m reading this over and it’s all I can do to keep from cringing. Change a few words here and there and you could be talking about New York City—my hometown, where I have always felt safe and have spent a lot of time defending to others. I’ve also encouraged, in this very blog, travelers not to shy away from Barcelona, despite its own iffy reputation.

Moreover, since when do I place so much weight on a city’s physical appearance? I’m pretty sure one of the points of traveling is to get a better sense of the world as it really is, not what Disney (or, say, The Godfather) would have us believe. Not coincidentally, this is one of the main points of being an historian too. So I’m feeling pretty uneasy about my uneasiness. It’s just not like me to be so unsettled by the “cityness”—for lack of a better word—of a big city, but Palermo and I simply didn’t click.

On the other hand…

Palermo and I may not be compatibile, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to experience and marvel at (in a good way, that is. Believe me, I experienced and marveled at the traffic frequently). I am still glad that I went—and not just in a “check this one off the list” kind of way. 

Palermo has enough history, art, architecture to delight any history nerd. Founded in the 8th century B.C.E. by the Phoenicians, its significance–economic, cultural, military, and political–has really only waned in the last few centuries or so. Indeed, the city spent most of its history as a key point in many an empire (highlights include the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and Aragonese/Spanish). Each of these cultures left linguistic, cultural, and architectural marks and many are still on vivid display.

Woman in garden

I don’t want to give the impression that there was nothing I liked about Palermo, and to prove it, here is a smiling selfie! I’m standing in the gardens of the Palazzo dei Normanni, the 12th century palace of the Norman kings of Sicily.

So, Palermo…

I’m glad I added that last bit about Palermo’s historical wonders. Writing it helped me to recall some of the truly awesome things I saw in Palermo (about which I promise to post soon!). There are plenty of things I would have been sad to miss and I’m glad I had those experiences to balance out my negative reaction. 

Baskets of small snails
close up of eggplants
various peppers

The open market might have been my favorite place in Palermo. Everything was fresh and inexpensive. I bought a kilo of cherries for 3 euros. Alas I started eating them before I remembered to take a picture!

And I suspect that negativity is about me just as much as it’s about the city. I read at some point that Palermo is shy and guarded, but worth the wait. It takes its time to let visitors in, but once your eyes are opened to the true Palermo, you may have a difficult time shutting them again. I can believe that. Two-and-a-half days is clearly not enough time to open one’s eyes.

Have you ever visited a place that you just didn’t like? Were you able to shake your negative impressions, or was it just a lost cause? Let me know in the comments section!

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