It’s good to have friends in Palermo. Rome is chaotic in a frenetic way, but Palermo’s brand of disorder is a little harder to decode. With the exception of taxi drivers and motorini, nobody’s in a hurry.
In fact, there’s a randomness to the pace of life—it’s a bit vexing. The food markets close surprisingly early. People go out for dinner at 9:30 p.m. Some of the street signs are in Arabic. Old ladies shout across the alleyway to each other from open windows, their voices mixing with the echoes of church bells. Then there’s the summer heat, which forces everyone indoors during the middle of the day, and suddenly this chaotic town looks deserted. You feel like you’ve shown up late to a meeting and missed out on the orientation session with no reliable handbook for reference. Yes, visiting Palermo can be confusing, and having friends in the know can make all the difference.
We arrived early in the evening, amid the ordinary commotion of a Tuesday, tired and hot, and with only the vaguest idea of where our accommodations were located. Wandering up Via Roma, guided by little more than “feel,” we soon found ourselves within the labyrinth of the Vucciria district. The streets were narrow and not particular friendly to rolling suitcases and a baby stroller. Using a combination of my iPhone app and the advice of random strangers, we eventually found the address.
Our hostess, Gisella, greeted us warmly and invited us into her little sanctuary, which she calls “Doppio Koncerto.” She showed us to our spacious room (it was actually three connected rooms, more like an apartment without a kitchen) so that we could freshen up, and then told us to meet her up on the rooftop terrace for a beer with a view.
When we finally joined her, we were not disappointed. From her terrace, all of Palermo was visible; from the serrated skyline of the many churches, to the cargo ships lining up along the port. While enjoying the panorama, I asked about the name she chose for her B&B, which didn’t immediately make sense to me. After sleeping one peaceful night at her place, I understood.
The inside of her palazzo is a quiet retreat from the city noise only steps away. Within her rooms, there are only two sounds that you hear: the seagulls that occasionally perch on the terrace; and the professional pianist across the courtyard that practices every afternoon. This is the “Doppio Koncerto,” the two (double) concerts that we enjoyed during our stay. Quite relaxing, while the city hustles and bustles just outside her doors.
I had been introduced to Gisella through a mutual friend, Maurizio, who joined us for dinner the following night. We sat down to a big Sicilian meal that Gisella and her daughter had prepared, and we were also joined by Maurizio’s wife Andrea and their daughter. It was one of those dinners that lasted all night, another bottle of wine opened as the conversation deepens; then dessert and then more dessert. After dinner drinks. Meanwhile, our own little bambina slept quietly in the corner.
Six years ago, Maurizio and his wife decided that their city needed a little better representation on the Internet, so they started a website called VisitPalermo.it. They wanted to showcase the very best of their city and its tourist related businesses. So they did all the legwork of contacting local business owners, designing a website, writing content for the site, and networking throughout the city. In 2010 they had just 9 handpicked businesses that they chose to collaborate with. Now, just four years later, that number is in excess of 200, with an additional website, VisitingSicily, that goes beyond just Palermo.
The concept is simple, but has taken a while to build up because Maurizio and his colleagues have taken the time to actually get to know each connection personally. This sets his site apart from the bigger search engines such as TripAdvisor, et al. On those giant sites, you have random folks leaving reviews based on anecdotal, and usually overly emotional, experiences. Not to mention rumors of “fake” reviews.
Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally use those sites, too, as a starting point for my travel research. But always with a skeptical mind towards reviews that are either too praising or too critical. I never trust them outright. On the other hand, I know that Maurizio and friends have done actual, unbiased research, so it’s much more reliable.
The “downside” to Maurizio’s site? Well, it’s only this: because it’s such a personal, hands-on project, he can’t possibly have contacts in every little town across Sicily. At least not yet. But like Palermo itself, it’s proceeding at its own comfortable pace, and what it does offer is only top-notch. Still, with his networks throughout the island, if you can envision your ideal Sicilian vacation, he and his partners can design it and organize it for you.
The meal that evening was memorable for many reasons. Gisella’s pasta alla trapanese, Maurizio’s passion for his city, great local wines, engaging conversation, and the background music of a Doppio Koncerto. But most of all, it was memorable for the new friends we made. It’s good to have friends everywhere, but in Sicily it can make all the difference between just passing through, and getting to know this complex region of Italy on a personal level.
Il Teatro dei Pupi
There’s plenty to do and see while visiting Palermo, but still it’s challenging to find something to distract a curious infant. Our little daughter, Demetra, has been the talk of Italy all along our route this summer. She’s 18 pounds of pure charm. Maybe I should even feel a little guilty about using her charms to soften up the Trenitalia employee who then chose to overlook our un-validated train tickets, or the restaurant owner who makes a special plate of pasta just for her at no charge. Strangers on the street have literally given her spontaneous gifts of toys—TWICE in Palermo alone. She then smiles on command, and even the most indifferent passerby can’t help but stop and reciprocate. It’s really been a joy to witness the effect she has on people.
So after dragging her onto endless trains to check into yet another hotel to see yet another famous monument, we decided to do something that she might enjoy for an afternoon. Palermo is famous for its “pupi,” so I thought it would be fun to take her to the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette. In other words, a puppet show! How could that plan possibly go awry…right?
As luck would have it, there was a large group of school children there on the day we showed up. Now, Demetra is only 10 months old and can’t yet effectively communicate verbally, but she still appreciates the company of other rug-rats…I mean, kids. So we pushed her stroller over towards the group so that she could watch and listen with them.
The teacher began with an interactive discussion. “Who knows what a pupo is?”
Enthusiastic hands shot up and answers were blurted out randomly. From what I could hear, the consensus was, “A pupo is a marionette!”
“Yes, that’s right,” replied the teacher, “But a pupo is a special kind of marionette. Look at what they’re all wearing.” She motioned towards the line of inanimate puppets dangling by their strings along an adjacent wall. “They’re all wearing amour. That’s because pupi are all warriors, fighting in virtuous battles.”
The word “virtuous” sent up a little red flag in my brain, and I wasn’t sure that I liked where the discussion was going. I shifted my posture a bit, and leaned in closer to make sure that I wasn’t missing something in the linguistic subtleties. In any case, my wife was there to help me out.
The teacher’s zeal grew as she continued, “Yes, that’s right, bambini, i pupi represent the good guys…the Christians who were fighting a war against the pagans!”
I knew it. How could this woman take something as simple and enjoyable as a puppet show and turn it into indoctrination? Anyway, I was now grateful that Demetra wasn’t able to understand the lecture, because how would I assure my daughter that she is a “good guy” (girl) even though she has a “pagan” name?
Meanwhile, the teacher was just getting started, leading the children in a pep rally of sorts. I heard her shout, “Bambini, who are we?!?”
“And who are the good guys?!?”
Well, we left shortly after that, and despite the unwanted lesson in catechism, the museum was quite enjoyable and worth a visit when in Palermo. It’s not so simple to find, however. Again, Palermo isn’t particularly easy to navigate. But that’s part of its appeal, I think. You feel like you’ve discovered something slightly exotic and yet very inviting. Kind of like the gelato con brioche that we had after the puppet show. Where else can you have an ice cream sandwich for lunch and not feel guilty about it? Catholics are well-known for imposing guilt as method of obedience. But not when it comes to food. Mangia!