{palermo photojournal} Take the Gun, Leave the Cannoli

Palermo, Sicily is a city of contrasts. It’s the fifth largest metropolis in Italy, with over a million people in the metro area. It’s also a very old city–almost 3,000 years of continuous existence. Most people think of the mafia when they hear “Palermo”–but the city is textured and interesting far beyond the Cosa Nostra connection.

Sicily’s location placed the island at the geographical crossroads of pretty much every major empire (save the Mongols) throughout history. At various times, Palermo was ruled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Aragonese, and Bourbons, before Sicily finally became a part of unified Italy about 150 years ago. Because of this complex history of upheaval and constant change, there are remnants of past glories and injustices alike evident in the peeling layers of Palermo’s facade.

The Quattro Canti and many of the churches and theaters in town show a heavy baroque influence.

Like much of southern Italy, Palermo is a little rough around the edges and feels slightly more exotic, and slightly less modern, than the rest of Italy.

I love these ornate Tabacchi stands found on so many corners.

The Arab and Byzantine influences are noticeable in the souq-like alleyways that haphazardly and confoundingly shoot off from the main roads. Many are too small for cars, so are by default given over to strictly pedestrian or 2-wheeled locomotion. And nearly everywhere you look, there’s a church of a distinct architectural style peeking out!

The Vucciria Market is an open-air market with fluid boundaries and an old-world feel. It’s a teeming cacophony of buyers and sellers on Saturdays, closed like a hangover on Sunday, and a bit sleepy again on Monday in build up to the weekend’s events. Transactions still have a very old-fashioned feel to them, and you can buy anything from a whole side of beef to a 4 foot long cucumber to a plastic bag full of live snails (a Sicilian delicacy.)

(The snail guy was cranky and wouldn’t let me take a picture of the snails unless I was buying, so needless to say, no snail picture…)

Palermo was also hard hit during World War II. In 1943, Allied forces descended upon Sicily and gained their first piece of European ground back from the Axis powers. In Palermo’s Kalsa neighborhood, adjacent to Vucciria Market, you can still find significant remnants of the immense damage wrought during the war, underpinning the quotidian activities of this vibrant, if somewhat eerie, working class neighborhood.


A 15 minute ride on a public bus takes you to a completely different world: Mondello Beach. Here, the rented yellow umbrellas are plentiful, the boats are old-fashioned, and the water is such a crystal clear turquoise blue that you can see to the bottom. People of all ages bake themselves to a crisp bronze, eat snacks from street carts, and play in the water.

Smitten teenagers lock their love on the rusting pier.

Even the inanimate fish are theatrical.

There are plenty of Sicilian snacks to be had, like panelli (chickpea fritters) or arancini (deep fried risotto balls.) Of course, the beach is hot, so you will probably want gelato! In Palermo they don’t put ice cream in a cone, but rather in something they call a brioche, which is really more like a hamburger bun. Fun to try, but I’ll stick with a cup or cone from now on.

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