When I was a young girl, it seemed every Italian restaurant had paintings and/or murals entitled “Views of Palermo.” Often done by the spouse, mistress, or cousin of the owner, these works tended (at best) to look like this.
Naturally I grew up thinking of Palermo as having faded colors, blurry edges, and not much going for it beyond a pretty harbor. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered, stepping off the early morning ferry from Sardinia, that Palermo is a bright and bustling city, rich with ancient monuments, zany street life, and very, very good pasta.
On the downside, we had left Italy’s tourist-free zone. Indeed, in one small trattoria we were thoroughly overshadowed by a group of tall, blonde Swedish women in their early twenties; they arrived after us and yet for some reason were served instantly and with fawning attention while Rich and I cooled our heels and begged repeatedly for beer. But such moments were a small price to pay for the many delightful and surprising views of Palermo that awaited us.
One of my first discoveries was the Biblioteca Privata Itinerante (Private Itinerant Library) of Pietro Tramonte, a retired accountant and “impromptu poet” known for his love of books. Yes, actual, old-fashioned paper books; for those who love to read, he says, “the paper material is like cheese on macaroni.” Today, his labyrinth of tarp-covered shelves in an alley off Piazza Monte Santa Rosalia contains (he says) upwards of 45,000 volumes, which he parts with in return for cash, trade-ins, or sometimes nothing at all. “If a kid around here is asking me for a dictionary for a task at school, what should I do? Do I not give it to him?” Pietro does stock English books, but sadly my commitment to traveling light with my Kindle meant I could not buy, beg, borrow, or barter for any of his wares.
At the suggestion of our Airbnb landlady, Rich and I bought tickets to La Cenerentola (Cinderalla) at Palermo’s gorgeous Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy. In the late 20th century it was closed for decades, as the financing of needed repairs became plagued by corruption and in-fighting worthy of the Godfather saga — which, coincidentally, filmed its final scenes there at the Massimo. I kept looking for fake bloodstains on the floors.
We didn’t see anything quite that gruesome, on or off the stage, unless you count the way the artistic director of Rossini's classic opera butchered the plot, characters, and setting in a misguided attempt at extreme originality. Luckily he restrained himself from altering the music, which soared magnificently through the vast space, showing off the opera house’s famously flawless acoustics.
But it was the funky side of Palermo that really appealed to me.
Rich and I had planned a week in Palermo, followed by a leisurely train ride to Napoli to meet friends, then a flight from Rome to California to deal with a family matter. But fate had other ideas. On Monday morning I received word that the family situation now required our presence more urgently. Within hours, we’d arranged to fly out that night from Palermo to Rome, and then take a 6:00 am flight to Paris, with a connection to San Francisco that had us there by lunchtime on Tuesday.
As you can imagine, my head is still spinning from all the pivoting and dashing about.
I’ve found that there are certain kinds of places, such as airplanes and hospitals, that have a strange sense of timelessness; the empty hours become less trackable than ordinary time. Today I am feeling a similar sense of placelessness. In the last month I’ve traveled from California to Seville to Italy and finally back to California, which I'd not expected to see again for many months. I awoke this morning feeling utterly displaced in my own bed. When and where am I? Did I or did I not actually leave California four weeks ago?
Luckily, I have only to review my photos to remember all the small, wonderful adventures I’ve enjoyed in the last month. Like those restaurateurs I remember from my childhood, I can hold on to fond memories of my past with my very own “Views of Palermo.”
Have you visited Palermo, or other parts of Italy that resonated with you? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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