After Rome, it was time to head to our southernmost location of the trip- – the island of Sicily. If mainland Italy is the boot, Sicily is the rock the boot is about to stub its toe on. Like so:
Despite having Eurail passes for Italy, we opted to fly into Palermo since Sicily is quite disconnected from mainland Italy and transportation on & off the island is not easy. Case in point, our 1 hour flight would have taken 11.5 hours by night train, including disassembling the train, putting it on a ferry, and reassembling it on the other side. Since our goal has been to spend enough time in each place to get a feel for local life, we decided to fly discount airline Vueling once more (loud sigh…) and pay for an extra AirBnB night. (Actually, Ted really wanted to witness this whole train reassembly situation, but eventually he realized it would be done by Italians… so very inefficiently… and gave up.)
Ted’s paternal side has roots in Sicily, and this was our main motivation for visiting the island. His great grandmother and grandfather came from small cities about 20km from Palermo, so it was pretty neat to walk around wondering if there were any family ties right under our noses. When we told our Italian friend, Marco, that we were considering Palermo as our last destination, he made sure to
warn us explain that Sicily would be a “cultural experience”, very different than the rest of Italy. During our 35 minute bus ride between the airport city center we witnessed hundreds of meters of trash piled along the side of the freeway, two men exercising (?) a horse by driving in a car and having it run alongside, and a maintenance man “weeding” some city planters with a blow torch. Seriously, it was a device that looked like a metal dustpan, with flames shooting off the end. So yeah, upon first impression, Palermo was shockingly less tame than Rome.
But, that didn’t deter Ted and me from really loving our time there. Our AirBnB was a small apartment with a quaint terrace overlooking old buildings and colorful domes of several nearby churches. In addition to many churches, Sicily is known for its food (especially fried things and desserts) so Ted used magical sorcery and found Caffeteria del Corso, the best granita money can buy. Granita is a Sicilian dessert, essentially a cross between fruit sorbet and a snow cone. Traditionally, it’s natural fruit reduced down with sugar and water and then lightly frozen to become icy and fluffy. It’s better than gelato in my humble opinion, but don’t take my word for it- -you should really just fly to Sicily and experience it for yourself. We ended up visiting Caffeteria del Corso 5 times over our 6 day stay (hey, don’t judge) and became friends with Pino, the old Sicilian man who owned and ran the shop singlehandedly. He made me a wonderful speciality of layered peach and blackberry grantia with the best whipped cream I’ve ever tasted (I’m aware of the weight of those words). It was otherworldly and by the end of our stay, Pino asked to take a photo with us! 🙂 We’re going to print and send it to him so he can hang it in his shop for all eternity. His granita along with his sweet iced espresso shot are recipes we hope to recreate at home… so get excited friends! Take a look:
Palermo isn’t filled with tourists since it’s off the beaten path, and we managed to join a walking tour led by a joyful local named Dominico; he was both informative and funny, a wonderful combination. He explained that Sicily has been conquered by just about everyone given its central location in the Mediterranean which explains its European/ Spanish/ Arab architectural influence and nontraditional food. He took us all around the city and so many unassuming buildings revealed the coolest churches, city archives, coffee shops, remaining WWII damage, and cannolis. My favorite church in Palermo (we visited ~7 of 300) is called Cheisa Della Martorana, a colorful building both inside and out with beautiful tiled mosaics, which is unexpected for a Christian church. Because Sicily was such a melting pot hundreds of years ago, the workers who built the church were Arab which explains the obvious Moorish appearance. And bonus points: the church was also the birthplace of marzipan, the delicious almond paste. I’ve always thought it tasted like heaven but now there’s merit to my hyperbole- -SCORE! A few pics from the tour below, including my favorite church. We wrapped up with a fresh cannoli and it was on point.
My favorite church in Palermo:
Closeup of one of the mosaics. The gold plated tiles were so impressive, and all original
Our time in Palermo was mostly spent roaming around, soaking in the last week of European-ness. And the city is great for that since there isn’t a laundry list of things to do or specific sights to see. We enjoyed our time walking the streets, visiting local shops, and even became familiar with the various stray dogs in town. Unlike other strays we’ve seen, these dogs were huge, fluffy, beautiful Shepherd mixes. They would hang out in the main square of the Theatro Massimo and even walk the pedestrian lanes, as if they were taking themselves for a nightly stroll before bed. The weather was extremely hot, but tubs of water and kibble on street corners were a common sight, so at least they were [somewhat] taken care of. Sadly, we saw several pregnant strays and it seems like neutering or spaying dogs (even family dogs) is not culturally common in Europe. I hope that shifts soon; overbreeding is a huge issue and there are so many dogs looking for loving homes as it is.
A handsome stray outside our AirBnB
One cooling off on a hot night
During our wandering, we came across Palermo Pride, which was super neat. The vibe was fun and joyus, yet, particularly touching. I posted the following on my Instagram, which I’ll repost here:
I’m proud to be American, but rarely get emotional when I see our flag- – today was different. During Palermo’s Pride festival, when not even Italian flags were being waved, there it was. An international offering of love, support, community, understanding, and togetherness.
On one of our last days we joined a street food tour called, StrEAT Palermo, which was an interesting experience to say the least. We tried many things, the most peculiar being a spleen sandwich (I know right?!) and the tastiest, a traditionally made Arancine (fried rice ball with saffron). The markets are clearly a strong part of the Palermo culture: constant chaos, yelling, scooters, and a high density of humans are all part of the experience.
This stump has seen some stuff…
Not thrilled about his spleen sandwich.
Basically a Sicilian version of a lemonade stand. This little kid knew how to werk it.
To end the tour, a brioche gelato sandwich:
In all, Palermo was an unexpected highlight of our trip and if you’re looking to get off the main track, this is a lovely option. As we headed back to the airport, we could feel our excitement building. In just a few short days, we were homeward bound! Just a brief stop in Naples, a 21 hour layover in Istanbul and then HOME! More on all that soon…
Posted from: The right side of my couch. Sunnyvale, CA