I wake up early on holiday. In London I can stay in bed until 11, no problem, but when I’m abroad I’ll be out by 8, easy. The streets were weirdly deserted: no people, no cars, no shops open. I’m thinking, ‘I know it’s early but jeez, someone must have to go to work’. I’m also thinking, ‘zombie apocalypse‘.
Then I get to the main square and everything becomes clear. It’s fun run day! The streets are all blocked off because throughout the whole day there will be children, dogs and parents jogging through town. It was very pleasant and created this lovely community atmosphere that really stayed with me the whole time I was in Palermo.
As the capital of Sicily, Palermo is surprisingly small. There are two main streets that run perpendicular across town. My plan for the day was to get my bearings, see some sights and eat some arancini (deep fried rice balls, freaking delicious). I knew there were some things I really wanted to see, like the cathedral and the Norman palace, but I think on the first day in a place it is really important to just put all the guidebooks and wiki pages out of your mind and see where your feet take you.
My feet took me to the Teatro Massimo. Famously the location for the finale of Godfather 3, this is the third largest opera house in Europe. You can’t go in without a ticket to see a show (think more than 100€) or a guided tour. As the only UK person in a sea of la Français, the tour quickly became very awkward, if impressive. The guide would tell everyone everything in French, which I kind-of understand, and then look directly at me and say it all again in English. Good fun but still. This is not the first time (and won’t be the last) when I’ve spent more of a tour making ‘listening faces’ than actually looking at the stuff.
Next: the archeological museum. You know when your map says something is just around the corner, but you can’t find it, and you circle the block like five times before you find it? Yeah. It was pretty awkward, especially since it was Sunday and everyone was in church (or running about) and so the only people on the street were the waiters setting up for lunch, watching me pass their restaurant again, and again, and again… (I’m sure they weren’t watching, nobody cares what other people do, but insecurity is unavoidable). In the hunt, I found a massive Mussolini-era post office (potentially) and a church filled with palm fronds.
After all that, the archaeological museum wasn’t all that. Kinda small, probably because they’re doing building works, and I think maybe living in London and going to the British museum all the time has spoiled me for other archeological museums. However, it was free (and I never turn down a free museum) and there was a room dedicated to Khaled al-Asaad, which I found really touching and important. It was in an old monastery and the cloisters were nice to sit in, especially since the major problem that would haunt my entire trip was just becoming apparent.
It was hot. Like, fully hot. Not India-levels of hot but still: very warm. I had deliberated for weeks and reviews all the weather apps and blogs and concluded that taking my brown boots was best. It was not. I was sweating through my socks, my ankles were swelling up, my face was bright red and my hair was ridiculous.
Every trip has an overriding memory: in Naples, I spent every day hunting for somewhere to charge my phone; in India, it was about getting hold of as many 10 rupee notes as possible. Sicily was about finding somewhere cold to sit.
After soaking up as many of those cold stone cloister chills as possible (and filling my water bottle in the toilet: bonus) I headed off. I had my eye on the botanical garden since I am a huge fan of botanical gardens. I like taking photos of flowers and I like the science/history/Enlightenment thinking aspect of the whole thing. I had an approximate idea of where it was but I never walk around a new city with my head in a map so it did take several hours to get there. On the way I found some pretty cool fountains, some Norman looking churches, the train station, an Aldi and an old lady with a very floral dress.
After all that, the botanical gardens were a lovely place to just sit down and chill out. There were dozens of orange trees, which reminded me of scrumping for apricots in Baia. I quickly learned that not all oranges are sweet and delicious! Some are sour and grim so be sure to read the labels. The gardens also had this incredible tree which grows downwards and makes roots from hanging vines, it was so unlike any other tree I’ve ever seen and I have no idea what it is called. I spent ages trying to get a photo that captured the weird majesty of this tree but the lighting wasn’t so great. The gardens also have a huge collection of succulents and this funny little museum about, I believe, about corn or wheat or some sort of cereal. Overall it wasn’t the best botanical garden I’ve ever visited (that prize is reserved for the garden in Leiden in the Netherlands) but it was nice enough and I more than got my entrance fee back in (stolen) oranges.
After all this it was still only 3pm and swelteringly hot. I was near the port so I headed there for a while to catch up on some Sicilian history and get some sea air. There were a group in front of me enjoying a beer, which really would have completed the moment but once I’d sat down I just couldn’t stand up again… So there I stayed, learning about Syracuse and watching the children fly kites and thinking that less than 24 hours ago I’d been in rainy old London.
Close to recovered, I tried to find these Inquisition era prison cells my guidebook was talking about. I may have found them, it’s not clear. What I found was a room with a lady who told me that the only access was by guided tour and that the last tour of the day was in French. Having had quite enough guided tours for one day I said thank you (prego) and goodbye (arrivederci) and left. The courtyard outside was totally deserted and so I decided to have a little poke around. Terrified of getting kicked out, I found a museum with drawings quite similar to what my guidebook was describing. Unfortunately, all of the signs were in Italian and I can’t say anything in Italian which isn’t directly connected to buying beer. So, who knows!
I headed back into town and stumbled upon, in quick succession, the cathedral, the Australian, the Argentinian and an arancino! It was very fortuitous. I also met an Israeli who was telling me about the Sicilian independence movement. There certainly is a strong sense of separation about Sicily and they may become insulted if you refer to anything as ‘Italian’ so I see where this independence movement is coming from. However, the simple fact in that Sicily is too poor to support itself and relies heavily on Italian subsidies for major infrastructure, among other things.
The Israeli had been travelling for a while and he was telling me about how lonely it can get being on the road for so long. I call my family every day when I’m away, something that I will probably have to sacrifice on my Big Trip, and so I can sympathise with missing friends and home. He was saying that he missed being around people who knew him well, instead of constantly starting off afresh with people. I never really felt like this when I was in India but I suppose I spent a lot more time with the same people than on a classic solo backpacking holiday.
Anyway, after a coffee and a chat they all headed back to the hostel and I headed into the cathedral. Now, I am a major cathedral fan: I have been to dozens in my time and I feel like I have some authority. Palermo Cathedral is not all that. Don’t get me wrong, the outside is sensational and Norman and brilliant, so maybe its just that the inside is a bit Baroque and whitewashed and boring. Plus I was quite tired and it was still really hot. There was a puppy outside though which was really great.
Finally: going home time. A beautiful shower, a cold beer, then back out for a raucous evening in the bars with the Germans.
I always do too much on my first day and sometimes I think it tires me out for the whole rest of the trip. I definitely saw a lot of the city and je ne regrette rien!
Next time I’ll talk about my second day in Palermo, including my trip to Monreale.
For now, over and out x