Sicilia: Day 1—Palermo

Porta Felice (Spanish gates on the eastern side of Palermo)

If Italy kicked its boot, the volcanic island of Sicilia (Sicily) would sail across the Mediterranean Sea into northern Africa. Sicilia is 20 minutes by ferry from mainland Italy and a mere 120 kilometers from Tunisia. Because of its location in the center of the Mediterranean trade routes, it was first settled by people from the southeast Iberian Peninsula in about 3000 BC and then occupied by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans (!), Germans, and Spaniards (and probably a few more) before it became an Italian province in 1860. It’s long been a true melting pot and remains one today, with people arriving by boat from the north coast of Africa as well as other places around the globe.

Building in Palermo

Kate McKenna and I booked what turned out to be a wonderful six-day tour of the island from west (Palermo, the Sicilian capital on the northwest coast) to south (Agrigento and Siracusa) to east (Taormina, a resort village overlooking Mt. Etna on the northwest coast) with Tradizione Tourismo. We added a day on our own in Palermo to begin our week. Our hotel, Hotel Plaza Opera, wasn’t right in the center of town, but it wasn’t far from the things we wanted to see and it was very nice and surrounded by good restaurants. We dumped our suitcases in our rooms, ate a fast lunch, and hit the streets.

The streets of Palermo, Sicilia’s largest city, are filled with people of many colors, speaking many languages, sporting their national garb, and selling the foods of their homelands. The result is a wild, colorful, and boisterous city with the WORST traffic I’ve EVER seen! Thank goodness we decided not to drive!!!

Our first stop was the Antonio Pasqualino International Museum of Marionettes, which includes four thousand puppets from all over the world. It was fascinating and eerily quiet—lots of figures but no noise—and, mercifully, only a handful of tourists, which was the case throughout our tour!

Fishing boats

After about an hour we left the museum and wandered along the waterfront, which is filled with yachts, fishing boats, container ships, cruise ships, seagulls, and anything else that floats. Kate pointed out a small but beautiful murmuration of starlings (they’ve now left Rome, thank heaven, for warmer southern climes).

On our way home we headed up Via Cavour just in time to see the beginning of a ceremony at a monument honoring citizens who had been killed in the fight against the mafia. At first I was intrigued by the colorful guards and dignitaries dressed in black and bearing wreaths, but when I realized that the area was crawling with cops, I suggested to Kate that we high-tail it back to our hotel so we wouldn’t get caught in any crossfire! Although the grip of the mafia on the citizens of Palermo has lessened, many businesses still pay off the mafia, and judges who have stood up to the mafia have been murdered, so the reign of terror is not over yet.

Building in Palermo

We ended our day at Lo Scudiero, a fish restaurant near our hotel. Sicilia makes wonderful wines, including one of Michael’s and my favorites, Nero d’Avila (from eastern Sicilia), and our waiter suggested a delicious Sicilian chardonnay, Nozze d’Oro, to accompany Kate’s grilled veal rolls (a Sicilian specialty) and my grilled sea bass. When I told people I was going to Sicilia, they all said, “The dolci (sweets) are the best in the world!” So I did my best to sample as many as I could, including a delicious pistachio cake that Kate and I shared for dessert at Lo Scudiero.

Weather=perfect—sunny and cool! Company=outstanding! Food=delicious! Palermo=fascinating! Total score=5 of 5!


Indonesian shadow puppets

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