Palermo fights back

In the 1990s, the Sicilian capital was torn apart by mafia turf wars. Now there’s history, culture and fantastic food on every street

For the life of me, I cannot understand why visitors to Sicily so often choose to steer clear of Palermo, or at best relegate it to a scurried day trip.

Of course, this beautiful island has an abundance of competing attractions, but why would anyone turn their back on one of the most vibrant, enticing and rewarding of Italian cities?

Some 3,000 years under the rule of great civilisations, from Phoenician, Greek and Roman to Arab and Norman, have provided Palermo with an astonishingly rich artistic and architectural legacy, not to mention a splendidly varied cuisine.

True, it can be a challenging place for the timorous: hot, noisy, crumbling and borderline anarchic. (Forget about driving here unless you enjoy blood sports.)

Like Naples, its turbulent neighbour across the Tyrrhenian Sea, Palermo does not really do half measures. And if the people come across, on first acquaintance, as rather prickly, blame it on the endless jibes about the mafia by Italians from the more prosperous and orderly north. “If I never hear another of their crappy Godfather jokes again, it’ll still be too soon,” a weary organised-crime prosecutor once told me.

Yet throughout the terrible years of the mid-1990s, when I was reporting on bloody turf wars and the assassination of anti-mafia judges, Palermo’s spirit was never broken. One evening, I accompanied the recently elected mayor, Leoluca Orlando — proud Palermitan and outspoken enemy of cosa nostra — on a high-speed tour of the city in his armoured Alfa Romeo, gun-toting bodyguards in tow. He spoke movingly of his conviction that the traditional Sicilian values of “family, friendship and personal honour” would eventually restore Palermo to its rightful status as a great European metropolis.

Returning after an absence of several years, I was delighted to find the city’s renaissance well under way, with ambitious renovation projects gradually transforming areas where the wreckage of buildings bombed by the allies during the second world war had been left to rot for decades. Further damage was later inflicted by the so-called Sack of Palermo, when the mafia and corrupt local politicians conspired to raze many magnificent old buildings in the historic centre and concrete over public parks to make way for drab new blocks of flats.

Thanks in large part to Orlando, who kick-started the process by extracting hefty grants from the European Union, some of Palermo’s finest buildings, monuments and public spaces have already been lovingly restored. Don’t miss the opera house, Teatro Massimo, among the finest in Europe when it opened in 1897. After falling into disrepair in the mid-1970s, it closed for repairs that, thanks to inefficiency and corruption, took more than 20 years to complete. On a guided tour, you will almost certainly be reminded that its neoclassical exterior featured in one of the Godfather films.

The sprawling Lo Spasimo complex — by turns an unfinished church, a theatre, a leper colony, a hospital and a communal rubbish dump — has been rebuilt, providing an outstanding venue for exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events, though the trees that had taken root inside the roofless building are still there.

At the same time, squalid inner-city quarters such as La Kalsa (the name derives from the Arabic for “pure”) have been buoyed by the arrival of bars and restaurants, while squads of builders are busy ripping out the interiors of decaying apartment blocks for redevelopment. While this has not done away with the extreme poverty that still scars areas of the city, a journalist friend who grew up in La Kalsa, and only recently returned home after living in Milan, was thrilled by the changes he saw. “The place is humming with energy, and people seem much less closed and inward-looking,” he enthused over a ristretto, the shudderingly strong espresso of Italy’s deep south, at the elegant Antico Caffe Spinnato, where the same family has been purveying quality coffee and mouthwatering patisseries since 1860.

One of the most agreeable features of Palermo is that many of its historic treasures lie within reasonable walking distance of the centre, though in the fierce summer heat, the cheap and efficient AMAT bus network might be preferable. An ideal point of departure is Quattro Canti (Four Corners), a busy intersection that is overlooked on every side by a fine Spanish baroque facade featuring a riot of decorative carvings. Close by is the imposing Piazza Pretoria, known as the Square of Shame after the gleaming white statues around a spectacular fountain, which depict naked gods, goddesses and nymphs in bold anatomical detail. Long ago, it is said, scandalised nuns tried to chop off the rude bits.

From there, you can head west towards Palermo’s vast cathedral, which took centuries to complete and served as a mosque under Arab rule: an architectural hotchpotch, it looks much better from the inside. Another manageable trek brings you to the Palazzo dei Normanni (also called the Royal Palace), the jewel of Palermo’s cultural inheritance. The Byzantine mosaics in the chapel are breathtaking, set off by a magnificent carved ceiling in the Arab style; a must, though be prepared for crowds. From the nearby bus station, it is a short hop to the hill town of Monreale, and another gem: the 12th-century cathedral here is probably the finest example of Norman architecture in all Sicily, with a beautiful interior that includes entire walls covered by gilded mosaics.

Walking east from Quattro Canti towards the port, it is easy to get lost in the warren of narrow, dark alleys lined by dilapidated buildings strung with washing and strewn with rubbish. Then, quite unexpectedly, this may give way to a leafy square containing a glorious baroque church or a former palace.

For an idea of the splendour in which the Palermitan nobility once lived, drop by the Palazzo Mirto: its ornate ballroom was featured in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great novel of Sicily. On Piazza Marina, an outpost of Palermo’s university occupies the site where, under Spanish rule, victims of the Inquisition were tortured. If the heat gets too much, the gardens of the Villa Giulia are close by, providing welcome shade and a breeze off the sea.

When it comes to food, a local saying holds: “If you turn around and don’t find something delicious to eat, then you’re not in Palermo.” Climate and history, terrain and the sea have combined in a cuisine that ranks with the best in Italy. This has much to

do with the sheer quality of the raw materials: the city’s street markets overflow with an abundance of fresh local produce, from the most delicious tomatoes, oranges and olives I’ve ever tasted to pig’s feet, skinned kid’s heads and mounds of pinkish tripe. The best of the fish and seafood stalls resemble an artfully crafted tableau, with enormous red-fleshed swordfish and tuna posing among arrangements of glistening silver sardines, mackerel and an assortment of octopus, squid and succulent prawns.

Twenty years ago, the 700-year-old Vucciria market, off Piazza Caracciola, would have been heaving with shoppers and tourists. “The belly of Palermo and the heart too” was how Peter Robb described it in his fascinating book Midnight in Sicily.

Although the Vucciria is no longer the city’s premier market — many discerning locals prefer the Ballaro — it is still well worth a visit, ideally before the leisurely break for lunch. The butchers enjoy trotting out the old lines — “Pork so fresh, it’s still squealing” — and it is normally standing room only at the raucous Taverna Azzurra.

The nearby Sant’Andrea restaurant has a well-deserved reputation for imaginative cooking: its pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian favourite featuring fresh sardines, onions, fennel, pine nuts and raisins, takes some beating. Down by the old port, La Cambusa, on Piazza Marina, is equally renowned for fish and seafood, and there’s always stiff competition for one of its terrace tables.

On my last night in Palermo, friends took me to dinner at another Palermitan institution, the 175-year-old Antica Focacceria San Francesco. A police car has been stationed outside the ornate premises on Via Paternostro since the owner, Antonino Conticello, and his two sons defied mafia thugs trying to extract protection money a couple of years ago. Their testimony in open court led to long jail sentences for several crime bosses — an inspiring rejection of the menacing code of omerta.

My friends took charge of ordering what Sicilians call cibo povero — street food — and I was digging in with gusto until something that looked like a hamburger bun stuffed with thick strips of dark meat arrived. It was the house speciality, pane con la milza, which consists of sautéed beef spleen served with a slice of lemon and garnished with a pungent local cheese. With one of the Conticellos hovering, there was no escape, and I chomped away gallantly, fortified by gulps of a robust Sicilian red wine made with nero d’Avola grapes.

When I had cleared my plate, a family at the next table who had been looking on with interest rewarded me with a ringing “Bravissimo!”. To be honest, I felt I’d earned it.

Philip Jacobson travelled as a guest of Kirker Holidays

Palermo fights back – Philip Jacobson – From The Sunday Times – February 15, 2009 –