Getting Lost in Palermo
When I asked my Italian friend Roberto for tips on Palermo, he wrote, “Get lost. Pretend to look strong even when you wish you were somewhere else.”
And so, as soon as we entered Palermo, we got lost. We weren’t lost on purpose, mind you. The Google map on our phones crapped out and we had no idea where our hotel was, so we drove around looking for a wi-fi signal to figure it out. We drove past block after block of ugly, peeling cement buildings, following cars that didn’t have much regard for street lanes deeper and deeper into the unknown Sicilian city. But everything around us seemed closed – all we saw was the metal of the closed garage doors and barred windows.
We followed little yellow signs for hotels and turned off the main street, hoping to find any hotel with internet and a map to help us. But there weren’t any hotels in sight. And the little yellow signs just kept telling us to turn left, then right, then left, then straight, changing their minds like 12-year-old girls. Mr. kept following them, but all we found were only more cement buildings, more weaving cars, more barred windows, and no hotel.
Finally, we spotted a gas station with a tall, doughy attendant in a red uniform. I remembered Roberto’s advice to “look strong” and came up to the guy to ask for help. He scratched his head at the name of the street we were looking for and got his phone out to look for it on the map.
“Ah, there it is,” he said, pointing at the little screen in his hand. “But who told you to book this hotel? It’s not in the most beautiful area.”
Beautiful area? Do those even exist?
The attended poked his chubby finger at screen and told me to go up the street, past the light and when the road starts to descend, turn left and then make an immediate right at... the prison building.
“It’s on the corner,” he said. “You won’t miss it.”
But we did miss it, because frankly every building here could have easily been a Sicilian prison. So we got lost again and now it was hard to “look strong” and I just felt super terrible for convincing Mr. to come to Palermo in the first place…
But then, by some crazy luck, we found our street. And then our hotel. And then, garbage. It was strewn along both sides of the street and capped by a big green bin that contained, not entirely successfully, a growing mound of garbage.
So we sought refuge in our hotel, which was pleasant and garbage-free, and for the next three hours, refused to leave our air-conditioned room that felt like a castle towering above a moat of garbage and the occasional suspicious character roaming below.
But after a while, hunger prevailed. Cautiously, we emerged from our room. The hotel’s concierge explained that today was the Day of Saint Rosalia Day, Palermo’s patron saint (which is why we saw so many garage doors and barred windows), circled a few places to see on the paper map and bracketed a stretch that he called “the nicest part of Palermo”.
This nicest part of Palermo was, I noticed, only three blocks away.
As we walked up our unkind, empty street toward this Promised Land, of which we remained skeptical, we pretended to look strong because we definitely wished were somewhere else. But then, without so much as a warning, we suddenly emerged onto a wide boulevard with flowering trees and Louis Vuitton stores in polished mansions and Sicilian couples in nice dresses and polo shirts making a passeggiata.
“Wow! I guess we’re staying in Palermo’s Tenderloin,” said Mr. with a chuckle. (Tenderloin is the dirtiest and most dangerous part of San Francisco, which inexplicably borders the fancy hotels of Union Square).
Giddy with relief, we linked arms and followed the boulevard to a grand piazza, then an old theater and through the streets full of restaurants and young Sicilians and stores and fountains and laundry hanging from the balconies. The city pulsed with energy and felt immensely alive.
We ended up at Premiata Enoteca Buttice, a wine bar that carries over a 1000 wines, that was full of well-heeled brown-eyed 40-something locals double-kissing each other and exchanging the latest gossip (“No, I heard it was her ex-husband who…” one man whispered to another). The waiter brought us three excellent Sicilian whites and hungrily, we munched on the accompanying bruschetta (we love the concept of Italian aperitivo, where a drink is brought with free food!).
With our tummies full and spirits lifted, we wandered through the meandering streets under the laundry and the balconies further into the center. We came out onto a smaller piazza with a fountain in the center, where street vendors grilled seafood and young revelers drank beer outside the surrounding bars that played music. That night, we found several of piazzas just like it and everywhere there were throngs of young people smoking and drinking outside and bobbing to music.
On one bigger street, we heard the unusual sound of drums and then noticed a long procession approaching us on a pedestrian boulevard decorated with lit arches (which reminded us of New York’s Little Italy, where they always seemed cheesy and touristy, but, apparently, were simply a festive part of street décor in Southern Italy).
We stopped to watch the procession of young and old people carrying candles along with a white-robed priest who prayed through a mic ahead of the tall silver case carried by several men that contained the relics of Santa Rosalia. Apparently, this 12th-century nun died in the mountains near Palermo where she lived as a hermit and reappeared in the 17th century as an apparition during the Plague. She told a local hunter that if her bones were carried through the city, the plague in Palermo would end. Her bones were dug up and carried through the city streets. Three weeks later, on July 14, Palermo was entirely cleared of the plague. Ever since, the bones, now encased in silver, are carried through the streets in a big procession.
Of course, we knew none of this when we decided to swing by Palermo that weekend. But now that we were here, watching the Sicilian city celebrate one of its most important holidays on a warm summer night, we no longer needed to look strong because, unlike earlier that day, we couldn’t have wished to be anywhere else.
P.S. Here are a few more pics from the next day of exploring Palermo: