“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”
I found these words—Goethe’s ode to the Italian region he loved most—in a used book I bought two years ago. They’ve intrigued me since—both the words and the place. This year, my family and I let Goethe guide us as we set off to discover Sicily for ourselves.
Our journey started in its capital Palermo, where we burrowed deep into La Kalsa, the city’s historic Arab centre and, without a doubt, its heart. And what a heart it was: throbbing, mad, and alive. For three days, without fail, we woke up to the blare of Italian music from a neighbour’s radio and ate breakfast to the din of Palermo life—babies crying and mothers bellowing in that distinctive Italian singsong.
By day, we were tourists doing touristy things. Bottled water in hand, and hats on head, we roamed La Kalsa’s piazzas, entered her churches, climbed up her monastery, visited her palazzos, devoured her sights. By night, we were locals, hunting for good food and good times. We navigated narrow, cobbled alleyways—some prettily quaint, others darkly sinister, some infused with aromatic spices, others smelling of piss and day-old fish.
And just when we thought this labyrinthine city had finally swallowed us, we turned corners to delightful surprises. It could be a piazza surrounded by storied buildings, a lively bar next to a somber old church, a century-old foccaceria (bakery) with the best arancina and caponata; it could also be a Count’s palazzo a few yards away from the wet market, or a quartet playing haunting music on a makeshift stage bordered by crate boxes.
Palermo is a city of contradictions--faded yet grand, simple yet fascinating, ancient yet pulsating with life. It’s where laundry hangs over well-dressed customers gobbling up pizzas; where a Count’s son gives you a guided tour of his family home while his girlfriend minds the gate; it’s where ethereal music wafts through crate boxes straight to your soul.
It is this authenticity that makes Palermo what it is. Unabashedly shabby and gritty, it dares one to take her or leave her. We took her with open arms.
Goethe once said that to have seen Italy without seeing Sicily is to have seen nothing at all. To have seen Sicily without experiencing Palermo is just as tragic.
Photographs by Peter O'Driscroll (peterodriscollphotography.com)