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“The Pantheon of Illustrious Italians”: Chiesa di San Domenico (The Church of Saint Dominic) in the quarter of La Loggia, has buried many of Sicily’s famous dead. Photograph by Peter O'Discroll

The exuberant poetry of Palermo

This Sicilian city has plenty of surprises for those willing to just take it all in
Blithe Sanchez | Oct 23 2018

“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.

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Fontana Pretoria dominates Piazza Pretoria.The sixteen nude statues of humans, mermaids, and nymphs are said to represent Palermo’s corrupt municipalities, giving this magnificent historical piece the infamous tag “fountain of shame.”
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The author by the imposing Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (Santa Caterina Church) and her monastery, Piazza Bellini. 
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BB4U Apartments along Via Immacolatella. Funny name aside, booking it was the best decision we ever made. A modern flat in an old building, in a perfect location at the heart of La Kalsa, run by the very helpful Guilia.

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.

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a walk-through-bedroom inside the palazzo. This strange -yet charming- arrangement puts a bedroom in a busy living area. Two doors hidden at the back wall leads to dressing areas to the left and right of the bed, a semblance of privacy in an otherwise compromising situation.

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.

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Down-to-earth aristocracy: Inside the Palazzo Conte Federico, an Ikea lounge chair is at home amidst antiquity.

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 (