Sunday, 7 September 2014

Palermo is OK for pussies

On our way into Palermo (and below)

Some cities are best approached from the sea. Sydney definitely. Palermo too. 

If you come into Palermo by plane, you land 30 km west of the city at Falcone-Borsellini airport, named for two anti-Mafia prosecutors murdered in 1992. Makes a point. You could sweat on it during the train ride into the city.

Memorial for murdered prosecutors, with statue of Nike, goddess of Victory

I admit I was apprehensive about Palermo. I knew I shouldn't be scared, but I was a bit. Palermo's reputation has been terrifying for much of my lifetime.

Coastline west of Palermo

Preoccupied by stories of crime and filth as I was, I obviously hadn't absorbed anything about the geography of this part of Sicily. It turns out that Palermo, like Naples, is renowned for the magnificence of its setting. We came at it from Trapani, which is all about salt pans. Flat, in other words. North of Trapani, the coastline changes dramatically and the thick grey towns and low hills of the south and west coasts give way to soaring lumps of rock falling straight down into the sea. Real mountains with funny doodly outlines against the deep blue of the morning light. Claudia thought of Asia. I saw Fiordland in New Zealand. 

Once around the north-west tip of Sicily (San Vito lo Capo) and across the expansive gulf of Castellammare, we were on the coastal approach to Palermo. On the last Sunday of August, the near-to-town beaches were crammed, the dance (??) music amplified and the water churned up by over-powered inflatables - just as it is today in the harbour of Castellammare del Golfo where hundreds of tanned Sunday drivers are competing to see how close they can shave Enki's stern.

At the entrance of la Cala, Palermo harbour

Palermo harbour is in wide sweeping arc of water called the Conca d'Oro (Golden Shell). The city spills out along the coast like creamy lather, and is hemmed in from behind by imposing mountains, the tallest of which, Mt Pellegrino looms over the western end of the bay. 

That's our spot, on the Fratelli Galizzi pontoon

Tied up, with the city in our sights

Heavy lifting department, Palermo harbour
We headed for the cranes. It was the commercial harbour (La Cala) we wanted, not the Villa Igiea marina which is too far from town. The stench hit as we came in through the breakwater. Nose-curdlingly ripe. Fishing trawlers, customs boats, ferries, huge cargo ships and liners, yachts and tiny barques all work around each other in this comma of a waterway - not to mention school rowing teams and their coaches, and squads of sporty kayakers, all seemingly oblivious to the revolting brown stuff supporting their flimsy craft.

Keeping an eye out on the Galizzi pontoon
I'd booked ahead at the first pontoon after the entering la Cala on the west side. It's run by Nautica Fratelli Galizzi, a couple of older guys (brothers, obviously) and their nephew. They ran a pretty tight outfit, lots of patrolling and checking. It wasn't cheap, but nowhere in Sicily is cheap - and there's hardly anywhere you can anchor. So you just deal with it. That's something we learned last time. We were happy enough with what the brothers Fratelli offered us for the price (80 euros a night) until we realised that the water on the dock was not for drinking. It's Palermo town water, but apparently Palermites drink only bottled water. We shouldn't have been as surprised as we were. The smell, on the other hand, turned out not to be a problem. The prevailing wind, which blows down Monte Pellegrino, takes it out to sea. It wasn't until we were heading out of the Cala five days later that it bothered us again.

Anyone for fish? Dropping a line in la Cala

Weekend boaties in Palermo

After our first excursion into the city, I relaxed. We all relaxed. So you had to be buzzed through two sets of doors to get into the bank to take money out of the ATM...well, there are reasons for these things. The police presence in town was conspicuous but light-handed. The streets weren't particularly grubby, though there are narrow dark lanes you couldn't pay me to walk through in broad daylight.

For sale

On the beat in Palermo

Palermo's hub, Quattro Canti

Via Maquda is a pedestrian street 

Piazza Pretoria

Via Porto di Castro

That eagle pops up everywhere

Vintage clothing
In the more-frequented parts of central Palermo, the shops are not burnished or smart. Some areas are outright derelict. There are beggars and there are homeless people, but no more so than anywhere else. There are also vintage clothing and hat shops, whole streets of bookshops, music floating from high windows, dog walkers and brides. Strolling down Via Maqueda in the early evening, when the temperature is at its loveliest and people seem to be more at ease with each other, you could even call Palermo benign, I thought. A city for living in, for sure. 

People and places,  Palermo (and below)

On duty at the monastery of San Agostini

Fresh today at the Mercato del Capo (and below)

Fresh from the market - dinner on the boat

He said he was from Naples

The best panini in Palermo

Love, maybe

Sicilian baroque in the Capo 
The old boulevards are lined with churches and palazzos, mostly shabby but sometimes you'll wander into an unobtrusive church with a dirty facade and find a recently renovated interior and be completely overwhelmed. Sicilian baroque again, with all stops out.

There is so much to enjoy here. The markets - that goes without saying. The surprises. It's a city where, despite the drivers (they're Sicilian, you understand), you might see a well-dressed woman confidently riding an upright bicycle wearing shoes with a small heel.

There's a bit of tourism - but it's low-key. Even the horse and carriage trade for sightseers is not offensive in Palermo - it seems quite of a piece in a city where the dominant building is not a skyscraper but the fabulous opera house, Teatro Massimo.

Teatro Massimo (and below)

 The magnificent Chiesa dell'Immacolate Concezione (and below)

Chiesa San Domenico

Capella Palatina, commissioned by the Norman king, Roger II (and below)

Palermo, I've read, is a complicated city, layered like an onion. We didn't get further than the skin. That's the penalty clause in travel, even our kind of slow travel. You don't have time to peel your towns.  I may be wrong but it seemed to me that if you were to cut into this particular onion, it might not bring tears to your eyes.

Palermo in Claudia's viewfinder (and below)

We're now waiting under the castle at Castellammare for the swell to decrease before we jump over to Sardinia. It's a treat to be at anchor again. Sicily is many things, but despite the wild dreams of those who are promoting marinas around the island, it is not a "cruising" ground. Mike, a friend from Marmaris who pulled up alongside Enki in Palermo harbour, told us he's been around Sicily both ways, and each time met current. You work and pay dearly for your cruising pleasures in Sicily....should we be surprised?

The anchorage at Castellammare del Golfo

Enki is anchored between the castle and the breakwater

On the waterfront

The back of Sicily

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