I had a mixed experience visiting Sicily recently, a wonderful place full of spectacular scenery, delicious wine and kind hearted people. The rolling green hills that form the heart of the island give way to a rugged coastline, full of white sandy beaches and wave-blasted rocky inclines, lashed by turquoise blue water. However, Palermo was another story.
The Sicilian landscape was certainly impressive and full of character. Peering over a low wall into a traditional Sicilian farm is one of my very best memories. Olive groves stretched out as far as the eye could see, next to a crumbling farmhouse immersed in a sea of poppies. A blood red tractor sat idle under the baking sun, while the silhouettes of tall palm trees manifested themselves on the horizon.
Rural Sicily was very appealing, yet I was keen to delve into the island’s urban side in order to experience its much-renowned gastronomy and rich history. Where better to start than Palermo, Sicily’s 2,700 year-old capital. Most people have heard of this city, a bustling metropolis of roughly 1.2 million people. I was even keener to visit when I read about Palermo’s inclusion in a photographic exhibition in London’s Frith Street Gallery. “A historic centre; an amalgam of ruin and renovation; working class communities and markets; alleyways and quaysides”. That description sounded alluring. Would Palermo measure up to it?
I arrived in the city’s main bus station and disembarked into the sweltering heat. Standing in the shade of a faceless concrete water tower, I quickly found myself disorientated. There was not a single sign in sight indicating the direction of the exit, let alone the city centre. I immediately had a sinking feeling.
I read somewhere that Palermo is not a place for the faint-hearted. The pace of life in Sicily’s largest city is hectic, to say the least. Thronged boulevards criss-cross the entire central district, packed full of honking cars, trucks and whining mopeds. Finally emerging from the bus station, I was greeted by a small square and roundabout, full of swirling traffic. It was not long until I was dicing with death. Italians are internationally renowned for their erratic driving and Palermo seemed to be home to the very worst of them.
I finally managed to make my way across the roundabout onto one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Via Roma. This street certainly had promise at first, with a distinct Parisian vibe. The buildings had grand facades, while elegant trees provided a welcome splash of green at various intervals along the sidewalk. Unfortunately, once more the street was choked with loud traffic.
Even though Via Roma initially seemed pleasant in some ways, it grew more decrepit by the second. Above those green trees, the facades were black with dirt, darkened by years of filthy exhaust fumes emanating from that snarling line of mopeds, Fiats and Iveco trucks. The streetscape was worsened even further by discarded rubbish items littering the paths, some of which were uncomfortably narrow. A group of tourists rounded the corner at a particularly narrow section, forcing me to temporarily step out onto that wild street as mopeds flashed by, mere millimetres away. I started to wonder if I would even survive my day in Palermo.
The Church of San Domenico makes for an impressive sight along Via Roma, but otherwise there are few other places of interest. Turning off the cluttered street into Via Vittorio Emanuale, I hoped to discover some of the historic riches Palermo is supposedly renowned for. I quickly found myself in a Baroque square known as Quattro Canti, but officially called Piazza Vigliena.
This place was constructed between 1608 and 1620 and contains four identical buildings featuring fountains with the four Spanish kings of Sicily. It would be a delight to behold if there was a semblance of calm. Unfortunately, this fine but compact square is jammed full of tourists, horse-drawn carriages and of course, cars. The narrow footpaths and towering buildings lead to a feeling of claustrophobia and a fast escape is your best survival strategy. The Piazza Vigliena absolutely begs for pedestrianisation, a concept which seems to be hopelessly lost on the gritty streets of Palermo.
Despite the mounting bad experiences, there are some nice places in the city where you can escape the traffic momentarily, including the nearby Piazza Pretoria with its beautiful fountain, or Palermo Cathedral, just a few minutes walk further along Via Vittorio Emanuale. The cathedral was erected in 1185 and its current neoclassical appearance can be attributed to work carried out in the 18th century. Architecturally, the entire building is stunning, featuring curving arches, sculptures and baroque cupolas. The grounds are equally pleasant, full of palm trees and benches where you can catch your breath.
Wandering the back streets, I noticed an unusual and irritating quirk – no sidewalks. They were narrow on the wider streets but their complete absence on smaller ones took me by surprise. The houses began to take on a distinct North African appearance and fresh laundry hung from balconies, billowing in the warm breeze. They provided the only real colour to be found in the back alleyways – those green trees had promptly disappeared. I was hoping for an espresso to provide me with some energy, but there was a complete lack of cafes. I have fond memories of relaxed pavement cafes in Rome, Verona, Trieste and other Italian cities – this, however, was woeful.
As I walked further, the litter problem grew increasingly worse. Walls were covered with graffiti, though not the appealing artistic kind. It was just plain ugly, adding more to the grit and disdain. Soon, overflowing plastic waste containers appeared on most corners. With their lids tossed open, trash rose high into the blue Mediterranean sky. White plastic bags, their sides ripped apart, were scattered everywhere. The scene was disgusting, almost ludicrous. Were these waste containers for business or the general populace? Everybody seemed to use them and nobody seemed to empty them. Most western countries are forecast to have paper and organic material as their primary waste material in the future, according to statistics. However, Palermo seemed to have an over-abundance of glass and plastic waste with no real recycling initiative in sight, highly disappointing for such a large EU city.
Looking at the map, I headed in the direction of Palermo’s historic Kalsa district. This Arab quarter proved difficult to find in the maze of old winding streets, primarily due to an absence of signage.
Passing by the architecturally impressive church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, I soon found myself standing in Piazzo Magione in the very heart of the Kalsa. This place was green and relatively quiet, with a much reduced level of traffic. There were also some pink cherry blossom trees on the piazza’s perimeter. Unusual items of beauty amidst the increasingly repugnant city. There were some old ruins in the very centre of the piazza, so I went over to take a look. It should come as no surprise that they were full of discarded trash. At that very moment, I decided to leave Palermo on the next bus. I walked towards the waterfront and promenade, hoping against all hope for some semblance of beauty amid the dirty, rubbish-filled streets.
Wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, diapers, bottles, you name it and it was there. The smell was pungent, intensified all the more by the hot air and petrol fumes from those damned vespas. How I needed some sea air. After passing yet more rubbish mountains, I finally emerged onto Palermo’s promenade. If I was hoping for something in the same class as the elegant Promenade des Anglais in Nice, I was sorely disappointed. For Palermo’s waterfront resembled some sick cross between Ostende in Belgium and Constanta in Romania, albeit with far more rubbish. There was a seemingly pleasant green strip of land called the Foro Italico, directly between the main street and the Mediterranean, lined with palm trees. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, this promising space was overrun with weeds and plastic debris.
Even though the sea breeze was enormously refreshing and very much necessary after the near lethal backstreet labyrinth, the promenade was just as bad. The worst of it was epitomized by a seating area overlooking the harbour decorated with light blue, white and red tiles, many of which were adorned in an ugly polka dot pattern. Far from resembling a wonderful Mediterranean promenade, the whole place was more akin to toilets in an abandoned theme park. In between the seats, people relaxed up to their ankles in discarded rubbish.
The quickest route away from the promenade and back to the bus station actually took me past one of the few positive places in Palermo – the Orto Botanica or Botanical Garden. Dating from 1779, this place is full of exotic plants, eye-catching architecture and quiet pathways. It really forms a haven far removed from the trash heaps and suicidal driving of Palermo’s streets.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally came around a corner and saw that same faceless concrete water tower where I disembarked the bus. After a relatively short waiting time, my bus swung into the parking space right in front of me. Barely hesitating for a moment, I jumped onboard almost as if it was the final helicopter departing Saigon in 1975.
Unfortunately, I will not be visiting the photographic exhibition focusing on Palermo in London’s Frith Street Gallery. While some can see beauty through the pollution and pandemonium, I could only see a badly planned urban centre, choking to death on its own exhaust fumes. I think attention needs to be drawn to the fact that this city is in crucial need of financial assistance and urban redevelopment – pedestrianisation and recycling initiatives are required most urgently.
As a tourist in Sicily’s largest city, you feel unwelcome and trapped at the same time. You question why the people dump their rubbish on street corners. You wonder why they do not ditch their cars in favour of a bicycle. You just cannot understand the place – finally you give in to the thought that in Palermo, you either get killed by the insane drivers, overcome by noxious exhaust fumes or poisoned by the grotesque smells emanating from the city’s rubbish mountains. It is, without doubt, a dose of pandemonium you do not need to experience.
Written by and photos (unless noted) by Guest Contributor Seamus Murphy for EuropeUpClose.com
Seamus Murphy grew up in Limerick, Ireland and has since lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. He has a background in public relations and teaching and has become an enthusiastic blogger. Seamus enjoys writing about international affairs, communication, technology and environmental issues. He is a keen fan of traditional Irish music.See more of Seamus writing on Trenditionalist.