The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittoria Emanuele, known famously as Quattro Canti, divides historic Palermo into four traditional quarters. We stayed primarily in this gritty, edgy, and filthy historical center, as it contains the majority of the sights. It’s perhaps not one’s typical destination vacation but I’m not into manicured, touristy spots – they are never as interesting. To quote a friend’s remarks, “The city is still a real beauty, but its gems often need seeking out.”
There is lots of evidence of the ancient city’s ties with the Arab world, most visibly in the markets. We explored the flea market Mercato del Capo, which extends through a tangle of lanes and alleyways, then the bustling street markets of Vucciria and Ballarò with their colourful fresh produce, fish, and household goods. Weaving through the smells and yells, I ate the sweetest peach I’ve had in all my life, watched fishermen mutilate countless species of fish, and bought local herb concoctions that I secretly pray will make all my future meals delectable. We befriended vendors who proudly showed their family’s longstanding businesses through newspaper clippings, old photos, and their young sons. Swaying sausages and carcasses, stray dogs were aplenty, and so were men. Men everywhere. In the evening, we’d occasionally get a glimpse from behind beaded screens into apartments’ street-level kitchens and see families seated for dinner.
It’s best not to have expectations, ever. I wasn’t expecting to see such shabby and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods. I should have remembered my only previous references to Sicily: its troubled past linked to the notorious Mafia as well as The Golden Girls’ Sophia’s constant statements “Picture it, Sicily, 1953…..”, as a den of crime and filth, plagued by poverty. From the walls of scaffolding, it was clear to me that plans for restoring the capital city’s old quarter (perhaps even to its former glory) are underway. Palermo is artwork-in-progress.