Starting a tour of the other end of Sicily...

Trip Start Sep 29, 2005
Trip End Jun 29, 2006

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Well, I managed to make it to the bus-station this morning with everything packed for five days travel in the west of Sicily. I must say that it was almost a relief to have such a long bus journey across the island in which to catch up on some much needed sleep - I did awake periodically to take in the spectacular mountainous scenery of the Madonie National Park among other delights before we emerged to the largely industrialised coastline around Palermo. I must say the stark chimneys and pollution came as quite a shock after the snow-capped peaks and open lush valleys that preceded them! Me and my travelling companion Lyz were in complete agreement that we will have to return to go walking 'up in 'em hills' at some point - perhaps when it is a bit warmer and there is less snow!

Disembarking at the train station, I must say I found it quite easy readapting my sense of direction. This is my second visit to the city and there could quite easily spend a third - Palermo is one of those cities that the more you go to see it, the more you realise that there is yet more to see and do! And today has illustrated perhaps for the first time how you get to know a city - through the sites, yes, but more than anything through meeting the people and the bizarre experiences that this can lead to!

After checking in to my now favourite hotel in the centre of Palermo (Albergo Cavour, via Manzoni, just across from the train station its the first turn off from via Lincoln and it has a very big sign on the 4th/5th floor! It is not in most guides in Britain but is a very nice mid-priced hotel), and taking the very same room that me and my brother took just under a year ago, me and Lyz set straight off towards la Kalsa and went for a wonder around Parco Garibaldi and a light and early lunch there before passing through la Vucciria market, decidedly small compared to Catania's markets, on the way to la Zisa. Now, this very famous monument never appealed the last time as it seemed a bit of a non-event and well out of the way, but I have to say that it is well worth the walk and entrance fee if you are at all a fan of seeing simple and ingenious solutions to living in a hot country from around the 11th century that easily outpace any airconditioning unit of today. No energy consumption and yet the arabs managed to help the Christian Normans build something utterly incredible that will leave you in no doubt that the strength of humanity lies in inter-cultural interaction and cooperation rather than bombing each other to bits...Plus the city does seem to have done a really nice job of establishing a modern park roughly based on the Norman design outside of the palace that can provide a much needed patch of green! So top marks all round for that...

It was after this point however that the strangeness began to occur - having chosen between us to avoid using the city's bus system, we discreetly consulted our map and picked the simplest and seemingly direct route from la Zisa to the nearby Cappucin catacombs that receive so much attention in the guides for their grisly nature. Everything was going fine and all the streets seemed to run true with respect to what I had in my head as directions until, shortly after buying some oranges from a fruit vendor as a light snack, we came across a dead-end where there should have been a through road...

Now, I am no boaster, but my sense of direction is normally excellent even in urban environments once I have a map-image in my head, and between us we pinpointed the precise junction we had turned off and there is no possibility that we made a mistake - quite simply, the map was wrong, and judging by the vines that were growing over the wall that blocked our path, I would say that it had been wrong for quite some time!

Consulting the map for a second time, we managed to plot an alternative route and were well-prepared to find that maybe this one would not exist either, even if such a situation seemed baffling to us. A map that is wrong?!? How could it ever happen? The answer of course lies in the nature of Palermo's growth and the massive amount of illegal building that goes on - a fact that again became apparent when the alternative route was again blocked, this time by a row of garages apparently blocking what was supposed to be a large piazza and road leading to Pzza Cappuccini, this time of seemingly recent construction. Obviously no town planner had been informed, or rather no town planner had ever bothered to enter the district to record the reality as opposed to what there was supposed to be there; the reason for that was abundantly clear in the desperate poverty that we encountered and the suspicious glances we received from various groups of residents whose conversations hushed as we pressed worriedly on into the maze of alleyways and narrow stairwells. Feeling thoroughly insecure as outsiders, we were desperately trying to understand and read their clipped accents for signs of attack while keeping our valuables well-pushed down in deep pockets and bags over both shoulders. The garages, once encountered, threw us into panic; what the hell was wrong with this city?!?

With no apparent way out from what was left of the piazza in the direction of the monastery (which we thought we could see by this point over some terraced gardens...and again we know it was the right piazza because we did find a faded nameplate), we started to head down what appeared the main exit before the old lady we had seen picking through the piazza's bins sidled up to us and asked if we were looking for the Cappucin monastery. Perhaps rightfully suspicious given the circumstances, we cautiously accepted her offer to guide us there and, half-expecting her to lead us to a thieves ambush in some back alley where they could do away with us efficiently or at the very least an extortionate fee at the end, we followed her at her waddling snails' pace up the road we were thinking of taking in the first place: Kids threw rubbish at us and pointed and laughed; cars and mopeds drove past at break-neck speed within inches of us and beeped their horns (I found out from our guide later that they were all relatives of various degrees), but our guide, for all that she smelt and had no teeth, remained true and guided us, dealing insults as and when necessary to would-be assailants, to the nearby main road while always telling us to 'not look at anyone'. I must say that it was the first time I was glad to have spent some time listening to my flatmates speak in Sicilian otherwise I would not have understood a word of what she said in terms of directions onwards from the entrance to her world, the great 'other' of Palermo of rotten, poverty-stricken quarters and people consigned to criminality by the lack of alternative - a world however in which an old lady showed us kindness and left us a bit emotional at the end. I wanted to hug her; I went to offer her something for her kindness and she would have none of it - she simply waved us on with blessings and threw one last insult at a group of weirdos hanging around before re-entering the warren, one of whom clearly didn't listen as he continued to follow us right up to the turn-off for the monastery, shouting incoherently yet receiving responses from others along the street - some sort of code for the attack, we wondered?

In any case, no attack came and we entered the monastery relieved to rejoin the tourist circuit and, encountering a French school party that looked a little white-faced upon exiting, we went down to what has to be one of the most perturbing sights of my life - rows upon rows of mummified corpses in period dress hung upon walls and laid out in alcoves, it was difficult to digest the fact that these had been human beings and that they were not simply mannequins or the products of special effects teams. The facial details shocked the most - some of them were so well preserved that we could almost imagine that they would begin to speak any moment, while the 'showpiece' of the catacombs, the 2 year old baby girl mummified in the 1920s, looked no different to a well-made porcelain doll. Both me and lyz left chilled and a little melancholy, and we were relieved to exit into the sunlight without perusing the souvenirs that consisted of photos of the grisly 'exhibits'. We very rapidly moved on, avoiding the route we had followed on the way in, choosing to pass by la Cuba and skip on to the glittering sights of the Cappella Palatina and the Regional Assembly building in the Palazzo Normanno that contrasted so sharply with all that we had just seen. The guide did the rushed tour (we went in only a short while before closing time) in Italian and rubbish English translations for an English family who would have missed out on a lot were it not for the fact that we were there and were able to provide all the extra info that he missed out only because his vocabulary was too limited to do so. Our good deed for the day!

Anyway, this evening we went for a fantastic Tunisian meal behind the main post office and Archaeological Museum with delicious starters, cous-cous, wine and water for a very reasonable price, all to celebrate our survival of the city's darker heart and the start of our holiday. We had tried to find another Arabic restaurant next door to a mosque in one of the poorer quarters around the Cathedral, but found it firmly and apparently permanently closed. We have also spent a small fortune in a series of bars this evening steadying ourselves after our eventful day with Cognac and expensive choccies - but you have to treat yourself every once in awhile and I must say I feel relieved to be putting the money away inside me as opposed in my wallet where people can remove it!

All in all a fantastic day - onwards to Trapani early tomorrow morning, and lets hope the good weather holds out for us!

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