After Naples and Pompeii, we made our way down to Sicily. When you look at Italy, Sicily is the ball that the boot is kicking. It takes a very long time to get there, and it isn’t actually very clear about how one can get there. We ended up taking a train to the tip of mainland Italy (Reggio Callabria) and hoping we could figure out a ferry from there. We had been on a train for 5 hours or so and once we got there we realized we were in the wrong part of town to catch a ferry. We had to back track a bit and go to a different place, where we waited another 2 hours to catch the 1 hour ferry to Messina. A town in Sicily that is closest to the southern tip of Italy.
We stayed the night in Messina because we arrived around 20:30, and finding a train to Palermo seemed silly. Palermo is another 5 hour train ride, because they have to go along the coast of Sicily, and they make a lot of stops. In Messina we found a cute small restaurant called the La Tartaruga (The Turtle) and we had a long meal with the restaurant to ourselves. The food was very good, and it was the only restaurant we could find after searching for 30 minutes, so I’m surprised it wasn’t more crowded.
The next day we made it to Palermo, which to me seemed very much like Mexico. The city is a little dirty, and the traffic a little crazy, but that is Italy for you. Palermo is about the size of El Paso, Texas with a population of 655,875; but has a population density more similar to Berkeley, CA (10,725/sq.mi).
Palermo is nearly as old as Naples, which means it has been a part of the Roman Empire, then ruled by Arabs, and now today is an important port for the Asia/Mediterranean region. The economy relies on tourism, but public services are also important. Other means of financial support are commerce, shipbuilding, trade, and agriculture. The unemployment of Palermo is very high, and the politics are corrupt.
The Sicilian Mafia is based here in Palermo and still thriving, having killed an anti-mafia judge in 1992, and is still believed to be bribing politicians. This is supposedly the original source of “mafias” around the world. Activities that the mafia participate in are vote buying, smuggling, bid rigging, loan sharking, and murder, which is the main reason for their fearful reputation.
Palermo is known for its churches which display different sorts of architecture, from gothic to baroque, but Jeff and I were more interested in the beaches and food. We at a lot of pizza while we were here. A lot of Sicilian food uses anchovies and chickpeas as ingredients, and seafood in general is a popular choice. Jeff and I enjoyed a large Cannoli, which is a dessert with a crispy shell and filled with frosting (or ice cream I thought) and can be plain or chocolate. This dessert was very sugary and promptly made me hyper and rowdy for 45 minutes before dropping me from my sugar high into a place of cranky and headache-ness. Still worth it.
In Palermo we passed several churches and piazzas but the one that caught our eye the most was the Piazza Pretoria. The fountain in the piazza has many sculptures on it representing some mythology of Italy. There are four pools in the fountain which represent the four streams that go through Palermo. Originally the fountain was intended for a wealthy individual, but in the end the commissioner couldn’t afford the fountain so it was sold to the Senate in Palermo.
I didn’t take my camera to the beach, which is where we tried to spend a lot of our days. We did spend two mornings hunting for a haircut for Jeff and found some gems along the way, such as a 6,000€ bronze statue of the pope. Bill Bryson says he always likes to purchase the most outrageous souveniour he can, and in Italy that usually involves something related to the Virgin Mary. I’m curious about how he would feel about this potential center piece though.
While on the local train leaving Pompeii, someone recommended we visit a different city in Sicily which was more Sicilian than Palermo. We stayed in Palermo for a good while, relaxing a bit and taking care of some Student Visa nightmares, but then we continued on with our speed-traveling agenda. Most of our time in Palermo was relaxing and enjoying wine while people watching. And reading George RR Martin until two in the morning. Oh, and also Palermo has this guy… who I believe may be performing animal cruelty.