Palermo: Byzantine, Baroque and Beyond

Among my files and folders at home is a yellowed New York Times clipping from 2008, “36 Hours in Palermo,” saved toward the end of the era when we clipped newspaper articles and filed them in folders. I’ve wanted to come to Palermo, in other words, for a long time. I finally made it, and for two-and-a-half days instead of just 36 hours.

Palermo was worth the wait. It is dramatically ringed by mountains, famous for its fresh food and distinctive cuisine, and unbelievably rich in decorative architecture, mostly churches. The historic center’s stone-paved streets are impossibly atmospheric and hopelessly complicated.

I’m here with my wasband, who flew in from New York the day after I arrived by train from Calabria. We’re staying at the Palazzo Pantaleo, a comfortably appointed, tastefully renovated six-room B&B on the top floor of an 18th century palazzo, with wrought iron balconies and a host named Guiseppe whose family has owned the property for 200 years.

Palermo (pop. 600,000) is a lot to take in, and we knew we’d only scrape the surface. We’ve walked 17,000 steps on each of two consecutive days, traversing large chunks of the city’s four central neighborhoods.

Neither day was typical, I now realize: on Sunday, cars are banned from many streets and Palermo becomes one big passegiata, with locals and tourists alike strolling the broad car-free boulevards and filling its cafes, restaurants and stores. Where Italy used to be dead for visitors on Sundays, now it shops like the rest of us.

Sunday lunch at Antico Focacceria San Francesco (it’s in all the guidebooks, a Palermo institution since the 1840s) was pasta with anchovies, plus indoor versions of the famous Palermo street food like arancini, rice and cheese rolled into balls and deep-fried. What could be bad?

Drinks and dessert later at Antica Caffe Spinnata was heartily Italian — I had a Campari spritzer and cassata, a sponge cake soaked in liqueur with candied fruit and sugar icing, and I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

Today, Monday, people went back to work. What I had forgotten was that on Monday, many restaurants would be closed, others empty. Museums, too, were closed, including the archaeological museum that was on my ‘must’ list. Plan better, if you come.

So we walked some more, admiring many elaborate and massively domed churches from the outside, including the city’s extraordinary block-long main cathedral, a mashup of Gothic spires, Romanesque arches, medieval crenelations and a Moorish mosque.

We looked into churches like the over-the-top La Martorana, decorated by Greek artisans with superb golden mosaics that were later mismatched with Baroque puttis and Renaissance frescoes. San Cataldo, the nine-century-old Norman church next door to it, with three red domes and a beautiful, bare-bones brick chapel, was more to my liking. In its simplicity, you can pray directly, no intercession needed.

Both churches are located on the sun-splashed Piazza Pretoria, centered on an epic 16th century fountain once known as the Fountain of Shame for its marble nudes.

We walked through the Ballaro market, known for the raucous patter of its vendors and the largest vegetables ever. I saw whole octopi proudly displayed and parts of animals I never wanted to see.

The prepared food looked fresh and good, and we would have done well to eat there. We ended up at the soaring, skylit Osteria Ballaro, where we had nouveau Sicilian Slow Food, including a sampler of the local street-food favorites and a mixed seafood plate. Only New Yorkers could spend as much on lunch in Palermo as we did, but the wine was dry and delicious and I’m not complaining.

We even visited the sub-tropical botanical garden on the edge of town, gaping at otherworldly ficus trees, giant cacti and agaves, greenhouses full of bougainvillea, all thriving in the Sicilian sun. The garden’s maintenance seemed scruffy and unkempt, but perhaps I’m being judgey.

Where my Lonely Planet calls out Palermo’s buildings as pock-marked, its pavements broken and neighborhoods decrepit, having just come from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, those things didn’t register. I thought it was all just part of the city’s considerable charm.