Si­cily’s Palermo still col­or­ful, but cleaner

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One thing I en­joy about my work is get­ting my out­dated im­pres­sions back up to date. Europe is al­ways chang­ing — and re­cently I dis­cov­ered that Si­cily’s cap­i­tal of Palermo has be­come a whole new city since my last visit. It’s cleaner, safer and more ef­fi­cient than it was in years past. But it still re­tains its col­or­ful edge — and that’s why I love it.

Over the past decade, Palermo has re­vi­tal­ized it­self with new mu­se­ums, gen­tri­fied neigh­bor­hoods, pedes­tri­an­ized streets and up­scale shops and ho­tels. The Mafia’s in­flu­ence has also sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished. Sure, the traf­fic is a free-forall, and even the city’s pret­ti­est pub­lic spa­ces are rough around the edges. It’s like Naples in that re­gard — but most vis­i­tors come to ap­pre­ci­ate Palermo’s grit­ti­ness and what lo­cals call its “bella chaos.”

The heart of the city is Qu­at­tro Canti (“Four Cor­ners”). It’s where two main streets — Via Maqueda and Via Vit­to­rio Emanuele — in­ter­sect, di­vid­ing the city into four ma­jor his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hoods. Be­tween the streets are four Baroque fa­cades, each adorned with three tiers of stat­ues. The bot­tom stat­ues rep­re­sent the four sea­sons, from a young maiden for spring to an el­derly woman for win­ter.

A few steps from Qu­at­tro Canti is a trio of glo­ri­ous churches, fac­ing one an­other across Pi­azza Bellini: La Mar­torana, with gor­geous gilded mo­saics; San Cataldo, fill­ing a for­mer mosque; and the high­light, the Church of Santa Ca­te­rina, where a sim­ple ex­te­rior hides an ex­plo­sive Si­cil­ian Baroque

Born and raised in Mex­ico, ac­tress Martha Hi­gareda (“Al­tered Car­bon,” “No Manches Frida”) cur­rently is based out of Ma­rina del Rey, Calif., though she notes, “I live (out of ) a suit­case most of the time.”

When she’s at home, she en­joys tak­ing week­end get­aways to Napa, for food and wine. “But since I love adventure too, I love jump­ing on a plane and go­ing to Bryce Canyon or Zion in Utah,” she says.

An edited ver­sion of our con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows.

A. So many places. It’s al­ways fas­ci­nat­ing to me to be in a dif­fer­ent part of the planet. We were pro­mot­ing “Al­tered Car­bon” (in Seoul, South Korea) and it was so dif­fer­ent than any other city I’ve ever been in. The high-rises are in­cred­i­ble. Imag­ine New York, but mul­ti­ply it by 10, but with no ads and wide streets, very clean and or­ga­nized. And in be­tween this mas­sive mod­ern city rests these beau­ti­ful palaces, like Gyeong­bok, which lit­er­ally trans­ports you in time.

A. That is prob­a­bly one of the hard­est ques­tions some­one could ask me, as I love trav­el­ing so much to many dif­fer­ent places. I love Tu­lum, Mex­ico, for the beaches, the ru­ins, the peo­ple and the food. It’s a good combo be­tween re­lax­ing on the white sand beach, eat­ing the best seafood and ex­plor­ing the in­te­rior.

Nearby, in Pi­azza Pre­to­ria, the fa­mous “Foun­tain of Shame” is one of the few Re­nais­sance works here. Its gath­er­ing of mar­ble stat­ues in­cludes gods, god­desses Mayan ru­ins and cenotes. It re­ally is paradise on Earth. The con­trast be­tween the ru­ins and the bright blue ocean can bring tears to your eyes. Then also go­ing to the cenotes, they are sa­cred places for the Mayans, with crys­talline wa­ter caves with tree roots grow­ing from above to touch the wa­ter. You feel a bit like In­di­ana Jones while you’re there. For ad­ven­tur­ous ac­tiv­i­ties, I love Hawaii, the Big Is­land. You can dive at night with the gi­ant manta rays or take a he­li­copter ride to watch the glow­ing lava of Ki­lauea.

A. In my coun­try? Taxco. It’s a lit­tle town nes­tled in the mid­dle of the moun­tains, with cob­ble­stone streets and amaz­ing food. When you ar­rive there, it feels like time stopped for a while. Get lost in the lo­cal mar­kets and buy amaz­ing sil­ver. If we talk about a dif­fer­ent coun­try, I’d say Sapa in Viet­nam. You take a night train to the moun­tains. The adventure starts on a night train and then you ar­rive to this mag­i­cal town nes­tled in the moun­tains and the clouds, where miles and and grotesques on sev­eral tiers, with the vir­gin god­dess of hunt, Diana, pre­sid­ing above the com­mo­tion. The nick­name comes from the nude fig­ures — con­sid­ered quite racy in con­ser­va­tive miles of rice fields are planted, and def­i­nitely Ba­gan in Myan­mar. If you are the In­di­ana Jones type, this is the place. You hop on your elec­tric scooter with a map and wa­ter, and off you go to ex­plore the tem­ples with se­cret pas­sages. It’s truly a won­der!

A. As a child we took many trips, but the one I re­mem­bered the most was Dis­ney­land, and I loved it for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

A. Plan for it and then for­get the plan. You gotta be ready to im­pro­vise and just go with the flow. I took a trip to Thai­land and we were stay­ing in a beau­ti­ful five-star ho­tel, and one night we said, “Let’s just im­pro­vise!” and we ended up sleep­ing aboard a boat, watch­ing the stars in the mid­dle of the night and swim­ming with the glow­ing plank­ton. I don’t think that would’ve hap­pened if we’d stayed at our fancy ho­tel, not that I don’t like fancy. For more from the re­porter, visit www.jae­hakim.com. Si­cily.

While Palermo can seem a bit ram­shackle, be­hind its gritty walls hide ex­quis­ite noble man­sions re­mind­ing vis­i­tors of the is­land’s rich her­itage. One of my fa­vorite places to sneak a glimpse of aris­to­cratic life is Palazzo Conte Fed­erico, an el­e­gant and ex­tremely lived-in man­sion built upon the city wall. Count Fed­erico’s fam­ily has lived here for cen­turies, and the cur­rent count is a race­car en­thu­si­ast (though after he flipped his car in a Si­cil­ian road race, the count­ess said, “No more rac­ing”). Tours of the man­sion are led by their sons.

Per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing sight is about 1.5 miles from the cen­ter, in a crypt be­low a Ca­puchin monastery. The Ca­puchins, a branch of the Fran­cis­can or­der, have a pas­sion for re­mind­ing peo­ple of their mor­tal­ity. His­tor­i­cally, when their monas­tic broth­ers died, their bones were saved and put on dis­play. The Ca­puchins of Palermo took this tra­di­tion a step fur­ther, pre­serv­ing bod­ies in their en­tirety.

Inside the Cat­a­combs of the Ca­puchins, a maze of cor­ri­dors con­tains about 2,000 clothed skele­tons and mum­mies: monks in brown robes, women wear­ing fa­vorite dresses, priests in their vest­ments, sol­diers still in uni­form and chil­dren look­ing al­most as if they are just tak­ing a long nap. The old­est body — Brother Sil­ve­stro — has been hang­ing here since 1599. These “bod­ies with­out souls” are meant to re­mind the liv­ing that their time on earth is tran­si­tory, and some­thing much greater awaits. If you be­lieve in God, this crypt is ac­tu­ally a beau­ti­ful cel­e­bra­tion of life. At the very least, it’s a thought-pro­vok­ing re­minder of your mor­tal­ity.

QPalermo be­came a ma­jor city after the ninth-cen­tury ar­rival of the Arabs, who were the first in­hab­i­tants to spur the city’s de­vel­op­ment. In the 11th cen­tury, the Nor­mans, ar­riv­ing from north­ern France, con­quered and re-Chris­tian­ized Si­cily. Yet the Arab in­flu­ence lives on through­out the city.

A great ex­am­ple is at the Pala­tine Chapel, built in the 12th cen­tury inside the Nor­man rulers’ royal res­i­dence. The king at the time hired ar­chi­tects and crafts­men from dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, and to­gether they built a sim­ple Nor­man struc­ture with Arab-style arches and geo­met­ric de­signs, and then adorned the walls and ceil­ing with shim­mer­ing Nor­man-Byzan­tine mo­saics.

Arab in­flu­ence is also felt in Palermo’s street mar­kets, where mer­chants re­tain the tra­di­tion of singing their sales pitches. My fa­vorite place to wit­ness this is the Bal­laro Mar­ket, the city’s old­est, most authen­tic and liveli­est mar­ket. And the Vuc­ciria, with just a smat­ter­ing of meat, fish and pro­duce ven­dors, has one of the city’s best street food scenes — a one-stop shop for boiled oc­to­pus, spleen sand­wiches and Si­cily’s fa­mous fried rice balls (arancine).

While the Vuc­ciria neigh­bor­hood is lively in the morn­ing, it’s even bet­ter after hours. Make it a point to ex­plore its char­ac­ter­is­tic back lanes at night, where you’ll likely stum­ble onto a won­der­fully con­vivial scene un­der the stars — a kalei­do­scope of edgy graf­fiti, cheap plas­tic chairs, soc­cer on the big screen, big-eyed kids with gelato and peo­ple em­brac­ing life with Si­cil­ian gusto. Rick Steves (www.rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

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