Sicily’s Palermo still colorful, but cleaner
Tribune Content Agency
One thing I enjoy about my work is getting my outdated impressions back up to date.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.