Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe. It’s a crazy, chaotic, crumbling city with a vibrant life that has led it to defy the Mafia, the last in a line of exploiters bent on conquering and subduing the spirit of its people. Every neighbouring power at one time or another. has occupied this island that lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with the result that it offers the visitor a heady mixture of aromatic Arabic food served in tiled restaurants that hark back to Spanish invaders, and stunning architecture and artefacts from Greek and Norman periods. All this in streets lined with crumbling buildings, visual proof of the Italian Government’s neglect of a region for which it seems to have no respect.
View from the Cathedral by Solange Hando
We all think we know Palermo from years of watching films like The Godfather (in all its parts), and Scarface, but the films have never shown the beauty of the baroque palaces, the marble statues that are public art, the beauty of the bay at sunset and the tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.
Outdoor Art in Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson
The façade of the Teatro Massimo, the magnificence of the Cathedrale at Monreale, five miles south of the city, with its fabulous mosaics brought to Sicily from Byzantium, and the hidden beauties of the marble Serpotto Cherubs in the Oratorio del Santissimo Rosario, are Palermo at its best. At its worst are the alleys strewn with litter, the almost feral children that chase each other around the stalls in the markets, itinerant sellers of silver jewellery and leather belts who accost you at tourist spots, and neighbourhoods filled with ghosts.
Teatro Massimo In Piazza Verdi, Palermo – Photo Mari Nicholson
Italy in the raw is on every Rococo street corner, the Italy of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano (he operates in a different region of Sicily but the sense of his world is here). Stand in the Piazza Verdi opposite the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house, and look towards the steps of the theatre on which the final scene of The Godfather III took place, and I defy you not to hear the swelling music of Cavalleria Rusticana and hear the howl of anguish from Al Pacino as his beloved daughter died in his arms.
But it is in its streets that the real Palermo, and Sicily, is revealed and in its boisterous street markets with their mixture of fresh food, dusty shoes and lurid outerwear vying for your attention with the fast-food stall, the fresh orange-juice seller and the suspect ‘antiques’. Crumbling baroque facades look down on this carnival of life which attracts the rich and poor of the city.
The Orange Juice Seller, Palermo, Sicily – Photo by Mari
Despite advances made by the justice system and the reverence in which Giovanne Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are held (the two Judges gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992) the honoured society is still a reality in Palermo. Its presence is a burden the Sicilians have had to bear for many years because few were prepared to defy the demands of the organised crime ring and, let’s face it, it dispensed a type of justice, the only sort on which the poor could rely.
Herb Stall in Palermo Market, Sicily – Photo by Mari Nicholson
Yet by the end of the 20th century and as a result of the assassination of the two popular judges, the Sicilians began to challenge the status quo. Led by Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated judge, a native of Palermo and anti-Mafia activist, an anti-Mafia movement, Libera, was formed. Now another movement called Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to protection payments’ is operating but this movement is trying to involve tourists for the good of the city.
Addiopizzo was founded in 1994 by a few young restaurateurs who had a vision of a Sicily where the Mafia did not control all sectors of the economy and where businesses of all sizes could keep 100% of their profits.
This organisation has now moved into offering anti-Mafia tours and accommodation and lists of bars and restaurants are available where it is guaranteed that the owners are refusing to pay protection money. Addiopizzo offers walking and cycling tours, car hire and accommodation, and can even arrange a tour to Corleone.
Addiopizzo could be the saviour of Palermo and the means by which the people’s pride and their strength to resist the corruption which has ruined their city, could be resurrected. I personally, can highly recommend all their tours and the walk around Palermo is truly an eye-opener.
In the midst of the chaos, the crumbling architecture, the fading grandeur and beauty of its palaces and mansions, the city has a vibrancy not felt in any other city in Italy. It has a life of its own, a language of its own, and it has art spilling out on to the streets. Go see for yourself, and when you’re there, do support ADDIO PIZZO.
The Ubiquitous Scooter – Photo by Mari Nicholson