Backpacking. It’s the well known concept of carrying all you need on your back, while traveling through exciting places, generally with a good friend in tow. I’ve decided to try suitcasing as I’m still too much of a wimp to get a real backpack. First stop? Palermo, Sicilia!
Now all throughout my trip, I’ve stuck to trains. But getting to Sicily would have been a whole day of trains, a ferry, and another train. Majorly inconvenient. Majorly expensive. Here comes the well-known (in Europe) RyanAir to offer a cheap cheap flight. The only downside? It takes forever to check in and they’re super picky about the weight of your bags. Upside? The cheery, neon yellow interior of the plane.
It was much cheaper to fly into Trapani and then take a bus ride into Palermo. Although the two cities are quite close, the trip takes about 2 hours. It weaves through beautiful scenery though. In my mind, Sicily was a land of sun, beautiful water, and somehow flat like Texas. I’m not really sure why. But the island is full of rocky mountain formations and valleys, green and gold fields contrasting each other, and bright blue water peeking out in the distance. The fog and clouds from the ocean rolled in halfway through the ride, creating a very fantastical landscape. Not at all what I expected, in the best of ways.
When we first entered Palermo, we thought it would match the surrounding area. It’s almost the exact opposite. I imagined at any point our bus would pass through these ugly buildings into a stunning historic center, but that point never came. If anything, the “stunning” tourist sites never really popped out – even those looked worn down, trashed, disrespected. There didn’t seem to be a good or bad neighborhood, just bad and worse.
I have to nod to what Elizabeth Gilbert writes of Palermo in “Eat, Pray, Love” for it definitely captures the feel of this city:
Palermo – a city Goethe once claimed was possessed of an impossible-to-describe-beauty may now be the only city in Western Europe where you can still find yourself picking your steps through World War II rubble, just to give a sense of development here. The town has been systematically uglified beyond description by the hideous and unsafe apartment blocks the Mafia constructed in the 1980s as money-laundering operations. I asked one Sicilian if those buildings were made from cheap concrete and he said, “Oh, no – this is very expensive concrete. In each batch, there are a few bodies of people who were killed by the Mafia, and that costs money. But it does make the concrete stronger to be reinforced with all those bones and teeth.”
On the brighter side, there is so much food and cultural diversity. Palermo, in the past 10,000 years, was ruled under the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, and more. The most fascinating part to me was that these conquests didn’t result in the continual destruction of the city, but rather each adding their own touches and flavors. If you asked me what I thought Middle East looked like (in the sense of the meeting point of Asia, Africa, and Europe), Palermo fits it exactly. The streets are lined with Indian grocery shops, open air markets, tiny gelaterias, and African women simply sitting in front of their homes with different grilled fish.
At one point we were starving, and wanting to be the true adventurous foodie, I walked up to the next street vendor, pointed at 2 meats and had them grilled up. He complied with the request but immediately asked, “Where are you from?” explaining that “From the look in your eyes, you don’t know what you just ordered.” Definitely not. Once it was cooked, he began to slice it up, warning us to stand at a distance for liquid squirted all directions with every cut. Feeling a bit nervous now, I threw on salt and lemon and took a piece. On the upside, it was no longer an unidentified piece of meat – intestine, no question. On the downside…it tasted just like you would imagine intestine grilled and chopped to be like. Not very delicious.
More on Sicily to come – a few more sights in Palermo, then onto Catania and Mt Etna! :)