Why Sicily is all about pleasure

Why Sicily is all about pleasure

In Palermo, our suggestion is to stay at some of the old bed and breakfasts, inns or even rent out a studio apartment &on Airbnb, in an area like Piazza Pretoria, close to Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

Published: Fri 12 Jun 2015, 11:50 AM

Last updated: Wed 22 Jul 2015, 3:53 PM

The view from the top of the bell tower at Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore
The view from the top of the bell tower at Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore
Ever since my college roommate and I first started binge-watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and contemplated his take on Sicilian life, many years ago, I’ve wanted to go to Sicily. It was one of our favourite episodes, filled with magical things like Sicilian cannolis, cliff jumping and a lesson on pleasure I still abide by.
Much later, when he was back in Sicily for Parts Unknown, Bourdain lamented to the high heavens on the crew’s, and his, complete inability to do a good show in Sicily. “I’ve done a show in Palermo before. It was an epic goat rodeo, a failure of humiliating scale… Somehow, I’ve never been able to get it right. To tell a story — any story — of Sicily,” he said, and in my first few hours of landing in Palermo, Sicily’s capital city, I could see why. And I know this will be a struggle.
One of the many mixed-style chapels in Palermo, with Norman, Arab and Gothic influences
One of the many mixed-style chapels in Palermo, with Norman, Arab and Gothic influences
A brief history lesson
It’s very difficult to explain this autonomous island region — the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea — of Italy without being entirely superficial. The oldest inhabitants, the Sicani, probably thrived here as early as 8,000BC. A land under perennial conquest over some 6,000 years has made Sicilians particularly wary, hardy and visibly suspicious of tourists. They’ve been invaded by pretty much every people — the Normans, Arabs, Spaniards, Romans, Greeks… you name it. Not much different from the tiny island nation of Malta, where my partner and I’d just been, but if you want to know what 6,000 years of conquest can do to you, Sicily is the place to understand it. Sicily isn’t just a melting pot, it’s probably the melting pot, forged in the still active fires of Mount Etna, so to speak.
And it’s not just their long gone hard past, but their more recent, harder struggle with the mafia that shouts at you from the streets and monuments. From 1971, the ruling Corleonesi clan — the inspiration behind Mario Puzo’s The Godfather — waged a campaign of terror, particularly in Palermo. They executed anyone, be it politicians or law enforcement officers, who dared challenge them or investigate their shady drug and weapons trafficking deals. Then, in 1992, the heroic anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino — after whom the Palermo airport is named — were brutally murdered for convicting 119 mafiosi in a landmark case.
Understandably, the people rallied and turned against the mobsters. Since then, the Cosa Nostra (mafia) has turned to lower-level organised crime, extorting protection money and money for services like health and sanitation — called pizzo — in their areas of jurisdiction. And Sicily is once again fighting back, through organisations like Addiopizzo (Goodbye Pizzo) that encourage tourists to eat, drink, stay, play and shop at its members’ establishments that don’t pay the mafia. Just look for the stickers outside the restaurants and hotels.
Palermo is home to some of the island’s oldest and most stunning monuments, theatres and churches. There are plenty of flights through Palermo — it’s one of the busiest routes — but you may have to get a connecting flight through Catania, on the southern coast. If you have the time, you could take a tour up to Mount Etna while you’re there.
In Palermo, our suggestion is to stay at some of the old bed and breakfasts, inns or even rent out a studio apartment &on Airbnb, in an area like Piazza Pretoria, close to Corso Vittorio Emanuele. There’s a whole list of things to see down the streets from here and these streets are built for walking. Our lovely Airbnb host gave us a map, told us where to get some pizzo-free Sicilian pizza and even helped us navigate around town. It’s fairly easy to explore on foot and there are also those big red city sightseeing buses that do tours with hop on and hop off facilities.
Out and about
Coffee is sacred here, so make sure you stop at a café (called bars) — any one of hundreds littered around — and ask for un caffè, like the locals, which means one coffee and is basically a single shot espresso. You can thank me later. Another word that you’ll hear often is prego — your go-to word. Seriously, it means a host of things and can be used to ask for something, to greet or dismiss, start a fight, diffuse one, elicit a smile or get something done. Literally, it means please but, colloquially, it covers all manner of things. Think of it as the Indian usage of ‘Hello’.
Once you’ve had coffee, and the obligatory sweet treat, either in the form of a Sicilian cannoli, a pistachio or hazelnut ganache-, or even gelato-filled brioche, or any manner of pastries like the uniquely Sicilian and phenomenal Cassata Siciliana — honestly, pretty much every morsel of food here is inspired by the gods, and quite possibly better than mainland Italian food — you can set off to check out some of Palermo’s historical attractions. The Fontana Pretoria, also known as the Fontana della Vergogna — meaning Fountain of Shame — is a magnificent fountain built by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani in 1554. When it was first unveiled in 1575, the town decried it as obscene, thanks to the many nude figures. They eventually learnt to live with it, but thought it to be shameful, hence the second name.
Just down the street is one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. The Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore is used mostly as a concert hall nowadays but, on certain days and  at certain times, it is open to the public for a tour. The magnificent fresco on the ceiling has been mostly restored after it was heavily destroyed in aerial bombing runs, but there are segments from about 400 years ago that still exist. The building is unlike many chapels because it is asymmetrical, but the acoustics are still preserved. The most amazing part of the tour is the trek up to the bell tower from where you can see pretty much all of Palermo. If stairs are your enemy, this will be quite an epic battle, I assure you. But the view from the top is worth it.
Further down the road is the stunning Palermo Cathedral, filled with breathtaking frescos and ornate sculptures. It is particularly interesting since it displays an accumulation of styles from the various stages of conquest and periods of art. Another stunning example of Sicily being a melting pot of cultures is the Palatine Chapel or Cappella Palatina housed in the Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans). This chapel is one of the oldest on the island — built in 1132 — and the mosaics, tile work, gold inlays and sculptures show a bygone era of monotheistic religions coexisting harmoniously. The palace itself is open for tours and worth visiting as it is the oldest royal residence in all of Europe. Today, it serves as the seat of the regional parliament of Sicily.
There are several other beautiful examples of baroque Sicilian architecture, mixed with the various influences of conquerors past, around the area that are worth exploring, like the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, San Cataldo, Church of Saint Catherine and the San Francesco di Assisi church — built way back in 1255! They all show a mix of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Gothic and other styles. There’s also Orto botanico di Palermo — the botanical gardens of Palermo — which was founded in 1785 and is the largest in Italy, and one of the largest in Europe. Not far is the Capuchin Catacombs, filled with mummified corpses of noblemen, their wives, their kids and several monks — all at varying degrees of preservation. It’s probably the most macabre thing you’ll see in Palermo, but there are some fascinating little nuggets of information to be gleaned from the place and it’s worth a visit.
Another impressive architectural feat is the Teatro Massimo. An opera house located on the Piazza Verdi, it is the largest in Italy, and the third largest in all of Europe. It’s also where the final scenes of The Godfather III were filmed. But that’s just superficial detail. What it’s known for is its impeccable acoustics, which is still appreciable considering it was completed in 1897. Even modern facilities can’t quite replicate the genius of the architects. You can tour the facility — they have English and Italian speaking guides — on most days and it costs about 12 euros. Since I asked in Italian, and said prego (and they didn’t have change) we paid 10 each. Prego.
Palermo is also famous for its many street markets from where the locals get all their produce. Some markets are open at night and sell other goods like shoes, clothes, trinkets, souvenirs and furniture. When you live in a place like Dubai, these open markets may seem like a novelty to some but, believe me, it’s how I’d rather live. There’s a real connect with food in these markets — you won’t find waxed and dolled up fruits and vegetables here, and neither will you find frozen seafood. It’s all good and wholesome and makes you yearn to cook. No wonder the Italians, and the Sicilians in particular, are so passionate about food! Note: Sicilians are Sicilian first, European second and Italian after that. 
Seafood spaghetti
Seafood spaghetti
If you’re hungry at any point, trekking through town, there are several places that serve fresh sandwiches filled with a plethora of unbelievably good cured meats. I must warn you, Palermo does not cater to tourists from these desert parts as much as you’d think — translation: good luck finding halal food. Not a problem for us, but you’ve been warned. Barring that little snag, the food is to die for. The best parmesan, robustly spicy salami and warm crusty bread can all be had for very, very cheap. Another cheap snack is the panelles or chickpea fritters. Fancy something more? Grab a very Sicilian parmigiana di melanzane — layers of baked eggplants, marinara and cheese — or the famed caponata, or just try any of the cold meats or seafood platters called antipasto crudo (antipasti are basically appetisers). Also, anything with capers is good because they grow here and taste delicious, like on bruschetta!

Bruschetta with tomatoes and capers at a local restaurant
It should be plainly obvious by now to seasoned travellers, but we’ll tell you anyway: stay away from the places with English menus, especially the ones that have ‘Tourist Menu’ displayed outside. &Instead, ask the locals where you can get Nero di Seppia (a deep black pasta made with squid/octopus ink) or some ricotta and pea ravioli. Trust me, they’re phenomenal. Or even sample the seafood tagliatelle, or the swordfish and eggplant with penne, or the exquisite pistachio pesto, made from pistachios that also grow on the island.
What Sicily is really famous for, however, are the sweets, as I’ve probably already alluded to before. Those little marzipan fruits? Yup, that’s Sicilian — frutta di Martorana. In fact, figs, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, chocolate and ricotta are mixed in many forms and ratios to make up hundreds of sweets, all worth trying and taking back with you. Candied oranges or arancia candite — made from the famous Sicilian oranges — is a popular treat, often added to gelatos. Speaking of gelato, while you’re in Sicily, self-medicate with gelato — take one in the morning, afternoon, evening and at night. Repeat. Prego. Try them all! And eat the cannolis — basically hollow crunchy pastry shells filled with sweet ricotta, studded with chocolate nips and dusted with fine icing sugar. You will not regret it.
The hard part
I know it seems like Sicily is a great place to spend a good week or two, and it is. The food is spectacular, the architecture stunningly complex and the people, once they let their guards down, are genuine, despite being known for having a penchant for hotheadedness and being ever-suspicious of tourists.
But, Palermo’s monuments are in a state of utter disrepair. Even the national public library looked like it had been razed by a maniacal arsonist. There’s dilapidation at every corner, graffiti-strewn walls, pavements and buildings and poverty that could sully any mood. The weather — we caught the tail end of winter — can also be a damper. Frankly, there’s so much you want to expect when you’re here — especially that old world Italian charm, like you see in the movies and shows about Tuscany, Genoa or Naples. But you won’t find it so easily here. Just dereliction and disrepair, making a week-long stay a real stretch for some.
It’s hard to describe, but somehow, despite the odds and the constant invasions and upheavals, the Sicilians have scraped through. And they’ve done it because, if it’s one thing they treasure more than anything else, it’s taking utmost joy in the simple pleasures of life — a good coffee, an even better cannoli, a love for art, music, poetry, theatre, architecture… There’s no time, really, for anything else. It’s all perfunctory. In the words of Anthony Bourdain: “Pleasure. It’s a Sicilian priority. It’s in their spirit. When you let pleasure control your life and not your life control pleasure, you find passion. Eat. See. Live. And to hell with everything else.”
Text and photos by Rohit Nair

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