First and lasting impressions of Palermo: Sicilian conquerors

I pass by other places that I’ve vaguely heard of and seem familiar with yet are merely names like Tusa, Acquadolce and Finale. Then there is Cefalù, the famous beachside resort town from ancient Greek times. From the train, there are endless beachside villas, fishing boats and ruins left behind by long-departed Greek and Roman tourists.

The view of Cefalù is frustratingly blocked by a tunnel made up of several archways, which create a series of half snapshots like a stilted slide show of the seaside. The clear, deep aquamarine sea is dotted with anchored boats and the beach umbrellas of intrepid beachgoers who climb like mountain goats over the coast’s rocky outcrops.

It is strange to me, brought up on Australian beaches, to see people sunbathing on the rocks. There is no beach here, only large boulders and stones, no sand to be seen anywhere. Admiring the summertime ocean and suddenly feeling very hot, I am overwhelmed by the desire to leap out of the train into the water. Looking out lustfully at thr sea, I see a wonderful mirage directly in front of the railway line.

A series of columns and stone blocks of different heights ruins from some ancient Greek or Roman construction. It was there on a piece of flat land, looking out to the sea for a moment. The train passed so quickly that I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.

I feel like I had seen Stone Hedge for a fleeting moment, it was something ancient, crafted and intriguing, but it passed by so quickly that I didn’t have a moment to absorb it. I still have the snapshot of that moment in my memory, the sandy colours of the lined columns in the early morning sunshine completed with a modern plaque no doubt explaining the ruins’ origins. I suddenly wonder who would climb over a busy train line to go and look at some out of the way ruins.

Excited by this vision, I became more alert paying more attention to the landscape near the train line in the hope to see more ruins. The surroundings changed as the line moved further back away from the sea. I am now passing endless beachside villas and palazzos.

I didn’t see any more ruins, but I’m still thinking about the Monumento per un Poeta morto or La Finestra Sul mare (a monument for a dead poet or a window over the sea), a sculpture in the parklands outside of Tusa.

The giant piece of black steel leaning on a frame, a loading deck left balancing unevenly on a big blue picture frame that highlights a dramatic portion of the coast. I do think Sicily is a giant open-air museum of sorts. In Sicily, art is all around us; all we need to do is recognise it.

Passing into the province of Palermo, the train goes by Termine Immerese, the Sicilian production centre for FIAT cars. Here most of the vehicles are made for the northern Italian based company and are then shipped to the north to be sold. Usually, the news is filled with images of workers protesting and people being laid off from the factory, which is constantly threatened to be closed down. Moving by the gigantic car factory at Termini Imerese, there are no signs of protests or little impression of any slowing down of production; the plant is enormous and impressive. Later on, after this trip, after a series of failed government bailouts, the factory is permanently closed.

The train passes into the province of Palermo. I notice many plots of cultivated land as the train takes me into the Conca d’oro, the fertile plateau around Palermo, a concentration of agricultural production for many generations.

Many different crops grow from tomato plants, beans, corn, wheat, artichokes, and the famous Sicilian blood oranges in the summertime. These oranges are the sweetest variety I’ve ever tasted. Cutting a sanguinello orange in half will reveal a bloody red pulp, hence the name blood oranges.

Making juice from these oranges and letting it sit, it divides itself into two layers of colour, a strip of standard orange and another blood red which resembles tomato juice rather than orange juice. Blood oranges are found only in the soil near Palermo and the rich lava based fertile soil near Catania.

The final stop before Palermo is Bagheria, a big city that touches the periphery of Palermo itself. It is filled with many villas, museums and professional offices, such as medical specialists and lawyers. Bagheria was the home of eccentric aristocrat the ‘Prince of Palagonia’ who left behind a most unusual villa and garden. His mansion is filled with grotesque statues, which are believed to be a unique precursor to the modern, surrealistic art movement.

The local art gallery at Bagheria has an extensive collection of artwork by Renato Guttuso, the most famous contemporary artist Sicily has produced. The art and artfulness of Bagheria allow it to combine many contrasting elements.

I like this about Sicily; you often discover a mismatched collage of buildings and styles that happily co-exist. It results from Sicily’s history of being endlessly conquered by many different people who all left behind their distinct marks on Sicily.

The series of invasions in Sicily’s history is why the island has become living, breathing chaos of contradiction and non-uniformity, resulting from all the elements left behind by so many contrasting cultures.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, and even the British left such an indelible impression.