Sicily is such a beautifully textured place; many layers of history have been placed, one on top of the other. Each period of history leaves spaces and gaps where you can see the remnants of many different stories.
These fragments are intriguing as they lead you towards many histories, stories, and endless possibilities. Each place has its style, from the colour of the shade of paint, the stones used to construct buildings, and the stoic or elaborate Sicilian Baroque.
The colours can vary from thick grey lava stone to whitewash sandy limestone to the white of the stone homes of the smaller islands that surround this island. The townscapes range from grey, stark block-shaped houses and cobblestone streets to the apex of high Baroque, flourishing vines, grotesque statues and cherubs floating up the walls. So many curiosities and artistry can only exist in Sicily.
Arriving at the beginning of the metropolis of Palermo, I see an endless array of buildings packed close to one another as far as the eye can see. The width and breadth of the city are impressive, with an endless maze of buildings crammed one on top of the other.
All possible space is filled from the coast to the base of the mountains, giving the city a distinct semicircle shape and squeezing the city’s growth lengthwise further down along the coast in both directions.
Palermo is the Paris in the south of Italy. Historically it has been the focus of revolutions, the home of many royal courts, the centre of government, culture and education. It’s an exciting and invigorating sight to see such a fantastic expansive city; Palermo is a new world to explore, full of contradictions.
The train station at Palermo is like most other big cities in Italy, like those of Bologna and Florence, connecting different train lines. It is relatively busy, full of souvenir shops, a Mcdonald’s and the usual series of exits in different directions towards the city.
Walking out the main entrance of the Palermo train station, I catch a glimpse of the ceiling of the external foyer, which I discover is decorated by an expansive fresco. At the centre is a pair of angels surrounded by different flags, encircled a little further by the stems and shield of the significant Sicilian capitals, surrounded by a third circle that makes up an outer border of the branches of the leading Italian cities.
Looking up I can see how the fresco connects the provinces of Sicily from: Agrigento, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa, Caltinesetta and Trapani. To the Italian capitals of Italy from Genova, Roma, Firenze, Milano, Bologna, Turino, Venezia, etc. The fresco would perfectly illustrate Italy’s political and administrative systems; if the fresco was painted today, it would be expanded by another outer circle still connecting Italy with the major European centres that the new European parliament connects.
This artwork at the Palermo station entrance is a surprise; usually, train stations are plain functional buildings, very cold, business-like places. But here at Palermo, something suggests an attention to detail and dedication to expressing art and culture in public spaces, which is hard to find in other major Italian cities.
This abundance of history is one of the appealing things about Palermo; it is a city of art which means you can be innocently walking along minding your own business and accidentally stumble on something beautiful. There is no need to pour over endless guide books or chase after a tour group guide with a ridiculous flag that shepherds helpless tourists around the city, the art is all around you, waiting to be discovered.
I walked outside the station to browse around the electronic shops, walking around to another exit where taxis and bus stops line the street. I negotiate my way through the unbelievable traffic of people, cars and motorinos.
On the other side of the road, I find a small Piazzetta which divides the streets at its centre with a grand white marble statue of a Vittorio Emanuel, the king of Italy, on horseback, dedicated to the former monarch. This statue is another impressive artwork I’ve encountered twenty meters from the last remarkable work of art at the train station entrance.
At the base of the statue, there is an even more impressive series of intricately carved marble panels depicting different historical events in the city’s political history; at the base of these are the names of the various towns near Palermo. Before, I had seen the hierarchy of Sicily and Italy mapped out before us; now, this statue dedicated to the royal family is linked to Palermo and the surrounding towns, creating an ordered picture. As if these engravements were not impressive enough, the statue is finished with elegant eagles carved in white marble on the corners above the steps, which come down to the pavement.
Continuing straight ahead to the traffic lights in front of the monument, I have no idea which direction to take. It’s my first time at Palermo, and I’m pretty clueless. I don’t have much time as I need to be back home for an appointment by the early afternoon, so I choose to loiter around a little bit.
Someone has told me to stay away from the newly baptised “African quarter” of the city, to the left of the Vittorio Emanuele statue. This stretch of the inner city is full of abandoned buildings that migrants have taken over from African countries, who have become the new poor class.
Palermo suffers the problems of being a big city that attracts illegal migrants who have created slums and ghettos in decaying parts of the town; there is a high crime rate. These are abandoned people who have slipped through the massive cracks in a crumbling system and are often forced into the world of petty crime, drug dealing and robbery still very much controlled by the Mafia. The focus is usually on theft and violent crimes.
Curious yet cautioned by the stories of muggings and assaults, I head straight ahead away from the seedy parts of the city. I walk down a street that seems dedicated to the leading fashion houses of Europe and Italy, filled with designer stores with equally designer price tags.
I am amused to find market stalls set up illegally near these stores selling copies of Louis Vuitton bags, cheap shoes and dresses. I think this is a wise tactic, obviously to tap into the shock of the average consumer who, after seeing the prices in those designer stores, will probably go for the cheap alternative of the black market, another contradiction of Palermo.