Before my trip to Palermo this past June, I saw this School of Life video right before I left. It resonated with me as the animated bird in the video holding the last piece of a puzzle to an already answered question felt like myself. On the only Monday I had in the city, I started the day at the Orto Botanico di Palermo. A part of it was open and no one at the front desk told me the Manifesta section was closed. So I walked to the farthest open area of the garden only to find a man working in a tiny toolshed wondering where was all the art and the thicket I needed to go through to get there. Then, it started raining. After a short while, it started coming down in cascades, so I had to change my place of refuge from standing against a wall of a building with a little bit of roofing above me to a nearby bamboo hut. In the hut, I saw it had a hole overhead.
Once it stopped raining, I headed towards another venue I had missed seeing in the previous days – Chiesa S. Maria dello Spasimo, which also lacked a roof. On the map, it looked deceptively close, just across the street and a little bit in from the main road but this was Palermo, meaning the entrance was rarely easy to find. The buildings want to be walls. Now the sun was out, it was blisteringly hot. I zig zagged through alleys in the shape of a difficult game of Tetris only to find the church closed. Somehow in a haze of hunger, irritation, and sweat slumped on a small stoop, I concluded that the Bridge Installation at Costa Sud could be seen at Quattro Canti, which seemed vaguely absurd but thought who knows. My notes and I weren’t entirely wrong as a representation of the Bridge Installation could be seen at Palazzo Constantino located on the northeastern corner of Quattro Canti. It was here, standing in front of a shut Palazzo Constantino that I saw on a poster that Manifesta was closed on Mondays. I immediately got a granita from Pasticceria Costa and sat on a hot slab of stone. Now was the time to whine to my Italian host that Manifesta was closed over WhatsApp.
She suggested I go to Palazzo Conte Federico or the beach resort of Mondello which was only a 20/30 minute bus ride away from Politeama Theatre, and she knew for sure that the buses went there regularly. I agreed to Conte Federico but then she realized it closed at 4pm and it was already 4:30. I said I wasn’t a beach person, but mainly, I was thinking of food. Then I remembered this Italian guy from Turin had told us (me and another girl from Berlin in Palermo) we had to try a pane con la milza (which looked disgusting but was delicious) before we left the city as he pointed to the words on his smartphone and repeated the name slowly twice. Having left the city twice before without having tried it, I decided I should try it this time before I left for a third time.
I asked her about that place in a beautiful square we walked through our second evening which had the street food sandwich although she thought it was a bit touristy. San Fernando? She didn’t know it and then remembered Franco in Piazza Marina, which I didn’t know and then I realized oh its San Francesco. Then she agreed, yes San Francesco sells those pane con la milza.
Not knowing the full name of Antica Focacceria San Francesco, I typed in San Francesco in Google maps and it located San Francesco Bar off to the side from Theatre Massimo Vittorio Emanuele. I should have known this was the wrong location as I knew we hadn’t walked anywhere near Theatre Massimo in the last few days, but my brain had shut down after the Tetris maze. I started my way down Via Maqueda, a stretch of Palermo I didn’t like much. Along the way, I found that Palazzo Mazzarino was open and was able to see Per Barclay’s oil room installation of the Cavallerizza.
San Francesco Bar turned out to be nothing but surprisingly it was right across from Enoteca Buttice, another place recommended by the same Italian from Turin. He had particularly liked their paper placemats which had the articles of the establishment written on them. The placemats had a sky blue background framed by a brilliant red and ornate at the corners. By this point, it was half-past 5pm and no sign of food as it was too early for both aperitivo and dinner. With my bowl of potato chips and a glass of Sicilian grillo, I was getting delirious and started to imagine doves flying from the place mat. I moved the bowl of potato chips off and then the place mat immediately took flight and whirled in the wind before the waitress came and caught it, crumbled it, and threw it in the trash. She then came back much later with a new one to place under my glass.
I eventually did make it to Antica Focacceria San Francesco on the day before I left while trying to locate a gallery I couldn’t find the entrance to. The pane con la milza was indeed tasty although the meat did leave a strange aftertaste.
Although I spent 5 nights in Palermo this past June, I ended up having only 1.5 days to see Manifesta 12, which allowed me just enough time to visit the palazzo venues in the Kalsa district but little else. At the end, I decided to just buy OMA’s Palermo Atlas (comprehensive and highly recommended) instead of trying to make another attempt (first attempt when it was closed and raining on a Monday) at viewing Orto Botanico di Palermo which may have been a mistake.
A Palermo lady upgraded my room to one with a view of Teatro Massimo. Teenage kids party, socialize, dance, drink wine, and make out all around it. I fed a homeless cat a hot dog in front of a cafe on one of its side streets.
Inside the theater, there is a room originally only for nobles called Pompeian Hall or the Echo Room with frescos from Pompeii circling it. If you stand in the center of the room and speak, your voice echoes and everyone can here you. But if you stand anywhere else, your conversations will be drowned out by other conversations, keeping all conversations private.
When this lady found out I would be spending two nights in Messina, she grimaced and said, “Messina is not worth the trouble. Just sleep there.”
I told another Milanese lady I’d be going to Messina and her eyes went wide and asked, “Why?”
Then in a long-winded fashion I tried to explain, “I saw these paintings in the Risorgimento museum in Turin and…” and before I could finish she said, “You’re going because of Garibaldi ?!” and then she laughed for a good 2 minutes.
I blame the tempera paintings of Carlo Bossoli found in the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento Turin. I saw Messina and decided to go. His little room of paintings showed the Piedmontese conquering and yet also admiring the view.
I blame Filippo Juvarra for being born there and Caravaggio for being on the run. But it wasn’t as ugly as everyone said it would be. Although everything was destroyed in an earthquake, the so-called ugliest city in Sicily still had its charms. I saw the Strait of Messina and its like the width of the Rhine in Cologne. In the distance, you can see the white buildings of Reggio Calabria. I had a Bronte pistachio gelato twice. I saw a boat called “Tourist & Carton” and found my little poseur dog from the Boudin painting I loved so much. He is a little bigger in real life.
So I asked this Palermo lady the places she liked the best in Sicily and she said, “Agrigento in the south. It has 5 Greek temples and Erice with over 100 churches. And the most beautiful in the sunset, the salt dunes in Marsala.”
“Marsala, like the wine?”
“Yes, they also make salt.”
I thought damn, my love story did not take me there.
While reading Helena Attlee’s “The Land Where Lemons Grow,” she wrote the most interesting thing that in Palermo dialect the word “mafia” originally meant bold or beautiful completely different from its meaning during the same time in Piedmontese or the Florentine dialect which meant poor, petty, and miserable. The meaning of bold, brave, and arrogant first appeared in the 1650s and then about 250 years later the added meanings of beautiful, perfect also took hold. As time went on, it continued to evolve in Palermo dialect to also mean something closer to a union or fraternity of brothers.
The area outside of Palermo known as the Golden Bowl or Conca d’Oro was where for centuries lemon trees had been cultivated and lovingly cared for amid palaces and later Art Nouveau buildings (I wish I could have seen it) which were all then demolished by the money the Cosa Nostra made from exploiting the lemon trees or the wooden slaves they had once protected- all to be replaced with high-rise buildings. But even after blind capitalist corruption, earthquakes, bombings, and volcano eruptions, Sicily is still bellezza, baldanza, perfezione, eccellenza or mafia from 1880. One can only imagine how beautiful it must have been when Palermo was one of the most dazzling, cosmopolitan cities in Europe. There are still a few street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic.