Palermo, a city on the northern coast of Sicily, has long been home for people from all corners of the Mediterranean. In 2019 it continues to be defined by its cultural diversity, both contemporary and historical.
While famous frescoes of bygone eras attract every type of tourist, come evening the streets are awash with Palermitans. Students, suited businessmen and well-to-do dating couples of Italian descent. In reality, this ancestry includes Greek, Roman, Arabic, Spanish and French as a minimum. In fact, Sicily has been ruled over by both France and Spain for significantly longer than it has ever been part of Italy.
And so like the rest of Sicily, Palermo serves up Italy with a rather large twist.
I dine less on pizza and pasta, more rice and potato. Lunches are Panelle e crocche at busy Ballaro market: potato and mint croquettes with chick pea fritters, all served up in glutinous crusty bread that is best helped down with a cold beer. After dark, glasses of local Catarrato wine and fresh seafood make for a fancier affair. In the very late evening, tipsy punters spill out of little bars onto La Vucciria market street, entrusted with glasses of red full to brimming.
After a few days of eating, drinking and getting so merry that the following days are lazily whiled away in sunny piazzas, I decide to tear myself away from Palermo’s burgeoning party scene to discover that there is more to the city than warm weather, impressive cathedrals and hungover hankerings for sticky arancini.
The Palatine Chapel is an ancient example of the cultural mix of fellow revellers who drove the first few days of my stay.
A true representation of the city’s unique heritage: A coming together of Byzantine, Islamic and Christian artwork within one church. The chapel, which forms part of the Royal Palaces complex, is famed for its frescoes and the significance of their meaning. Built under Roger II from 1132, it’s one of the world’s best examples of religious tolerance within any city’s walls.
Later, the unique art of Opera dei Puppi, a testament to Sicily’s ties with the French from the early 1200s, draws an eager crowd in a family-run theatre.
Three generations painstakingly craft intricate puppets, which they then use to recreate historical stories. The performance I snag includes references to battles with the Moors and tales of medieval chivalry. While accuracy (and any form of political correctness) are firmly left at the door, the drama between these three-foot tall characters is utterly mesmerising.
Events take a sombre turn the next morning, as the good and great of Palermo-past await visitors to the side of a chaotic carpark-come-market.
Silence falls as I walk into the coolness of the Capuchin Monastery’s basement. The slap-stick comedy of the puppets feels long gone as I roam corridor after corridor of incredibly preserved cadavers.
Originally used as alternative burial space for the monks of the Capuchin Monastery above when their cemetery became full, entombment in Palermo’s catacombs quickly became a status symbol. In the centuries that followed the first entombing in 1599, everyone who was anyone paid to be part of this elite social club. In 2019, over four hundred years of Palermitan society patiently lays in wait in the chilled underground.
Back on the main drag in the relative cheeriness of the four facades depicting the four seasons known as Quattro Canti, I realise that I’ve found parity in Palermo. The contemporary culture of its piazzas and after-dark party markets are just as fascinating as its mainstream history and other, slightly more bizarre cultural enterprises.
The unique way in which it celebrates its complex past, in particular through combative puppet operas and the eternally preserved dead, provides an everlasting reminder of Palermo’s place as the cultural capital of Sicily: the ancient and modern cross-roads of the Mediterranean.