Palermo: Octopus brains anyone?Rome, Spring 2009

I started my three day excursion to Sicily with a delightful spleen, lung, and trachea sandwich, drenched in lemon juice and my suspicions about Sicily were confirmed—this is a place different than any other. Palermo is a city of contradictions. It is a sprawling dirty city, trash collecting in the gutters and motorcycles zooming past cars and through stoplights. The Mafia influence in Sicily is not noticeable to outsiders but as our B&B host confirmed, they collect money from over 70% of the shops in Sicily to pay for protection…from them. Amidst the modern buildings, shops, hotels, and churches are bustling markets packed with fresh food—Ballaro is the largest wet market in Palermo—abandoned buildings crumbling and dark, stray dogs sleeping in every piazza and all surrounded by the turbulent waters of the Mediterranean.

Many buildings in Palermo were destroyed by bombs in World War II and have never been renovated and even apartments with inhabitants can have empty floors where the shutters hang off darkened doorways filled with rubble. To your left might be a fancy, well-painted apartment and to your right is crumbling wall, gates off the hinges, and piles of rock, dust, and twisted metal in the doorways of an old building.

Apart from the fascinating city streets, the beach, and views of rugged mountains, Palermo has numerous sights that are well-worth a visit. The Palatine chapel has breathtaking Byzantine mosaics and the cathedral at Monreale has almost 7,000 meters of similar golden mosaics but it is located 8 km away from the city and we ran out of time. We did however get to visit the Catacombs where hundreds of preserved corpses are on display in the clothing worn at their death, wired to the wall so that they appear to stand in front of you, a reminder of the thin passage between life and death.

If that is too depressing for you, a stay in Palermo can be livened up with some boiled octopus (brains, tentacles, and all!) and of course their famous cannoli—a rolled wafer full of paste that tastes like icing, cream cheese, and pure sugar. Just one more reason for me to return to a country as mysterious, contradictory, and beautiful as Sicily.

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