"...is both beautiful and it's cheap" - is what I have been told numerous times in these last six months and by mainland Italians. Is there a better combination!?
I discovered I was able to confirm half of this at the earliest opportunity possible - from on-board the plane! I remember thinking to myself even bleary eyed in the morning that the vista from a couple of thousand feet up in the air showcased the most beautiful area of land I'd ever seen when arriving by plane. Describing it would just sound obvious and predictable (shoreline, flat land, houses, mountains) but seeing it was just spectacular.
Speaking of beauty, if we think about it that's something entirely synonymous with Italy. Let's see, the people, their style, the food, the cars, the land, the architecture and so on. This country really provides in abundance 'all things beautiful' which inadvertently got me thinking...
Having recently learnt that there were several UNESCO stamped sites on this island alone - 'Which country would have the most number of World Heritage sites'? I'd have hoped Italy would have made it high up the list considering but then it's not the biggest country in the world - far from it.
Here's the answer to that:
Italia numero uno! Fantastico. I can and can't believe it at the same time but what I am sure of is how proud I am of my Italian lineage. In saying that, the UK is in the top 10. That's great and a small surprise to me if I'm honest - he says showing a little naivety to the beauty within his own country.
Folks, that #1 UNESCO statistic combined with 'all things beautiful' should be enough for you to now appreciate that exploring Italy really should be high-up on your 'to-do' properly list.
So I've arrived in Palermo which is the capital of the island and a city notable for its history, culture, architecture and gastronomy. And of course, the Mafia, (the Cosa Nostra). I know then to obtain maximum satisfaction from my Sicilian adventures I need to appreciate and sample all of this. Well, apart from the latter of course!
By the way Godfather fans, there really is a town not too far from here called Corleone. If I had a hire car I would go and visit as a quick look up of information on the town suggests it's not worth making the visit but rather a place to stop if you were passing by and had such means of transportation.
From that experience in Tirana, Albania - it feels a little strange to think that the ordered 'hit' might have come from in or around this area.
As for Palermo itself, well it and perhaps most of Sicily too, have been passed from dominating ruler to another largely due to its position in the Mediterranean making it an obvious target for many past empires to explore and conquer. These included the Phoenicians (sorry, who!?), the Carthaginians (oh and again), the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the French and the Spanish Bourbons just to name the most influential. That makes the town nearly three thousand years old! Unsurprisingly then Palermo offers considerably varied a architectural styles and this really is evident. In fact, I've found myself being wowed here as much as anywhere else and I've only walked a few kilometres so far starting with The Teatro Massimo (and opera house). Stunning, no? And here's a surprise - the third biggest in Europe!
Below the Chiesa di San Cataldo. Noticeably different to previous images no? And noticeably Arabic. (Or more accurately the Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture following the Norman conquest of Sicily back in the 11th and 12th century).
So I've spoken briefly about what I've learnt of Palermo's history and shown some of the plentiful, magnificent architectural scenery but what about my own experience so far of the city? Well, I'm really happy to say that I've actually had some of the best few days I've had in quite a while (discounting Sardenga with family).
Do you remember the not-so-surprising formula to this success from previous posts?
People of course.
Yes, on my own I can have an unforgettable and visually spectacular afternoon in Bonafacio Corsica or get blasted by the ocean waves in the memorable Gdansk Poland but these are singular afternoons. Having fun in consecutive days can often only be achievable with the right people and yesterday, I had a fantastic day with people I'd met on a bus to the beach. There was a mixture of nationalities and none of them English. Thankfully though, the majority spoke our great language.
Also the hostel I'm staying at has provided a cosy environment and so I've had a British man, Canadian and a Russian to share a room with and had some good nights out here. I'll write more about the hosts of the hostel in a separate post as it's a tale I found so enchanting, I want to share the 'love has no barriers' story with you.
There are many beaches around Palermo with the most local known as Mondello. It takes less than 30 minutes by bus (at 2 euros return!) to reach here and almost immediately from stepping off the bus you are presented with these scenes. Thankfully the heavy clouds shifted allowing sunshine to rule the majority of the day.
In the unlikely event of you becoming bored of looking at sand, sea and serenity, you've only got to turn your head 90 degrees and you can gaze at some mountains and this one I believe is Monte Pelligrino. I'm going to look into coming back to this area if the weather behaves.
I've had to admit to myself that during my travels I appear to have become slightly more tolerant to pesky sand particles and so I was able to enjoy myself for five or six hours on the beach with the wonderful people I met without having a meltdown of sand getting everywhere on me and in my clothes! Okay, admittedly several beers helped too but lets be honest, at 2 euros (£1.50 GBP) a pop - even for the imported stuff, well you're going to indulge aren't you...
Also, the awesome Francesco treated us all to the first of my Sicilian 'must try' foods: Cannoli (little tube). Typically fried pastry dough filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. It was both sweet and nice and really just as I would have hoped.
In the evening we went out for some pizza. You know back home that pizzas can be so big that we often share them with another. Well, we had a pizza that required three persons.
Feast your eyes on this Goliath! A case where the photo doesn't do the reality proper justice. Simply mahooosive!
If that hasn't made you a little queasy the price might. 7 euros (£5 GBP) and divisible by three of course.
So folks I can tell you without any uncertainty, Sicily really is that beautiful and in most parts, really can be that cheap. Don't get me wrong, via Roma and via Maqueda central to town still have plenty of designer shops and the town itself is proper-Italian hectic with traffic and people and car music and horns at any hour are 'normal' here. Know where to look and you can honestly have a decent Italian cooked meal + drink for less than 7 euros! Be less wise and just another tourist and you'll end up paying closer to 12 and towards 15.
Sunday mornings are also a nice time to get out and about with the local people still in bed of course from having enjoyed their Saturday night!
Separately, did you know that Sicily supposedly has as much sunshine per year as anywhere else in Europe! It's incredibly close to Africa after all and often the crazy winds and storms they see over here supposedly come in from Africa. Actually I've heard that climatically it's very pleasant in Sicily even in November and early to mid December so to those travelling (or intending to travel) around Europe this or next year, I now must put it to you:
Why are you considering coming anywhere other than here? And I'm saying that after just one or two towns on the island! I cannot wait to explore the rest next week.
You know what to do so make it happen.