IMG_3811Palermo has a problem with rubbish.  A big problem.  It’s often the first thing visitors to the city talk about: skips full to overflowing with garbage in the streets of the city centre and piles of rubbish building up on the pavement.

It’s not that the problem of rubbish is peculiar to Palermo.  The amount of waste, much of it non-recyclable, being discarded by industrial societies all over the world is increasing at an alarming rate.  Rubbish is a massive problem world-wide.  But you don’t expect to be confronted with it quite so starkly in a modern European city – and there’s no good reason why you should be.

But there are reasons why you are, in Palermo; some of them quite bizarre.  Both the reasons, and the novel solution recently adopted by one of my neighbours, are very Sicilian.

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IMG_3042‘Gazzosa’ (or ‘gassosa’ – alternative spelling) and ‘Chinotto’ are old-fashioned Italian carbonated soft drinks.  They haven’t been trendy for years – if they ever were.  But now, Lurisia,  bottler of the famous mineral water from the S. Barbara springs in Lurisia Terme in Piedmont, is producing a superior version of both.  It’s worth looking out for.

The Lurisia products are made of Lurisia mineral water  and the juice of carefully selected fruits; free of colouring agents and preservatives; packaged in recyclable glass bottles; and labelled with simple, stylish and, according to some slightly ‘snobbish’, labels.  They’re a marketer’s dream it’s true, but the drinks themselves are delicious – well-worth whatever effort it takes to find them.

I hadn’t heard of ‘Gazzosa’ until recently I heard it being ordered in a local bar.  “It’s not at all a refined drink”, I was told, ” just lemonade”.  And, in fact,  when I checked a dictionary later, I found that ‘gassosa’ is defined as ‘lemonade’.  But it doesn’t seem to be quite what we usually think of as lemonade.  Having asked for ‘Gazzosa’, my friends were  apparently served Schweppes lemonade – they knew immediately it wasn’t ‘gassosa’ .  Gassosa, they said, is different: not as sweet, slighter more bitter.  Later, the waiter confirmed that he hadn’t, in fact, served Gassosa.  He said you don’t see Gassosa around much any more: these days, more often than not, when you order it in a bar in Palermo, you’ll be served Schweppes.

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IMG_3028In any other city,  lunching at ‘Carlo il Salumiere’ would have been a pleasant experience.  Here, there was an added frisson and air of discovery.

Our visit began in the main sunny thoroughfare of  Ballaro’, one of the city’s biggest, oldest, noisiest and most colourful food markets, and continued into the tangle of narrow, shaded laneways that surround it. ‘Carlo il Salumiere’ is tucked away in one of these, in an elegant and stylishly restored 17th century palace.  At the end of the laneway, we discovered as we left, there is another palace; but this one, while still hauntingly beautiful, is derelict and abandoned.  The city is full of  these contradictions: breathtaking possibilities linger even in the darkest streets; then,  just around the corner,  there is neglect and abandonment, a seeming failure of will.

And always, there are questions.  They seem never to leave you alone.

In the Ballaro’ market where he’s been operating for years, selling the finest cheeses and salume –  hams, mortadellas, finocchione, salami – Carlo is known as ‘Carlo il salumiere’.  Last year, he opened a little restaurant in a side street off the market.  It proved to be so successful that a few months later he moved into premises on the ground floor of Palazzo Prestipino, in via San Nicolo’ all’Albergheria.

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IMG_2641It’s a very narrow stretch of water that separates Sicily from the mainland – just over 3km  wide in parts – but one can’t help feeling that, at one time or another over the centuries, the whole world has passed through it  – and that each passing has left a subtle, but permanent, imprint on sea, sky and coast.    It’s a very beautiful part of the Mediterranean and one that tugs at the imagination.

Here in the Straits, two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, meet, creating intense tidal currents and natural whirlpools, and supporting a unique and rich marine ecosystem.  It’s also an important migratory route for birds (birds of prey and storks making their way from Africa to Europe) and fish (tuna, swordfish, whales and dolphins moving from deep ocean waters to mate in the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea).

At at this time of the year, from May to August,  you will see very strange looking boats moving up and down the coast.  Many of them.  They look like fine insects preying on the surface of the water.  These are the passarelle, boats specifically designed for hunting  swordfish, part of an ancient tradition.  The story of the swordfish hunt is fascinating and romantic  – but it’s also a sad story.

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Pio Mellina has been collecting the antique majolica floor tiles of southern Italy since he was a child.  Several years ago, he created a small museum in one of Palermo’s many ancient palaces and called it   Le Stanze al Genio.  The museum has already received national and international recognition and is on the ‘must see’ list for many visitors to the city.  It was a pleasure to spend some time there talking to Pio about the collection.

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Pio,   I’m curious to know where your interest in these tiles came from and how you got started collecting them.  

Well – I was very young, only 11 or 12 years old, and I really loved these tiles – the designs and the colours.  There was an enormous variety of designs: geometric, floral, birds, animals, people, everything and  I found them fascinating. Really exciting.   I don’t really know why I started collecting –  it just happened.  At that stage, I had no interest in where the tiles might have come from, or what their stories might have been – I was just interested in the tiles themselves.  I don’t know – I was certainly not a sporty sort of child, for one thing I was a bit overweight, so maybe I was going to be drawn to collecting something.  I lived near via Liberta’, at the other end of town, but I used to search for tiles in the little street markets that were then all over the place in the old city.  I  really developed an absolute passion – and before long I had a lot of tiles!

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These are brief encounters with the lives of some of Sicily’s heroes: people perhaps only Sicily could produce.  Although they are stories that have been told many times before, they bear re-telling.  In Sicily, they will hopefully never be forgotten. 

The first thing you see when you fly to Palermo is the dramatic, rocky coastline of north Sicily; to me, even now, it is exciting and full of promise.  Then, in a wide bay, skirting the sea and ringed by mountains, the city itself.  Looking down, it is easy to imagine it as it once was:  one of the richest and most sophisticated cities of Europe;  a city of palaces and royal hunting lodges, surrounded by the dark-leaved citrus groves of the Conca d’Oro – blessed in both  location and climate.  

The picture changes as you reach the centre and images of the glorious city of the past are replaced by the reality of the city of today.  In places, the devastation caused by the Allied bombs of the Second World War is still apparent:  here and there the jagged, broken walls  of ancient palaces are silhouetted against the sky, and ornate plaster that once decorated  the interior of churches is exposed to the elements.  In many of the narrow alleys there is an air of neglect and resignation – and, all too often, piles of uncollected rubbish.     

But then, as you begin to discover the city’s treasures, the picture changes again: there is the overwhelming richness of decoration in baroque church interiors;  the patterns of  mixed marble floors – black, grey, red, yellow, green and blue; the unexpected whiteness and brilliance of Serpotta’s magical work in stucco; the shimmering gold and deep blue of the famous Arabo-Norman mosaics; and the unforgettable face of the ‘blue  Madonna’. 

It is only later that less tangible things begin to take hold: the rhythms and sounds of the city and, above all, its stories; in particular, stories of  the mafia, and of the men and women who have taken a stand against it.  These inspiring and heroic figures still dominate the city’s inner life.

Giovanni Falcone


I didn’t really want to start with the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone.  There are many others just as worthy, I thought, who are  not given their due, even though they too sacrificed their lives in the fight against the mafia.  But I kept coming back to  him – his particular qualities and achievements, combined with his considerable personal charisma, seemed to set him apart.  I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge that; and that doing so does not in any way detract from the achievements and contributions of others.

If you drive in to Palermo from the airport with a local, you will almost certainly have pointed out to you two red marble pillars, one on each side of the road, just a few kilometres from the airport.  They mark the spot where, at just before 6.00pm on 23 May 1992, Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvilla, and three escorts, Rocco Di Cillo, Antonio Montinaro and Vito Schifani, were killed as they drove from the airport to the city.  The explosion was massive, hurling cars through the air and completely destroying almost 500 metres of roadway.   On television footage of the scene a voice can be heard saying:  “How much explosive did they use – an atom bomb?”

For the mafia, Falcone had simply become too dangerous.   But mafiosi weren’t the only ones responsible for his death.   Falcone firmly believed that the mafia could be beaten by dedicated and competent investigation and his story shows that he was right.  But it also shows that the mafia will only ultimately be beaten with the full cooperation of the State.    In the words of one of the prosecutors after his death:  “The fight against the mafia begins in Sicily, but it’s won in Rome”.

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“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days!” Leviticus 23:40.

IMG_2239These huge, slightly bizarre looking, lemon-like fruit are a constant presence in Sicily’s winter markets. Piles and piles of them: intensely, brilliantly yellow.  I was curious, but never imagined they might be of such ancient lineage or poetic association.  “The fruit of beautiful trees” –  possibly only those familiar with the Feast of the Temples, one of Judaism’s three annual pilgrimage festivals, would know that this refers to the citron – the slightly bizarre, overgrown ‘lemons’ that appear in such abundance on Sicily’s market stalls.

They may continue to look like slightly bizarre, overgrown  lemons, but for me they will now always be “the fruit of beautiful trees”.   Maybe a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet!

But what to do with “the fruit of beautiful trees”?    The citron is quite unlike an orange or lemon – it is almost all pith, with only a small amount of flesh at the centre and very little juice.  It’s often used for candied citron peel, an ingredient in many Italian sweets, including panettone and Sicily’s famous cannoli – and in English Christmas puddings. But that’s not where all the piles of citron in the market are destined.  Here are some of the other ways it is used.

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IMG_2170Le Stanze al Genio is a beautifully displayed collection of Sicilian and Neapolitan majolica floor tiles, mostly 18th and 19th century, some earlier.   The tiles, all hand painted, are attractive and interesting in their own right, and an essential part of the decorative tradition of Southern Italy:   you see tiles of this sort  – in an endless range of designs, from floral to geometric, mythical figures to rural scenes and coats of arms – on the floors of the grandest palaces and the smallest country churches throughout Sicily.  That would be enough to make this museum a place of interest.  What makes it so inspiring is the passion, dedication and skill of its creator – evident in every detail.

As Pio Mellina talks about his lifelong passion for these tiles, and his commitment and dedication to the collection, I am reminded of Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful description of a gamekeeper he followed round as a child on the heather and bracken covered hillsides of his family’s property at Elrig in the lowlands of Scotland, a man who “with the wisdom of a lifetime … outwitted birds and beasts ….”  At the end of a long reminiscence, this gamekeeper would conclude “Ay, you come to know, through time …”   That is the sort of knowledge one feels that Pio has – and that has enabled him to create this jewel of a museum.

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The Good Friday procession at Enna ,  with its rows of silent, eerily hooded figures preceding a blood stained Christ and anguished Madonna through the city’s narrow streets, is so well known and widely publicised that, when I visited Enna at Easter,  I was half expecting to have the feeling that I’d seen it all before.    Instead, I found I was part of an ancient, but living and surprisingly moving, ritual – and that all the images and preconceived ideas  I’d brought with me completely disappeared.

It all started with a chance encounter on the street that morning.  It was a perfect Spring morning, sunny and warm, but the narrow streets of the city were still shaded and we had set out to find somewhere for coffee in the sun.    The young man, possibly a university student,  who gave us directions continued, spontaneously and with irrepressible enthusiasm, to tell us something about the procession that would take place later in the day.  He talked, in particular,  about his church and confraternity which, being  the oldest in Enna, has the honour of carrying the statue of the dead Christ in the procession.  His enthusiasm was compelling and, as he talked, I realised that, unwittingly, he had given me just what I had been looking for –  a way in.  The Confraternity of the College of SS. Salvatore would be my starting point.

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Piazza S. Andrea is a tiny irregularly shaped area, no more than 30 metres long and 15 wide, reached via a narrow laneway from one of the city’s main squares, Piazza S. Domenico.  Despite its size, and its proximity to the large Church of S. Domenico, this little square once contained three churches. It  is still dominated by the elegant, recently restored baroque facade of one of them.  It’s also home to a rather chic restaurant, generally considered to be one of Palermo’s best.* 

Interesting as its past may be, however – and evocative and pleasurable as summer dining in the shadow of the church undoubtedly can be – this little square has seen better days.  Now, at least in the daytime, it’s chaotic and noisy, a jumble of erratically parked cars, building equipment, and rubbish skips.  And any spare space is likely to be taken over by local boys kicking a football – with little regard for passers-by.  

On a recent Sunday morning, however, the square was surprisingly bare.  Everything had been removed – all cars were gone, there were no rubbish skips in sight, and, most surprising of all, the paving stones appeared to have been swept clean.  In the centre, a huge wooden bonfire was being prepared – mostly, from what I could see, by a group of young boys.   It was 18 March, the day before the Feast of S. Giuseppe.    

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