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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They are brilliant, sun-bright, images – there whenever I close my eyes. I feel full of them:  sun-bleached, rocky landscapes;  fine white beaches;  clear, still seas shading from light, bright turquoise to deepest blue; splashes of vivid pink bougainvillea;  faded pink and cream buildings; sharply angled shadows.  I have just returned from another visit to Lampedusa, and these images remain as clear and persistent as ever.  But this time there is an extra one – and it’s one I can’t get out of my mind:  the remains of abandoned and broken refugee boats piled neatly on a tiny beach at the head of a steep, rocky, inlet.   It’s not an image that negates the others, not at all;   it adds to them, creating a new perspective on the island, and opening a window, however small, into the experience of those who are risking everything to reach it.     

For at least thirty or forty years now, Lampedusa has been a paradise for holiday makers – mostly Italian.  In recent times, it has also become a place of hope, a gateway to Europe, for the desperate and disenfranchised, who are forced to flee their homelands in North Africa.    

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“If the bee were to disappear from the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”  – Albert Einstein


I have always wanted to keep bees, so when I saw a notice in the morning paper about a guided tasting of cheese and Sicilian honey, I was keen to read on.  The guiding was to be done by Carlo Amodeo,  who, according to the notice, is a very special bee keeper, largely responsible for saving the Sicilian black bee (Apis mellifera sicula) from extinction, and now producing highly prized honey using typical Sicilian plants – from orange blossom and mandarin to loquat; red clover and thyme to chestnut.  For me, this was clearly an event not to be missed!

And it proved to be every bit as interesting as the notice had promised.  We had the opportunity to try most of the honeys, learning to match the stronger flavoured honeys, such as chestnut, with mild cheeses and the more delicate honeys, such as orange blossom or loquat, with stronger cheeses.  But it was the story of the Sicilian black bees and Carlo Amodeo’s role in saving them from extinction that really captured my attention.   

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Every Sunday morning, stalls with goods of every description are set up in the streets that surround the Giardino Garibaldi at the centre of Piazza Marina. Almost certainly you’ll find more trash than treasure, but the market at Piazza Marina is a Palermo institution – and definitely worth at least one visit. In the summer months, the stalls extend into the surrounding streets, the wares become more interesting and varied, the crowds thicker on the pavements, and Dominco’s gelato van parked nearby cranks out loud, up-beat popular music. It is a truly carnival atmosphere.

You’ll find just about everything here, from furniture, light switches and camera tripods to books, old silver and oil paintings. Much like any flea market anywhere – but as with other flea markets, it’s the differences that make it interesting: those things that appear here over and over because they are part of the way of life, part of the city’s past. Here you’ll find stalls with old patterned ceramic tiles of typical design, piles of chandelier pieces, typical Sicilian cast iron bed bases,  silver knives of particular design, and stalls selling etchings and prints and a wide array of books about the city and the island.  These are the stalls that I keep coming back to.                                                                

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There is a small black edged, mourning style, sticker affixed to the mirror of the lift in my apartment building.  It reads:   Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo e’ un popolo senza dignita –  ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’.  

In a city where, it seems, close to 80% of businesses are paying protection money to the Mafia, this is a serious message – and one that challenges not just shopkeepers and business owners, but every member of the community.

Everyone who buys bread from a pizzo-paying baker, or fruit from a pizzo-paying fruit vendor,  is himself, indirectly, making a contribution to the Mafia.  The responsibility for the situation that exists here does not rest only with the shop owner.  Everyone is responsible; everyone is part of the system.  Nothing will change until the people themselves change.   If Sicilians were to really take to heart the principle, ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’ , they would rediscover their self respect and, ultimately, be liberated from the Mafia.  That was the  realisation that prompted a young and idealistic group of Palermitani to take action one night in the summer of 2004.  Read the rest of this entry »

You can’t miss Palermo’s post office, a huge fascist style building that dominates one of the city’s main streets, via Roma.  It’s the work of Angiolo Mazzoni , an Italian engineer and architect who was  responsible for many of Italy’s early 20th century public buildings, including Rome’s Stazione Termini.  The size and solemnity of the building lead you to expect a superior form of postal service inside.  Nothing could be further from the truth.    The hall inside is vast, but few of the desks ever seem to be manned, and chaos seems to reign at the ones that are.   

 ‘Going to the Post Office’ is a phrase loaded with meaning in Palermo.  I still remember a conversation that took place not long after I arrived here.  When I said I was enjoying Palermo one friend looked wryly at the other and said:  “She obviously hasn’t been to the Post Office yet!”, and then proceeded to tell a long story about leaving her mother in a queue in the Post Office while she went shopping, and returning several hours later to find the queue virtually unchanged and everyone in it making their frustration known.     

I have been to the Post Office today.  In fact, I spent a considerable part of the day there – and I will have to go back tomorrow.  The experience has been frustrating, but revealing.       Read the rest of this entry »

Whereas once I tended to dismiss concentration on detail as the preserve of the unimaginative, now I see it as a way of enriching one’s experience and reaching into the heart of things.

This morning, as I passed the Giardino Garibaldi, wondering vaguely how Basile had chosen the theme of the hunt for his fence design (see previous post) and what other ideas he might have had, I noticed a detail that previously had escaped me completely.  All of a sudden it was clear that what I had  previously taken to be merely ornamental loops joining the arrow-shaped railings are, in fact, representations of hunting bows.

Although not in itself an overwhelmingly important detail, I now felt I hadn’t fully appreciated Basile’s design before.  It seemed both more ingenious and more harmonious than I had previously thought.  

I  have a similar feeling whenever I discover that a word or image in a poem has another, previously unnoticed, significance: my experience and appreciation of the poem is enriched in much the same way as my experience of Basile’s design was enriched this morning when I discovered this detail.  

It may be that were I to understand the significance of the shield design that appears at the corners of the fence and beside the gates my appreciation of Basile’s design would be further enhanced.  But that is for another day!

The hunting of wild animals is like a leitmotif that runs through Sicily’s history .  It seems that everyone who has ever ruled the island, from Roman to Bourbon, has derived great pleasure from the extensive hunting that has been available.  Not surprisingly, images of the hunt – wild boar, birds of every description, deer, hare and wild cat – have found their way into the island’s art, architecture and literature.  Vivid hunting scenes can be seen in the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina;  Frederick II’s book on the art of hunting with birds, written in the 13th century, continues to this day to be used by falconers; and a stately Bourbon hunting lodge, the Palazzina Reale, still dominates the woods at Ficuzza, not far from Palermo.      

In Piazza Marina, a large and gracious square near Palermo’s old harbour, nobody seems to pay a lot of attention to the elegant iron fence that surrounds the Giardino Garibaldi.  Attention is usually focused instead on the Piazza itself, or the garden – and both have much to offer.   But if you take the time to look closely at this fence, you’ll see that it continues the theme of the hunt.  The design is interesting and evocative – and definitely worthy of closer inspection.   

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One of Palermo’s most interesting five-star hotels, the Villa Igiea, sits on a rocky headland overlooking the Bay of Palermo, just north of the city centre.  Below it, at the bottom of sheer rocky cliffs, is the tiny fishing village of Acquasanta, so called because of the curative thermal waters that have flowed through its rocky caverns since ancient times.  By the end of the 19th century, these ‘miraculous’ waters were attracting the rich and famous to the thermal baths that had been established there; now the thermal baths are deserted and the precious waters left to flow into the sea.  Acquasanta has seen better days.  If they come to this part of the world at all, the rich and famous are now likely to remain on top of the cliff at Villa Igea, completely unaware of the existence of the little village of Acquasanta and its precious waters below.  

Villa Igea’s history, however, is closely linked to that of Acquasanta and its healing waters.  There are those who wish that its future might be too.         Read the rest of this entry »

In the early 1980’s, having been buried deep under Sicilian soil for almost 2000 years, 16 beautifully made pieces of silver emerged into the dubious world of the international antiquities market, ending up in the  display cabinets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the time, the Met announced with excitement that it had acquired  “some of the finest Hellenistic silver known from Magna Graecia,” i.e. those parts of southern Italy and Sicily that had been colonised by the ancient Greeks.  As to the provenance of the objects, however, it stated only that they could have been made in “Taranto [in southern Italy] or in eastern Sicily”. 

It is now believed that the silver was made in Siracusa, on the east coast of Sicily, in about 300 BC, and that, before finding its way onto the international antiquities market,  it had been stolen from the archaeological site of the ancient Greek city of Morgantina in central eastern Sicily.  In January this year, after thirty years of investigation and negotiation, the silver, now generally known as the Morgantina silver, was returned to Italy.  This week I went to see it in Palermo’s archaeological museum, where it will remain on display until August.  Then, it will be returned to the archaeological museum in Aidone, a small town just two kilometres from the Morgantina site.             Read the rest of this entry »