Most visitors to Palermo come to see the rich remains of the city’s past – and they’re right to do so.  Palermo was once one of the grandest cities in Europe – the centre of what John Julius Norwich refers to as “that flashing, endlessly-faceted jewel that was the culture of Norman Sicily” – and many of its treasures, including some of its finest, are still here to be seen.  Now, they perhaps gain even greater lustre being seen in the context of a modern city to which time has been far from kind.  But for all its problems – or maybe partly because of them – modern Palermo too has its riches.  They are less apparent to the casual visitor, and certainly not likely to attract large numbers of tourists, but nevertheless they are well worth discovering.  There’s a rich vein of creativity running through the old city, finding expression in various small theatres and musical venues.  It’s one of the things that makes the city such an intriguing and rewarding place to spend time in.                             

One of these theatres is Teatro delle Balate, a small experimental theatre,  established in 2007 in a slightly edgy part of the old city, directly opposite the decorative façade of a 17th century church, S. Annunziata delle Balate.  Finding the theatre proved to be something of an adventure; attending a  performance there, a real discovery.    

Read the rest of this entry »

After several months away from Palermo, it has taken me several more to start to feel the rhythm of the place again.         

At first glance, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele  doesn’t look at all like a street of palaces.  For the most part, it is rather unprepossessing, none too clean, and usually noisy and full of traffic.  But first glances are usually unreliable; and nowhere more so than in Palermo.   

This is Palermo’s oldest street.  It can be seen on the earliest maps of the city, running in a straight east-west line from Porta Nuova, the decorative city gate beside the Norman Palace, to Porta Felice the city gate by the sea.   Even today you sometimes hear it referred to by its original name, ‘the Cassaro’, from the Arab word al-Csar meaning ‘the street that leads to the castle’ .        

A careful walk along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, from Porta Nuova to Porta Felice, will reveal more than forty palaces originally built by Sicily’s nobility, some as early as the 16th century, most in the 18th century.  Some are still lived in by the owners, some have been converted to other uses, many are in need of repair and restoration.  Adriana Chirco, a leading Palermo architect, author, and lecturer in the History of Art, has observed that, in many cases, it wouldn’t take a great deal to restore these palaces to their ancient splendour, and that to do so would add lustre to the city and help  conserve its architectural and cultural past.    

Read the rest of this entry »

 a conversation about sea sponges on the island of Lampedusa

Last year when I visited Lampedusa, I hadn’t even noticed the little freshly painted shop at the end of the main street selling natural sea sponges.  This year, visiting the shop and talking to Giovannino, its owner, turned out to be one of the highlights of my stay on the island.

The shop is small, but very attractively set up, with sponges of different types and sizes displayed on tables, and hanging from the walls, and a series of photographs showing the various stages of processing.  It is obviously a shop run by someone who knows, and cares about, what he is selling.  That someone is Giovannino, a dark haired, strongly built man, probably in his 50s, with that distance and deep reserve Sicilians often seem to have, at least on first meeting.  I made a small purchase, complimented him on his shop, and asked if I might come back some time to talk to him about sea sponges and sponge ‘fishing’.  He graciously agreed. 

Read the rest of this entry »

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.    

  Read the rest of this entry »

Like many other Sicilian families of their class, every year, in May, the Agnello family would pack up and travel to their country estate – and there they would remain for the summer months. It was a short journey from the family palace in Agrigento to the large airy farm house at Mose’, but a major excursion. At Mose’, the family entered into a completely different way of life.

For those who made the journey many years ago, the Mose’ of today is obviously greatly changed. The farm, which still produces olives, almonds, pistachios and wheat, as well as fruit and vegetables, is greatly reduced in size, and the house and surrounding buildings have been extensively restored and opened to guests. Nevertheless, thanks largely to Chiara who now manages the farm and Agriturismo business, it is still possible to feel something of the rhythm of a past way of life. Something of those magical summers that linger on in the family’s memory can now be shared by anyone who visits.

Read the rest of this entry »

“This is not Rome or Venice, where the city’s treasures are on display, there for all to see.  Palermo is quite different: here, things are hidden away behind closed doors”.   That was part of my landlady’s introduction to Palermo. 

As I wandered the streets of the old city over the next few weeks, catching fleeting, tantalising glimpses of vaulted ceilings, leafy colonnaded courtyards and frescoed interiors disappearing behind rapidly closing doors and shutters, I began to realise how very apt her introduction to the city had been.      

Gradually, with the passing of time, I have managed to see behind some of these doors, but, until now, one particularly intriguing one has remained firmly closed to me.  It is a heavy wooden door with ornate baroque surrounds, tucked away between candle factories and printing shops in via Ponticello, a narrow paved street in the old city.  Partly because of the door itself, partly because of the sign beside it:   ‘Oratory of a Congregation of Noble Women 1733’, I always suspected there was something of interest here.  But I wasn’t at all prepared for the treasures, both artistic and historical, that I ultimately found.      

Read the rest of this entry »


“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.   

Read the rest of this entry »

I discovered Emma Dante, quite by chance, while browsing in a bookshop  recently opened in Palazzo Cattolica, one of Palermo’s grand old palaces. I’m not sure what it was that attracted me to the small  book called Interview with Emma Dante.  Maybe because it was an interview I thought the Italian would be relatively easy to follow;  or maybe I just found the size and appearance of the book appealing – it’s an attractively produced little book, just  12 x 16cm, printed on lovely smooth white paper.   Whatever it was, I had soon read enough to realise that Emma Dante was both a formidable talent and an interesting commentator on Palermo: definitely someone I wanted to know more about.   

What interested me most, initially, was her relationship with Palermo.  She is one of the most important figures in contemporary European theatre, her works regularly performed to acclaim – yet here in Palermo, her home city, she is virtually unknown and her works are almost never performed.  Not surprisingly, she is highly critical of the city, but her relationship with it is complex: on the one hand she despairs of Palermo; on the other, she is deeply attached to it.  It is the force behind her work.

Read the rest of this entry »

4.1.1Francesca is one of my neighbours – a curious mixture of emotional instability and intellectual curiosity, but an  interesting commentator on life in Sicily.  She moved into Palermo’s historic centre only when she fell on hard times after the death of her husband; most of her married life was spent in one of the streets off Palermo’s via Liberta’, the area generally preferred by Palermo’s middle class.  Originally from the North of Italy, Francesca is acutely aware, and highly critical, of the very different mentality that, she says, exists in the South.  In this interview, she talks about her own background and her experience of Sicily and Sicilians. 

                                                *          *          *                  

Francesca, before we talk about your experience of Sicily and Sicilians, tell me a little bit about yourself and  your family.   

I was born in Trieste at the beginning of the Second World War, but both my parents originally came from Sicily.  My father was born in 1896 in Castelbuono, a town in the Madonie mountains east of Palermo, and my mother was born in 1897 in Messina.

Read the rest of this entry »

 The colourful abundance of Palermo’s Vucciria market was already a dream when Renato Guttoso created his famous painting, La Vucciria, in 1974.  By then, Guttoso had been living in Rome for years and was painting largely from memory.  He was painting a market he had known well and was dreaming of still; and the work he created has helped  keep the dream alive for others.   Although these days the  market itself is much diminished, in many ways a sad reminder of days long gone, the Vucciria has acquired an almost iconic significance in the city: despite everything, something of its old magic and distinctive character remain.      

Other food markets in Palermo’s historic centre, such as the nearby Ballaro’ and Capo markets, may now be bigger, more vibrant and exciting, but there is still nowhere better than the Vucciria to sample some of Palermo’s famous ‘fast food’.  The Vucciria is, in fact, famous for two in particular:  polpo bollito (boiled octopus)  and panini con milza (bread rolls filled with spleen of veal). 

Read the rest of this entry »