Thursday, September 29, 2016


My first full day in Palermo was a Sunday, which kind of hampered my planning for two reasons: one, because many of the sites I wanted to see on my trip, such as churches, were open only limited hours, and two, because there was an F1 race on in the middle of the afternoon which I wanted to see, which pretty much ruled out my 'trip to the beach' idea.

So, after scouring through a bewildering array of options, I decided to tick off one of my must-see destinations first thing in the morning, and set off on a 20-minute walk to the Capuchin Catacombs. I visited some of the catacombs in Rome on my 2009 trip and was, to be honest, a bit disappointed at the lack of dead bodies. So the Palermo catacombs, the "largest collection of mummies in the world" had been on my travel bucket list for a while.

This probably makes me sound quite macabre. I don't know, really. I'm not especially interested in death or creepy things, and thoroughly sceptical about ghosts and goblins. But I do love a wander about in an old cemetery, and I've enjoyed other human remains-themed destinations such as the bone church in Kutna Hora, near Prague, and the Kievo-Pecherska Larva in Ukraine. I'd like to think it's a way of connecting in a very immediate way with people from the past, but I don't know, maybe it is just morbidness.

I just dodged a tour group coming out as I was coming in, so luckily enough I was able to walk around the catacombs virtually all by myself, with just the occasional other visitor passing in the distance. They had that sort of intense underground silence to them, a silence so profound it rings in your ears. For me, despite the title, it wasn't really a creepy place, mostly it was just interesting seeing the different clothing and facial features of those who did still have faces. Which does sound very creepy now that I write it, ha ha.

The catacombs were originally intended as a normal cemetery for members of the Capuchin friars who passed away. However, they eventually ran out of room and decided to exhume the bodies and move them into a larger space, whereupon they discovered 45 of them had been naturally mummified. Seeing this as a miracle, they decided to put them on display, and over the years, they both refined the mummification techniques (most bodies there are still naturally mummified, but they started deliberately helping the process along by removing organs and draining fluids and stuffing the body with straw) and started accepting laypeople into the catacombs. There was quite a range of states of decomposition, with some basically completely skeletalised, some with just odd bits of hair and flesh hanging on, and some looking like what you probably imagine a mummy to look like. I can't quite imagine wanting to gaze upon half the face of a mummified loved one, but apparently it was quite an honour and status symbol for wealthy families to be interred there.

There was a strict no photos rule, which I didn't want to sneakily breach, plus I don't know if people want to see any of these sorts of things. But if you're interested, there is the (I suppose) official website, surprisingly thorough and in English, and here is a blog with a lot of good images.

Narrow streets on the walk to the catacombs

I liked the sort of fading glamour of this place

And then on to something completely different. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped in at the Church of the Gesu, which is quite plain from the outside but a riot of Baroque detail on the inside. The strangest thing on arriving there was that it was absolutely packed with Indian families dressed in their Sunday best and blaring Indian music over loudspeakers. It's true there were three or four Indian restaurants in the immediate area of my B&B, which was just a few hundred metres from the church, but I would not have imagined there was such a large Indian community in Palermo, let alone that they would be Catholic. (Fun semi-relevant fact: I have been reading a book about the Portuguese exploration/colonisation of the Indian Ocean and one of the more bizarre tidbits is that the Portuguese had no idea that Hinduism existed and had it fixed in their minds that the Indians they met were Christians 'of a deviant sect'. There are even first-person descriptions of them seeing illustrations of Hindu gods with horns and extra arms and just assuming they were weird drawings of saints. Another story was that they were met by people chanting "Christ! Christ!" which the author speculates may have actually been "Krishna! Krishna!" They figured it out eventually, but it definitely seems to fit the ass out of u and me rule.)

I found an article online which, although written in the context of a Hindu celebration, explains that there are around 8,000 Tamil people in Palermo, mostly refugees from Sri Lanka. So you learn something every day. It was quite beautiful seeing all the brightly-coloured saris against the intricate backdrop of the baroque church. The ceremony (it seemed to be a First Communion or Confirmation, since there were a number of kids lined up at the front of the church) was just finishing as I got there, so I tried to take some action shots of people as they socialised and milled about the place, but I'm not such a great portraitist, so I had to filter out a lot of blurry shorts of people, unfortunately.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Flying solo in Sicily

Due to work stuff, I had to spend all summer there, chained to my desk. I know! Such hardship and injustice has never been exceeded. Summer was slow to get going here in Brussels, but it has been hot and sunny for quite some time now (thankfully no longer as hot as it was).

So in September, when the situation at work changed, I leapt at the chance to take a few days away somewhere. I booked one week to travel the next, so looked for somewhere not too expensive, where the weather would still be reliably good and not too far away. I fired up Skyscanner, set my search options to "everywhere", and after considering Croatia and Greece, my eye fell on Palermo. Sicily had never been particularly in my consciousness, but it seems in the last couple of years I've been noticing more blog posts and articles about it, and I have a few pictures of its beautiful golden cathedrals on my pinboard.

So, Sicily it was. And as soon as I booked, it seemed more articles started coming out of the woodwork. Articles that spoke of the mafia, of pickpocketing and drive-by scooter muggings, of which areas you shouldn't walk alone at night and which areas you shouldn't walk alone full stop. I told an Italian colleague I was visiting his country. "Oh, all of Italy is fantastic, where are you going?" "Sicily." "Where in Sicily?" "Palermo." "Ah, all of Italy is fantastic, except Palermo. Palermo is terrible, dangerous". He did admit he'd never been and "didn't go south of Rome", but I was uncharacteristically unsettled. I told myself that I'd travelled, mostly solo, to places as diverse as Ukraine, Morocco and Albania, but doubts over my choice of destination lingered. Jules wasn't able to come, due to work, and I realised this would be my first truly solo trip since we met two and a half years ago. I worried that I'd gotten older and more fearful and lost my self-reliance and adventurousness. Getting ready for the trip, I took off all my jewellery, took all unnecessary cards out of my wallet, equipped myself with an old-model iPhone and dug out and old handbag with a chain strap so it would be less easily snatched or cut.

View flying in to Sicily

As you may guess, the trip actually passed without incident. I spent the first day or two on high alert, but gradually reduced my vigilance. There were a few times when I wandered into some narrow back streets at night or early in the day and my heart beat faster, but for the most part I stuck to main streets in the mostly pedestrianised centre and felt perfectly safe. Outside the pedestrian area, I found cars were used to negotiating pedestrians walking in the narrow roads, so it felt perfectly safe wandering along in the middle of the street and moving aside when I heard a car or bike coming up behind me (I think I've seen studies that show it's actually safer for pedestrians and vehicles to share space - presumably only in certain circumstances i.e. not multilane highways - because everyone is more careful and alert). I even got used to the strange habit of letting fireworks off in daylight hours (I heard them around my hotel pretty much every day I was there).

That's another thing. Palermo is noisy. If you're looking for a really relaxing, chill-out destination, it's probably not here. Shouting, drumming, blaring music from cars, loud motorbikes, honking horns, it has it all. Funnily enough though, when it got to about 11 pm, and not much later on the weekend, pretty much everyone quitened down by universal accord and other than the odd passing bike and a garbage collection one night at 2 am, it was quite peaceful.

View from my hotel room
I arrived late afternoon/early evening on Saturday, so just had time to wander up and down the Via Maqueda, one of the main and semi-pedestrianised streets of the old town, just steps away from my (very nice) B&B.

The "passeggiata" (evening stroll) on Via Maqueda

One side of the "Quattro Canti", a crossroads adorned by four matching buildings with statues of Kings and saints

The Opera Massimo. Not sure if this guy just likes dressing up or if that's a real uniform of some description

The Fontana Pretoria. The square was nicknamed the "Square of Shame", due to the naked statues on the fountain and also the historical corruption of the municipal institutions housed there

San Cataldo church

Statue on the Fontana Pretoria

When I ventured out for dinner, I came across a noisy parade featuring banners on long poles, which lined up in the Piazza Pretoria. They proceeded to toss the banners, balance them on their chests, palms or even in their mouths and generally dance with them, all while wearing medieval-style costumes. Unfortunately, I don't have any great photos and I have no idea what was going on, but it was quite cool to see.

A young boy with some of the banners

It was quite a good introduction to Sicily - traditional, noisy, lively and mysterious.