You never know what you’ll find wandering around Sicily’s capital city, Palermo. It could be a busy street market, an artsy new boutique, a sidewalk cafe, a dusty park, or an old church. (Churches of every era are tucked around corners all over the city.) It could be wonderful little architectural details high on the sides of old buildings or interesting-looking groups of people having animated conversations down below. One day, when we were out walking, we came across the unexpected sight of two men washing a horse in the middle of the road. No idea why (few Palermo residents who don’t work in tourism speak English), but there they were.
Palermo is by far the biggest city on the island. Built on a large natural harbor, and up the valleys between the hills that loom behind the harbor, it’s twice as big as any other Sicilian city, with roughly the same size population as Seattle or Denver. Central Palermo is full of large old buildings made of stone and covered in plaster, gently decaying in the salty sea air. Many are four or five stories tall, with shops or courtyards on the ground floor and apartments above. Between them run narrow streets paved in cobblestones, where you have to squeeze to the side when a car or van comes through, and wide multilane boulevards full of buses, cars, and motorbikes (not many bikes here, as there are in northern Europe).
Much of the city’s life takes place on balconies. That’s where you hang your wash to dry (in the apartment we rented, the washing machine was on a balcony; you can’t get much closer to the drying lines than that). Balconies are where your cat or dog sits in the sun and where you go to get some fresh air (or have a smoke), survey the world below, and talk with your neighbors on their balconies.
Sometimes you can even shop from your balcony. Most of the residential buildings in central Palermo were built before elevators were invented. To save themselves from having to trudge up and down four or five flights of stairs multiple times a day, many apartment dwellers keep a basket on their balcony attached to a long rope. When the roving vendors with their carts of produce come along the street, you just yell down what you want, lower your basket with the money, and pull the basket back up with your fruits and vegetables.
Palermo doesn’t get much love from some guide books. “Noisy,” “ramshackle,” “run-down,” “unkempt,” “decrepit,” “disheveled,” and “chaotic” are some of the adjectives we ran across when reading about the city. There’s some truth in all of those, but Palermo also has beauty and fun and lots of spirit. By all accounts, the city is bouncing back from the violence and corruption that plagued it in earlier decades. For that reason—and maybe because we’re used to cities, from Washington to Amsterdam to Hanoi—Palermo never felt unsafe to us or even overwhelming, except when shoppers in the street markets or crowds at the gelato festival clogged the streets.