“Palermo is a masculine city, but secretly beautiful. It’s not a city won over easily,” my tour guide informed me. “You must sit back. Let him come to you. Let yourself be seduced.” Sitting on the northern coast of the island of Sicily, Palermo is a rowdy mashup of Phoenician, Roman, Norman, Byzantine, and Arabic cultural influences…and yet somehow perfectly Italian. I found our tour guide’s assessment to be quite accurate: “Palermo lives out loud. On the street our people eat, shop, argue, sing, and love out loud.” I definitely got the sense, from even my brief time in the city, that it’s home to people proud of their culture, proud of their craftsmanship, proud of their food, proud of their fashion, just plain proud. Established in 1567, the port continues to serve as a regional hub for both tourism and commerce. Fishing boats, Italian and international military, freighter ships, and cargo of every kind are stuffed into the bustling waters alongside Holland America’s Noordam. In fact, when the Greeks founded the city, the name they bestowed means “all ports.”
Our goal for the day was to be thoroughly creeped out exploring the Capuchin Catacombs. For those familiar with the catacombs of Paris, the Sicilian version goes far beyond tunnels of dry skulls and bones. Over 8,000 embalmed and fully mummified friars and other persons from the16-19th Centuries are displayed. In many cases, the mummies are still fully clothed in sacred vestments. Our game plan was to use the red double decker hop-on-hop-off buses to shuttle around. Such things are usually too touristy for my taste, which tends to err on local experiences and rarely visited sights. Once I’ve snapped the obligatory photo of the monument, it’s time to get lost in a residential neighborhood with granny’s cafe tucked down a side street. Nonetheless, my photographic memory loves it when I sit on top of the giant red bus, make a loop of the city, and orient myself for the day.
Nearing the end of our first loop, we heard chanting, singing, shouting, and saw red smoke (gas?) down the street from our bus. The tour guide came over the PA system, “Our students they make manifestation to our government. They will march and shut down streets. We do our best. Is okay? Okay.” As a side note, I love that phrasing. It wasn’t a protest against something, it was a manifesto in favor of something. Dressed in all black, holding spray painted banners, and donning bandanas around their faces, thousands of students shouted in unison and moved slowly through the already congested streets of Palermo’s historic center. We decided to get off the bus near the Mercato Ballaro and avoid the hassle.
Mercato Ballaro is one of the legendary outdoor markets of Palermo. We chose this market specifically because it is in the Arabic neighborhood of the city. The Noordam’s captain cancelled our port day in Tunisia (more on that later). Jen and I were really been looking forward to getting lost in the mazes of the medina and exploring the souk on a mission to overload our senses. The market experience in Palermo paled in comparison, but we had a small taste of what North Africa may be like. The stalls wind and wind and wind though endless clusters of streets and alleys and star-shaped intersections that make absolutely no sense. Fish mongers shine bright spotlights on their catch of the day, showing off the individual scales and clarity of the eyeballs. Vegetable farmers routinely dump buckets of water on their produce to keep it bright and crisp. Butchers proudly display whole lambs and goats, skinned and ready for requests. The grooves in the ancient cobblestone streets run thick with all sorts of vendor stall byproducts. The smells are sharp in the humid air and change around every corner. At one point we stumbled on a rickety table holding cell phone cases and athletic socks, because there’s always that one guy. Light green squash running the full length of my arm were found in nearly every stall. The teetering piles of olives and sharp, dry wheels of cheese were as breathtaking as famous works of art.
In the wake of the student’s manifestation, the catacombs closed, as did many shops and most major streets. A postcard of a 600 year old skeleton will have to suffice for this trip. Jen decided to make her way to a flea market and I decided to head back to the ship to start writing. In my attempt to return to the ship, I boarded what I thought was my red bus heading to the ship on its next stop. It was in fact my red bus, but it was actually heading to the port after eight more stops. I therefore saw the other half of the city I missed by exiting for the Mercato Ballaro, so that was a happy accident. Outside the gritty, squishy, noisy historic town center, Palermo was actually quite posh. The Arabic and Byzantine influences were more overt in the architecture and many elaborate public gardens sprawled out for blocks along the Via della Liberta.
Tonight we had dinner in the Pinnacle Grill, a specialty restaurant with additional cover charge. The cuisine was themed to the Pacific Northwestern United States. They are known for their steaks, hailing from Double R Ranch in Washington, and of course fresh salmon and halibut. The service was exceptional and the wine flowed generously. I highly recommend the experience. It’s well worth the additional charge, which is far less than I’d pay for a comparable dinner in Salt Lake City. You also can’t beat the view of the three-tiered atrium.
Tomorrow we were scheduled to dock in Tunisia. Tunis was the city I was most excited to visit, but the captain cancelled due to international conflicts spreading across the whole of North Africa. Other cruise ships decided to continue, but would not allow any Israeli passport holders to disembark the ship. The Noordam decided to skip it entirely. Instead, we will visit Cagliari, Sardinia. I’ll likely take the opportunity to stay on board and nurse my disappointment with spa treatments and a self-guided photo tour of the various lounges and public areas of the Noordam. Jen will go ashore and wander about Cagliari, returning with beautiful photos to share with you.
Be sure to follow along in real time on Instagram and Twitter @fourthirtyam, hashtag #livevoyagereport. The Noordam Mediterranean Explorer Live Voyage Report landing page leads you to each day’s post.
I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. Until tomorrow…bon voyage,