Gail Jessen, Live Voyage Reports
“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.