Simian Substitute Site for September 2023: Funky Monkeys
Italia '23 part quatro: Catania

Italia '23 part tre: Palermo

Oh, great, now we've got to watch every Italian film released in 2024 to see if this restaurant is in it. (Click to embiggen the photo.)[previously: June 14-17, June 17-20]

Wednesday June 21

The BBG and I have stayed in student accommodation in Edinburgh in the past: we have coping mechanisms for sleeping in single beds. Still, it has to be said that sleeping in the double bed we actually paid money for in the first place would have been nice. To jump ahead briefly to the end, all our subsequent communications with GNV regarding any sort of a refund have been completely ignored by them. I mean yes, they got us to our destination, and we didn’t die, but screw those thieves anyway.

Still, I think, at least we had beds. There are people on this ship who haven’t got cabins, which presumably means they’ve had to spend the night sleeping in chairs. Except when we get downstairs to the deck where breakfast is being served, we find that the path through the bar is clogged by several inflatable mattresses that passengers have brought for themselves. The staff on the ship can’t do much about it: they’re too busy being yelled at by angry punters any time they stand still for more than fifteen seconds. Maybe it is going to be like the Orient Express after all, in the sense that lots of the passengers might eventually get together to collectively kill someone. (Spoiler.)

Anyway, like I said, the ship will ultimately get us into Palermo on time, so we can’t complain too much. As far as our temporary meal vouchers go, they’re just about grudgingly accepted for breakfast, and flat out refused for lunch. We complain to reception once more, and they personally negotiate for a couple of coffees we didn’t really want, meaning we’ve probably been diddled out of €5 at most. Other than that, we spend most of the day either in the cabin (writing postcards, listening to podcasts and napping) and on deck (where there isn’t really that much to see for most of the journey, apart from a brief burst of excitement when we can just about see Sardinia on the horizon).

Everyone’s thrown out of their cabins at 3.30pm (amusingly, nobody’s told this is going to happen until 3.15pm), so we get to spend the final couple of hours on deck with our suitcases watching the approach to Sicily. We’re also not really told much about the disembarkation procedure, so there’s an unholy scrum around 6pm when they open up the passenger doors, with foot passengers and car owners all mixed up in the same queue.

Once we’re on land, it’s a 25 minute walk from the port to our accommodation, a B&B with the modish name BB 22 Palace. (Not to be confused with its nearby relative BB 22 Charming Rooms & Apartments, by the way.) Like most of the accommodation on this trip, we’ve got three separate sets of doors to negotiate. An outer door from the street leads us into what looks like an office building, where the guy on reception asks us to wait. A second chap takes us from there to the third floor, opening a door through to a set of apartments, and then our room is one of the various ones inside there. We get a lovely welcome from our host, with plenty of maps and local information to take with us: though we don’t get to meet the woman in charge until we head outside again, where she’s worrying over the fact that the main door is having some problems with its lock. (Most of the accommodation we stay in on this trip seems to have outer doors which require some sort of jiggling to open properly.)

The rest of the evening is dedicated to a straightforward wander around the streets of Palermo, with a particular restaurant our ultimate destination. Our route hits an enjoyable snag early on: we can’t go down one particular street because there’s filming going on, with massive lights illuminating a fancy restaurant with costumed extras walking in and out of it. (If you click to enlarge the picture above, see if you can spot the security guard yelling at me to stop taking photos.) By comparison, dinner at Osteria Dei Vespri may not have the glamour of a movie set, but we end up having one of our fanciest meals there, all paid for out of a collection taken by the nice people at my Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry as a civil partnership present.

We take a slow, unfocussed walk back to BB 22, and that’s when we get the biggest surprise of the night. Walking down one of the backstreets parallel to the main drag of Via Roma – Vicolo Mezzani is the closest I’ve been able to get to a street name – within a few dozen metres we’ve gone from a quiet collection of little tasteful bars to a market square that appears to have half a dozen competing sound systems all going at full volume, and a huge crowd of young people leaping up and down to whichever one takes their fancy at the time. It’s deafening, disorientating, and we can’t wait to go back and see what it looks like on a Friday night.

Boat. Drinks.Thursday June 22

This always happens on our multi-location holidays: we buy postcards in one city, write them in transit, and then post them from somewhere else. So the first port of call for the day is the main post office close to the hotel, to spend a horrific amount of money on stamps for the cards we got in Genoa and wrote at sea. The Palazzo delle Poste is certainly an imposing building – ah, to hell with it, the key word people keep using on Google Maps to describe it is ‘fascist’, and you can’t really get away from that. But it’s got a neat queueing system involving deli-style numbered tickets, including a separate range of numbers for English-speaking staff – just be warned that if you don’t respond within five seconds of your number coming up, they’ll move straight on to the next one. Despite that hiccup, we pick up stamps for all our cards (including some lovely Sergio Leone ones for the cards going outside Europe), and it's all handled with the utmost speed and efficiency. You can say what you like about Mussolini, because they hung him from a lamppost and now he’s dead.

After a quick detour via the box office of our evening's main entertainment, we’re off to what is surprisingly our first cathedral of the holiday. Palermo Cathedral is a fine example of the form, even though inside it’s partly a building site. Still, some of the little shrines off to the sides are interesting, notably one dedicated to Giuseppe Puglisi, a priest who dedicated his life to battling against the influence of the Mafia, and was murdered by them back in 1993. What you really want to do in this cathedral, though, is get outside it. You’ll be shown a bewildering array of offers at the ticket desk – as long as you take one that at the very least allows you access to the roof (Tombe Terrazze is probably the cheapest), you’ll get a terrific view of the city.

Lunch involves an end-to-end stroll through Ballaro Market, being accosted by dozens of stalls offering to fry things for us, and eventually settling for Trattoria del Carmine: a fairly standard open-air market diner with what I remember being perfectly acceptable food, although the Trip Advisor reviews we read after the fact are hilariously shocking (particularly the Italian ones). Afterwards, we walk it all off with a trip out to the Botanical Gardens, primarily because they’ll position us nicely for the next activity of the day. They’re pleasant enough, but this is where I formulate my theory of how Italian parks are constructed – they look like you can walk in one end and out the other, but in reality you’ll find there’s only ever one entrance open at any given time.

This results in a slight delay to the next stage of our day – an aperitivo crawl. We’ve tried this sort of thing in other Italian cities in the past, but never seemed to quite get the balance of post-work drinks and nibbles right. Happily, the good people at BB 22 have come up with a list of four possible recommendations for aperitivo bars in the harbour area, and there’s a perfectly acceptable walking route between three of them, so we just stick with those, having a spritz and a small snack in each. Of the three, Nautoscopio is the most stereotypically beach-bar type of the three, with a soundtrack of bland cover versions of eighties tunes (although, amusingly, when it comes to Dire Straits they stick with the original). By comparison, A’cala and Calamida are more like restaurants that are happy to let people come in just for drinks, and these two venues are where we start discovering something odd about Sicily in general – people are getting publicly married all over the shop, and the harbour is full of couples in full wedding gear posing in front of boats they presumably don’t own. We missed a trick there.

We had our Monoglot Movie Club night in Genoa a couple of days ago, but in Palermo we’re going for a rare outing of Monoglot Theatre Club. We’re doing this partly because it gets us inside Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest and fanciest playhouse, with a multi-tier design reminiscent of London’s Royal Albert Hall. It turns out that our €20 tickets get us a pair of seats in a box, which is a very pleasant surprise. As for the play, we’ve cheated a little by reading a synopsis of Gary Palazzotto's L’altro in advance, so we’re not surprised by how it opens: the one actor on stage (Gigi Borruso) is shot dead in the opening seconds, and spends the rest of the performance wondering who murdered him.

It’s a nicely-executed multi-media piece, with video projections, dancers and an orchestra backing up the lead character’s story. But we’re given an added thrill by a weird coincidence from earlier in the day. At one point, the man appears to be talking about a priest, and there’s a musical interlude where we get to see a dancer represent the priest on stage while newspaper headlines are projected on the screens. And we recognise the photo against those headlines: it’s Father Giuseppe Puglisi, the priest who was murdered by the mob 30 years ago and has his own shrine in the cathedral. All of a sudden, the infinite possibilities raised by the initial mystery have been shrunk to a much smaller number.

Still, despite the language barrier, it’s enjoyable to watch and doesn’t outstay its welcome: The BBG suggests that with a bit of English surtitling, it could play at Edinburgh without any problems at all. We wrap up our night out at the theatre with a late dinner at Piccolo Napoli, where I have a bowl of squid ink pasta that is utterly delicious, but will ultimately give me shits that will stain toilet bowls almost indelibly black across two different cities.

Friday June 23

A small triumph to start off the day. Palermo has a pretty good system of buses, but you have to buy tickets for them in a shop before you board. So I stroll into a tobacconist and ask for six bus tickets (to cover the journeys we’re planning to make over the next 24 hours), and he hands them over without blinking. That phrase wasn’t even in Duolingo, which appears to think knowing how to ask questions like 'why do we die?' is more important.

With our bus tickets in hand ready for stamping on board, we head off for a day of religion and beer. Our big journey of the day is out to the Catacombe del Cappuccini, where you suspect the people who thought that the mummies at Museo Egizio in Turin were triggering would absolutely crap their pants. For a mere €5, you get to wander around a vault where every wall is crammed with mummified corpses: largely in the clothes they died in, and stacked about three high. The effect stops being alarming after a few seconds, and you start noticing fun things like how sometimes pairs of stiffs have their heads turned towards each other as if they’re gossiping about their neighbours. There are signs up everywhere asking people not to take pictures out of respect, which we abide by, although several people we see there don’t (“honestly, I’m using my phone to translate the sign” is one excuse that we hear). So it makes it slightly galling that when you get outside, one of the first things you see on sale is a book of postcards of the most photogenic deadoes. Especially as we sent most of our postcards out yesterday.

We cool off with a quick gelato at the Gelateria Il Signorotto just next to the bus stop – yes, we are trying to have a gelato in every city we visit, well spotted – and get the bus back into town for lunch at Trattoria Bersagliere, whose one English-speaking waiter puts on an entertaining show for the tourists but has the food to back it up. We carry on the religious theme with two more sites closer to the centre of the city. San Giovanni degli Eremiti is notable for the Arabic influences in its architecture, particularly its massive red domes and terrific garden. Monastero Santa Caterina – which it takes us ages to get into because the surrounding streets are closed off for yet another film shoot – pays off the effort with a gloriously ornate interior and another rooftop view across the city. Sadly, we end up leaving it too late to visit the monastery bakery on the way out, a tradition we’re aware of thanks to it being a literal plot point in the Netflix show Framed!, previously discussed here.

We grab a quick coffee at Cinema Rouge et Noir to compensate for the fact that we don’t have time to see a film there, and then set off on a carefully planned bar crawl – partly places we discovered on our first night mooch, partly recommendations from elsewhere. Fusto makes for a cracking start, its combination of Italian beers and British music proving to be a winning one (even the quote over their front door is from Parklife). By comparison, the music choices at the more commercial Monkey Pub are cheesy Italodisco that could have been recorded any time over the last half century, which adds to the enjoyable dive bar atmosphere. After a well-out-of-our way detour for a lovely dinner at Il Mirto e La Rosa, we head back to the bar area for two more stops: the traditional tap-list-on-a-blackboard stylings of Extra Hop, and the must-be-a-pun-in-there-somewhere Cu Ccu Ti Unci (QQT1C for short), a fine general bar that has some particularly lovely beers courtesy of the modestly named Epica brewery.

Being at QQT1C positions us nicely for what I’m hoping will be the big finish of the day – an attempt to recreate our Wednesday night walk through the Bacchanalian orgy that appears to take place nightly just down from Vicolo Mezzani. And this time, I’ll be attempting to film it. You can see in the video above that as we’re just about to enter the block, I’m adjusting my phone because I realise that if it’s ever going to be nicked out of my hands, it’s going to be here. We do the walk, and… it’s a little disappointing, to be frank. The sheer manic edge to the proceedings we experienced on the Wednesday doesn’t seem to be there on a Friday night – or maybe it’s just that second time round, it’s less surprising. Enjoy the video above, but just realise that this is Palermo being restrained.

[to be continued]



I enjoyed the video. Looks as if you could be in competition with this guy


Nah, I'm too nervous to be wandering around the streets of an unfamiliar city with whatever combination of selfie stick and Steadicam he's using - it'd be like carrying around a PLEASE ROB ME sign on a pole. Love those videos, though.

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