Giving Palermo Another Go

Along the ancient coastal road west of Palermo.

The first time I visited Palermo I made two mistakes.  I learned about one of them halfway through my trip.  ‘Ah signora, said my concerned host, dopo aver guidato a Palermo non si è più lo stesso.’ After driving in Palermo I would never be the same.  And she was from Palermo.  Having driven in Rome I had an idea of what driving in Palermo might be like, so thinking to dodge the worst of it, had booked a room in a hotel high in the hills outside the city.  That was my second mistake.  The hotel website described a peaceful location, clean air, free parking and lovely views of central Palermo a mere 20-minute drive away.  Even allowing for the usual poetic license of these sites, it seemed a perfect compromise.

The hotel was up in the hills and it did have a view of Palermo, but not one I would describe as  lovely.

Apart from the miserable view, I kept getting lost on the way down to the centro storico, so it took me a lot longer than 20 minutes and then there was the daily battle to find a parking spot.  One time in desperation, on the suggestion of a local restaurant owner, I parked illegally while I ate lunch – in his restaurant of course – all the while keeping an eye on my car.  As for the driving, it was even worse than the signora had led me to believe.  On the first day I almost lost it.  Along one stretch of road there were so many motorcycles and vehicles coming at me I was convinced I had missed the sign warning the road was no longer senso unico.  I was reassured when I passed another ‘One Way’ sign, but that didn’t make the free spirits any easier to take.

On my next trip to Sicily I decided to avoid driving in Palermo.  In fact I decided to avoid Palermo as much as possible and stayed in Cefalù, a charming coastal village 70 k east of Palermo.  (Post to come.)  But the downside of this strategy soon became apparent. Although the trains to Palermo run fairly frequently – it’s a daily commute for many students and workers – it took almost an hour to reach Palermo Centrale.  Add on the time to get to the station and wait times for the (often late) trains and I spent/lost almost 3 hours each time I went into Palermo.

Cefalù, a charming fishing village with a UNESCO cathedral and 5th century B.C. temple to boot.

I was beginning to wonder whether, even with its UNESCO World Heritage sites and all the rest, Palermo was worth the bother.  There was one more thing.  Years earlier, when I first arrived in Italy, I had immediately felt at home in Florence.  But Palermo is worlds away from that elegant Renaissance city.  It was not a natural fit for me.   Still, to visit Sicily and not go to Palermo sounded a lot like visiting Central Italy without spending any time in Rome, a city I hadn’t initially taken to and now look forward to visiting.

How can anyone take in the Cappella Palatina in just one visit?

And what was this extraordinary combo I had parked next to?.

A tour of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house and the setting for the final scenes of Godfather, III was bound to be worth a return visit.

Would a third trip to Palermo show that the third time’s a charm?   Or would it be more a case of three strikes and you’re out?  Those old sayings can be really annoying and not at all useful.  In the end it might have been the equally annoying harangues about getting out of your comfort zone, but I did not give in to the temptation to abandon Palermo.  Not just yet.  The question was – where to stay?

For a while I toyed with the idea of staying in Mondello, once a small, marshy fishing village that had been transformed into an upscale resort after a Sicilian prince succeeded in draining it at the end of the 19th century.  On my first trip to Palermo – more because I couldn’t face the idea of driving into the centro one more time than because I’m a fan of seaside resorts – I decided to check it out.  The drive was marginally less stressful, and parking, although still a challenge, was doable.

Only 12 k west of Palermo, Mondello is a small, cheerful resort popular with palermitani and tourists.

A wide, white sandy beach stretches along the south side of the harbour.

Crystal clear waters close to the beach turn sapphire and turquoise further out in the harbour.

Along the west side of the harbour fishing boats that aren’t just for effect.

And a wide range of places to eat.  At ‘da Calogero‘ you can have a quick bite at the counter…

… or, after watching the chef chop up a couple of plates of polpo

…  head for the sit-down part of the restaurant for a plate of cozze e vongole washed down with a nice, cool Principe di Corleone. 

But I’ve never really been attracted to such places. As beautiful as it was, I knew that after a few hours I’d start to go stir crazy.  I love the sun and the sea.  It’s the lying on a beach in the blazing sun slathered in sun screen that I don’t get.  Also, there was the sign next to where I’d parked my car.

Comune di Palermo. Swimming prohibited. Per inquinamento. Because of pollution.

Still undecided, I checked the local transit options between Palermo and Mondello. Officially it was a half hour bus ride, but according to on-line comments, which ranged from ‘uncomfortably full’ to ‘heinous’, often took an hour.   (The heinous comment was from a visitor who lives in Rome.  She happily paid €25 for a cab back to Palermo.)

In the end I booked a room in a B&B right in the heart of the centro storico.  No trains.  No driving.  Following the suggestion of the owner of the B&B, I dropped the car off at the airport and took the bus into the city.  I would only visit sites I could walk to.

There would be no getting lost this time. The B&B  was a stone’s throw from Palermo’s impossible to miss cathedral.

You never know what you’re going to find when you book online.  Some owners have really good – and VERY creative – photographers.  I tried not to get my hopes up too much as I lugged my suitcase along Corso Vittorio Emanuele.  Even if it was shabby and run-down,  the location was good and there was a rooftop terrace, which hopefully would not be closed to guests as soon as breakfast was finished like the one in Siracusa I had stayed at earlier in my trip.  Since I had  specifically chosen that B&B for its rooftop terrace and views of the harbour – perfect for the evening aperitivo – I was not happy when I saw the note in my room about the ‘opening hours’ for the terrace.  It turned out – I had to insistere a bit to get the truth from the owner – a few months earlier a guest had thrown himself off the 5th floor terrace.  Oh…

Scenes like this – right across from the cathedral – are always a jolt.

Down the lane across from the cathedral. I don’t think I will ever get used to these contrasts. But I have gotten used to the surprises that often lie behind the dilapidated façades.

The B&B was fantastic.  The interior, the breakfast, and on top of everything else, when the wonderfully hospitable owner found out I was interested in gardens, he took me on a tour of his sun-filled, terraced garden.

Sometimes breakfast is served on the lowest of the terraces.

He had been working on his garden for twenty years. I didn’t even ask how many pots he had.

How did he manage to keep them all watered? I had a feeling he took the ‘benign neglect’ approach.

If you had a week, what fun to try a new terrace every day.

These unusual cache-pots –  ‘Teste del Moro‘ (Moors’ Heads) – are extremely popular with Sicilian gardeners.  I’m sure there is a story behind them.

And on the top terrace, so close it felt you could reach out and touch it, the cathedral.

On the way down, he showed  me the ‘honour system’ wine fridge.  For a moment the idea of just hanging out in that terraced garden seemed a totally respectable thing to do.  But first there was another garden to visit – the Giardino Botanico di Palermo.  I had no idea what to expect.  The very idea of a garden in Palermo seemed an oxymoron.

In my travels around Italy I’d already seen some unexpected takes on the botanical garden concept – the most unusual was the Giardino Botanico Heller on Lake Garda in northern Italy  (‘The Rewards of Suspending Judgment’, Feb. 14, 2016).  What kind of botanical garden would Palermo’s be?  A dark place with narrow paths lined with poisonous plants?

From the cathedral the garden is an easy, fifteen minute walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele – as long as you don’t stop at any of the countless, must-see sights along the way.


The building looked a lot like Teatro Massimo.


The entrance looked more like what you’d expect at an opera house than a botanical garden.

Unusually for May it had started to drizzle on the way and was still lightly raining when I arrived.   Hoping it was just a brief spring shower, I decided to have a quick look at the greenhouse.

The recent shower gave a strong tropical feel to the lushly planted path.

At first I thought this Bougainvillea had woven itself through the branches of an ancient tree.

But no, it was growing out of the massive trunk below.


Nearby a purple beauty, a member of the Verbena family.

Plants have the most ingenious ways of defending themselves.  One of the most peculiar is that of the most Mimosa sensitiva.  If a leaf is touched, it immediately folds shut, which of course makes it irresistible for human hands. Despite the common name ‘Touch Me Not’.

Not wanting to traumatize the delicate little plant I did not test its security system.

The sky soon brightened and I went back outside.  Close to the greenhouse was a gorgeous clump of Chamaerops humilis, aka European Fan Palm or Mediterranea Dwarf Palm.

Chamaerops humilis, the only palm native to Sicily.

Down the path to the right was an extraordinary sight.


I suspect the trees were absolutely beautiful in bloom, but I doubted they were any more intriguing looking than when covered with these improbable puffballs, presumably the covering for the seed pods.


Choridis/Ceiba speciosa, a native of Brazil…


aka Silk Floss Tree.


The tree grows in spurts when water is abundant, resulting in the strange trunk shapes and the tree’s other common name – Drunken Tree.

Spikes along trunk are the tree’s defence against small animals.

Among the agave – a plant for Margarita lovers – three of them had sent up the giant asparagus-like spears that are the flower stems.


Do you ever get the feeling that Nature might have a sense of humour? Against the whirling Dervishes (Yucca rustrata) behind them, the red flowers of this aloe swayed tipsily in the breeze.


For years I didn’t think the aloe had a flower. Mine certainly never did.

To the left of the aloe grove, were a couple of small, tree-like things covered in stick-like branches.  I would never have guessed it was a Euphorbia.  Nor did I make the connection to the pot of branchy things at the entrance to the succulent greenhouse at Allan Gardens. Nor did I have any idea what a dangerous thing it is.  Apparently the little branches break easily and the milky sap that oozes – and sometimes squirts out – pity the gardeners who have to work with the things – causes severe skin irritations and a burning sensation that last for days, and the tiniest droplet in your eye can cause painful, temporary blindness.   It’s commonly called ‘Fire Sticks’ or ‘Sticks on Fire’.  But is that because the branches turn red when the weather starts to cool or because of what its sap does?  Definitely a plant worthy of the city’s tortured history.


Euphorbia tirucalli, aka Pencil Sticks, Milkbush or Sticks on Fire, although I think ‘Touch Me Not’ would be a much more useful option.  Whatever name you go with, a highly toxic, dangerous plant.


Next to the Fire Sticks, a pole-like tree trunk along which impossibly symmetrical leaves (?) lined up. Alluadia procera.

Then there were the Opuntia.  The English common name is Prickly Pear, which like most common names is derived from the colour or shape of some part of the plant, in this case the shape of the fruit that grows from the base of the flower.  So why in Italian is it called Fichi d’India?  Figs of India.


Covered in flowers, the prickly pears looked more like  a member of the rose family than a cactus.

It turns out that although it grows wild all over the island, it is not native to Sicily.   Columbus brought it back from the West Indies.


With water droplets from the recent shower still clinging to the petals,  the resemblance to roses was even stronger.

After taking far too many photos I finally dragged myself away from the opuntia. And a good thing, because there was a lot more to see.  I walked round and round the enormous pond.

Who would have thought of planting aloe – a desert plant – around a pond full of lily pads and other water-loving plants?

A path off the pond led to what many consider the star of the gardens – a Ficus macrophylla that survived the long journey from Australia and was planted here in 1845, making it the oldest plant in the garden.  It’s also the largest tree in the garden – no surprise there – but not the largest Ficus in Italy.  That honour belongs to a tree that was planted twenty years later in Piazza Marina a couple of blocks away.

You have to step way back in order to get a photo of the entire tree.

Commonly called Moreton Bay Fig, or Australian Banyan Tree in reference to its origins off the east coast of Australia, it also has another, equally accurate common name that reveals the tree’s dark side.   Strangler Fig.

Things start off innocently enough.  The seeds germinate in the canopy of a host tree, where it grows for a while as an epiphyte, which means it gets all its nutrients from the air, without in any way harming the host tree.  UNTIL its roots reach the ground.  Then it mutates into a gigantic growth machine – a plant on steroids – stretching its tentacles all over the host tree, which it strangles as it gradually grows into a freestanding behemoth.

The ‘pillars’ supporting the enormous branch were once delicate air roots.

From what I can make out there was no sacrificial lamb in Palermo.  The tree was brought over, already fully independent.  But if you were head of a botanical garden and someone gave you a packet of seeds what plant would you choose to play the doomed role of host?

Look at it long enough and you’ll start to see all sorts of creatures emerging from the mass of branches and trunks.  Time to go.

It was hard at times to think of the garden with its strange, beautiful and dangerous plants being in the heart of Palermo.  But then again, the two had a lot in common.  They were both definitely worth a return visit.

The path back to the city beyond the garden walls.