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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.