Palermo: an exciting cultural fusion

Not since our first visit to Naples, has a European city ever felt so different and distinct. After a couple of weeks visiting the coastal towns of Calabria and north Sicily, arriving in Palermo provided a shot of cultural adrenaline which was both bewildering and exciting.

Arriving at Palermo Centrale, the main railway station, we first encountered Via Roma a seemingly quite modern long straight street (extending for over 1.5 miles). However, as we veered off to the left or right we were plunged into a web of winding side streets and alleys which were anything but neat and orderly.

A multicultural city

Palermo’s blend of Arab/Norman/Baroque architecture reflects its complex history, although like elsewhere in Italy, the influence of the Roman Catholic religion prevails.

La Matorana Church containing spectacular 12th century Byzantine style mosaics
The Fontana Pretoria moved from Naples in 1574. It became known as the ‘Fountain of Shame’ reflecting either the corruption of the local politicians, or the array of nude sculptures on display.

One notable ethnic group that has settled in Palermo are those from Bangladesh. There are an estimated 15,000 living in Palermo, and they are now established. and very evident in the city’s street markets.

The Bangladeshis exist alongside many other ethnic minority groups, especially from North Africa

Street art such as above is a strong feature of Palermo. One recurrent phrase in the work of one artist’s work is ‘Tutto e Nienti’ – literally ‘everything and nothing’ which roughly means that it’s up to you to choose what you want to know and to be – a slice of existentialist optimism.

However, like most Western European countries, Italy has a populist anti-immigrant political movement, The Northern League led by Matteo Salvini, who was Deputy Prime Minister from 2018-9 has been growing in popularity throughout Italy including Sicily.

The Old and the New

Whilst Palermo is awash with mediaeval buildings, and shops that seem to be have been trading for decades, it is apparent that the city is undergoing a process of modernisation, incorporating global retail chains, cruise ships etc. and a loss of tradition.

Look hard enough and it’s possible to find buildings from Palermo’s more recent past including Mussolini’s fascist era of the 1930s

The Tempio Munito Fortezza Mistica(Munito Temple Mystical Fortress) was built to honour Italy’s World War One martyrs. Mussolini laid the foundation stone in 1936. There is still the plaque on the wall
celebrating Italy’s defeat and take-over of Ethiopia in 1936 which carries the inscription – 

Officers of all the armed forces of the State in Africa and in Italy, Black Shirts of the Revolution, Italians at home and in the world, listen to the decisions that you will know in a few moments and which were acclaimed by the great Council of Fascism, a great event takes place: the destiny of Ethiopia is sealed today, May 9th, the fourteenth year of the Fascist Era.

The now vacant Bank of Sicily building – the bank was taken over after the 2008 financial crash

Cosa Nostra

Another Sicilian institution which does still exist is Cosa Nostra. The Sicilian Mafia has been the subject of innumerable books, films, etc. There is little doubt that it has been a very powerful criminal organisation operating in Sicily and beyond, especially the USA (often referred to there as the ‘Mob’). Apart from the Sicilian based Costa Nostra (‘our thing’), there are now three other, arguably more powerful, mafia organisations based in southern Italy, such as the Camorra in Naples After several decades of seemingly operating with impunity, Cosa Nostra (headed by the Corleonesi clan), were finally challenged by two local magistrates in the 1980s, who were responsible for the trial and conviction of 338 mafiosi. Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino, the two judges leading the trials, were both murdered by car bombs in 1992. This led to a huge public backlash and government crackdown which severely weakened Cosa Nostra, although they have by no means disappeared.

The two judges are now celebrated as public heroes throughout Sicily

A mural of Falcone and Borsellino on a school building in Cefalu near Palermo

We also came across a local library in Palermo named after the influential Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, whose novels such as The Day of the Owl, helped draw attention to the shadowy mafia organisation in the late 1950s and early 1960s when few were willing to publicly admit to its existence

To help keep up the anti-Mafia sentiment alive and to educate locals and tourists, there is now a No Mafia Memorial in Palermo, a multimedia exhibition which illustrates and explains the history of Cosa Nostra in Sicily

It now almost appears that the mafia are more of an opportunity for tourist revenue than an everyday reality, and that even imported gangster characters like Peaky Blinders are perhaps more cool
Sadly, the Sicilian mafia have not disappeared. In 2019, some brave migrant (Bangladeshi) shopkeepers stood up to the local mafia threats of extortion and attempted murder, which led to the successful prosecution of eight members of a local mafia family.

They were helped in preparing for their case by the local Addiopizzo anti-mafia group (roughly translated as ‘goodbye protection money’ – pizzo referring to extortion money)

Whilst we were in Palermo, mayoral elections were underway which led to the election of Robert Lagalla, a politician accused of having close links with the Cosa Nostra, as implied in these posters

Palermo food and drink

Fittingly, Palermo’s oldest eating establishment is credited with standing up to the mafia. Antica Focacceria San Francesco dates from 1834, and specialises in milza (spleen) sandwiches. It still feels authentically original despite being a popular tourist stop. It is claimed Guiseppe Garibaldi and his followers (the Red Shirts) ate here in 1860 during his campaign to conquer Sicily and establish the modern Italian state.

Palermo is renowned for its three street markets – Vucceria, Capo and Ballaro, where you can try examples of such local food staples as pane e panelle (chickpea fritters) and arincini (‘little orange balls’ which are deep fried rice balls stuffed with ragu, mozzarella etc.).

Ballaro market

We strolled through Vucceria Market on a Saturday night when the streets were thronged with people

The pink and black hanging pennants represent Palermo FC the local football team who were due to play a play off match for promotion the following night against Padua FC

Football mania

Around 11.30 on the Sunday evening, we suddenly became aware of some loud cheering below our hotel in Piazza Politeama. Descending to the square, we came across the start of raucous celebrations following Palermo’s success in winning promotion for the second successive season (from Serie C to Serie B). Flag waving, red flares, horns, cheering and singing continued until the early hours. Despite some youths climbing on to the roof of a local bus which became trapped in the crowd, it was all good-natured with no carabineri (police) in sight.

Should they be promoted again next season to Serie A, then it will probably be declared a public holiday.

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