Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

After finally checking into our hostel in Palermo, Bryanna and I indulged in a meal at a nearby restaurant. I think my excitement over being in Italy and my exhaustion from the journey made me forget my usual obsession with spending as little money as possible. I spent eleven euros on a pizza and a beer, including five euros just for the beer. Afterwards, I was disgusted with myself. Five euros for a beer? I could have bought three meals of street food for that.

I restored my miser cred at the grocery store after the meal, buying the usual cheap backpacker staples: baguettes, bananas, carrots, cheese, and cans of tuna.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hostel, the Youth Hostel Baia del Corallo, was far from Palermo’s center, in the much less hectic Sferracavallo neighborhood on the shore of the Mediterranean. Although I didn’t like having to take an hour-long bus ride to get to the city (or longer, depending on how long it took for the buses to come), Sferracavallo had a lot to offer, with a good selection of stores and restaurants, and a nice boardwalk. The hostel itself was right on the shore, with an excellent view of the bay.

I’m glad I met Bryanna on the train, because there weren’t many other people in the hostel to hang out with. My roommate was a Spanish fellow who wasn’t very talkative. Bryanna had her room to herself most of the time.

I just gave the hostel a good review on hostelworld.com. They didn’t make me pay for the first night’s reservation I missed, even though they could have according to the contract. However, the breakfast they offered was horrible – a fluffy little croissant, some crackers, a tiny bit of jelly, and coffee. It was obvious they wanted to be able to advertise that they provided breakfast, then they did it as cheaply as possible.

A street in downtown Palermo.

After getting settled and getting a good night’s rest, I finally had the presence of mind to make some observations about Italy. My first thought was that Italy has the highest density of charm in the world.  In my post about Athens, I remarked that nearly all the buildings were 20th-century concrete-and-stucco moderns that were nevertheless made beautiful by the human inhabitants. Italian cities are different: the buildings don’t need to be beautified, because they were built with artistic flourish. The average apartment building in Palermo was constructed in the 18th or 19th century (according to my estimate) in a distinctive Italian style, with styled columns, curved iron rails on the balconies, and marble busts and statues sticking out of the corners. Any one of these buildings would be a marvel in most cities, but in Italy they are commonplace.

Also, there seems to be a beautiful Renaissance-style church on every block, with a brilliant design and examples of superb craftmanship that lose their power when surrounded by other equally brilliant buildings.

A 17th-century church in Palermo.

Due to centuries of Muslim occupation, many of the oldest buildings in Palermo have a unique hybrid style. On Tuesday, Bryanna and I visited one of these, the San Cataldo church. Built in the 12th century as a monastery, the church is so humble that it’s hard to find among the larger buildings next to it. I had trouble taking a good picture because most of the front is blocked by a tree. The red Islamic-style domes are striking, however, and there are beautiful Byzantine mosaics and a serene garden inside.

Chiesa di San Cataldo.

Near the Chiesa di San Cataldo is the Pallazzo dei Normanni, a.k.a Norman Palace, which was built during Sicily’s occupation by the Normans. On one side of the palace are statues that seem to depict the vanquished former Muslim rulers of the city. A few blocks away from the palace, there is a cathedral built by the Norman rulers that is also in the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style. Unlike the other churchs we visited in Palermo, it is modestly decorated inside, with very little gold and very few paintings and mosaics. Whether this was an artistic decision or an economic measure, I don’t know, but in my opinion it gave the church a more spiritual air.

Part of the Pallazzo dei Normanni.

Palermo's cathedral.

On Wednesday, Bryanna and I went to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Walking through the hallways with corpses of citizens of Palermo hanging from the walls, I wished I had read more about the site beforehand. Why would anyone want to be put in such a position after dying – standing with their jaw agape, looking as if their skeleton could collapse at any moment, with flakes of skin curling off their skull? It seemed to be the opposite of the normal human desire to be in a position of rest after the end of life. According to Wikipedia, the catacombs began as a tradition of mummifying monks, and later became a status symbol among the people of Palermo.  I wonder if it would have been such a status symbol if they knew that their skeletons would be gawked at by tourists a hundred years later.

That afternoon, we took a bus to the top of the Monte Pellegrino, where the sunshine and the excellent view of Palermo helped us shake off the morbid vibes we got from the catacombs. At the top of the mountain, there was a church built into a cave.

The church at the top of Monte Pellegrino.

People spoke less English in Palermo than in Greece, which I liked, strangely. I studied a little Italian about six years ago, so I could communicate simple ideas like “when does bus 101 arrive” and “how much for a beer?” It felt nice when an Italian word that I wasn’t even aware I knew came out of my mouth. The lack of English speakers in Palermo might be due to the fact that there aren’t many tourists there. We saw very few fellow tourists during our time in Palermo, especially outside of the hostel. Indeed, there were only a few hostels to choose from, compared to dozens in cities like Athens, Istanbul and Rome. If you’re looking for an Italian city that has not yet been made into a tourist theme park, Palermo is a good place to go.

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

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Eurotrip 2011: The Journey to Palermo

Traveling is never as easy as you think it will be. While planning my trip on my laptop at home, I imagined that my journey from Athens to Palermo, Sicily, would consist of a night on a ferry and two moderately long train rides. I expected it to take about a day. Instead, it took more than two days – the longest duration of travel I’ve endured in my life.

The day before leaving Athens, I learned that no train goes directly from there to Patras, due to cuts made by the bankrupt Greek government. To travel between the two cities by train requires a few transfers. Despite this, I decided to take a train rather than a bus, thanks to bad memories from a Greyhound trip I took a few years ago. I activated my Eurail pass and got a ticket. At the time of my train’s departure, however, two trains arrived on opposite sides of the platform, and not knowing which one I was supposed to take (my ticket didn’t specify), I went back into the station and reserved a bus ticket for a few hours later (thanks to my Eurail pass, all the tickets were free). I was worried that I would miss the ferry, but the actually-very-comfortable bus ride took only three hours, getting me to Patras with time to spare.

The ferry arrived in Bari at 11 AM, two and a half hours later than it was supposed to. After finding the train station there, I learned that Bari is not a well-connected city in the Italian train network. The earliest I could get to Palermo was 10:40 AM the next morning, after taking an intercity train to Bonaventi, a regional train all the way up to Naples, and, finally, another intercity train to Palermo. I had a reservation at a hostel in Palermo for that night, so this news frustrated me. Instead of sleeping on a mattress, I had to spend my night sitting down in a tiny compartment with four other guys. We all agreed to lay our feet on the seats across from us, and the guy across from me, who looked like Kurt Vonnegut, put his pillow on my foot.

The journey wasn’t all disappointment and frustration, though. While traveling from Bonaventi to Naples, a group of Italian girls practiced their English with me. Before getting off the train, they gave me a memento to remember them by: a bracelet with images of Mary and Jesus. They asked for a memento from me, so I gave them the book I had just finished. Later, they friended me on facebook.

On the train to Palermo I was in the same car as a fellow American backpacker and recent college graduate named Bryanna. Her trip thus far was remarkably similar to mine: she started in Istanbul, went to Athens, spent time on a Greek island (Corfu), and was heading to Palermo. She decided to upgrade to a sleeper car, but we pledged to be friends in Palermo.

My trip also included the “pleasure” of a two and a half hour layover in Naples. As soon as I walked out of the train station there, I could tell that the city had major problems. There were mountains of garbage everywhere (according to Bryanna, there’s some sort of dispute over who should clean it up), and the buildings – which are actually beautiful, architecturally – were smeared with graffiti. The traffic around the Piazza Garibaldi was ferocious, even by Italian standards. Someone needs to clean up that city.

Bryanna decided to stay at the same hostel as me because she didn’t have a reservation anywhere. After arriving in Palermo, we spent four hours finding the place, which was on the outskirts of the city. We misunderstood the woman at the information desk outside the station; when she said the hostel was an hour-long bus ride away, we thought she said it was an hour-long walk away, so we tried to walk there, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city. A few sweaty hours later, we realized our mistake. After making many inquiries and committing many more errors, we found the right bus. We arrived at the hostel in the early afternoon.

Yet, we got there during siesta time, so we couldn’t get through the gate. While we were waiting, a big group of Italian high schoolers arrived. When the gates opened, they ditched us in line at the check-in desk, in true Italian fashion (I will outline the good qualities of the Italians in a later post).

I learned some lessons from this travel experience. First: leave plenty of flexibility in your travel schedule to allow yourself to make mistakes. I thought I had left myself flexibility, but it was not nearly enough. Second: stay a long time in each place you visit – I suggest a week – rather than moving around a lot, to avoid the stress of traveling altogether. You get a deeper experience in each city that way, anyways.

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul