We were packing up to leave our apartment in Palermo when the sound of a brass band, crisp and tight, wafted in through the shutters with the morning sunbeams. Down in the narrow streets, an itinerant band of around a dozen smartly uniformed musicians were playing seasonal tunes in what I imagined to be a personal sending-off ceremony. But it was a fond imagining and, besides, we didn’t want to leave. A week in Palermo is barely enough to visit all the sites of historical interest, especially when numerous coffee and/or Campari breaks are factored in to the schedule.
I have not yet adopted the Italian way of standing at the bar to knock back espresso, preferring to sit comfortably and savour cappuccino. Nor have I the fondness for sweet pasticceri that seem to be a national obsession though I was persuaded, on one occasion, to try a little specialita, a cake filled with ricotta. I imagined it would taste of cheese but, in fact, it was so heavily laced with sugar that I had to put it aside and order more coffee to cleanse my palate. I have since noticed that ricotta – a versatile substance – is used universally in all manner of recipes. I suspect it even comprises the main component in the stucco that is applied to most building exteriors – which would explain why it is always falling off.
There are many grand historic buildings in Palermo, so many that it is evidently quite a job to utilise and maintain them all: even some of the enormous churches are closed up. As for the abandoned palazzi built by wealthy families in years gone by, private enterprise has stepped into a few, converting them to hotels, while others await their fate. One of them, Palazzo Mori, remains fully furnished and open to the paying public, in the manner of a British National Trust project, though it is apparently under-funded and could do with a little State aid. But, as an Italian acquaintance once told me, “Italy is a poor country, full of wealthy people” and so it falls to the EU to step in and re-distribute some of its massive wealth to the poorer regions on its fringes. (Wales, Cornwall and other deprived parts of the UK, eat your heart out.)
The museums and galleries that we have visited bear the EU plaques that tell where the money for their establishment came from, as well as those other hallmarks of kick-starter funding – lavish and perfectly executed renovations, staffed by disinterested jobsworths for whom there is no on-going revenue to pay for training. One exception to this was the Galleria d’Arte Moderne, where there is a shop, a cafe and – unusually – a card payment facility. Elsewhere, the typical experience is that admission fees have to be paid in cash – whether or not credit card logos are displayed – and, mysteriously, there is never any change. Payment in cash is a practice so alien now to daily life at home, that I am out of the habit. Nevertheless, even I can work out that if cash is common currency, change should be readily available.
We may go back to Palermo, though it won’t be to look at any more grim paintings of religious devotion and suffering: there is no joy that I can detect in that art form. The glittering gold mosaic interiors of the Palatine Chapel and La Matorana, however, are an exception: they tell the same religious story in an exuberant and visually stimulating fashion that transcends the misery. For now, however, we are in Syracuse, having driven through the mountains on the futuristic autostrada-on-stilts (part-funded by the EU). Our host ushered us into our rental apartment and presented us with a welcome gift – a ricotta cake large enough for a family gathering. “Thank you so much,” I said. “We look forward to eating it later.”