Palermo, a strange and heady mixture of beauty and neglect, is an addictive city. It was occupied over the centuries by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Normans, Spaniards and British, all of whom left traces, not only monuments but via the living legacy of food.
In order to investigate this, I find myself dithering in the local gelateria. Sicilians claim to have invented ice cream and there is abundant choice. Eventually I select pistachio and wild strawberry which I eat as the Palermitans do – in a bun known as a brioscia, mastering as I do the knack of turning, licking and biting to consume it before it drips…
I then set off to find cultural nourishment. In Palermo almost any church you slip into will delight you, for however dingy the exterior, there will be marvels to behold inside. The Oratorio del Rosario is one such. Oratories were built by aristocrats adjacent to churches in order to gather, pray and do charitable work. This one contains exquisite figures by Giacomo Serpotta, the greatest of all stuccodores.
Coming to Palermo’s most famous market, Vucciria I see and smell the wealth of food this fertile island produces: zucchini three feet long, the tiniest pears you’ve ever seen, barrels of minute snails, bundles of herbs, glittering arrays of fresh fish, sheep’s heads, aubergines and artichokes of every size.
Not far away I find the Antica Focacceria San Francesco with its period interior – it claims to be the oldest pizzeria in Sicily. Sicilian pizza, sfincione however, is very different from the crispy Neapolitan kind being thicker and oilier.
More to my taste are the Sicilian dolci and so in the afternoon I stroll to the top of corso Vittorio Emmanuele where some of the most important Arab-Norman buildings in the city are clustered; the Cathedral, the Palazzo dei Normani converted by Roger II from a ninth century Arab castle, the Capella Palatina with its glittering mosaics and the romantic cloisters and gardens of the church San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
In fact though, I am heading for a gem of the gastronomic kind. Hidden in an unprepossessing street just a few minutes from Porta Nouva is the fabulous Pasticceria Cappello. Here, award- winning pastry chef Salvatore Cappello has been creating refined pastries since the 1950s. It is a pleasurable experience to sit outside in the sunshine enjoying an espresso and his famous 7 strati, a mousse cake consisting of seven layer of different types of chocolate.
At the flea market held in Piazza Marina on Sunday mornings, I find real bargains among the antique and vintage clothes covering every inch of the pavements. Another ‘must’ is a performance at Teatro Massimo, famous as the site of the climax of the film Godfather III but which offers an unrivalled opportunity to see Palermitans showing off their finery. A very special destination.