On Tuesday (14 July), we rode to Palermo. At first, we enjoyed the Madonie Mountains to the south. Then the road became rather uninteresting, as one industrial suburb followed another. We probably should have jumped on a train, but by the time we realized that, we had passed the last station before the capital. Nevertheless, we were both glad to ride into this amazing city. I had always wanted to visit Palermo, and Cheryl was looking forward to showing me some of its beautiful sights.
After we checked into the Hotel Posta, I received an email from booking.com that the landlord in Cefalu had reported us as no-shows. That was a surprise, but also a warning for me. I surmised that the owner was simply trying to avoid paying booking.com their 18% commission. I wrote back that we had paid cash at his request, and that the Finance Guard could certainly look into it, because the landlord was required to keep a copy of the tax receipt for their inspection. I heard no more about it, but I came away with the lesson learned: save your paper receipts whenever you pay cash for your accommodations (or any other large purchase, for that matter).
Some special surprises awaited us in Palermo. For one, we finally broke our curse of showing up too late for the parish festival. We arrived in Palermo the day before Santa Rosalia, which is arguably the biggest parish festival outside of Rome. Two days of fireworks, processions, street festivals, civic and cultural events – everything that one could possibly associate with a major national and religious holiday happens during Santa Rosalia. We watched the procession of the tomb of the patron saint of the city, gawked at the unbelievable fireworks, ate delicious street food, and wore ourselves out in the crowds.
For another, Palermo has five open-air markets, each specializing in a particular area: clothing, fish, vegetables, etc. Cheryl photographed them in all their bustling activity. We ended up near the Teatro Massimo opera house, a jewel of 19th century architecture. Its new half-English director, Jan Latham Koenig, had recently brought it out of bankruptcy, and work was everywhere, fixing it up. I would like to have gone to the opera there, but the season would not start for two months.
We followed all five Michelin-recommended walking tours, with one marvel after another impressing us. Corner shrines to Santa Rosalia, poor families sharing lunch in the shadow of the opulent cathedral, large department stores, cloisters and churches, cool city parks and choking main streets – all these created a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and smells that both bedazzled and tortured the senses.
I especially liked the mosaics in the Palatine Chapel of the Royal Apartments. A wedding would be taking place soon, so we were ushered through quickly. The wedding party showed up while we were standing by the exit of the palace. It looked like a fashion show. So many “beautiful people.” After they passed in review, we saw a well-heeled couple arrive late, looking flustered and rushed. I was able to direct them to the correct entrance for the wedding party, a few meters away. Some days I get a kick passing for a local in a place I’ve never been.
We devoted a day to Monreale, the summer retreat of the kings of Sicily. You can read about it yourself, or put it on your bucket list (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monreale). The simplest way to visit Monreale is to take a bus from Palermo. Let someone else do the driving, and don’t bother biking up the hills. Cheryl told me that the mosaics in Palermo were just a warm-up for Monreale. She was right. The mosaics in the Cathedral easily surpassed any Byzantine-style mosaics that I had ever seen (I have not visited Ravenna, but that is another story). These mosaics consist of polished glass, rather than stones. Monreale displays a different type of mosaic from the painting-like pictures of the Vatican Mosaic Factory, and both places stand at the top of their respective genres.
I began to appreciate that the summer heat was increasing, particularly when I saw the local four-footed residents in Monreale trying to cope. Thank goodness, Palermo has some of the best gelato in the world.
Much as we would have liked to, we could not stay in Palermo. On Friday, 17 July, we made our way to Trapani, which was an adventure in itself. We had hoped to stop at Segesta, the three-star Greek temple between Palermo and Trapani, but the road proved too long. With sundown threatening to find us in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at the train station in Castellammare del Golfo, where two other groups awaited the train to Trapani. When the train was more than an hour late, we began to wonder if we were stranded. Notices posted around the station warned that the next day, the line would be discontinued for rail work that would last all summer. What if they had stopped running the trains early? Sicily is notorious for unreliable train service. I called my colleague Vanessa in Milano, because her in-laws were from Trapani. In fact, they had offered to rent me a villino when I was looking for an apartment. She mobilized her family to come rescue us, and to see if there were a place that we could stay near where we were. While the rescue operation was being planned, a train showed up completely off schedule. Maybe it was the last train. I called Vanessa to turn off the rescue mission, and Cheryl booked us a B&B in Trapani. We only rode 75 km, but after the emotional and physical excitement of the day, we were grateful to fall asleep in clean sheets.
The next day, we visited a town that I had been looking forward to since starting the planning last winter: Erice. This impregnable medieval city sits high above the northwest corner of Sicily. It has completely devoted itself to tourism, but seems very livable, thanks to the regular cable car service from the northern part of Trapani. I had run out of superlatives for all these Michelin-recommended sights in Sicily. I only knew now that there were more of them ahead, and that I might as well stop trying to rank them. From the town of Erice we could see far across the Mediterranean in one direction, and out toward Segesta in the other. While I took in the beauty of the view, I also recalled with some emotion those history lessons about Hamilcar, Gaius Duilius and the Punic Wars. One has to visit these towns to appreciate the incredible challenge of warfare in the classical age. Erice would remain unassailable until the invention of the airplane. It was also charming, so it did not surprise us to see a wedding in one of the stone medieval churches, then to see the wedding party posing for photographs around town. It has fantastic backdrops for a memorable wedding album.
After coming down from Erice, we visited the city of Trapani itself. We enjoyed walking along the bulwarks of the port and the streets of the old town. I had always wanted to visit this jewel of western Sicily since watching the Montalbano detective series on TV. Trapani did not disappoint.
That night, we figured out how to finish our trip around Sicily without backtracking to Palermo or Messina. There is essentially no rail service into the interior. We put together a plan that used our bicycles to fill in the blanks in the railroads. We were about to find out personally why one does not visit Sicily on a bicycle in July.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds