“I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people. Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof. Italians park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
The breakfast room at the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes was large and spacious and to get there it was necessary to walk through the expansive public areas and here it was possible to appreciate fully the grand scale of the place. It was the sort of hotel with a lot of staff with their own special jobs to do including one man in a smart waiter’s suit whose only real task seemed to be to be available to operate the hot water and coffee machine. Actually he wasn’t especially good at that because he kept disappearing for long periods that always seem to coincide with refill time.
It was our intention that we would take a bus to the coastal town of Mondello a short way out of Palermo so once again we had to walk to the bus terminal at the train station at the other end of Via Roma. The city was busy today on account of there being an important festival planned for later this evening and the streets were filling up quickly with people.
About half way down Via Roma stands the huge city post office which was designed by Angiolo Mazzoni Del Grande, whom we had first become acquainted with at the post office in Pula in Croatia. His public buildings are iconic features of Italy and they have an impressive functional design and layout that makes them a pleasing monument to the fascist era.
Via Roma is an interesting street because it is a major arterial route through the city that was constructed in 1900 as part of a city improvement programme and is constantly busy with traffic, but there is a peculiar absence of road markings and traffic control that makes the traffic arrangements at the Arc de Triomph in Paris seem sensible.
At the many junctions without traffic lights there is a general free for all with cars and buses competing with motorbikes and horse drawn carriages for occupation of the tarmac in various displays of driving bravado. He who hesitates here is clearly lost and it isn’t easy being a pedestrian either because crossing from one side to the other would probably be included in a modern day twelve labours of Hercules.
“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!” – John Steinbeck
Despite this lack of arrangements for pedestrians the local Palermitani, who know how it works simply step off of the pavement apparently oblivious to the flow of traffic and simply wander across displaying an impressive confidence that the traffic will slow to let them pass without mowing them down. And it seems to work quite well, so well indeed that as we became more self-assured we even tried it ourselves. And survived!
If the normal rules of driving do not apply here then the normal rules associated with parking definitely are completely irrelevant. But it does look like great fun. At the Piazza San Domenico on the Via Roma there was a small and hopelessly inadequate car park surrounding a fountain that was full of impatient drivers looking for non-existing parking spaces, blowing their horns, waving their arms and shouting at each other in that classic Italian driving style. There was double and even triple parking and almost every car had minor accident damage as a result. I certainly wouldn’t like to park my car there.
Just behind the busy main road was a network of narrow streets that was home to the busy street food market that had a very North African disposition with products on untidy display and where the standards of hygiene to which we are accustomed seemed dangerously lacking. Especially so at the meat and fish stalls where butchers and fishmongers were preparing cuts and fillets accompanied by swarms of flies and other insects and pigeons foraging amongst the offal that was falling to the pavement below.
The African influence is hardly surprising because Sicily is only a hundred miles or so from the coast of Tunisia and after Andalusia in Spain is one of the closest parts of Europe to North Africa. The place had real character though with traders shouting to attract customers, shoppers pushing and shoving and everyone keeping a watchful eye out for the scooters that regularly picked their way through the pedestrian throng with little regard for personal safety or that of those around them either.
At the other end of the market there was a very poor area with streets of buildings all in various states of disrepair. Some of the damage here goes back as far as the Second-World-War when Palermo suffered greatly during the Allied invasion of 1943 and lack of finance, Government corruption and the influence of the Mafia has in some areas restricted the process of rebuilding and regeneration.
What was surprising was that in some of these part derelict buildings there were clearly family apartments with people living in quite appalling conditions, their occupation of inadequate accommodation given away by the laundry left to dry over rusting balcony railings and from washing lines stretched out randomly across the streets.
Other Market stories:
Varvakios Agora, Athens