Colorful, decrepit, hectic by day and deserted by night – this is Palermo in a few words.

The buildings in the old city are dilapidated with crumbling stucco and peeled off paint.  Once upon a time they were stately, but at this point, I don’t even know if they could be salvaged.  The new city is composed of mismatched and hastily put together cheap apartment blocks.  This is clearly not a wealthy city, but you already knew that.

Traffic is simply insane by day.  A river of dented beat-up cars congests the main arteries and spills out into the side streets.  Motorbikes shoot out from everywhere and, not being able to squeeze into the two-inch spaces between the cars, zoom onto the sidewalks. At night, both people and cars disappear without a trace, and the streets become eerily deserted – the feeling of forlornness is exacerbated by rows of dark windows – as if no humans populate apartment houses flanking the streets.

But don’t take me wrong, there is some beauty in all of that.  The peeling paint and broken stucco look almost artsy, the cast iron balconies are often exquisite, the windows are tall and elegant, and the front doors are grand.  There is a hundred-year old opera house where the likes of Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas once graced the stage.  The theater is grandiose on the outside and intimate on the inside, and the decor is noble and stately.  The square around the theater is lined with exquisite old buildings, cafes, shops, and shady old trees.

The royal palace has a chapel built in the eleventh century and decorated with lavish mosaics – the colors are bright and vivid, as if they hadn’t seen the 900 years of history.  A stunning carved wooden ceiling somehow survived along with the stone.  It is a miracle the wood did not rot and did not burn since the 11th century.  The cloister garden is peaceful and graceful.

A walk on the streets reveals an old palace here and there or a splendid courtyard – all remnants of the old glory, now gone and forgotten.  Many churches boast splendid exteriors and some facades would look magnificent if ever restored.  

A visit to the catacombs was an eye-opener, – here, an 8000-strong collection of mummies, the youngest being 90, the oldest – over 400 hundred years old, are leaning against or hanging on the walls; some are laid out in their coffins, all of them draped in tattered rags that once were clothes, sporting patches of hair on mostly bold heads, gaping with their mostly toothless mouths – some appear to be smirking, their frozen grins are ghastly and ominous  They are like an army of zombies ready to spring off the walls and march upon the living.  Surely, not for the faint of heart!


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