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Population: 667,000
Name: The Greeks called it Panormus (‘complete port’); later the Arabs named it ‘Bal’harm’
History: Colonised by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Byzantines and Habsburgs
Residents: Palermitans
Average hours of sunshine per day in summer: 10

Francesco Giambrone, the diminutive director of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, stands on the viewing platform perched on top of the building to look out over his city. The Sicilian capital sits in a natural bowl, surrounded by a ring of rocky hills, and faces east across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards mainland Italy. The decadent neoclassical opera house affords a perfect vantage point for seeing just how low-slung the city is; only one or two other buildings rise up to its 60-metre height. “This is the best place to see Palermo,” says Giambrone, squinting against the setting Mediterranean sun. “On this side it’s beautiful,” he says pointing south; then, turning around, “On this side, horrible.”

He isn’t wrong. The view southwards looks out over the uneven, dilapidated yet immensely charming skyline of the historic centre; the otherworldly, faded crimson domes of medieval Arab-Norman churches stand huddled close to grand palazzos erected in the 18th century. Facing north, the picture is utterly different: countless cheap, essentially identical apartment blocks, seemingly thrown up in a hurry with no thought given to design. The banality and ugliness on display here stand in stark contrast to the beauty of the Old City. “Il Saco di Palermo,” says Giambrone, shaking his head.

The story of the Sack of Palermo, as it’s known, is key to understanding the character and shape of the city. It is the name given to the period after the Second World War when the mafia – that unwanted child of Sicily – became heavily involved in Palermo’s lucrative property market. Damage done to the historic centre by the Allies as they tore across the island on their way through Mussolini’s Italy, combined with a postwar influx of people from rural areas, put severe pressure on urban housing. Aided by corrupt politicians, mafiosi leapt at the chance to make a quick buck and managed to stoke an unprecedented construction boom.

Palermo’s shape and skyline was, in the space of a few short decades, altered forever. The fragrant orange and lemon groves to the north of the city, collectively known as the Conca d’Oro or “Golden Shell”, were dug up. Nineteenth-century villas in the Liberty style (Italy’s answer to art nouveau) were razed to make room for more apartments. At the same time, middle-class and wealthy residents moved out from among the rubble into the smart yet soulless apartments of New Palermo, leaving the historic centre virtually abandoned. The Old City’s population shrank from about 200,000 in 1945 to just 50,000 in 1974, an exodus that occurred while the city as a whole was growing. Those left behind were the poorest members of society and immigrants. For decades, Palermo’s historic centre was forgotten and ignored.

The Sack of Palermo is the most obvious way in which the mafia has moulded the city and today its effects are still palpable. Wandering around the four districts of the historic centre – Vucciria, Kalsa, Ballarò and Capo – it’s easy to forget that you’re in a western European country. The daily street market of Ballarò is where the neighbourhood’s residents pick up their groceries, along with hunks of fresh swordfish and ruby-red tuna. The locals sifting through the goods on offer are African men, Bangladeshi women wearing headscarves and chivvying their children along, and even the odd elderly Chinese couple.

It is a quirk unique to Palermo that some of the city’s poorest inhabitants live surrounded by its most remarkable historic architecture. The bustle here proceeds oblivious to the crumbling edifice of a baroque church above the canopy of makeshift awnings. And crumbling is the operative word: half the buildings in the Old City appear to be moments away from collapse. Every external surface shaded from the bleaching sun is stained grey-brown with decades of filth. It still feels a little forgotten and ignored.

Yet after years of neglect, Palermitan’s are starting to move back to the historic centre from New Palermo. Ennio Pellicanò’s family had lived in a typical old palazzo on Kalsa’s Via Maqueda since the end of the 18th century but in the late 1970s his father joined the flight to New Palermo. “There was no process of restoration or development in the old town so like many middle-class and aristocratic families, he decided to leave,” says Pellicanò. In 2013 he retraced his father’s footsteps and returned to the family’s building, the Palazzo Mondini, to establish a boutique hotel.

“Living in the Old City is a new experience every day – even for me, a Palermitan,” says Pellicanò. “It’s not the chicest part of the city but it’s interesting because of the mix of people. I now see lots of young people moving back to the historic centre for the culture, for the urban landscape and because it’s become cool to live in an old palazzo.”

This trickle of pioneering young Palermitans filtering back into the Old City is a clear sign that the Sicilian capital is putting its recent history, the darker decades of the second half of the 20th century, behind it. But the battle to reclaim Palermo’s identity is one that’s being fought simultaneously on many fronts, from culture to business to politics.

On the gritty frontline of this fight are anti-mafia organisations such as Addio Pizzo, which encourages consumers to support businesses that refuse to pay protection money (the pizzo). Set up by seven friends in 2004, it harnessed the shift in public opinion that occurred in the decade after 1992 (the year the mafia brutally assassinated two high-profile magistrates).

It was a dangerous venture at first. “For a few months, we met in secret all over the city and changed location every week,” says Ermes Riccobono, who joined the movement in its infancy. “We were scared and basically improvising but the group grew quickly.”

From the outset the founders realised that the only way to convince business owners to sign up to the campaign was to create a market. “In 2005 we collected more than 3,000 signatures of people who said they were ready to support shops that didn’t pay pizzo; we then took this list door-to-door to shopkeepers,” says Riccobono. Within a year 100 shops and businesses had signed up; today there are 1,000 across Palermo. And although the team is still cautious, their links with the police have kept mafia intimidation largely at bay.

Sitting on a sofa in the gloomy office of Addio Pizzo, the wall above him plastered with newspaper clippings documenting the arrests of hundreds of mafiosi, Riccobono explains the impact that his organisation has had on the Cosa Nostra or “Our Thing”, as the mafia is known here. “The pizzo system is weak and the mafia is getting weaker,” he says. But he’s also aware that the struggle is ongoing. “They are so deep inside the social tissue and they are changing as the economy changes – the mafia is now involved in human trafficking, for instance.”

Addio Pizzo’s office is a sign of how much has already been achieved. “This apartment belonged to a mafia boss and was seized by the police,” says Riccobono, striding about the room. “They were storing muggled cigarettes in this room; there were bars across the windows and the front door was reinforced steel.” There’s poetic justice in the fact that this property, once owned by the all-powerful mafia, now houses the very people who are eroding that power.

Across town in the mayor’s office in Palazzo delle Aquile, another symbolic displacement has occurred. Leoluca Orlando, the city’s centre-left mayor, seated at his desk in the majestic marble palace, hammers on the arms of his chair: “In this place where I’m sitting now were friends of the mafia boss. For 100 years the mafia not just dominated but formally governed Palermo.

Mayor Orlando has been battling to turn the city around for more than three decades. When he was voted in as mayor in 2012 it was the third time he had held the position after two previous stints starting in 1985. Then he was known for his brave stance against what was a violent and highly influential mafia.

Orlando is keen to shift the narrative away from one focused on criminality and towards a new identity for the Sicilian capital, embracing both the city’s colourful history and the modern world. The mayor describes Palermo as “a Middle Eastern city in Europe” and history supports his claim: at one time or another the Phoenicians, Arabs from North Africa and the Byzantines all colonised Sicily. In the 21st century, that heritage can make Palermo, as Orlando puts it, “Beirut with a tram, Istanbul with car-sharing, Tripoli with bike-sharing”.

As this vision suggests, Orlando’s administration is investing in transport and infrastructure. He has sought to pedestrianise main thoroughfares in the Old City and is overseeing a plan to create a rail link from the airport to the city centre. Palermo also has Italy’s only car-sharing scheme south of Florence and has the biggest fleet of shareable vehicles in the entire country.

Another of Orlando’s central policies focuses on opening the city to outsiders: refugees and economic migrants (“For me there is no difference”) as well as tourists. Like many islands in the Mediterranean, Sicily has seen an influx of refugees from northern Africa over the past decade; Orlando wants to welcome them. Culture is proving a useful sphere in which to promote this message of tolerance. Andrea Cusumano, the culture secretary drafted in by Orlando, has sanctioned an exhibition for photographer Mustafa Sabbagh in the Zac, the city’s new arts space. Sabbagh’s Made in Italy, a series of portraits of Italian boys from various ethnic backgrounds, is part of the new narrative. “Palermo is a migrant city,” says Orlando. “It’s not a painting: it’s a mosaic made up of different stones of different colours and dimensions.”

As his poetic flourish illustrates, the mayor is not above a bit of showmanship. Asked during our meeting to pose for a portrait, he adopts an attitude reminiscent of marble sculptures of Cicero in the Forum: leaning forwards on the balls of his feet, one hand raised mid-gesticulation, lips slightly parted, ready to pronounce. As a former actor, he has a fondness for rhetoric and a keen sense of theatre.

For some his return to power in 2012 was troubling. “I thought it was the wrong choice,” says Enrico Del Mercato, who runs the Sicilian bureau of national newspaper La Repubblica. “Now I think he’s done well for the city. But that’s not a good thing: it shows that in more than 20 years we haven’t found another politician who can run Palermo.”

Del Mercato sits at his desk in front of a wall-mounted map of Sicily in La Repubblica’s office, the archetypal disorderly newspaper bureau. He explains that aside from an influx of migrants and the ongoing struggle against the mafia, the biggest challenge facing Sicily today is its finances. “The Sicilian economy used to be based on public jobs and public money,” he says. “They have now cut these resources to control the public debt. This is an opportunity.”

Tourism, he says, is the standout sector that is ripe for development and investment, particularly with once-popular North African destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia now considered too dangerous. But the green economy – in the form of wind and solar power – is also an area that he believes the island could invest in. “The Sicilian people used to think that they could only work with public money – now we can reinvent ourselves and our economy.”

One man who is doing more than most to reinvent Sicily’s economy is Ugo Parodi Giusino. The headquarters of his company Mosaicoon, a digital marketplace connecting brands with videographers, are a studied recreation of the quintessential Silicon Valley start-up. The cavernous building, once a furniture showroom, has been stripped back to create a post-industrial aesthetic; the space is dotted with beanbags and sofas for employees to lounge on with their MacBooks and there are internal glass walls festooned with Post-it notes and scribbled “mind maps”.

Giusino is the fresh-faced entrepreneur who founded Mosaicoon in 2010. He is looking particularly sunny today because his business has just closed the biggest round of venture-capital funding in recent years in the whole of Italy, totalling €8m. Although he admits that it’s sometimes difficult getting things done in Palermo, the 34-year-old believes it’s more about attitude than aptitude. “Part of the problem is that Sicilians tend to think things aren’t possible; it’s the role of my generation to show that they are, to have a new attitude that is about positivity and success.” He practices what he preaches: while his firm has resolutely remained headquartered in Isola delle Femmine up the coast from Palermo, it has recently added outposts in Seoul, New Delhi and Singapore to its global network and employs 80 people worldwide.

Where many would view Mosaicoon’s location – outside the capital city of an island in the middle of the Mediterranean – as a hindrance, Giusino believes its isolation is a boon. “Being in Sicily is an advantage: you have lower costs, one of the best climates in Europe and a higher quality of life. Some people work all year just for one week on the beach; we can work all year on the beach and then spend one week in a big city.”

This is not something to underestimate. While Palermo is changing in so many ways, it remains a wonderful place to live. Joining the bank holiday crowds at Mondello, the beachside community 30 minutes’ drive from the centre of town, reveals why people from mainland Italy and further afield still find themselves spellbound by Palermo. The sun beats down on fine white sand and glittering clear water, not to mention the pecan-coloured bodies of Palermitans playing volleyball and dozing on the beach. To escape the heat they amble over to a rudimentary stand, where a man with a jovial, rotund face is making granita: cups of ice shavings laced with sugary fruit syrup.

“It’s so beautiful with the mountains and the sea; I’ve been here two years and I still love it,” says Argentinean Agostina Moroni, reclining in a deckchair on the private beach of windsurfing club Albaria. She moved to Sicily from Buenos Aires with her boyfriend, a footballer for Palermo FC, and lives in a villa in Mondello.

Penning Sicily in 1886, the French writer Guy de Maupassant summed up the island’s charm: “Sicily is a landscape in which one finds absolutely everything which on this earth seems to have been made to seduce the eyes, the soul and the imagination.” If he were less of a poet he might have mentoned the stomach too. The quality of life that Palermitans enjoy is enhanced no end by the exceptional Sicilian cuisine, from pasta dishes such as penne alla Norma to fresh fish and seafood, as well as rustic street-food delicacies such as pani ca meusa, stigghiole and arancini.

Another crucial ingredient in Palermo’s charm is the city’s ignorance of its unique qualities. It has all the assets of a great city: a vibrant centre, beaches and nature on its doorstep; delicious food, a relaxed approach to life and centuries of ineffable history written into its architecture. But crucially, visitors never feel these aspects are being sold to them. Mosaicoon’s Giusino expresses it as only a technology entrepreneur can: “In Palermo we’re not monetising everything you see like some other cities.”

What makes a trip to Palermo particularly enchanting now, however, is that Palermitans themselves are finally realising how exceptional their home is. A new generation is rediscovering its love of the city’s beauty, rich history and culture, along with its idiosyncrasies, imperfections and flaws. Because like the view from the top of the Teatro Massimo, there are two sides to Palermo: one dark and troubled, the other open and exhilarating. Today, thankfully, the latter is holding sway.


PALERMO DIRECTORY

The pick of the city’s best spots in which to eat, sleep and enjoy your ‘passeggiata’.

Stay

N38E13: Ennio Pellicanò’s boutique B&B on the edge of the old Arab quarter, La Kalsa, is housed across one floor of a typical palazzo. Pellicanò has used the venture to support the city’s creative types, furnishing the rooms with locally designed tables and stools and covering the walls with works by Palermo artists.
7 Via Maqueda
+39 347 887 7794
n38e13.com

Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes: If you’d prefer to stay somewhere that reflects the grandeur of old Palermo, your best bet is the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes, which dates back to 1874. The decor is all marble floors and wooden furniture but an update of the bar and restaurant has ensured that the place isn’t shabby.
398 Via Roma
+39 091 602 8111
grandhotel-et-des-palmes.com

Eat

Gigi Mangia: Situated on a charming pedestrianised street, Gigi Mangia was opened in 1989 and is a favoured venue of Palermo’s high society. Still run by the ebullient Gigi, it’s our pick for a convivial evening meal. Try the spaghetti with pistachio pesto, mussels and prawns.
104 Via Principe di Belmonte
+39 091 587 651
gigimangia.com

Pizzeria Tondo: Dario Genova went on many a research trip to Naples, the spiritual home of pizza, before setting up in his native Palermo. The space is simple but the pizzas are hands down the best in the city. We recommend a La Regina.
Corner of  Via Principe Granatelli
and  Via Principe di Scordia
+39 091 328 254
pizzeriatondo.com

Bisso Bistrot: Located in a converted former bookshop, Bisso Bistrot is a family-run affair that was founded by Dario Bisso. It has become a preferred haunt of the fashionable set who are rediscovering the city’s historic centre, serving simple pasta dishes and good wine by the glass.
172A Via Maqueda
+39 328 131 4595

Antica Foccaceria San Francesco: Dating back to 1834, this Vucciria institution is on every itinerary with good reason. The marble interior houses both a restaurant serving traditional Sicilian dishes and a rosticceria where you can pick up pastries late into the night.
58 Via Alessandro Paternostro
+39 091 320 264
anticafocacceria.it

Bars

Bar Garibaldi: You’ll often see crowds spilling out from this small space onto the pedestrianised alley leading towards Piazza della Torretta. The nightlife in Palermo starts late so Garibaldi doesn’t get properly busy until after 22.00.
46 Via Alessandro Paternostro
+39 329 855 2192
bargaribaldi.it

Taverna Azzura: A stone’s throw from Bar Garibaldi, this bar is another Vucciria institution and a favourite spot for the neighbourhood’s artistic types. It’s not pretty but it buzzes into the small hours.
15 Discesa Maccheronai

Cafés

Cioccolateria da Lorenzo: Many guides will tell you to head to the quaint but touristy Antico Caffe Spinnato on Via Principe di Belmonte. We prefer to breakfast at this hidden gem in Kalsa serving scrumptious pastries.
7 Via IV Aprile
+39 091 784 0864

Shopping

Vuedu Factory: Daniela Vinciguerra and Antonella Sgrò converted a former bar into a retail space to showcase clothing, homeware and art alongside items designed by Vinciguerra.
32 Via Sperlinga
+39 091 331 943
vuedu.it

Culture

Galleria Francesco Pantaleone: This two-floor art gallery, arguably the city’s best, was designed by architect Claudia Fiore and hosts four exhibitions per year.
303 Via Vittorio Emanuele
+39 091 332 482
fpac.it

Zac: This impressive gallery is the main attraction in a former industrial district. Now called the Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, the area is being turned into the city’s foremost cultural district.
4 Via Paolo Gili
+39 918 431 605

Getting around

Beware the taxi: Catching them can be tricky in Palermo: people tend not to hail them on the street and there are only a few ranks (such as at Teatro Massimo). Either walk to one of these or get the number of a reliable driver from your hotel concierge.

Capella Palatina: Palermo’s Arab-Norman architecture is the result of the extraordinary interaction between Normans who colonised Sicily in the 1060s and the Arab settlers of the preceding centuries. This is the most impressive example.

Open spaces

Foro Italia: For a coastal city, Palermo has somewhat turned its back on the sea – but the Foro Italico is one exception. The large, green area abutting the sea on the edge of the historic centre is used by Palermitans for sport, lounging and the passeggiatta.

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