Are you a "glass half full" or a "glass half empty" kind of person?
I think that your opinion on Sicily will pretty much answer that question for you. I like to think of myself as somebody who is able to look on the bright side of things, and to me, Sicily was beautiful. However, it was definitely also quite gritty. Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into all that garbage and graffiti and browse though some of my favorite examples of Sicilian street art.
Seriously, nothing can prepare you for how creepy this place is... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I'll start from the beginning. The Capuchin Catacombs are always placed highly on people's lists of things to do and see in Palermo, and it's easy to see why. It's just SO outrageous! Before we dive into this article, I've got some serious explaining to do, because you are sure to have questions. I know that for me, the biggest question I had in all of this was just "why." Why does this place exist?
Buckle in, kids!
In the last article, we covered a lot of ground. I was a little out of breath by the time I finished writing it! But Palermo deserves to have some serious time spent, just taking it in, exploring. So now that you've been brought fully up to speed on the many historic layers of this city, I want to take a deep dive with you and just get out on the streets of Palermo.
Are you ready for a big dose of Sicily’s capital city?
Prior to actually coming here, I had heard mostly negative reviews of Palermo. After traveling through the rest of Italy, people love to dish about how dirty Palermo is. And Bourdain's episode on Sicily painted Palermo with similarly discouraging colors. People also brought up the Mafia a lot when discussing Palermo, alluding to connections between the systemic corruption of government and the poor up-keep of the streets. A few weeks out, I was sort of expecting Palermo to be a dump, but then I had an Italian friend rave about how much she loves this city, describing it as 'decaying and decadent.' This put my expectations on par with Havana, Cuba, and that made me really excited!
I should start by telling you that Gangi (pronounced "gan-chee") isn't *technically* a ghost town. It's actually trying REALLY hard not to be. In an effort to revitalize this town, the mayor of Gangi decided to start selling the vacant houses to outside investors for €1.00 a piece. This insane bargain comes with 1 string attached: that you will spend no less than 35,000 EUR (43,212-ish USD) to fix up the house within 5 years. Yes, this is 100% true, and if you want to, you really could buy one of these houses right now. Mull it over as you read this article.
Just south of Messina, this gorgeous Sicilian town sits on the edge of a mountain, looking out over the Ionian Sea towards Calabria. It's population is just over 11,000, but it gets vastly more tourists every month. Indeed, Taormina has been a fashionable travel destination for a few hundred years now. Yes, you read that right—we're talking centuries of tourism here.
Just 2 hours south from Catania, down the eastern coast of Sicily, sits a the city of Siracusa (a.k.a. Syracuse). You may recognize this name from history books about the very distant past. Syracuse makes appearances in tales and legends that stemmed from a great many famous Empires over the course of Mediterranean history, most notably the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. Oh, and it makes a cameo appearance in the Bible. It was described by early Roman officials as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all."
Suffice to say, this place has some serious history behind it. Are you ready to see what’s going on in 2018?
If you want to come here, it's very important that you know that this happens exactly at sunrise. If you really want to catch this place in action, it's best to get there before 7:00am. The first time I attempted to come here, I slept in and showed up at 7:45-ish, and it was mostly over. I got some decent pictures, but it was clear that things were winding down. It was frustrating. The next day I set my alarm for the TRUE butt-crack of dawn, and got here before the sun rose.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily. The population of Catania proper is about 320,000, but there are a combined 1.1 million people who live in the metro area. In Italy overall, Catania is the 10th biggest city, and the 7th largest metro area. This is a major population center for Sicily, second only to Palermo, which will be our last stop on this trip. Catania is not the most well-known place, but it's definitely not small either. It's actually really big, especially by Sicilian standards. But Catania's burgeoning population should be surprising. This isn't exactly prime real estate.
Why? Because of Mount Etna.
We arrived at the foot of Via della Conciliazione in later afternoon. The sky was gray, and the air held a cold moisture. We followed the masses of people up the road towards the giant stone gates. On either side of these gates, giant Roman columns stretched off endlessly. These marked the border between Italy and Vatican City. Perched on either side of the entrance were Italian military outposts manned by heavily armed but very bored-looking soldiers.
Crossing into Piazza San Pietro, though an international boundary, was decidedly anti-climactic. However, what we found on the other side of this plaza blew us away.