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Palermo leaves your senses in a daze. There’s the high-pitch chatter of the locals, car drivers honking, the buzz of scooters, the screeching pink of the oleanders that line the boulevards, the sky-blue of a Madonna’s robe in a roadside shrine, and bright colours of washing flapping from the balconies. There’s a surprise around every corner: the pungent aroma of strongcoffee wafting from a bar in an alley, a chapel festooned with mosaics, street signs in mysterious Arabic lettering, or a towering marble statue over a fountain in the piazza – Palermo is truly somewhere where you’ll never be bored.
Located in an old palazzo overlooking the sea, Palermo’s Kursaal Kalhesa is a great place to hang out in the evenings. It’s an eclectic fusion of wine bar, restaurant, concert venue and bookshop, with an open-air terrace in the summer. You can grab a cocktail or sip on some grappa and enjoy the entertainment – it might be live jazz, rock, blues or rockabilly, or a photography show, some traditional theatre, or even a food tasting. And if you just want to kick back in elegant surroundings and enjoy some people-watching, it’s perfect for that too.
Sicilians can spend hours discussing food, debating the sweetness of a tomato or the best way to fillet a sardine. So head to Palermo’s Vucciria market, the concentration of this most important ingredient of local life. Among the hollering stallholders and narrow souk-style alleyways, you’ll be buffeted between the sights and smells of seasonal produce: spicy peppers, writhing snails, blood oranges, salty sea urchins, prickly pear fruit and Etna walnuts. Be adventurous and try some street food like pani c’a meusa – calf spleen served in bread with grated cheese and lemon - gritty in texture, but it tastes better than it sounds.
It’s easy to see how Villa Palagonia – very close to Palermo – earned its nickname: the Villa of Monsters. Studded around its Baroque garden walls, peering through lemon trees, cacti and jasmine, is a menagerie of bizarre stone sculptures. Visitors on the grand tour flock to see Villa Palagonia’s freak show: hunchbacked dwarves, multi-eyed goblins, frowning cherubs and fantastical distorted creatures – the nightmare creation of the Italian villa’s former owner, a disfigured prince who was imprisoned for insanity. Such is the caricatures’ gruesome appearance that local women used to avoid looking at them – afraid their influence might deform their unborn children.