Palermo II: The City Below

The Goddess Looks Away

In a city with almost no working street lights, where filthy dogs lie in the sun on their bloated, wormy sides, we go in search of something—a park to eat our lunches. We never find it.

How this happens in a city planned out on four deliberate quadrants, the main streets dividing them as though they’d been hacked apart with a knife, we have no idea. But we manage it anyway, even with a map and a compass. The map only names half the streets. The compass somehow gets scrambled. We realize these things all at once, and it feels as though Palermo is conspiring to bamboozle us, using the smells of rotting fish and car exhaust as aides.

We walk South with assurance, only to realize half an hour later that we’ve actually been walking West, and well beyond the boundaries of the old city. We adjust our itinerary and try to go North, abandoning the idea of the park, hoping to at least get to a place that exists on our map. We do, but we head East without knowing it and end up in the place we started, a square bookended by two enormous dry fountains, the mouths of the stone heads spouting nothing but air, the basins below filled with bags of garbage.

Starving and having given up on the park, we sit on the steps in front of another dry fountain that’s surrounded by a 6-foot iron fence. The statues—the whole pantheon of gods—watch as we unwrap our sandwiches and green olives. I lean back against a hooded stone lion, his tail curved neatly around his flank. Someone has spray painted something across his hip.

The scooters and cars rush by, the drivers swinging their heads around as though we are the attraction, the only thing around worth seeing.

Go there: The piazza where we stopped to eat, with its dry baroque fountain, is the Piazza Pretoria. It’s right near the Quattro Canti, Palermo’s geographical center.

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