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palermo's street markets
hidden treasures that delight the senses

by Laura Del Rosso
(return to Sicily)

The taxi driver wove through the tangled traffic of modern Palermo, then along the waterfront and finally through the ancient part of the city, all the way listing sites to see: the Palazzo dei Normanni with its beautiful mosaics, the Cathedral once used as a mosque by the Arabs and the Teatro Massimo, the city�s grand opera house.

Then we caught a glimpse of narrow streets full of people, thousands of little dancing lights and red-orange canopies over stalls of fruits and vegetables.

�Il Mercato della Vucciria,� the driver pointed.

The sight of those colorful alleyways stayed vivid in my mind and, the next morning, I decided to leave the must-see attractions of Palermo for later and make the Vucciria my first stop. It was a 10-minute walk from my hotel (the Villa Archirafi on Via Lincoln, a clean, attractive two-star hotel), to the half mile of winding streets near Piazza San Domenico that make up Palermo�s historic street market.

Vucciria was in full gear at 10 a.m. and the smell of fish and spices was in the air, along with the sounds of fishmongers hawking their catch. Stall after stall sold mountains of glorious shiny eggplants, long-stemmed artichokes, slabs of swordfish, rounds of caciocavallo cheese and mounds of ricotta, dozens of spices, blood oranges and other luscious fruit. Other stalls spilled with preserved vegetables, dried fruit and regional specialties such as panelle (chickpea fritters) to nibble on. Smoke rose from grills lined with octopus and squid, which were slapped on warm fresh bread for take-away snacks.

As I made my way through the alleys, I sampled some of the specialties of the friggitorie, the little fry shops that dipped bread crumb-coated eggplant and other vegetables in hot oil. I had an arancine, the fried rice balls that are filled with cheese and ground beef, and sampled the fare of an olive seller who spoke at length about his dozens of types of olives, which he swore were the best in Sicily.

An Arab Past...
The frantic atmosphere and the smells and sounds that filled the air were more reminiscent of the casbahs of Morocco and Cairo than of modern Italy.

In fact, the market is a relic of Sicily�s Arab past, located in a neighborhood built by the island�s Arab rulers in the first half of the 10th century as the seat of their government and army. It later became the center of life for Palermo fishermen and sailors because of its proximity to the port. During World War II, the neighborhood was heavily bombed and the evidence remains in crumbling buildings.

More Street Markets
Vucciria is Palermo�s most famous street market, but not the smallest. The city�s other major markets, Ballaro and Capo, sprawl along the narrow alleys of the south side of the city, just about a 10-minute walk away from Vucciria. They are just as colorful and delightful to explore.

As I squeezed my way through the crowds, I soon found not all the goods for sale at the markets are sumptuous produce and food products. There are plenty of stalls loaded with inexpensive pots and pans, kitchen utensils and packages of socks and underwear.

Inspirational Scenes
But it is the food that enlivens the senses. In her book �Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Siclian Food,� Mary Taylor Simeti, a cookbook author and American who has lived in Sicily for decades, gives a vivid description:

�The markets of Capo, Vucciria and Ballaro are still a motley jumble of dry goods, housewares and foodstuffs - heaps of green and black olives, sacks of dried peas and chickpeas, sides of pork and milk lambs still in their wool, entrails and whole beef livers hanging from hooks, yellow nets filled with mussels and clams, pink shrimp and rosy mullets arranged on beds of dark-green seaweed, mackerel and sardines glinting turquoise and silver, whole swordfish pointing skyward, vegetables in stalls glowing red and yellow and green.�
The markets inspired others to write even more lavish and sensuous descriptions. D.H. Lawrence, in the book �Sea and Sardinia,� wrote in 1921 of the markets:
�How the dark, greasy night-stricken street seems to beam with these vegetables, all this fresh, delicate flesh of luminous vegetables piled there in the air, and in the recesses of the windowless little caverns of the shops, and gleaming forth on the dark air, under the lamps.�
Hidden Treasures
My two guidebooks for Sicily had little information on street markets. When I returned home to the U.S., I spoke with Dawn Bosco, who runs Amelia International, a tour company in Hicksville, N.Y. that specializes in Sicily. Bosco said it is unfortunate that travelers often miss the markets because many people who visit them - particularly foodies with a big interest in locally produced food - are enchanted by the Palermo street scene.

�They are considered the best food markets of Europe because Sicily has an abundance of the best quality vegetables, fruit and fish in the Meditteranean,� Bosco said.

see also...
* Palermo's Street Markets
* Direct from Sicily
* Fire of Mount Etna
* Bella Sicilia!
* Savor This!
*Stranger in a Strange Land
* Sicilian Cooking
* Sicily Quiz
* All About Sicily

other Italian regions...

Bosco recommends that travelers visit the markets, which are open Tuesdays through Saturdays, early in the morning for the liveliest atmosphere - when fishmongers and butchers start their sing-song chants to entice customers. Even in the afternoon, I found, the markets were full of shoppers, although the streets were more littered and the heat of the sun created a slow and sleepy atmosphere under the canopies.

Filled with the food and sights and sounds of the markets, I again decided to forgo Palermo�s museums, churches and the grand monuments and instead take a long afternoon nap.

about the author
Laura Del Rosso is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who has written about travel and the travel industry for more than 20 years.


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