Tuesday, December 4, 2012: Palermo, Italy
A lot of people ask us about independent shore excursions and how it works to do a day in port “on our own”. No tour guide, no ship tour, yet seeing great sites and the local culture for minimal cost. Here is a look into our day in the city of Palermo on the island of Sicily. We docked at 8am and returned to the ship around 3pm. This gave us about 7 hours in port and armed with nothing more than a map and some printed information (operating hours of our major sights and public transit), we set off.
Leaving the port area, we began to walk our way south and east passing storefronts and towering apartment buildings with laundry hanging from the window ledges. Local children were making their way to school, while the adults were in transit to work. The streets were reasonably well marked with street signs and we stayed mostly to main thoroughfares as several sights could be seen along our first walk. Our initial destination was to reach the Piazza Indipendienza, where we would catch the local bus to Monreale.
Along the way, a quiet, quite beautiful, yet stray Labrador Retriever mix accompanied us for about 15 blocks of our walk, never letting us get more than 18 inches away from him the entire time. Darin thought it was God reminding him (in a frustrating, twisted sort of way) that Natalie still wants a dog… He was a faithful, if slightly annoying, companion as we made our way through the streets of Palermo, until a little garbage truck pulled out of the alleyway near us and he clearly felt that there was more to offer from that, than from us and ran after it, leaving us be…
From here, we ducked into an alleyway and winding around the corner, found one of the many morning markets in Palermo, featuring a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked items, fish, and meat. Filled with local Sicilians, these areas can be a lot of fun to watch the locals haggle on prices and quality of food that will likely be on the family dinner table that evening. If you want to make a simple breakfast of fruit or a baguette, this is a great place to do it on the cheap, while taking in something of a local “show.” As we had just had breakfast, we continued with our walk to the Piazza and arrived a few minutes later. (Time = Approx. 1 hour, Cost = Free)
At the north end of the Piazza, we found the bus stop for our bus line (389) that would take us to Monreale, just outside the city limits of Palermo, a 25 minute drive away. We picked up tickets at the nearby booth for 1.30 Euro (they cost 1.70 Euro on the bus) and the nice gentleman there advised that the bus would arrive in about 10 minutes time. We boarded the bus promptly at 9:30am (we had been warned to be flexible with the bus times as they can be heavily delayed by traffic) and grabbed our seats near the back of the bus. (Don’t forget to validate your ticket at the little orange boxes on the bus to print the date and time on your ticket, otherwise you could face a hefty fine!) A few minutes into the trip, a little old Sicilian man and woman (each had boarded the bus at a different stop) whose combined ages had to exceed 180 shared the ride up to Monreale with us. Though there was not a single word that could be shared in a common language, they still wanted to make sure that we found our destination though a number of typical Italian hand waving gestures, smiles, and lots and lots of pointing… (Time = 25 minutes one way, Cost = 2.60 Euro each way per person)
We arrived at the Piazza de Emmanuele in the hilltop community of Monreale and walked to a view point where we took pictures with commanding views of the expansive valley below heading back to Palermo and the Sicilian coast. From here, we headed back to the entrance of the Duomo and though we had no guide for this religious site, the book shop had an Duomo interpretation map to understand the hundreds of intricately decorated panels on the inside of the building that presented the many stories of the Bible. Natalie picked one up and we headed in. We ended up spending nearly 2 hours at the Duomo and viewed the incredibly beautiful walls, floors, naves, and altars of this massive building complex (used by the Christians and well as the Moors).
In a quiet corner of the building we saw a pair of visitors trying to get into a relatively non-descript door. The docent arrived to the door with his little green cash box and we all paid a 2 Euro coin fee for the opportunity to make our way up a number of tiny, dark, extra-narrow twisting staircases and passageways that gave us access to the rooftop walkway, a secret hideaway from the crowds. We were now outside and along the edge of the main tower of the Duomo with sweeping views of the entire valley below and a beautifully manicured terrace next to the church that reminded us a lot of the Alhambra in Spain. (Time = 90 Minutes to 2 Hours, Cost = 2.50 Euro for the Duomo Interpretation map and Rooftop view/secret passageway entrance per person)
After completing our amazing visit to the Duomo, we got back on the 389 bus to take us back down the Monreale mountain side. We arrived back at the Piazza Independienza 30 minutes later and began to walk towards the Palermo Cathedral, another massive and beautiful church. As we arrived a few minutes later, the dark clouds brought us a little downpour. As we ducked into the building, we found the Cathedral about one third full, not with tourists, but for a somber occasion of remembrance. We had arrived during a funeral service dedicated to a local nun that had served the local Palermo diocese. There must have been over 100 priests and nuns in attendance, along with the local Archbishop and a Cardinal! As long as we were respectful in the back of the Cathedral, we had the unique opportunity to watch the sea of black and purple in their habits and cassocks. Seeing the memorial in Italian and listening to the choir sing was a unique and poignant way to see such a beautiful and historic place (Time = Approx. 45 minutes, Cost = Free)
Leaving the Cathedral around 1:15pm, local children were spilling out of a nearby school and we slowly began to make our walk back to the ship, taking the time to stop at other Palermo sights along the way. The first was the Quatro Canti, or “Four Corners”. It is an intersection of two major thoroughfares where each corner is built out in artwork and water fountains made from dark granite and marble. We also had the chance to see the Teatro Massimo and watch some local kids sing outside of the building (I hope they weren’t trying to get an audition — they were fun, but not that good…) No tour for us in Italy could be complete (for Darin, at least) without a stop at a local Gelataria, so that was our next stop. Natalie picked up a Dark Chocolate, and Darin a Strawberry and Lemon Gelato (3 Euro each), where we sat under giant patio umbrellas and enjoyed our snack as the weather again struggled to choose sun or rain. (Time = Approx. 90 minutes, Cost = 3 Euro per person)
We arrived back to the ship just before 3pm and enjoyed a great day in Palermo and Monreale. In just 7 short hours, we visited the Duomo and Cathedral, found a secret passageway, met a nice older Sicilian couple, encountered an annoying but friendly stray dog, viewed a Sicilian funeral, listened to a beautiful choir, saw the city on foot and via the local bus seeing the local market, and enjoyed a little gelato along the way.
We went independent today, enjoyed a great day seeing a ton, and spent a total of €8.10 per person on today’s 7 hour “tour”… Who wants to join us on our next independent day in port?