Landing at Palermo airport is not for those who’ve failed a fear of flying course. The runway is bordered by the sea, and the final descent goes something like this: fly along a bit, drop a bit, along a bit, PLUMMET, bump, bump, reverse thrust and breeeeeeathe. It’s the PLUMMET part which feels truly life-threatening, especially as the passenger’s eye view makes you think that you’re going to miss the runway and fall splat into the water below. Even I, who’ve been flying since I was five, found myself white-knuckled and promising all sorts of good acts to the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael when Monsieur and I flew to Sicily for a New Year’s break.
The adventures which taunt us on every trip commenced immediately. Monsieur goes to fetch rental car. I wait for our bags at the caroussel. Monsieur’s bag appears immediately. Mine does not. After watching an empty caroussel go around and around and around for some time, I finally snap out of denial and go to find out if my suitcase is lost. Luckily, it just ended up on another caroussel from somewhere else in mainland Europe (I think it was Munich, OBviously). Then, all bags retrieved, Monsieur collects me in a cappuccino-coloured Lancia with a temperamental gearbox that switches between automatic and manual at will. And so, stop-start, we set off for Palermo.
Following our Michelin instructions from the airport to the hotel seemed straightforward enough at the start of the drive into Palermo proper, but once we’d left the autostrada, the instructions malfunctioned. Italian traffic can be unpredictable. Sicilian traffic is a bit worse again, added to which the one-way systems and bus lanes and squares and a general lack of geometry to the town planning meant that we were soon lost. Even when we found ourselves NEAR the hotel, we couldn’t reach it because we’d invariably be at the wrong end of one street after another marked Senso Unico (one way). So close and yet so far and very, very hungry.
Having snailed around in circles for a Sicilian age we finally found a successful approach to the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, one of Palermo’s historic hotels, parking in a bay at the front with a tandem sigh of relief. But this is Italy, remember; things are never straightforward.
“You cannot leave your car there,” said the Adonis-like check-in clerk with a frown. Farts. We’d been afraid of that.
“Does the hotel have parking, then?” we asked,
“Oh, yes. The hotel have parking but eet eez not open now. Eet open at 4pm and close at 8pm so eef you want leave car all night, hotel parking eez fine.”
“So where can we park now?” It was barely 2pm. “Can’t we just leave the car at the front until 4pm?”
“Unfortunately, no.” this Adonis could win an Oscar in regretful eye-batting.
“You can leave thee car on thee street, and you pay for thee teeket at thee Tabacchi.” Adonis pulled out a map of the area and started marking tabacconist shops for us. “and for later, here eez thee parking.” A nice, big cross marked the location of the parking building a good 15 minutes walk away. And it had a curfew. If the car wasn’t parked up by 8pm, we were on the street.
The mere theory of arranging parking worked up our already large appetites, but first we had to drop off our things at the room. We followed a greying porter bedecked in a braid-laden uniform, into a lift that was fine for two people but a little cramped with three of us and two suitcases, and up to the second floor. There, my heart sank. The carpet was tatty, the walls were peeling, the naked ends of cables hung in knots in dark ceiling corners. We’d read on Tripadvisor that the hotel was in the process of being refurbished, so I just hoped they hadn’t stuck us in one of the older rooms which had inspired unfavourable reports. Then we rounded a corner and the wallpaper was fresh, the door finishes smooth and creamy, the light fittings bright with polish and the walls hung with attractive antique prints of Sicilian scenes. Relief. Now we could eat.
It was well past 2pm, the time when most Italian eateries stop serving lunch. Meanwhile, from 4am to now Monsieur and I had existed on no more than a small in-flight snack sandwich each and a small pack of crackers. Famished only begins to describe it. Back in the cappuccino-wagon, our first task was to find somewhere to park it until the parcheggio opened at 4pm. Eventually we found a spot near the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, dangerously close to McDonald’s. In fact, we were so incredibly hungry that Monsieur tried to insist that we grab a burger because all the restaurants had already closed. May I add that the whole time I’ve known Monsieur I’ve never yet seen him eat McDonald’s, so this might indicate just how desperate we were for food. Luckily, instead of chowing down on a universal burger in Italy, home to such incredible food, we found a pasticceria that was open and serving snacks. There we inhaled squares of doughy pizza, mine with potato and pancetta; Monsieur’s with pepperoni, and at long last we felt human again.
There was still space in our stomachs for a cheeky treat on the way out, so we bought two cannoli from the sweet pastry counter. May I admit here with red face that I’d never, ever had one before? I’d seen them, heard people compare them, read about them but I’d never yet tried one. Out came the camera to document this historic occasion, as poor Monsieur groaned with embarrassment and moved away from the mad food photographer, but this is one photo I’m thrilled to have taken. The cannoli shell was crisp and sweet, lined with chocolate and filled with creamy, sweet ricotta. The first mouthful was one hundred per cent Heaven. There and then I began to understand why so many people love that Godfather quote: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Only we’d left the car, instead.