Franco says there is no such thing as road rage in Sicily. When we arrive in Palermo we realise why. Lines of cars stalled in traffic blast their horns at each other. It has no helpful purpose except to vent their frustration without actually hurting anybody.
Today we visit a Norman cathedral in Monreale, on the outskirts of Palermo. What can I say? It is stupendous, marvellous, awe-inspiring, over the top. Most of all, I was struck with how its rich lavishness stands at the other extreme from the poverty and simplicity of St Francis of Assisi.
This cathedral contains more than 1000 square metres of gold mosaic, dating back to the 12th century. The story of the Old Testament adorns its walls in two continuous loops. I could get so far with my Sunday School training – the creation from formless matter, Adam, Eve created from his rib, the Garden of Eden, the serpent, the apple, the shame of nakedness, the casting out, Cain and Abel, and the slaying. I started to falter after that, and by the end of the depictions I had pretty well lost the plot. I am sure there are many who could identify it all just as intended. It was only with the help of a guidebook borrowed from another in our group that I was able to complete the story. But it is all there in exquisite detail.
Palermo is a surprisingly attractive city in parts, with some very fine buildings, but there are a few of us who are just about cultured out, and starting to drop out of the queue to pay entrance fees. Instead, our attention is attracted by a gathering in the street. Since early morning, we have been hearing stories of a “scopero” – a strike. Airports are disrupted and we fear for our flights out of Sicily tomorrow. Most of us had had a nightmare trip in the previous Saturday, when a Whizz Air jet had made an emergency landing in Rome airport. Something about not being able to get its landing gear down. The emergency chute had been deployed, and three people were injured. I think they were mostly treated for shock. Bill and I had been delayed four hours – we did not get to the hotel until around 10pm. That was bad enough, some people had not arrived at the hotel until 2am, and several couples had lost luggage which took up to three days to catch us up. The thought that we were about to go through it again the next day filled us with dread.
It transpired that it was a nationwide transport strike, but the workers who were out on the Palermo streets were people protesting that they had lost their jobs. Technically, I don’t think one can be classified as on strike, when you are actually unemployed. That’s something of an insult in my opinion. I suggested we join them, and lead them in a chant of “the workers united, will never be defeated”, but I wasn’t overly keen to get arrested on my second last day in Italy, so I went and made friends with the police instead.
To their credit, the police were adopting a hands off approach. These were actually police, not the carabinieri that is a more common sight. The carabinieri have a sexier uniform, bright blue and stripes, tight pants and peaked caps. These police were wearing a much more subdued, ready for business uniform, bullet proof vests and a beret. Their flack jackets had a strong cloth label firmly stitched on the right hand breast. It was their blood type, spelt out in large lettering.
Maria has been travelling solo with our group. She is an Italo-Canadian. A lively lady ready for fun. I call her over and introduce her to the police. She thinks they are “michu-michu wow wow!”
Some of the protesters have left the flag waving group in the park and set up a road block at a busy intersection close to us. A couple of police squad cars have arrived, but they do not interfere. The traffic is delayed enough for the protestors to make their point. I have already been surprised that there is no media coverage of this event.
Ambulance sirens sound frequently in the distance. They are heard everywhere constantly in Palermo. As they approach the intersection, the protestors break ranks. One stands high on a statue waving his flag at the banked cars, and screaming “vai, vai” – go, go! When the ambulance has passed, the blockage reforms. After some time, the police step in and start moving the traffic. The cop on point duty is moving cars on a detour direction, and letting scooters come through their preferred path if they dismount and walk their with their scooters. One car driver protests at the diversion, the policeman directs him over and over to the detour. The driver argues and waves his hand around outside the car window. By the time he has finished with this argument, he may as well have driven the detour. But he carries on, and the police man tolerates it, and then eventually the driver does what he – the driver – wanted to do, and to heck with the policeman’s instructions. He just drove around the point duty cop and headed in his preferred direction.
Meanwhile a young woman drove straight past the police man with a mobile phone stuck in her hand. It is supposed to be illegal to drive while using a mobile phone – but no one seems to care much here.
I think I am starting to become Italian myself. In the midst of this activity, I haggled with a stall holder over the purchase of a hat. Then a few hours later, when we had the luxury of free time, I decided to get my hair cut off. It is very stylish. Except that now I cannot wear the hat as it will flatten the new style and give me hat hair. Make sense? No? – You see? I am becoming Italian!
And so we end our sojourn in Italy. The same country, but two different cultures between Umbria and Sicily, and vastly different scenery and general hubbub. We finish our tour after breakfast in the morning. In case of interest, it is run by Retevacanze of Sicily and sold through most travel agencies worldwide.
Next port of call is Serbia. The beginning of our Central European adventure with Jay and Waddie. We are curious to know what experiences await us next. Just so long as it does not start with the airline losing our luggage!
Friday 14th June 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, signing off from Palermo