In July 2007 we visited the city of Palermo and on the first day went exploring the back streets of the old city and came across a lively street market. A Sicilian street market is a riot of sights and sounds with a colourful assortment of fruits, vegetables, fish and meats and vendors barking about bargains for anybody who will slow down as they pass through and listen. The streets are punctuated by coloured tarpaulins suspended as tents to protect the goods from the elements as shoppers bustle through stopping frequently to inspect and buy from among the Sicilian, Italian and foreign items that compete for attention: tarocchi (blood oranges), giri (leafy greens), chicory, herbs, artichokes, cuttlefish, swordfish, prawns, gutted goats, lambs, breads and cheeses.
The outdoor Vucciria Market in Palermo was immortalized by artist Renato Guttuso, one of the most famous Italian painters of the Twentieth Century. His painting, La Vucciria (1974) has become an icon of Sicily as a whole, with its vivid depiction of a bustling market filled with all kinds of goods and people from all walks of life.
Just behind the busy main road was a network of narrow streets that was home to the busy street food market which, now that I have been to Morocco, had a very North African appearance with products on untidy display and where the standards of hygiene to which we are accustomed seemed dangerously lacking. Especially so at the meat and fish stalls where butchers and fishmongers were preparing cuts and fillets accompanied by swarms of black flies and other insects and pigeons foraging amongst the offal that was falling to the pavement below. The African influence is hardly surprising because Sicily is only a hundred miles or so from the coast of Tunisia and after Andalusia in Spain is one of the closest parts of Europe to North Africa (the small Sicilian island of Pantelleria is actually closer to North Africa (seventy kilometres) than it is to Sicily (one hundred kilometres).
This is old Palermo and this part of the city is a vibrant but desperately run down area of the city, a beautiful warren of decay and disrepair. A tiny mysterious cluster of tiny spidery lanes interspersed with a few untidy squares which are the home to a real mixture of houses, shops and people. Artists, pick pockets, beggars and men wearing coppole (the forward leaning Sicilian caps) and every type of street trader under the sun live and work side-by-side in this cramped quarter.
The place had real character with traders shouting to attract customers, shoppers pushing and shoving and everyone keeping a watchful eye out for the scooters that regularly picked their way through the pedestrian throng with little regard for personal safety or that of those around them either. During the day at the main piazza Caracciolo people come to buy vegetables, fish and meat at the seven hundred year old market but by night it is a full of dimly lit cafes with more than a whiff of danger.
The Vucciria is the beating heart of Palermo’s historic centre and yet it is crumbling away with neglect with large areas and whole blocks abandoned and the number of market traders falling. Some of the damage here goes back as far as the Second-World-War when Palermo suffered greatly during the Allied invasion of 1943 and lack of finance, Government corruption and the influence of the Mafia has in some areas restricted the process of rebuilding and regeneration. What was surprising was that in some of these part derelict buildings there were clearly family apartments with people living in quite appalling conditions, their occupation of inadequate accommodation given away by the laundry left to dry over rusting balcony railings and from washing lines stretched out randomly across the streets.
We walked further and out of the Kasbah like market and entered a commercial area of the town with streets and shops set out in a medieval fashion of distinct areas for similar trades. There was a street made up entirely of hardware stores and another of dressmakers and fabric salesmen but most unusual of all was the street of bicycle shops. It seems an odd way to arrange shops with all of the direct competition trading side by side but at least that must make it a whole lot easier for the customer and everyone seemed to be getting on well enough and enjoying the affable arrangement.
The Vucciria was a direct assault on the senses as we walked past, silver and pottery shops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the constant chatter and noise of the traders. It was exciting but exhausting, especially keeping an eye out for the scooters so after an hour or so had had enough so returned to the main street but vowed to return again the next day.