Dilapidated buildings, dark alleys, bustling market stalls and a secret, yet vibrant nightlife: all are vital ingredients of Vucciria, Palermo's most mysterious and exciting part of town.
It's the oldest market in Sicily and one of the oldest in Europe — but how much longer will Palermo's Vucciria be around? Conor Creighton investigates this vibrant vestige of the city's past. Photography by Annikki Heinemann
I first happened upon the Vucciria market in Palermo one summer while making a trip to Agrigento in the south of Sicily. My train from the town of Cefalu gave up the ghost in the city’s suburbs and I ended up missing my connection. With nowhere to stay I went for a wander, hoping to find a bar that would let me hang out till morning. But Palermo is a family town. Everyone’s tucked up and dreaming of cannoli by midnight, and the only life I could detect was coming from the end of an ominous, narrow cobbled street that might have been called Pick-A-Pocket Alley. Following my thirst, instead of my paranoia, I wandered on down and was thankfully rewarded by the legendary Vucciria.
Returning this winter, the city’s summer tourists long gone, I find little has changed and this neighbourhood is as lively, run-down and vibrant as ever. The Vucciria is a beautiful den of disrepair – that’s the best way to describe it. A tiny, mysterious cluster of spidery lanes, interspersed with a few squares that are home to a real mixture of houses, shops and people. Artists, old-school gangsters, men wearing coppole (the forward-leaning Sicilian caps, think Al Pacino in The Godfather), blow-ins, blind stray dogs that could tell more stories than the tabloids, and every type of street trader under the sun are present. This is real Palermo, old Palermo, organic Palermo.
During the day at the main Piazza Caracciolo, people come to buy fresh produce – such as fish and meat from the numerous butchers populating the area – but by night it’s the place where you drink so much you forget all about the dinner your purchases were supposed to turn into. Every day except Sunday for the past 700 years, traders from across the globe have plied their wares – fruit, veg, meat and herbs, and today CDs, trinkets and clothes – from dawn till dusk, screaming from the top of their lungs in a tradition brought over from Africa.
The Vucciria is the beating heart of Palermo’s historic centre and yet it’s crumbling away, with large portions of this prime real estate abandoned and numbers of market visitors dwindling. Walking around, I find cocks crowing, tottering across the cobbles, and literally hear horses whinnying from behind huge wooden doors that once upon a time housed bourgeois families. I open one door and see a makeshift stable in a courtyard. Way back when, they say, crocodiles roamed the streets and every language known to man could be heard in the air. In one sense, the Vucciria feels like a wounded animal taking its time about dying; the number of traders is declining and areas on the edges of the neighbourhood are beginning to be renovated, with new buildings going up. But still this pocket of history survives, remaining a romantic if rough-and-ready destination. Its death hasn’t happened yet.
I also discover there’s a small rebirth going on, with many abandoned houses getting taken over by artists, students and musicians – bringing back an older, edgy and very bohemian vibe. One such occupier is an artist named Uwe, who hails from the sensible foothills of the Austrian Alps.
“No one knows what will happen with the Vucciria,” says Uwe, as we sit on his rooftop overlooking the neighbourhood’s skyline. “But that’s what makes it so exciting.” Architecturally, it’s classically charming just a little run down. Uwe lives in the second- most important square in the Vucciria, Piazza Garraffello. It’s said that in the 15th century, the square gave birth to the Italian outbreak of the Black Plague. In WWII, the Germans gave the piazza a good going over, and that’s how it has remained since. Uwe moved in 11 years ago and adopted the whole quarter as his canvas.
“In Sicily, there are no rules, especially in art,” he says. And he has certainly put the theory to the test. First, he filled a derelict building full of garbage and called it his cathedral. Next, he painted a giant crucifix on his home and wrote “Uwe Ti Ama” (“Uwe loves you”) in giant red paint. The idea was to remind everyone – the locals, tourists and the authorities, that the market is falling down and needs some tender loving care. Perhaps it should even be designated, Uwe thinks, as a national heritage site and protected for generations to come.
The Vucciria has always had a soft spot for rogues. The ageing Enzo di Noto is my witness. This old cigarette smuggler, turned butcher, turned salesman, and now in semi- retirement operating as the mildly drunken tour guide you never asked for, is one of the oldest faces in the Vucciria. “Twenty years ago,” he slurs, “you couldn’t walk through this area without permission.” It was one of those neighbourhoods where you had to be friends with the right people. Of course that’s not the case today where you’ll see all kinds of folk coming and going as they please. Everything is much more low-key.
Speaking of low-key, don’t expect a lavish white-tablecloths-and-silver-cutlery experience when it comes to dining around here. Don’t get me wrong, the venues in the Vucciria are clean as a whistle and the meat is so fresh you could stand it up on the table and milk it. But if you’re sat around the home- style restaurants like Zia Pina’s or Da Toto, while you’re busy eating your feet will be even busier getting rid of the countless cats that populate the neighbourhood. Throw a fish head down a narrow grate is my advice. It’s a wonderful, authentic Sicilian experience.
If you’re having trouble picturing the Vucciria, imagine Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico from 30 years ago before the Olympics, Zara chain stores and Woody Allen sanitised the area and you’ll get the idea. At night, it’s so dark for lack of street lights that you don’t see the bar or restaurant you’re going to until you’re standing in the doorway. The perfect adventure – though it can be a bit spooky. Yet once you find that secret local bar your’re looking for, the hospitality of its denizens will blow you away! Some of Palermo’s friendliest people live in the Vucciria.
And no place here makes you feel as welcome as a bar called the Taverna. Don’t you mind that the word Taverna is nowhere to be seen on any sign at or near the building, all you need do is follow the sound of the crowd as I did all those years ago and you’ll find it. All drinks cost about €2, with the exception of Sangue di Sicilia (a local beverage), which costs just €1 and comes with the free bonus of a three-day hangover unless you go back for another glass the next afternoon. Your mouth may be too dry to open but the bartender already knows what medicine you need. He’ll slide it down the counter and you’ll catch it like a scene from a B-movie Western, because everything in the Vucciria is such theatre.
“The market stalls are like stages,” says Uwe, as we sit on top of his rooftop looking out at the magnificent Teatro Massimo on the city’s skyline. “The people in the Vucciria are the best actors in Palermo.” If you visit they’ll grace you with a walk-on part.
Scanning the Wikipedia entry for Vucciria online I discover that the name comes from the French word for “butchers”. That’s the correct explanation. If you ask the Palermitans, however, they’ll tell you it’s their custom-built expression meaning “to cause mayhem”.
As a visitor, though it would be lovely to see the market restored, the adventure as it exists now is one of authenticity and excitement in a place that feels like it has more in common with the 15th century than the 21st century. And that suits perfectly the artists and musicians who are making the Vucciria their home. As Uwe says: “It just gives us more space to create the mayhem!”
Palermo airport lies 30km outside the city. Ryanair flies to Palermo from seven destinations during the winter season: Bologna, Marseille Provence MP2, Milan (Bergamo), Pisa (Florence), Seville, Venice (Treviso) and Verona. The journey into Palermo takes 40 minutes by train, which leaves from inside the terminal on the first floor. Tickets cost €4.50. The journey takes about 50 minutes by bus or car. Buses leave from in front of the terminal building and cost €5. Timetables and any additional information can be found at www.gesap.it and www.trenitalia.it. Hertz (www.hertz.com) is Ryanair’s exclusive car rental partner and provides special rates for Ryanair passengers.
One of the best places to stay close to the Vucciria is BB22 (doubles from €110, www.bb22.it), a clean, pretty and atmospheric bed and breakfast. Also check out bed and breakfast Palermo Art Lincoln (doubles from €70, www.bedandbreakfastpalermoart.com), set in an elegant building near the train station.