4 Days to Try to Make Sense of it All, Palermo: Day 3

Our plan for our last full day in Palermo involved going out of the city, via bus, to see the Duomo of Montreale which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful sites in the world. We used the New York Times to figure out where the bus stopped and once again used the iPhone to find out how to get there, which once again lied to us (It must not know Palermo very well)! We walked forty minutes, back to the train station where we originally entered Palermo, only to have to turn around and walk to a piazza ten minutes in the other direction from our hostel, so almost an hour from where we were standing! We took a bus, found the bus stop, and after nearly 2 ½ hours of searching for this bus, boarded it and went out of the city.

Brian Waiting for the Bus

This is where we experienced the Palermo traffic for the first, but not the last time. The bus crawled along, avoiding cars and scooters and parked vehicles. Literally every possible inch of road was taken up by cars or trucks or whatever. Well, Brian and I had nothing to do. We figured the church would be closed when we got there (as most are during the afternoons) and we would get something to eat beforehand. The ride out of the city, however, was gorgeous. We went up into the mountains and began to get beautiful views of the city in the distance under the mountains. We got off of the bus at the church, which was stunning from the outside, and decided to use Brian’s Blackberry to find the best restaurant in Montreale. One was recommended, but the directions were unclear. We would have to search.

And search we did, for nearly 20 minutes, ten of which were used to take pictures of the gorgeous view from behind the church where we could see Palermo on the coast surrounded by mountains. It was the most unique scenery I have ever seen and the first time that I had seen a coastal city from the mountains (excluding New Haven on the Long Island Sound, which really doesn’t compare). Stunning. We finally found the restaurant after asking at the tourist information. We had to follow the winding, small back roads of Montreale around the church, but soon Brian spotted the place in the basement (or what looked like the basement) of a residential building. The place was empty except for another couple because in the winter apparently Palermo is not very busy. We were hungry and ordered a feast of hot antipasti, a pasta each and a second each. I had fettuccine with porcini mushrooms and Brian had gnocchi with a cheesy tomato sauce. For seconds I had grilled eggplant alla greca (which tomatoes, feta cheese and oregano) and Brian had beef carpaccio. The food was fantastic (my fettuccine and eggplant were actually unbelievably delicious now that I think about it) but we ate too much. Who the hell cares? We were on vacation.

Fettuccine with Procini Mushrooms

And then we started the conversation about ‘vacation’, the idea of it and how to live it. Our mode, obviously given the massive amount of site seeing we had done the day before, was to relax and not ‘force the fun’. We would do what we wanted and see sights, but most importantly we would eat well and relax. We had no desire to rush around and try to see everything at once, because there is no point in doing that; you won’t enjoy yourself and you won’t enjoy the sites. Plus, if you don’t see everything then one day you will have to return to fill in the gaps and we both agreed that we would definitely come back to Italy. Vacation is a time to enjoy oneself, not to run around a city or a country in a limited amount of time trying to see everything because there will always be the next time!

Finally we entered the church and it was incredibly dark, a bit too dark given the insanely brilliant mosaics which covered the walls. It was like the first church we had seen in Palermo but on a much grander scale. Every wall had a different biblical story, including the story of Noah which is one biblical tale I had never before seen represented in painting. Of course the altar was gorgeous with a mammoth mosaic Jesus surrounded by the disciples and the holy family. Everywhere inside was beautiful enough to take the breath away, but the place was so dark that it was hard to see the mosaics let alone take a picture! I’m not sure why they could not have provided artificial light to supplement the meager natural light of the day. Regardless this church was magical and awe-inspiring. Seriously, how did people create on such high levels back then? What has happened to that artistic tradition? Why aren’t public structures as incredible as they were back then? Well, for one the Church and Holy Roman Emperor (I think) paid for this one, which immediately means unlimited wealth with which to construct projects that today would cost unimaginable amounts of money. I wish it would return though. Art of all kinds, especially when paired with architecture, brings out the emotions in people. It inspires people and it makes them happy. Beauty in the world tends to do that and it seems to me that our modern lacks some of the serious, powerful and enjoyable art that brings so much beauty into the world.

Montreale

We took the bus back to the hostel and vegetated for the rest of the afternoon before once again using the New York Times to find ourselves a well-reviewed and highly recommended restaurant (or maybe we found it walking around and then through Trip Advisor), called Trattoria o Maestro del  Brodo. Interestingly there were two restaurants using something del Brodo as the title within a minute walk of each other. We had walked past one the night before and it looked good so I thought we were headed there, but Brian thought we were headed to the other. Before going to dinner, though, we decided to wander around and find a place to serve us aperitivo, without the food. Basically, we wanted to have a predinner drink. In our last couple of  days of walking through the city we had not seen anything resembling a place to which locals went for a drink or to hang out, but that night we followed some lights in the distance and ended up in a fairly crowded local place where the bartender instantly knew I was American and where we were able to have a glass of nice wine, something I will dearly miss when going to bars with friends in America because drinking wine while at an American bar really does not happen. We talked about basketball and the resurgent Knicks who were playing the Heat that night (let’s not talk about the outcome) and how excited we were to get home to watch basketball.

And that is one of the strangest aspects of leaving from abroad; the divide between wanting to go home and not wanting to leave Italy. Our hearts were divided between the old and the new (in either way you look at it between our old lives and our new or the old world and the new). When we thought of home and the excitement of returning to Boston College, or watching the Knicks on TV, or hanging out with our friends from home, or seeing our families, or just being able to do nothing we became happy. But then we realized that the weekends would come and go without the question ‘So where are you going this weekend?’. How would we be able to return to a life without constant travel, without the beautiful sensation of traveling to a new country or a new city every weekend? We would remain at BC with the question of ‘So where are you going out tonight?’, which honestly could not excite me less. “What do you mean I’m not traveling to somewhere spectacular every weekend?” Brian asked, “Am I really supposed to stay in one place for an entire semester? How boring is that?” We had become men of travel, men on the move, men accustomed to a life of excitement and culture and new. How could we leave that behind, but how could we not return to our lives and family (including friends) at home? In the end, no matter how much our hearts were being pulled in two, we knew that it was time to go home, regardless of whether we were fully ready for the change or not. Europe would be here when we returned.

Zuppa di Cozze

We walked to the Brodo restaurant to which I thought we were heading, but Brian corrected me (the reviews had said one was much better than the other) and we found the other Brodo quickly. We walked in to a wave of perfumes wafting from the antipasti on the counter and from the kitchen preparing the freshest of fish. Neither of us had cash and of course this restaurant did not accept credit cards (as most places do not in Palermo because they can avoid paying taxes in that way and so that the mafia can own them) so Brian had to run to an ATM while I ordered us more wine and scrutinized the menu. It was not the largest menu in the world (which I have repeatedly claimed as a sign that a restaurant knows what it’s doing), but I wanted to eat everything. In fact the smell of the food and the sight of what the other customers were eating made me hungry even after the massive lunch I had eaten in the afternoon. Brian returned and we ordered. For antipasti he got Zuppa di Vongole (clam soup) and I got Zuppa di Cozze (mussels soup), followed spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti and clams for me, which I had seen brought out to another customer and might be my favorite food in the entire world) and risotto al mare for Brian who continued his self-proclaimed infatuation with risotto. Was this enough? Nope, for secondi I ordered the fish of the day and was allowed to choose my fish from the display of the catch of the day while Brian got veal.

Spaghetti with Clams

Most of the conversation that night was about the food because course after course (especially in the antipasti and primi as is the case in Italy where appetizers and pastas or rice dishes generally outpace the main dishes of meat or fish) blew my mind. Our zuppe arrived which were bowls of clams and mussels over a reddish, tomatoey broth. Now, I know that I have bemoaned the combination of shellfish with tomatoes because the damn tomatoes overpower the shellfish, but this was the exception. The broth only hinted at tomatoes and spices while overwhelmingly tasting like the liquid released from shellfish mixed with wine and garlic. I couldn’t get enough of it. At home, one of my favorite meals to make for family dinners is mussels (because we do not have clams of nearly the same ability and taste in the Northeast) steamed open in a broth of white wine, butter, garlic, parsley and some chili flakes. The cooking liquid is so delicious that I could spoon eat it, but had never even considered that in the past, preferring to soak up the liquid with bread. Here, however, the dish was called a zuppa (soup) so we were immediately encouraged to spoon the delicious, simple broth into our mouths. We could barely speak and when we did it was only to praise the beauty of fresh Mediterranean fish that was allowed to give off its full flavor.

Then the primi came and I could have cried from happiness. My spaghetti was fresh and covered in a thick, clammy broth, one that I have tried to achieve at home for years but never can because of the lack of starch in my pasta water. Restaurants cook batches of pasta over and over in the same water which makes the water incredibly starchy and therefore incredibly able to thicken sauces. Plus this pasta was fresh meaning that it was starchier than the dried version. As such the clammy liquid surrounding my delicious, small clams and al dente pasta delivered the best spaghetti with clam flavor I have ever had. Nothing even came close to it. I ate slowly. I still taste it. WHY DON’T WE HAVE SUCH GOOD INGREDIENTS IN AMERICA? It’s killing me!

Whole Grilled Fish

Our secondi arrived to our more than full selves, but the whole grilled fish in front of me was too appetizing to pass up. I squeezed some lime over the top and enjoyed its white, fleshy flavor. Delicious. By this time it was close to midnight and we were exhausted. Tomorrow, as we knew would be a horribly long day, followed by a potentially stressful morning traveling to Rome. Neither of us could believe the Palermo trip had already passed us by. Hadn’t we just arrived yesterday?  Neither of us could believe that tomorrow would be the final day of Study Abroad Parma Fall 2010. Hadn’t we just gotten to Florence two weeks ago? Everything was there in our minds as if it had happened yesterday instead of months ago, but Time refused us the benefit of the doubt and sped on like a 747 jet.

Tomorrow, we knew finally, would be it.

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