Saturday 5 October 2019

Just when I thought Air Malta’s A320 was irreducibly small for international flights, I discovered we were going to Sicily in a sawn-off version called an A319. It was about as comfortable as a school bus, but the ride only lasted 40 minutes. Arriving in Palermo was a breeze because EU freedom of passage meant no immigration queues. It should have been a perfect return to Italy, were it not for the over-friendly taxi driver whose meter suffered a speed surge late in the trip, aided by a nifty flick of his wrist to add another 20 Euros to a fare already inflated by a 15 Euro airport tax. What the driver had not taken into account was Michelle’s beady eye on his clock. When he wanted enough money to buy a new taxi Michelle got stuck into him as she went to take a photo of his licence plate. He knew he’d met his match, shrugged his shoulders and almost halved the fare.

The Excelsior Palace, Palermo, would make a perfect set for an 1890’s movie. It has not been spoiled by upgrades for at least a hundred years and that includes carpet and plumbing. In the traditional stone bathroom, there are two long strings with red knobs attached to the ends. These, we assume, are for emergencies – for which help might arrive the next day, I suspect. Our room, on the first floor, came with an obstacle. Halfway along the corridor a substantial flight of stairs presented itself, down which we had to haul our cases (no bellboys) to get to our room. On the plus side was an excellent bed and a nice view of a park. And if we didn’t mind a flooded bathroom, the shower with its two mysterious ancient taps jetted out plenty of hot water once we won the guessing game of which does what.

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Shower tap guessing game and emergency red pull to the right

One dreadful truth about the Excelsior Palace is that no hotel toaster has yet made its appearance at breakfast. I’m carrying out a thorough investigation involving senior management, but we may have to wait until we move to Marsala tomorrow for my first Italian hotel toaster report. Derek Breadchamber will be hearing about this atrocity.

Palermo really comes alive on Saturdays. City streets are closed to traffic, street vendors set up their stalls, people appear from everywhere, mostly beautifully dressed. It is dog’s day too. Their owners bring them along for some eating drinking, shopping and an occasional fight. 

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A modern five seater Italian car: four inside and one on the patented lockable bonnet. 

We set off down the traditionally European main street, with the help of Michelle’s map reading, which lead us to the two main churches, a famous bakery, a big fountain of naked statues that used to offend the overlooking nuns, and the Palermo Opera House – completed in 1897 with an audience capacity of 1380 people, making it the third largest opera house in Europe. We took the guided tour of Teatro Massimo which covered the six-storey public interior, the grand marble rooms that surround the concert hall and then a look backstage. Here it got really interesting. Behind the set of the current production (including an onstage basin, toilet bowl and bidet which made me wonder whether using them was part of the drama) is a huge space and lifting machinery to facilitate multiple set changes. The floor of the stage slopes four degrees towards the audience to enable better viewing and voice projection. Now you’d think four degrees isn’t much until you stand on it. Then you feel it would be very easy to slide into the orchestra pit. The floor of the pit, incidentally, can be raised to stage height to accommodate the instruments for orchestral concerts.

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Front of house and backstage of Teatro Massimo, Palermo Opera House

Now, ladies and gentlemen, would you like to go up onto the roof where you will get the best view Palermo has to offer? It does involve some sets of stairs and the last section is a bit steep. Yeah, let’s do it! We found ourselves climbing steep, open metal staircases in the semi-darkness and feeling like Phantoms of the Opera. And indeed, the last climb was up an almost vertical meal ladder with a wriggle under a bar at the top for good measure. The view of the township, ocean and surrounding junior mountains was spectacular. But the climbers all felt the dread of having to go back down, this time backwards. Returning to ground level, I felt I had done my work-out for the day and also frightened the daylights out of myself.

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A scary climb

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                                                            But worth it . . .