Ferry to Palermo! Welcome to Sicily!
May 12, 2018
|Time to board the boat in Tunis to Palermo! This time, due to scheduling issues, we had booked through Direct Ferry with Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV). We decided to take a taxi out to the port instead of the handy train (the very same one that links Tunis with Carthage and the picturesque Sidi Bou Said), spending basically our last Tunisian dinars on the ride. As we waited in line to check in, I sensed we were in trouble when I didn't see our ferry listed on the electronic board. Sure enough, it was delayed until the next morning. All the Tunisians made sure to let us know that the Italians had gone on strike, screwing up our boat's schedule. Luckily, the GNV employee at the check in window was able to speak enough English to inform us of the situation and reassure us that plans were being made for us to stay overnight somewhere near the port. He gave us tickets and a voucher for our hotel. Now, that is service!
We wasted a lot of time and legwork trying to find the next office (the spot for the drivers to check in). We worked with the people there, eventually standing in line where a "shuttle" was supposed to pick us all up and take us to our hotel. We were very fortunate that one of the GNV employees spoke English there and tried his best to reassure us that we were in good hands. He pointed to a hotel and said that we would be sleeping there, within walking distance of the port. We waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally we asked if we could just walk there, but the employee told us that we needed to go as a group with a representative of GNV so that our room could be paid for. So we waited some more.
Then things got a bit sketchy. The employee said that the original hotel was full and that we would be staying somewhere downtown instead. He then asked if we had money to get a cab there. No! We had gotten rid of our dinars, knowing we wouldn't be able to exchange them outside of the country. Plus Fran thought there was some kind of legality where we shouldn't take them out of the country. Anyway, we had no dinars, we didn't want to change euros to dinars, we didn't want to suddenly have to spend euros, and we started to wonder if we weren't going to hear about some special celebration at the carpet shop! I started getting irritated, pointing to our reservations and insisting that we had spent a lot of extra money to ensure that we would have a room to sleep in. The employee backed off and quietly problem-solved behind the scenes as enterprising locals kept trying to sell us souvenirs and cigarettes.
Our GNV employee eventually came back and said that someone could give us a ride to the hotel. He pointed to some guy in a van across the street. Should we get into some random van? I agreed to go over and suss out the situation. The van driver didn't speak much English. His van was a mess. But he did show me a ticket that confirmed he was going to Rome. "Same boat. Same boat." What to do?
Back together with Fran, we didn't have much options. We decided to take the leap of faith and headed towards the random guy's van. We took pictures and I sent our sons messages about our schedule change, hoping they wouldn't ever have to use them. We shifted some stuff around and settled into the van.
The situation became clear. Our van driver waited and then secured a spot right behind the representative of the ferry line. Some waiting, driving, communicating, stopping, starting, ensued, and then we found ourselves in front of a major hotel with a bunch of other people clutching similar vouchers. We headed into the lobby and waited. Eventually we were given a room key. It was actually a fairly nice hotel that tried to make the best of its worn down situation.
The ferry employee was actually a good guy that really helped us out.
The van driver was actually a good guy that gave us a free ride to and from the port.
The ferry company was actually trying its best to give us good customer service and a free hotel room despite a difficult situation.
Our faith has been restored in the universe. It really will provide!
So the next day we joined our now van-driving buddy to ride back to the port. We quickly made it through immigration, customs, and were given a private room for the ride, now during the day, to Palermo. We got to the room and it wasn't clean, so we told the check in guy who immediately put someone on the job. Within minutes the cabin was tidy and we were good to go! We threw caution to the wind and ate both lunch and dinner at the ship's cafeteria. Given the delay and the lack of available refrigeration, we really didn't have much choice. Luckily, this time, the food was much better than the Grim-aldi offerings en route to Tunisia. In fact, the only bit of struggle with the entire ferry fiasco was the fact that our boat got in so late (around 11:00 pm) that they had already closed the nearest gate to our stop. Instead we had to walk around for what seemed like hours, trying to ask about the exit in a botched jumble of English and Italian, just to get out of the port. We also had to wait for what seemed like hours in the dark with a bunch of questionnable characters around us as we went through immigration and customs. (Due to to the dark, we didn't notice that the stamp was so faint it was impossible to read, which turned out to be a problem later on.) Then we couldn't find a cab so we had to walk another half an hour by the prostitutes and winos to our absolutely adorable apartment in the old town. Our lovely airbnb hostess woke up from her nap and graciously greeted us despite the huge delay caused by the ferry. And so our second ferry experience came to a tired close.
We woke up refreshed and ready for our day. Initially we had viewed Palermo as just a disembarkation point for our ferry. However, after a little research I decided it was worth a couple of days to look around. Absolutely! Palermo turned out to be a very authentic, beautiful Sicilian town. One of the absolute must sees there is the Capuchin catacombs. I love macabre, spooky sights so we've done our share of grave groveling, but I can honestly say that these catacombs hold the most unique collection of dead people we've ever seen. Somehow these people are holy enough to string up on the wall, and the conditions are such that their clothing and a lot of their body parts are quite well preserved. Some of the faces are gruesomely life-like despite being dead for centuries. The fashion show was even better, with velvet suits, poke bonnets, puffy pirate shirts, and even an army admiral or two. Too bad they don't allow pictures, but I took as many as I could of the postcards in the gift shop until the guy there put a stop to it.
For a short visit, a FREE tourist shuttle bus (called the Free Centro Storico) leaves from the main gate (Porto Felice, or Happy Port), to zip around all the highlights of the city. Always on the lookout for all things free, we thought this shuttle was a total score! It also swings by the main bus and train station, so we were able to get off there and sort out our next leg of Italian train travel, then time the distance between the station and our lovely apartment. Score!
Walking down the main street of Palermo, known as the Via Ruggero Settimo, the stunning palazzos reminded us of the greatness of Genova. A side trip to the Fountain of Shame (Piazza della Vergogna), so-called by the embarrassment of the church-goers at the Cathedral across the street, as well as to the Cathedral itself was in order. We chose to focus the rest of our time on the Palazzo dei Normanni, Europe’s oldest royal residence. The Palace bridge extends over the main street (complete with delightful musician) and presents an imposing structure, a former royal Arab residence (built in the 800s) remade into a beautiful collection of royal rooms beginning 1000 years ago. Punic ruins (remember those guys from Carthage?) are still found in the basement. The absolute best part of the building is the Cappella Palatina, a glittering gold combination of Arab, Norman, and Byzantine style that prevailed in the 12th-century Sicily. This was a great place to soak up some beautiful sights and local history.
Speaking of which, we really needed to soak up some local wine and food. On our walk from the Catacombs back towards the Norman palace, we chanced upon a restaurant called Trattoria Familiare da Michele e Jolanda. If you find it, eat here. The delightful owner explained, in English, how they transform healthy products from his family's farm into wholesome, scrumptious dishes. I can still remember how strikingly good everything was. It may be slightly more expensive than just a lousy pizza somewhere, but every bit worth it. Not even in the same category. Everything here is made with absolute love. What an incredibly memorable meal. Perhaps the best meal we had in all of Italy.