The Magic Hour

A set of musings from an evening Sicilian stroll

Never have I fallen so aggressively, insanely, tempestuously in love. My first evening, as I move amongst roving locals and raucous vendors, I already miss her. I’ve only arrived this afternoon, I am currently surrounded by her, yet I already grieve her, crave her, yearn for her. Palermo.

Numerous cultures and complicated pasts have created this rugged (yet delicately detailed) city.

I dodge fish bones, scavenging dogs, and discarded napkins, smudged with suppertime fare, wrung thoroughly of their use. Moretti bottles lie abandoned. Forgotten once the owners finished their delirious tales of yore.

Sicilians move about the darkened alleys with a swaggering confidence. A stark contrast to the unctuous, stalking Palermo cats. Before leaving for my stroll, I had witnessed one feline particularly enjoying my Via Pantelleria roof deck for her twilight rest. She stretched herself, black coat shining, cross-hatched scars softened in the early evening light. The magic hour. As dusk gave way to darkness, she vanished. Minutes later I heard the violent shrieks of her nightly, territorial brawling. Then afterwards, the sorrowful cries of the fallen. My friend returned though. Tired and victorious. Perhaps that rooftop was just too precious of a territory to give up.

Two women speak across their adjacent balconies. They laugh, observe passersby, and passionately argue in fiery Sicilian dialects. (As the week continued, I noticed the same women speak every single night. Never less animated than the day before. Never leaving their individual balconies. Never crossing thresholds.)

I point my walk in the direction of the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea. Designed by one of the capable men behind Teatro Massimo, I have no doubts of its ‘grand’ title. The hotel is positioned far from the city center, so it requires a considerable walk through a part of Palermo rarely seen by tourists.  

As I amble on, I observe one woman lowering a roped basket from her 5th floor window to a shopkeeper below, who fills it with baked goods for our Sicilian Rapunzel to pull back to her tower. Further along, a couple argues loudly in the street, not only undeterred by the presence of a stranger but, I suspect, potentially aroused by it. In this city, exhibitionist feuding is an art.

Approaching the hotel, I see it is surrounded by some of Palermo’s most dramatic, mountainous coastline. The striking backdrop provokes thoughts of epic sea battles and tragic romances. Even looming over the swimming pool are half crumbled columns of stone. I find that most settings in this Mediterranean city seem heightened and cinematic, as if rousing orchestration should be accompanying even the most mundane tasks. 

The interior of the hotel has an abandoned Art Nouveau quality. It hints at a past of glamorous clientele. Now however, I encounter almost no guests. Heading outside, it appears that my Partagas No. 4 and I have the sweeping veranda to ourselves (later joined by a generous pour of Amaro Montenegro).

I think back to the botanical garden I had visited that afternoon, which was also eerily empty. Is L’Orto Botanico di Palermo, along with this stunning hotel, simply in the midst of a pre-summer lull? Or are they revealing a more widespread lack of tourist money entering the city?

The sizable garden had shown signs of neglect. The caretakers I saw were hard at work but it seemed there were simply too few of them to manage a site that substantial. Plants wilted and paths were overgrown. Even the small museum on the premises had been empty of employees. Doors swung unnervingly open and closed down the drafty, unoccupied hallways…

With my cigar finished and glass emptied, I throw one last glance at the coastline and brace myself for the long journey back to city center.

After the walk, I once more find myself in need of a beverage. This time however, I’m looking for something considerably stronger. Palermo is a bit behind New York City on the cocktail front, but there is one oasis in the Sicilian cocktail desert: Bocum Mixology. Head bartender Gianluca Di Giorgio is raising the stakes and bringing new life to the city’s hospitality world.  I settle into my bar seat and take in the room.

Live vocals from a beautiful singer have the crowd enraptured. Even as guests sip their drinks and engage in conversation, it’s clear that all bodies in the room are in tune with the song. Shoulders sway, feet tap, and subtle glancing is frequent in the direction of our charming songstress.

Gianluca is an engaging and knowledgeable bartender. You can tell from the attentive body language in his presence that he commands the respect of his employees. He also focuses on using local ingredients behind the bar. This adds comfort to a menu that can be daunting in a city unused to this level of cocktail.  

I order the “Frangiflutti,” which loosely translates to “Breakwater.” The main spirit is Gin Mare, a gin that uses entirely botanicals sourced from the Mediterranean area, such as thyme, basil, and rosemary. The cocktail also includes Sicilian citrus, salt (“sea”) water,  Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur, and lemon foam. The result is savory and refreshing with a hint of spice.

Afterwards, as I walk towards the apartment with a touch more of that Palermo swagger (maybe a slight buzz is the key), I begin to hear classical music. In most places, a sudden soundtrack of Verdi’s Waltz in F Major might seem odd. Here, it seems perfectly fitting.

As I round a corner, the music swells. I’m in what otherwise seems like a normal square but three stories up, in a very unassuming building, a window is open, revealing a decadent ballroom. Warm light and jovial orchestration spill out into the streets below. Every few seconds I catch a glimpse of dancers swirling past, adorned in their finest.

I am captivated. It seems this cinematic city is trying to outdo itself.

Eventually, after what honestly could have been hours or mere minutes, the music fades. It is replaced by the comforting sounds of chatter and laughter.

Countless thoughts compete for my attention as I leisurely make my way home, Verdi still echoing in my head. Eventually though, one thought prevails:

If people knew about moments like that, Palermo’s hotels and gardens would never be empty.