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The International Writers Magazine: Sicily - Italia

Palermo’s Inimitable Hotel Orientale
• Paul Michelson

It was sunny out, but once we stepped through those wooden doors, it was like stumbling onto a set from House on Haunted Hill: a shadowy courtyard surrounded by dark, brooding apartments; a walkway of oily black cobblestones; palms lurking like ghosts off in the shadows; a calico cat sprawled in a murky corner.


To me, it all looked like some creepy still-life. At sixty Euros a night, I hadn’t expected the Hilton, but still, I wasn’t sure what to make of the place. Part of me was thinking, “This is great!” The other part was thinking, “What have I gotten us into?”

Palermo Oriental I’d reserved three nights at the Orientale because I wanted to experience the Palermo I’d read about—ramshackle, gritty, chaotic. Bordered on one side by Via Maqueda, the city’s lively main drag, and on another by the teeming Ballaro market, the hotel had once been part of a palace owned by a Prince Cûto.

It was located in Albergheria, an historic district that long ago had been home to Sicilian nobility. Over the centuries Albergheria had declined, reaching rock bottom during Allied bombing of Palermo in World War II, which reduced parts of the district to rubble. In recent decades, however, there’d been something of a revival as immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East moved in and opened small businesses.

While my wife and I stood there trying to figure out which floor the hotel was on, I wondered what she must be thinking. She’d always been a good traveler, tolerating the ups and downs of low-rent travel in a spirit of adventure. Still, I thought, this might be a bit much. For starters, the stark little blue and white “Hotel Orientale” sign that protruded over the sidewalk looked like something you’d see on skid row. The huge wooden entry doors were chipped and faded. And then there was this courtyard. She could probably handle one night, I figured, but three?
“There,” my wife said, pointing toward a black and orange banner hanging from the second floor: Hotel Orientale. We crossed the court and started up a red marble stairway that had been worn to a slippery sheen over time. We found the hotel entrance, rang the bell, and a trim, middle-aged woman greeted us. “Three people?” she said as she checked our reservation. “Two,” I said. “Oh,” she said, nodding, “You wanted more room.” She took a key attached to a chunk of wood as big as a doorknob from behind the reception desk, and we followed her down the hallway.

As we passed the breakfast room, I glanced in. Once the palace library, it was a large room with lofty frescoed ceilings and glass doors that opened onto a balcony. Dishes, silverware, and napkins were neatly set out on the tables. Our room, next door, was a subdued green with high ceilings, an ornate chandelier, a big brass bed, a smaller bed, a bathroom, and an old analog TV. The lighting was dim, but the room was big and airy.
And there was a balcony.

We dropped our packs, my wife flopped on the bed, and I stepped out through the French doors. The balcony overlooked the intersection of Via Maqueda and a side street, Via Torino. Both were lined with apartments, residences on the upper floors and shops below. It was late afternoon, and the streets were a bedlam of rumbling motors, whining Vespas, horns, sirens, and voices.
Palermo Oriental
Palermo view Palermitanos of Sicilian descent shared the sidewalks with Africans in colorful robes, Indian men in spotless white, and Muslim women in burquas. It was a mesmerizing mix of sights and sounds, just the Palermo I’d been hoping for.

After a while, I came back in, closed the double doors, and turned on the TV. It was showing the same sleepy collection of stations we’d seen all over Italy. That was okay, though. Clearly, the show was outside. I took an apple from my pack, pulled a chair out on the balcony, and sat down. Dusk was setting in now. To the north, against a pink pastel sky, a river of headlights streamed down in our direction from the hills before veering away to the west.

That evening, as we walked down Via Maqueda looking for somewhere to eat, we passed tiny cafes selling Bengali, Pakistani, and Indian food. Most of the customers seemed to be Bengalis, Pakistanis, and Indians themselves —typically three or four guys standing around talking to another guy behind a counter. I wondered whether the protection racket run by the Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s home grown mafia, reached down to the level of these small, new-immigrant entrepreneurs.

The next morning I was out on the balcony by 7:00. On Via Maqueda, things were just getting rolling. Across the street the custodian at the adults-only Cinema Orfeo was energetically sweeping the sidewalk in front of the theater; school kids humped along under sagging backpacks; an old lady lowered a basket from her balcony to the butcher shop below; a neatly dressed young woman pushing a half-filled grocery cart stopped at a dumpster, peered in, poked a stick around, and moved on. Two middle-aged men in slacks and shirt sleeves hurried along Via Maqueda, stopped and spoke briefly on a corner, kissed each other on the cheek, and went their separate ways. All day long, the show went on. It was thoroughly absorbing, a ceaseless spectacle of life and color.

Two mornings later, we left at 5:30 to catch our bus to the airport. As we headed down the marble stairs in the dim morning light, a little black and white cat I hadn’t seen before bounced down ahead of us. Via Maqueda was empty except for the custodian busily washing windows at the Cinema Orfeo. While we trundled our packs along over the cobblestones, I asked my wife what she’d thought of the hotel. “Great,” she said, “a whole lot of ambience.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not only was it one of the most atmospheric places I’d ever stayed in, it was a fascinating window into the pulsing heart of old Palermo as well.

*The Hotel Orientale is located in the historic center of Palermo at Via Maqueda 26, two blocks from the Palermo train station:

© Paul Michelson March 2015
paulmichelson at
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