Last time I’ve found, a little by chance and a little because I wanted to, an area near my house, by following the weird name of the streets around. This time I really mean it: I want to discover the oldest part of the city thorough its crafts. I’ve downloaded a chart from Google Maps and I’ve highlighted the areas I’ve seen already and the ones I want to see. Earlier I was in the one highlighted in blue, now I want to go to the one in red. The black line you see is actually the historical center of Palermo. So, before I reach the Quattro Canti I find Via Candelai, whose name comes from the candle makers. I keep going on Via Maqueda. I’ve been told that after the Quattro Canti you will reach what it used to be the Mesquita. There was a large Jewish community in this area before they were driven away in 1492. Instead of the San Giuseppe dei Teatini’s Church, there was the Porta Giudaica, entrance to the Arabic quarter before it was torn down. Even the Synagogue has been destroyed and now there is San Nicola da Tolentino’s church in its place.
Palermo has been a cosmopolitan city for ages. The names of the streets are in three languages: Italian, Hebrew and Arabic, as a reminder of the importance of its multicultural aspect. The signs with the names in all languages are in between Via Maqueda and Via Roma.
This area was largely populated and lively, thanks to all the people and the different arts and trades. I walk in Via Calderai. Blacksmiths used to live and work here at first; bronze and copper smelters came later, mostly fabricating boilers; therefore the street changed its name from Via Ferraria to the actual one. Nowadays, here you can find home and street vendors supplies sellers. The same faith has occurred the near by Via Lattarini, whose name comes from the Arabic Attariin, food vendors that is. A large market place used to be here and the groceries stores outnumbered the others. After crossing Via Roma and entering the street where the Modern Art Gallery is, I reach Via Alloro. It’s said that in the courtyard of the palace, there was such a luxuriant laurel tree that people still remember it even if it died of old age back in 1707. In the same street there is indeed a garden once named Giardino dell’Alloro in memory of it but now the same garden is known as Giardino dei Giusti (Garden of the Righteous) to remember the victim of the Holocaust.
Via della Vetreria is on the right, as there was an old glass factory that closed down in 1615, but this is also a very well known street: this is here that Paolo Borsellino was born, the famous judge who was the victim of the Mafia during the Via d’Amelio’s bloodshed in July of 1992.
Still ahead there is an alley by the curious name: Via delle Neve all’Alloro. It seems strange to talk about snow in a solar city like Palermo, but in any case snow was a big business in the XVIII century; beside the baked goods that required a lot of sugar, there was a huge consumption of ice-cream, which required a lot of snow in order to make it. So the snow was picked up from the mountains during February and March: it was initially beaten so to become ice, than it was preserved inside a cave and everyday it was brought down to the city with donkeys, after it hade been covered with salt and wrapped with straw. Luigi Castelli Valenzano was the first to use it to make frozen desserts.
I find another curious name in a secondary road adjacent Via Alloro: Via del Papagallo (Street of the Parrot). The original name was Via di Gamba Corta, but it was later renamed after a parrot that during the daytime was left on the balcony of Palazzo Rostagni di San Ferdinando, overlooking the street, where a restaurant with the same name opened up in 1950 and where the very outspoken parrot attract the customers by entertaining them with his colloquial habits.
There are plenty of arts and crafts here: Via Scopari, where brooms manufacturers lived, and Via Bottai, where barrels and kegs were made up until 1860 are just few of them. There’s also Via Maestri d’Acqua, where the water superintendents and some of the water tanks builders (known therefore as “water masters”) lived, and Via Zagarellai, where women weaved silk ribbons, called “zagareddi” in the Sicilian dialect. Hence, you can’t tell me that people in Palermo do not work hard! And the sign on this last street is another proof of that….(Street of the whorehouse!)