Monday, August 6, 2007

The Legend of the 812 - or How to Hijack a Bus in Palermo (Sicily)

I’ve decided Piazza Sturzo is Palermo’s Bermuda Triangle. Enter it and nothing happens as you expect it to.

It all began on Tuesday morning, when Glad (a South African here at the conference with her husband) and I set out to see Palermo, having been instructed by Reception to take the 812 bus from the stop outside (our hotel is a little out of the city centre).

After waiting interminably for the 812, in a moment of impulsiveness, we hopped on board a passing bus with an altogether different number (which we promptly forgot) and, with a dozen Palermitan passengers good-humouredly encouraging us and giving directions, we managed to arrive safely in the centre of town.

Around 4 o’clock, footsore and hot, we decided to give the 812 another go, so we found a bus stop in the city where a sign declared that the 812 would indeed pass that way. We watched others happily board their buses for their homeward journey while we propped ourselves against a post and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally I approached the driver of one of these buses with their happy homegoers, and asked when we might expect the 812. His gestured reply, if it could have been translated into English, would have been something like “You’ve got to be dreaming, lady!” and his fingers did a little walking motion as he pointed us in the direction of Piazza Sturzo.

(Cue spooky music…)

Now, don’t be fooled by the pretty-sounding name. Piazza Sturzo is not one of the piazzas of your imagination, with cobblestones, an outdoor café or two, maybe a gelataria, and a fountain in the middle. No way. It is smack in the middle of some of the ugliest, most charmless high-rise office buildings I’ve ever seen. On one side is a graffiti-covered wall, at one end buses pull in at the end of their run, and in the centre, on a glorified traffic island, is a shabby bus shelter with chewing-gum covered seats. It is not a place where you’d want to tarry, and it’s not exactly crowded.

Perching on these seats, and relieved to have been pointed in the right direction, we waited – ever hopefully - for the 812 to appear. And waited. And waited.

The cars and motor scooters, meanwhile, whizzed around us in the most deranged fashion, horns tooting, many times almost colliding, but somehow with great finesse avoiding the crunch at the last moment.

I started to do my embroidery and instantly attracted the attention of a young woman sitting next to us, and she struck up a conversation (so to speak). Her husband, when he learned of our plight, consulted a few passers by but was only able to tell us that we were indeed waiting at the right place for the 812. They caught their bus. But we waited.

Glad spotted what appeared to be an information booth, so we girded our loins and crossed to the other side of the square. Having told you the locals drive like madmen, it must be said that they are also some of the most courteous I have seen in all our travels, and I feel far safer crossing a busy road here than home in Sydney. That’s one of the wonderful contradictions about Sicily. Step off the pavement and, provided you walk at a steady pace with no false moves, the cars and scooters will either whiz past and around you, or stop (but only if they absolutely must). Jenny Bowker explained it to us in Cairo, and I think the same applies here: the speed and volume of traffic means the drivers drive with a heightened awareness of each other and their surroundings, and are actually more mindful of the road than many of us back home. But I digress..

Back in Piazza Sturzo, Glad and I consulted 3 men lounging in the heavily disguised information booth. “Otto uno due?” I managed in my best Italian accent, and amidst much laughter (I think it was with us, not at us – but then, I could be wrong) they scrambled to write 18.35 on a scrap of paper. The bus would not come for another hour!!!!

So we waited, by now attracting our fair share of (male) attention, our winter-white skin obviously tagging us as foreigners. Then a strange thing happened. As 18.35 came and went, an Italian gentleman had a word with the driver of what looked like a tour bus, not at all your basic urban bus, and came back to tell us that this was the 812. There was no number on the front to confirm this, but nevertheless we climbed on board, grateful to be taken home. I tried to ask the driver whether we were on the right bus but he just grunted so we took our seats with three very ancient and taciturn men for what seemed quite a surreal drive back to our hotel.

I doubt very much whether the 812 ever arrived in Piazza Sturzo that evening, and I think a few local gents dined out on the tale of how they helped two mature-aged damsels in distress.

But wait, there’s more!

Two days later, still not having sighted the rare and elusive 812, we caught an 837 bus into town from outside the hotel, this time writing down the number. It terminated at Piazza Sturzo! Aha! We thought. Getting back to the hotel tonight will be easy this time!

So when an 837 pulled into Piazza Sturzo at the end of its inbound run that afternoon, we enthusiastically went to board for the outbound trip, telling the driver we wanted to get off at the Palace Astoria. No way! The driver would listen to none of our protestations that this was the bus we had caught this morning. He insisted we should catch the 812!!!!!!! And the next one would be here at 18.35!!!

Meanwhile, as we were having this exchange, we gradually became aware of some background activity. Five teenage boys were on board, bounding around the bus, running from side to side and calling out to pretty girls passing by. One of these must have understood a little English and, overhearing our exchange, had a word with the driver who suddenly agreed to drive us home.

There followed one of the most frightening journeys I’ve ever experienced.

The driver, looking straight ahead, drove the bus without stopping. Glad and I sat in the back seat with our backs against the rear window. The five teenage boys sat in seats all over the bus, facing us and variously bouncing around the cabin, calling out the windows, nudging each other and grinning with glee as they shouted questions at us in broken English.

“Are you tourists?”
“Where you from?”
“How old are you?”
“Want to come home with me?”

With hindsight I can see they were just high-spirited kids, but Glad and I sat with fixed smiles, clutching our bags containing our money, credit cards and cameras, terrified that at any moment we were going to be asked to hand over our valuables before we would be let off the bus.

We were enormously relieved when the bus doors opened at our hotel and we alighted and watched the bus driving off, the ‘ragazzi’ waving cheekily at us from the windows.

I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, or the 812 any more. But if you need a free, personal trip on your very own bus in Palermo, just go to Piazza Sturzo.


  1. What a pair of tarts!!! And clergy wives too!!! You do have the most amazing adventures Di & have a most descriptive way of relating them. You must write a book one day!

  2. Just call us cradle-snatchers!


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