Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Tale of Two Conferences

Our beautiful setting for Saturday evening's dinner (see later in this blog entry).

Last week’s International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, attended by about 60, left little time for those involved in the sessions to see Palermo at large, unless they chose to forgo a siesta in the afternoon and take a quick walk or bus trip into the city during the hottest hours. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were here, and while the company was always good, the menu developed a certain sameness by the end of the week. The hotel is comfortable, but modest. It’s hardly the Conrad or the Sheraton.

I spent a very happy time last week wandering the streets, shops and sights of Palermo with Glad, another clergy wife, but it was just wonderful to take Boak out to explore on Saturday. Most of the tourist attractions seem, curiously, to be closed on Saturdays, but we did find Palermo’s cathedral open, as well as an ancient Norman-built church called St John of the Hermits where the church next door was doing a thriving little business in allowing tourists to climb up to their tower and photograph the view over the city.

Along the way we stopped for lunch at a little trattoria, situated in what appeared to have once been stables, off the courtyard of a Norman-built house near the Palazzo Normanii (or Palazzo Reale)
Palermo is full of contrasts. You can be jostling to stay on the footpath of a noisy city street, but detour slightly into a narrow side street you can find yourself almost alone just metres from the crowds.

The elegance and exotic architecture of an old palazzo contrasts sharply with sheets and underwear hanging to dry from balconies next door, and as you negotiate these narrow lanes you need to watch out in case you’re soaked by a bucket of dirty laundry water tipped out from above.

The neighbourhood where our hotel is situated seems, to our Australian standard, fairly down-at-heel. But then again that could just be because of all the dog poo you have to step over on the pavement when you go for a stroll to the supermarket. There’s much more rubbish in the streets than we see at home, too.

So I was absolutely entranced when, on Saturday evening, we went looking for somewhere to eat and found a lamp-lit, clean, modern but beautiful courtyard trattoria hidden away in what would have been the back garden of a beautifully renovated house just up the road from here. The food was wonderful, as was the people-watching – lots of multigenerational Italian families – and the night was clear and balmy. Perfetto!!

Our plan to take the trip to Taormina for the day on Sunday came unravelled when we missed the long-distance bus by one minute – such are the vicissitudes of catching Palermo buses on Sundays, we now gather. Taormina is a small (but perfectly formed) medieval village on the top of a hill overlooking the sea on the eastern side of Sicily. It used to be on the itinerary for those doing the Grand Tour and artists and writers have visited it over the centuries. It has a Greek theatre right on top of the hill, deliciously attractive shopping I’m told, and a very pretty beach reached by funicular railway. Boak is considering taking his life in his hands and hiring a car one day during the week, so we may yet see Taormina.

The Societas Liturgica conference, in the meantime, began yesterday with the influx of around 160 delegates (and partners) from many Christian denominations, and the hotel is bursting at the seams. The local committee has organised several outside events and excursions, so there is much more variety for the participants.

At the end of last night’s opening service and keynote speech the Catholic Archbishop of Palermo officially welcomed us and then 4 buses transported us to the Villa Niscemi, a beautifully restored eighteenth century summer residence set in acres of gardens. It is not open to the public, being used by the Mayor of Palermo, Dr Diego Cammarata, for official entertainment, and he was our host for drinks and a magnificent banquet under the stars.

My next blog entry will show you some photos of the interior of the house.

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