It’s barely 7am and Ballaro is already in full swing. Hundreds of street sellers have set up shop along the district’s winding, cobbled streets. Shouts of bello pre! (good price!) and amuni! (let’s go!) ring out around the area’s ancient buildings. Everything is for sale.
The American journalist Robert V Camuto wrote that Ballaro comprises “greengrocers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, public forums, daily operas, and cashiers of the underground (tax-free) economy played out on the streets.”
Locals know it as the heart of Palermo. It’s where Phoenicians founded the city in the eighth century BC, and it’s one of five districts built largely by invading Normans, who arrived around 1,100 years ago. Its tightly-wound streets and variegated architecture stand testament to a tangled history that includes conquest by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs.
Even its name, first mentioned by a Baghdadi trader in the 10th century, is a nod to the lost ancient Arab town of Belhara, thought to be in modern-day north Africa, from where so many of the multicultural neighbourhood’s residents came. Many of its street signs are written in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew: Ballaro, and its surrounding Albergheria district, were also home to Palermo’s Jewish population until its expulsion by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.
A small district winding from the Church of Casa Professa up Corso Tukory – its main thoroughfare – it runs alongside the Via Maqueda, Palermo’s premier walking street, and rubs shoulders with the Palazzo Normanni, Monumento al Cadere and Cappella Palatina, three of the city’s major tourist attractions. It is also within easy walking distance of Palermo’s other big attractions, such as the Teatro Massimo, which is the third-largest opera house in Europe, and the sun-soaked Foro Italico, the promenade on which people play football, cricket and other imported sports each day.
But in truth, Ballaro is something all of its own, an anomaly in the heart of the city. It is said that Giuseppe Balsamo, an alchemist who went by the nom de plume Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, was born in Ballaro. There is certainly no shortage of spirits – though today they tend of be of a different kind. By day Ballaro is a crush of sights, sounds and smells, as the market runs all day at a breakneck speed. At night, when the stalls close and shutters come down on its many cafes, it becomes a frantically fun place to go out.
Restaurants like Moltivolti and Al Fondeco del Conte serve up a wide variety of international dishes, such is the local fare – from Afghan curry and Senegalese mafé, to Moroccan couscous and freshly-caught fish. There is pasta and pizza, too. But Ballaro is a web of culture and history. Italy, the local saying goes, it is not. The district also boasts an impressive array of, largely political, street art with multicoloured murals splashed across derelict facades and scaffold walls.
The only must-try local dish, perhaps, is pannelle, a traditional chickpea fritter that usually comes as a starter. Keep plenty of room: they’re greasy enough to turn the tablecloth see-through. But, like most things in Palermo and Ballaro, they’re indulgently brilliant.
Above all, though, Ballaro is a place to stroll and take in the sights and sounds of the marketplace. It is a marvel of human history and cultural cross-pollination, unlike anything else in Europe. But then Ballaro, and Palermo, aren’t really European at all. They’re something else entirely.
Finally, some words on haggling…
Two tips will see you through your experience unscathed. Firstly, don’t handle the merchandise. Tell the vendor what you want and they’ll bag it. Everything is good, but if you’re a regular, you’ll get the best. Secondly, don’t haggle, it can be seen as an insult. Simply join the longest queue – a sign of the best produce – and wait
Words: Sean Williams