Leaving Malta long before sunrise—the taxi picked us up at the hotel at 3:45AM—under an overcast and misty sky I found myself looking forward to exploring Palermo, Sicily, a bit tense about the rental car drive from the Palermo airport to the hotel, and looking forward to my stay at a luxury hotel on the water near Palermo. It would nice to have a bit of quiet time for recuperation after some days leading a successful photography group in the Malta Archipelago.
The hotel—Grand Hotel Villa Igiea—self-describes in its sales materials as “memorable,” as in “Experience a Memorable Moment.” Generally, the reviews I had read agreed that it was a pretty special place. Indeed, my arrival was to be memorable, but probably not in the way that the pamphlets contemplated.
Coming down through the dawn on Air Malta I was struck by how beautiful and intricate the coast of Sicily looked in the morning mist. Clearly, the road hugged the coastline, and I really didn’t anticipate too much trouble finding the hotel.
Utilizing the gentle guidance of the Google Maps directorate, I took the freeway towards Palermo, and actually got off the freeway and onto local roads at the right place. From there on, it was increasingly crowded and urban driving. I started to notice a substantial presence of gendarmerie at every intersection. What could this be about?
I was probably within a few blocks of the hotel when I was stopped by an impassable police blockade. All traffic was summarily being ordered to turn around by heavily armed police. First check! I obeyed the police orders, and decided to see if I could use the prowess of Google Maps to “cut across country.”
I really had no idea that the problem was the hotel itself, and figured that if I could only work my way around whatever the issue was, I’d be fine once I got to the hotel.
Before I knew it was driving through an impenetrable warren of tiny streets in a rough neighborhood in Palermo. This wasn’t getting me anywhere, second check! I backed up, turned around, and managed to trace my way back to the original blockade.
I stopped, and had a pretty good look at the map. It seemed like if I went back almost to where I had left the highway I could go round a mountain that hugged the sea, and reach the hotel by a completely different route, approaching from the seaward rather than the city side. So it took a while, but I tried it. I figured at least I was getting to know the area.
This time I got to within a couple of blocks of the hotel, and could actually see it, before I was stopped. I explained the situation to the police officer who stopped me and demanded my passport and proof of hotel reservation. A spirited discussion in Italian commenced within a group of uniformed police, and also some other tough looking men who were probably security agents of one sort or another.
What turned out was that the Italian government had convened a Libyan peace conference at the hotel. For obvious reasons, security was tight, and no cars were allowed within a substantial safety “red zone” buffer around the hotel.
Eventually, and it was a pretty long eventually, I was able to call the hotel, and they promised to send someone out to help me find a place to park the car and bring my luggage in. This took a while as I waited between two police barricades.
I won’t go into the security process of getting into the hotel, although it was extensive. The Libyan conference is going on today and tomorrow. I can’t wait for it to be done. Meanwhile, the hotel is plenty memorable (my room is nice, too, as you can see in the image of my room curtains, above) with diplomats and mirrored-sunglass thugs and folks with badges milling around. Lots of self-important people in suits and heels, each one with a briefcase, many of them smoking, almost all of them constantly yammering on their cell phones!
I have the feeling that if I put my camera on the tripod on my balcony—which overlooks not only the Bay of Palermo but also a podium where it looks like potentates are going to pontificate—that most likely I would get in a heap of trouble.
Essentially, I am a prisoner in my very nice room. Going outside, I am stopped frequently for my papers. It isn’t really tenable. The restaurants and public rooms are closed to hotel guests except for the Libyan conference grandees. Running the gauntlet to get out and back in again is something to contemplate only after I good night’s sleep, since I’ve been up since 3AM.
When I complained to the manager, essentially he said, “We hate it too!” I pointed out that he could have let me know so I could have changed my hotel arrangements. It was all over the news he said. Well maybe, but Palermo is not the top of the news in California in this still surprisingly parochial world we live in (probably they don’t follow the California fires much in Palermo, for that matter). Anyhow, he agreed to comp me to a room service lunch/dinner (as there was no other way to get to eat), and having a full belly helps a bit.
Here’s to being memorable, and in the moment, but only in the right way!