Palermo, Sicily

Belleza

Some weeks ago I was planning a short trip which should take me not too far away from Zürich as I had only one week off. The trip should take place in early March and I felt like having some warm and sunny days after the cold winter we had in Switzerland so Italy promised to be a great choice. I finally decided to go to Palermo, Sicily.

I imagined Palermo as a very traditional Italian town full of history, busy streets, lively people and – of course – the great mediterranean food, so this all sounded very holiday-like to me.

Equipment decisions

Like every photographer at first I was not sure about which camera(s) to take to this trip and also which film might fit best the mood of the famous Sicilian city.

After grinding the decision for some days I thought it was nice if I went for a new kind of film after exclusively using Ilford’s HP5+ and FP4+ for more than a year. So I chose their Delta 400 because mostly because of the dark moody pictures that I found were taken with this film.
The film-decision was the easier part and I ordered ten rolls straight away.

Next I had to pick a camera out of the three that I own. As I normally took only one camera/lens to any trip I usually ended up with my Leica MP and the 35mm Summilux, which is a powerful and versatile combination. But this time I wanted to try shooting the Contax T2 exclusively for several days. Taking the Leica MP at least as a backup camera was tempting but having two cameras with me has always been distracting. So finally I decided that the Contax was enough camera for a short trip.

Getting to know Sicilia

Sicily has been – due to its strategic location in the middle of the mediterranean sea – occupied by the Greek, the Arabs, the Normans and many more who left their traces on the island over the centuries. As Palermo has always been the largest city and the cultural center of the island, there is a great wealth of history to be seen in every street.

Nowadays Sicily counts to the poorest parts of Italy which is obviously visible when you walk around in Palermo.


During long episodes of the 20th century, Palermo and Sicily were famous and infamous because of the Cosa Nostra, one of the largest mafia organizations, which ruled most of the island. There was a lot of violence and it was probably not the safest place to travel to. Nowadays there is no open out mafia-war any more so it is safe enough to have a nice stay there.

Palermo

After arriving on a Saturday evening and taking a shared taxi into town, which was by far the fastest and cheapest option, I went for a quick walk right away while it was still sunny.


My hopes that Palermo would be a bit more summer-like than Zürich were shattered on the next morning. My arrival day was still sunny but then it got cloudy, windy and cold. Then the rain and storm started for the greater part of the week. So I had almost all kinds of weather you can imagine.


Nevertheless I tried to go out and take photos as much as I could. As I had an apartment right in the old center of Palermo I had all the historic buildings, the churches, parks and fountains right at my doorstep. The city is full of lovely small streets that are like a maze and around every corner there is something new – or rather old – to be discovered.


As a city of almost 700.000 people most parts that I saw (which is very little of a city that size, noted that I preferred to walk) are extremely stuffed with car madness. Cars and small motorbikes everywhere! And if you think of Italian traffic, one word comes to your mind: crazy. Now I learned that Sicilian traffic is rather “crazy on drugs”. On the other hand everything mysteriously works and although pretty much every car is badly damaged I never saw a single accident during the whole stay.


I saved myself from learning the complex physics of driving the Italian way and I did not rent a car in Palermo. But still I left Palermo’s busy city center for three day trips and it was great to get out of the busy city for some time.


Monreale

I took a public bus (~2€) to the monastery of Monreale which is about 15km outside of Palermo’s centre. The small town lies on the slope of Monte Caputo and has a great view on the valley towards Palermo and the coast.


Monreale has a cathedral which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national monument of Italy which looks like a wild mix of several buildings mashed into one. You can see Arab influence and a mixture of western and middle-eastern architecture arrangement.


Cefalù

Located on the northern coast of Sicily about one hour outside of Palermo, Cefalù is a small town which seemed like a very touristic place but in March it was still calm and there were very few people. I managed to go there on a very rainy and windy day so probably I just got lucky.


On a stormy day like that I had a great time to just sit and watch the powerful waves crashing on the rocks.


I also visited the cathedral of Cefalù – never enough cathedrals. It was quite comparable to the one in Monreale but still nice to see.

Cimitero di Santa Maria dei Rotoli

The cemetery of Santa Maria is in the Virgin Mary quarter of Palermo, rather far outside the city center. I decided to walk there and it was supposed to be a 1.5h walk through suburban areas of Palermo which was a nice change to the historic city centre – while the suburbs themselves were not so much of a pleasant sight. Most of the buildings were quite run-down concrete blocks, full of graffiti, trash was lying on the streets and many shops were closed longtime ago. All in all a very depressing sight in the middle of Europe.


Yet the walk was worth its while as the cemetery was quite different from what we know in northern Europe. Cimitero di Santa Maria is the largest cemetery in the city of Palermo and was founded in 1837 when, after a cholera epidemic, the cemetery of St. Ursula was no longer sufficient to house all the bodies. There are tons of monuments and chapels built by famous sculptors. The whole area is really huge, with named streets and quarters, separate areas for deceased foreigners or non-catholic bodies and of course cars driving around in the graveyard. A very lively site considering it is a place for eternal rest.

Photographic resume

Visiting Palermo was a nice and relaxing trip with many impressions and tons of great photo opportunities. The city is a perfect scenery for (street) photography especially the historic city centre but the suburban quarters as well.


One thing about taking an analog camera on a trip is that you are stuck with one ISO setting for the next 36 frames. So quickly changing between daylight shooting and night-time pictures can be a bit of a problem if you don’t have a second camera with you. If you don’t have a complete roll before it gets dark you just have to stop taking photos. Maybe 24 frame rolls would have solved this but that’s something I thought of too late.


I decided to use the Delta 400 at its original ISO so I was mostly stuck to daylight. Still I never regretted taking only one camera and I never regretted choosing the Contax T2.

Delta 400

To some it may seem like a risky enterprise but over the last year or so I got used to develop all my black and white films at home, even if there are unique pictures on them which can’t be reproduced easily, as from travelling. But I have my routine in developing at home so I felt confident not to mess it up too much.


The developer of my choice is Ilford’s DD-X which is easily available, can be stored for months and delivered good results on the HP5+ and the FP4+.


For developing times I used the iPhone app by digitaltruth.com but this time I double checked the suggested times in the overview on Ilford’s web page. Besides that it’s quite helpful to know as much as possible about the film you use so I read the Delta 400 technical information even before ordering the 10 rolls of film. The app was totally correct though, as I’d expected. I can really recommend it.


Developing Delta 400 then was simple because I just used the same process as I did with every other black and white film. In order not to add too much contrast and grain during development I decided to develop 8′ at 20°C and agitate 60 seconds first and 10 seconds every minute. That way the images came out flatter than I expected but this was okay because adding contrast is easier than removing it later. Grain and sharpness of the pictures are came out nicely. Overall I do not regret using Delta 400 and very probably I will use it more in the future.

Disclaimer

I am in no way related to the Ilford company, as much as I praise their products. Maybe you think I do write too much good about their films but they are just the go-to manufacturer of black and white film for me at the moment. But they don’t pay me for writing all this and it’s just my opinion and experiences.

Read more

The Guardian on Palermo

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