In its original definition the word “quarter” refers to a fourth part of a whole, though I’m not sure of the origins of phrases such as “servants’ quarters” where the term refers to rooms allocated to a specific group. Surely this was never so rigidly allocated as to refer to 25% of the original property?
When it comes to defining areas of a town I’d always assumed that quarter (as in New Orleans’ French Quarter) did derive from being roughly of that proportion, though this is belied by the fact that Birmingham apparently has seven! In my Italian lessons, the word is quartiere and simply means neighbourhood, so Rome has a Jewish quarter, and Naples a Spanish quarter, but in Palermo at least, the term is refreshingly accurate.
The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele creates a square in the city, called Piazza Vigliena, though it is more widely known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners). The streets that create it embody Sicilian history in themselves (Maqueda is a Spanish name, but with Arab origins, and Vittorio Emanuele was of course the first king of a united Italy), but the four buildings between those streets add more. The largely identical structures feature fountains of the four seasons, statues of the four Spanish Kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of the city. Of the latter, two have connections to Tunisia. Behind each lies a defined “quarter” of the city, and though formally known as Albergheria, Seralcadio, La Loggia and Mandamento Tribunali, many visitors to Palermo know them by different names. The first three are defined for many by the markets within them; Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and the last is now called Kalsa, from its original Arab name Al-Khalesa.
It may seem strange that the Arab quarter lacks a market, and historically it had several, but this was the area of Palermo that suffered most from Allied bombs in WWII. Left derelict for decades it is only now seeing regeneration.
Of the three markets that remain, La Vucciria (possibly a corruption of butchery or voices; either would work) was once the pearl, and given greater prominence by the famous painting of that name by Renato Guttuso, though most agree that it no longer lives up to that billing. Here I’d expected to be steeling myself to try a Sicilian street food staple called Pani ca’ Meusa (effectively a spleen sandwich) but disappointingly didn’t find a vendor (not too disappointingly if I’m honest!).
Capo was all that I’d expect from an Italian market; an abundance of the freshest produce with huge variety and colourful presentation. Whether due to seasonality or local taste I’m not sure, but there was a greater emphasis on artichokes than I’d noticed elsewhere. All the same it was very the sort of place I’d happily shop.
And so to Ballarò. Here the spirit of Al-Khalesa survives. Alongside the expected fruit, vegetables, meat and fish you find spice stalls whose aroma signposts their presence before your eyes, freshly boiled potatoes steaming in huge pots, and around the fringes many of the city’s immigrants spread their wares on the pavement reminding me of scenes from my time in Africa.