Matthew Hoffman was moved to visit Palermo by Lampedusa's tale of its decadent past. But nothing could prepare him for the inspiring reality of the city today

I knew that many of Lampedusa's haunts survive and that, in any case, such an itinerary would take me through the intriguing areas of the city. Arriving in Palermo on a Saturday around noon, I checked into a small hotel by Piazza Marina, not far from the historic port area of La Cala, and went for a walk to orient myself. It is hard to orient yourself when everything is disorientating and novel. Take the trees in the Giardino Garibaldi, which occupies the centre of the piazza. Technically, according to the Blue Guide to Sicily, they are "enormous Ficus magnolioides", but giving a name to these exotic giants does nothing to tame the wondrous appearance of their tendril-like branches.

Saturday must be wedding day in Palermo, for at the Piazza Marina was replete with brides and grooms having photos taken in the embrace of the enveloping trees. The brides, large and handsome in white, are like exotic fruits in full bloom; but their smaller, nervous husbands, tightly done up in black, large-buttoned jackets seem relegated to their roles as escorts. As I walk past churches, guests spill out from the high porches; at one, Santa Maria della Catena, they are preceded by a group of men wearing dark sunglasses who fan out over steps looking outwards the whole time. Fantasies of the Mafia obtrude; but are they fantasies?

From the tall, baroque church of La Pieta, on via Buttera, across from Lampedusa's last home, the bride and groom stop at the top of the stairs to be admired by their family; suddenly a loud bang is followed by the release of doves, which fly up into the cerulean sky, over the azure waters of the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.

That evening I eat at a restaurant that has little to do with Lampedusa, except that it was recommended to me by a distant cousin of his, Anna Tasca Lanza. She runs a cooking school near Palermo where I had spent the previous week. Piccolo Napoli is tucked away in a small street behind the busy Borgo Vecchio food market, a little north of the outer limits of the historic centre. On a Saturday night, at 8pm, three of my fellow cooking school alumni and I are the only customers; but an hour later the modestly decorated dining room is buzzing. Families with young children eating purple baby octopus, smartly dressed couples tucking into sea urchin pasta, and we four, the only English-speakers in the place, are sampling the freshly grilled fish we had ordered from the iced selection by the door. I can't imagine eating better food in a happier atmosphere.

Sunday morning, like all of my days in Palermo, dawns bright and clear. The churches have now switched to first communions, and young girls dressed in white gowns parade with their parents in horse-drawn carriages through the narrow streets. I cross Piazza Marina and make my way down Pappagalla street towards the nearby Parco Letterario Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. A parco letterario (literary park) is an institution dedicated to an individual author that serves the interests of students, tourists and scholars by introducing them to locations connected with a writer. There are four such parks in Sicily: devoted to Giuseppe Tomasi, Luigi Pirandello, Salvatore Quasimodo and Leonardo Sciascia. At the parco, there is a small café where I get a cool drink and settle down at an outdoor table with a book of photographs of Lampedusa's life. I also pick up a couple of suggested itineraries, which I will use to explore Lampedusa's Palermo.

Near the park is Palermo's principal fine arts museum, Palazzo Abatellis, and in it are two of the finest paintings I've ever seen. One, a wall-sized 15th-century fresco, The Triumph of Death, depicts a skeletal horseman shooting arrows of mortality into partying clerics, nobles and laity. The head of the horse, also skeletal, is reminiscent of, and doubtless the inspiration for, the screaming horse in Picasso's anti-war masterpiece, Guernica. Antonello da Massina's L'Annunziata is the opposite of the Triumph in every aspect but quality. It is an intimate panel portrait of a woman wrapped in a mantle reading. She looks up to acknowledge with a raised hand the archangel Gabriel's message that she is to bear the Christ child.

In the afternoon I change hotels to one close to the ruins of Palazzo Lampedusa. This is near where Giuseppe Tomasi grew-up until the bombing drove him to find new, and less happy, accommodation in via Buttera. All that's left of the palace in via Lampedusa are the perimeter walls, two-storeys high. The great doorways, wide enough to let carriages turn in the narrow street to enter its courtyards, are blocked up, and 60 years has provided sufficient time for wild trees within to grow high enough to peep over the walls. But the atmosphere is less of melancholy and neglect than peaceful rest.

Via Bara all'Olivella crosses via Lampedusa to form the northern border of the palazzo. During Lampedusa's childhood, as he recollects in his memoirs, via Bara was "crawling with poverty and squalid cellars, and depressing to pass along". Now it is the location of craft shops and ateliers, including a workshop and theatre for one of Palermo's best-know puppeteers, the family Cuticchio. L'opera dei pupi (Sicilian marionette theatre) is justly famous, as I discovered that evening when I attended a performance in via Bara of a show featuring the knights of Charlemagne's court in quest of honour and glory. The warmth and artistry of the spectacle was entrancing, delightful to children and adults alike. Palermo's famous archaeological museum is on via Bara all'Olivella, and the next morning I perused the relics of Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Roman and Saracen Sicily before setting off for lunch at Bar Mazzara, Lampedusa's habitual destination in the Fifties, when he was writing The Leopard. In fact, it is said that he wrote much of it there, spending the day away from his home in via Buttera, while his psychoanalyst wife was seeing her patients.

On the ground floor of Bar Mazzara, you can order bar snacks such as arancini (risotto balls) or choose from a gigantic selection of desserts. The first-floor cafeteria provides tasty lunches. The place is still very popular with locals, as is the nearby bookshop, Libreria Flaccovio, whose shelves Lampedusa browsed daily.

Palazzo Lampedusa backs on to one of the treasures of Palermo, the Oratorio di Santa Citta. Here, as the guidebook I bought at Flaccovio puts it, you can marvel at "the joyous fantasy of the stuccoes". Giacomo Serpotta, who decorated the walls of this chapel between 1686 and 1718 is the Giotto of stucco-work, his religious and secular tableaux a breathtaking mixture of charm and skill. More of his work can be seen down the windy road that descends to the Oratorio del Rosario, in the Via dei Bambini; this is also the route that the Prince of Salina takes on his way to the great ball at Palazzo Pontelone, in Piazza San Domenico.

You are now just above the Vucciria, the market whose narrow streets still host fish markets, spice stalls, restaurants, ancient churches and palaces. But tourism and gentrification are taking their toll and the locals now mainly patronise the Capo, a much larger and busier clothing and food market, not far away, on the other side of via Maqueda. There is also the much poorer Ballaro market, just south-west of Quattro Canti (four corners), the traditional centre of the city, which I stumbled across in my pursuit of one of the Parco Tomasi di Lampedusa itineraries. Here you can watch various animal innards that only a medical student could identify being boiled together in a giant pot, and sample them while observing a tumultuous street life that would need a Sicilian Hogarth to capture.

Visconti's brilliant ball scene was filmed at Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, in Piazza Croce dei Vespri. The palace is not open for public inspection, although the ballroom is available to rent, with appropriate food and costumes, for those with the money and the taste to stage their own parties there. I concluded my week by going to see the grave of Lampedusa and his wife, at the Cimitero di Cappuccini. They rest in a marble tomb, with a simple inscription, surrounded by a wrought-iron railing. A terracotta pot containing a flowerless geranium plant and some withered flowers in a marble urn are the only decoration; they make a sad contrast to the profusion of flowers and tributes that decorate most of the other graves. I suppose although Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa has many fans, he had no descendants - he was an only child and his marriage was childless.

It was literature that took me to Palermo, not only the fiction of Lampedusa, but also the travel writing of Peter Robb and Norman Lewis, and the history of the modern Mafia by Alexander Stiles. But although each of these writers paints a vivid canvas, nothing prepared me for the reality of the city, the irreducible manner in which the light, the tastes, the people, the buildings, and the landscape all combine to satisfy the senses and the intellect. For the tourist with a cultural bent, it could not be bettered.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

The only airline with direct flights between the UK and Palermo is Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com), which flies from Stansted.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Letizia, 30 via dei Bottai (00 39 091 589 110; www.hotelletizia.com). Doubles start at €100 (£71) including breakfast. Hotel Posta, 77 via A. Gagini (00 39 091 587 338; www.hotelposta palermo.it). Doubles from €110 (£79), including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Bar Mazzara, 11-17 via G. Magliocco (00 39 321 443). Trattoria Piccolo Napoli, 4 Piazzetta Mulino al Vento (00 39 091 320 431).

COOKING THERE

Anna Tasca Lanza's school, Palermo (00 39 09 14 50727; www.absoluteitalia.com). Three night courses from €1,250 (£893), with full board and all lessons.

VISITING THERE

Parco letterario Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 2-5 Vicolo della Neve all'Allore (00 39 091 616 0796; www.parcotomasi.it). Libreria Flaccovio, 37 via R Settimo (00 39 091 589 442).

Palazzo Abatellis, Via Alloro 4 (00 39 09 16 23 00 33; www.regione.sicilia.it). Opens daily 9am-1pm and Tuesday-Thursday 2.30-7pm. Admission free.

L'Opera Dei Pupi, Via Bara all'Olivella 95 (00 39 091 323 400; www.figlidarte cuticchio.com).

Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas, Piazza Olivella (00 39 091 611 6805; www.regione.sicilia.it). Opens daily 8.30am-1.30pm; 2.30pm-6.45pm. Admission €6 (£4). Palazzo Mirto, Via Merlo 2 (00 39 091 61 67 541; www.regione.sicilia.it). Opens 9am-7pm. Admission €3 (£2).

MORE DETAILS

Palermo Tourist Office (00 39 091 583 847; www.palermotourism.com). Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk).

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