An Ionian seaside town, Avola is a mix of old and new. The town focuses heavily on the sea, with its history as a tuna fishing port. Today, the remains of the Vecchia Tonnara at the wharf are a stone backdrop to the sandy beaches. Avola dates back to a pre-Greek people called the Sicani.…
Long time ago, my first visit to Sicily in 2012 was accompanied by visit to Palermo. I had a day only to visit so the story to tell was shorter. Now I am blessed to live on the Island of Sicily for a more extended time so I have more to tell. For the beginning, when driving to Palermo from Catania, you have to pass through the middle of the island – which consists of the beautiful landscape of yellow mountains, mostly agricultural hills called Nebrodi.
For good 2 hours of drive – you can admire the landscape that I would never expect to exist here in Sicily. After that, you appear out on the northern coast of Italy where the Tyrrhenian sea is spread. I remember driving along the coast, towards the Monte Pellegrino.
Palermo is a super dirty city. Catania level dirty. And it’s hard ti drive in the city. Namely, because children on scooters without protection drive past your car whether is left or on your right, because there are no road markings, from 2 lanes, there can be easily 3 lanes created, there is no pedestrian zone. Pedestrians move around, and cross the road without looking left or right. It is expected to stop or bypass. There is no pedestrian crossing and barely no semafors. Our way to navigate was to have the window pulled down with the hand placed outside and signaling. It works perfectly well. It is their level.
We had a parking reservation. It didn’t look much like parking though. The entrance was some broken fence, the surface was uneven, some seriously ill cats were jumping around and the parking lot surface was full of holes. Out of nowhere, some elder guy jumps out from a rotten house and negotiates with us a price. Instead of 3 nights, we payed only 2, but he asked us couple of times to mention that we didn’t arrive on Thursday, but on Friday. The episode was tragicomical. We agreed, gave him money and left. He then ran after us telling us he forgot to say we can not park where we parked but we need to move the car. He gave us the mispelled invoice – or however you wanna call this.
The second stop was the hotel and immediately after that a short passegiata before the dinner. On our way, the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. I believe I have mentioned a multiple times the role of Garibaldi in the history of Sicily and unification of entire Italy in 19th century so I won’t be repeating it here no more 🙂
Passing the city center for the first time after 10 years, I have noticed that the city became more tourist oriented. They have removed the traffic from the 4 main principal streets: Via Maqueda and Via Roma and turned it into the streets full of shops and small sellers of plastic kitch.
Teatro Massimo is just at the beginning of the Via Maqueda, located on the Piazza Verdi. It was dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II. It is the biggest in Italy, and one the third largest opera house in Europe after the Palais Garnier in Paris, and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna), renowned for its perfect acoustics.
But if you continue down the Via Maqueda, you will end up at Quatro Canti. Officially known as Piazza Vigliena, is a Baroque square, considered the center of the historic quarters of the city. The site is the intersection of two major streets in Palermo, the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (also known as the Cassaro), and at this intersection are the corners of all four of the ancient quarters (Cantons or Canti) of Palermo: the Kalsa; Seralcadi; Albergaria; and Castellammare.
The piazza layout is octagonal, four sides comprise the streets, while the remaining four sides are nearly symmetric, concave Baroque facades, each with four stories with three full size statues in their centers. The street level up to second story feature four fountains, each dedicated to one the four seasons. The third stories have statues in niches of four Spanish rulers of Sicily; above them in roofline are their respective coat of arms. The fourth and top stories of the buildings have statues of four female patron saints of Palermo: Christina, Ninfa, Olivia and Agata).
A few steps away along the flank of this church, behind the Southeast corner building, along Via Maqueda is the Piazza and Fontana Pretoria. The fountains was ordered from Florence and in order to be transported it was disassembled in 644 pieces. Then, in order to make room for the fountain, several buildings were demolished. However, the fountain arrived incomplete in Palermo. Some sculptures were damaged during the transport. Therefore, in Palermo, adjustments were made.
Between 18th century and 19th century, the fountain was considered a sort of depiction of the corrupt municipality of Palermo. For this reason and because of the nudity of the statues, the square became known as “Piazza della Vergogna” (Square of Shame).
Continuing just a few meters ahead is the first Arabic trace of conquest: Church of St. Catald. Erected in 12th century as a notable example of the Arab-Norman architecture which flourished in Sicily under Norman rule on the island, it belongs to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
And if you turn your head towards west, you will see Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Padri Teatini. In any other city, this church would be celebrated and had much more attention. But as it is placed in Italy, moreover in Sicily – it is unfairly neglected.
Palermo was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians as Sis (“flower”). Palermo then became a possession of Carthage. Two Greek colonies were established, known collectively as Panormus. As Panormus, the town became part of the Roman Republic and Empire for over a thousand years. From 831 to 1072 the city was under Arab rule in the Emirate of Sicily when the city became the capital of Sicily for the first time. During this time the city was known as Balarm. Following the Norman conquest, Palermo became the capital of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Sicily, that lasted from 1130 to 1816. It is said that no other city changed its rulers so fast as Palermo. You can find traces of history everywhere in the streets. Sad and dirty streets fulfilled with happy people.
When the passegiata is over, you can find your restaurant with local delicacies. It’s never wrong to go with sea food, local vegetables and local wine.
And when dinner is over, you can enjoy the city in night. If you stick around Via Maqueda – you shouldn’t be having problems. Just 2 streets away you might end up in odd neighbourhoods with strange men and even more strange looks in their eyes.
The culture here is strong. The struggle to survive is real. There is a southern temperament here in Sicily. There is a political activism that strives toward independency from Italy. The inhabitants are known as Palermitani or, poetically, panormiti. The languages spoken by its inhabitants are the Italian language and the Palermitano dialect of the Sicilian language.
In Palermo, the Sicilian outdoor markets open an authentic doorway into the past. Here, the oldest traditions of the Sicilian people continue uninterrupted by modern conveniences such as the Internet and overhead, gigantic aircraft brimming with visitors. And to add to the feeling that you’ve taken a step into the past, you’ll see that these markets lie at the very heart of neglected neighborhoods. The crumbling buildings beneath their faded façades hide the silent memories of loves and deaths, wars, invasions, occupations by foreigners — the list can be endless. Yet throughout all these changes over the years, the markets continue to stay alive. Today they represent a true Sicilian tradition.
The four ancient markets are Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio.
Mnay times in the city I have seen the carriage like the one on the photo. This is called the sicilian cart or carrettu sicilianu in Sicilian 🙂 I told you I am trying to catch up the dialect too.
The carts were introduced to the island by the ancient Greeks. Carts reached the height of their popularity in the 1920s, when many thousand were on the island. Miniature carts are often sold as souvenirs.
In these streets you will always have a church. Our nose took us to the Chiesa parrocchiale di Sant’ Ippolito martire. The church dates from Swabian – aragonese period (14th century).
Sicilians are among highest rate of the immigrant population in the 19-20 century. Mostly moving to South and North America, creating their own neighbourhoods and bringing their own culture, traditional, culinary recipes, and sorrow. Just looking into the local cuisine here in Sicily: the intestines – tells you a lot about the poverty in this island. To some people – like to my brother – these are pure delicatesse. You can imagine his face in these streets and markets when buying spleen hamburger. Or a sandwich made of stomach and veil’s tail, sold by a complete stranger in the street whose wife most probably woke up at 3am that day, packed the basket with kitchen towel – nothing industrial here – and sent her husband in the streets to sell. I mean, just look at that scene… It tells a story! There is so many details to spot on, that will explain Sicily.
Cosa Nostra (the mafia) didn’t help to improve life either. This Italian Mafia-terrorist-type organized crime syndicate and criminal society continues to slack the economy of Sicily even nowadays. This is also one of the reasons why I am afraid of accepting help of the locals. It could encourage the favour for favour situation. I understand the locals as very welcoming and charming people who live on the island so being in the hand is a lifestyle. However, it is 0 ground of nepotism that leads to a certain code of conduct and honor (i.e. omerta).
I can provide my own 2+2. When I first arrived to Sicily, I have noticed that locals drive mostly Smart, Fiat Panda and Fiat 500. I have as well noticed many garages for car repairments and some cars being parked around (as well in the street – never respecting the pedestrian zones, of course!) collecting the dust for some time, waiting for the spare part to arrive. Soon I have heard from colleagues that their cars have been stolen and it is always Fiat Panda or Fiat 500. Now if you follow my 2+2, you would easily understand why these cars are collecting dust and where from the spare part arrives.
Here the southern spirit comes to work out. If you mention the locals this problem, immedialty they will slack you down and say that car steeling problems occur in the North too. That north to south we are all the same and I shouldn’t have come to Sicily if I don’t like Sicily. So I will ignore the fact as they do not agree with any deeper part of the problem, nor solution. And I will simply continue with what I find great in Sicily.
Arab-Norman architecture is a particular style of construction and decoration that emerged in Sicily during the 12th century. In 1072, Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger, members of the Hauteville family, conquered a large part of Sicily and Palermo. In the previous two centuries, the island had been ruled by three different dynasties from North Africa. The evolved Islamic culture had fostered exceptional development in the area, making Palermo a splendid city on a par with Cordoba, Jerusalem, Baghdad or Damascus. The new Norman rulers were won over by Islamic architectural styles and decided to exploit the expertise in the area in the construction of their own buildings. Arab craftsmen, skilled in the art of wood carving, and Byzantine mosaicists were used to create the interior decorations of the churches.
So let me start with Palermo Cathedral. The present structure is the result of a major reconstruction in 12th century. Under Arab rule, the building was formerly a mosque. Verses from the Quran are still engraved on a column in the southern portico. The church today is a fusion of different architectural styles, the result of various renovations over the centuries. Catalan Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical elements can be recognised.
Inside the right aisle are the ‘Royal Tombs’. Here are the remains of Emperor Henry VI, his son Frederick II, as well as those of Peter II of Sicily. A Roman sarcophagus is the tomb of Constance of Aragon, Frederick’s wife. Under the mosaic baldachins are the tombs of Roger II, the first King of Sicily, and his daughter Constance. The last two were once located in the transept of the Cathedral of Cefalù.
Palazzo dei Normanni – because the Normans made it their residence from 1072 onwards. Under the Hauteville family, the palace became famous throughout Europe for its architectural and decorative richness.
On the first floor of the building, there is a place that is an authentic manifesto of Arab-Norman art in Palermo: the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel). The walls and apse are covered with golden mosaics depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments. I mean, take a look:
If the Cappella Palatina is the manifesto of Arab-Norman art in Palermo, the pink domes of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti are another undisputed icon of the UNESCO itinerary. It is a splendid example of a Christian building that was built according to Islamic architectural designs. The church’s appearance is a result of the cubic and spherical shape of the domes. It draws on the shapes of the circle and the square which, in Fatimite and Byzantine art, symbolise earth and sky. Initially, the complex was a Gregorian monastery built between 1130 and 1142 on the orders of Roger II.
Time for a snack? Some pizza nad … Did I mention the Cassatella di sant’Agata? the sicilian dessert in the shape o St Agata’s breast? The cakes are shaped like breasts to honor Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania, a Catholic martyr who was tortured by having her breasts cut off with pincers. Saint Agatha had taken a vow of virginity and refused to marry the Roman prefect Quintianus, who reported her to the authorities for being a Christian during the Decian persecution.
However, the patron saint of Palermo is Saint Rosalia, who is widely revered.
And perhaps it would be a time to go back to hotel to have a siesta? The restaurants and bars and even shops always close around 14:00 so in reality not much to do except to respect the locals having piece and enjoying the cool breeze coming from the sea. If it comes… You might gonna just feel the smell.
The Archeological Museum – or The Salinas regional archaeology museum of Palermo is the oldest and most important museum in Sicily. A treasure trove containing collections of immense value. Named after archaeologist and coin collector Antonino Salinas, the museum tells the story of western Sicily from Prehistory through to the Middle Ages.