At the confluence of many worlds
You must not listen to rumours about Palermo. The Mafia? It lives by the precept: to be happy, stay out of the public eye. The chaos that reigns in this city? It is cheerful, picturesque, in line with that of other large cities of the south Mediterranean. Which is unsurprising: the heart of this Sicilian city has always, or almost, been divided between the two shores continents. It has even made a signature of the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style, the union of three cultures which has given rise to true architectural gems.
When we think of Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, our minds happily come up with the beautiful Syracuse and its rich Greek past, or Catania, a baroque pearl living under the constant threat of the Etna. And we often forget the region's biggest city: Palermo. And it's a mistake! Because the Sicilian capital is not a mere administrative city. It also contributes to the island's character with its picturesque nature, but further still, by its formidable heritage. This heritage is the result of a history as long as it is turbulent, the story of Europe over the past centuries, of cultures that successively came together and tore themselves apart.
Once upon a time…
To fully capture the mood of this city, you must step back at least one thousand years. At that time, Palermo belonged to the Middle East. It was known as Al-Madinah Balharm. Two centuries earlier, the Muslims had taken it from the Byzantine. During their time, the city thrived, enriched by trade and culture of citrus fruit, papyrus and cotton in the "Conca d'Oro" or golden basin, the plain surrounding Palermo. This affluence was visible: more than 300 mosques blossomed throughout the city. Nevertheless, the many Jews, Catholics and Orthodox still living there were free to practice their religion. It was a time of tolerance. A state of mind that the Normans had the wisdom to preserve when they settled in Palermo in 1072, at the end of their conquest of Sicily. The artists and scholars who surround Roger II of Sicily, the first of the Norman Kings of Sicily, did not pray to the same god. A unique and, better yet, courageous, cultural symbiosis in those crusading times.
Why the history lesson? Because it helps to perceive and understand the singular beauty of Palermo, that of a cosmopolitan city which has for centuries been capable of reinventing itself and developing over the centuries by opening up to the best its different communities had to offer. A spectacular illustration of this cultural fusion: San Giovanni degli Eremiti. The first stones of this church date back to the Byzantine period. For a long time they housed a mosque. With the advent of the Normans, the building was rebuilt to serve the Catholic faith. It nevertheless retained a manifest link to its previous vocation. Its filigreed windows, and, especially, the five red domes atop it, provide a strong and wonderful glimpse of the Orient.
A case for a jewel
This Arab-Norman style strongly permeates two other Palermitan gems: the Norman Palace and its Palatine Chapel. Current seat of the Regional Assembly of Sicily, the palace is an ancient Roman fortress that the Arabs transformed into a Qasr or castle, to serve as residence to the Emirs. The Normans embellished and enlarged it to install the Crown there. They raised new towers and bastions and renovated the renowned Palatine chapel. The greatest marvel of Palermo, if not all of Sicily! It is accessed by the Maqueda Court, a magnificent patio bordered by columns of Egyptian granite. Once through the big Norman doors protecting the chapel, the rich décor overwhelms you. Its roof is decorated with paintings and Arab calligraphy and muquarnas, the plaster ornamental vaulting so typical of mosques. Its walls are adorned with golden mosaics in the manner of the Orthodox. It is a magical setting that caused French writer Maupassant to declare the Palatine Chapel, "the most beautiful in the world," and "the most surprising religious jewel dreamed up by human thought and executed by the hands of artists."
A city daily
Palermo does not live for and of its past, glorious as it may be. The Sicilian capital is also vibrant in the present. A little too much, complain some visitors. It is true: the ballet of two wheeled vehicles, headed by the Vespa, is noisy. True: the dilapidated facades and waste on the ground make it feel neglected. True: the cars parked on the sidewalks are annoying. But all of this is part of the city's charm, seductively… Mediterranean. The meridional picturesque is everywhere… on the covered stalls packed with fruit, vegetables and fish in the Vucciria market (the "slaughter"). In the cries of the merchants of Ballarò, the city's oldest market, when they hail passers-by to sell them anything and everything. In the aromas of the local specialities, this cuisine of the poor that is most often eaten in the streets: the panei c'a meusa, a sort of sandwich of veal lung and spleen; the stigghiole, tripe brochettes; the panelle, chickpea flour donuts drizzled in lemon juice… Or even on the Palermitan beaches: Cefalù and seasons of fishermen who flirt with the sand; Isola delle Femmine is its breathtaking views of the island of the same name; and of course Mondello, a heavenly bay worthy of the Caribbean, summer stronghold of Palermitans and their guests.
Must-see in Palermo and its surroundings :
Via Roma : Palermo's most interesting shopping street.
Il Duomo : the magnificent Palermitan cathedral, a vast building built in the pure Arab-Norman style. That is where Roger II was crowned King of Sicily. His remains still lie here, as do those of Emperor Frederic II, another famous Sicilian monarch, and Saint Rosalia, patron saint of the city.
Quattro Canti : the crossroads of the "four corners" separating the city into four distinct quarters. This remarkable architectural ensemble is the point of departure of the horse-drawn carriage rides.
Pretoria place : visit it for the Fontana della Vergogna: the fountain of shame! It was given to the city by a Tuscan nobleman who found it too fast with its sixteen mainly nude statues of nymphs, mermaids and satyrs.
Martorana : one of Palermo's most beautiful churches, a surprising mix of styles: Byzantine dating back to the 12th century and the baroque, from the sixteenth.
Corleone : the former stronghold of the Sicilian Mafia, the village which inspired the name of Coppola's godfather is today the home of a museum on the history of… the Mafia!
Monreale : in this town 7 kilometres from Palermo, you must without not visit the Cathedral, another renowned legacy in the Arab-Byzantine-Norman style
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