Palermo, September 29
Sunday morning, we got up about 6:30 and went out to take pictures, walking again along the harbor. Near our place, the harbor is full of sailboats. Really full! Later, walking into the city, we discovered all sorts of narrow streets and alleyways, many full of rubbish, but surprisingly interesting nonetheless. We discovered the famous Santo Rosario Oratorio…still unsure if it is open on Sundays or not. We found the Piazza San Domenico and church of the same name, strolled back towards home on Via Roma and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Today, our itinerary includes the Royal Palace, which lies at the opposite end of the old city from our palazzo. It is a winding walk. The city reminds me so much of Havana, it is kind of uncanny. So many buildings are falling down. Like Havana, there are people living in buildings that have no roofs, boarded up windows and missing doors. Laundry hangs everywhere, and all the color is within a very small range of dirty greys. Unlike Havana, this city was really bombed (Havana just appears that way). But there is charm, nonetheless. I think it would be hard not to like Palermo. It is also hard not to feel some sympathy for a city that gives so much to Italy and gets nothing in return.
The Royal Palace is a microcosm of Sicily’s history. The earliest parts date from the Normans, with renovations and reconstructions in just about every major architectural movement since. The first part of the visit covered the royal apartments. Interesting, they are not the fabulous apartments like those we saw in Sans Souci in Germany. The need for funds to restore these rooms is urgent: They are literally held together with tape.
There is one room in particular that is fascinating. It seems to be of Norman origin, though its wooden ceiling dates from the 18th century. The proportions are lovely, and the arches so graceful that the pleasure of just looking at it can’t be exaggerated. Next to this room is a room of mosaics of animals and hunting scenes that just barely presages the chapel we will see later.
No pictures inside – maybe so we can’t show the level of decay.
However, the real gem of the palace visit is the Capella Palatina. We had to wait for about a half an hour because the chapel is actually used for religious services on Sundays. We were lucky to be near the head of the line…by the time we left, the line was quite long to get in.
The chapel is incredibly breathtaking. Built by William I in the first half of the 11th century, the work of Norman, Arab and Byzantine artisans has created what has to be one of the most beautiful interiors I have ever seen. The gold mosaics glow with an unearthly light. Stories from the Bible, stories of the saints and stories of the Norman kings cover the walls of the clerestory. Lower, marble panels alternate with mosaics of stones whose geometry betrays an Islamic origin. The wooden ceiling is especially interesting and dates from the 12th century. I want to think that this architecture, freely using motifs from other parts of the world, notably Arabic and Byzantine, speaks to an appreciation of these other cultures. How do I reconcile that with the Crusades?
Following the visit to the royal palace, we walked back southward, stopping to visit the cathedral along the way. An impressive building, but the interesting feature for me was the cart with the statue of Santa Rosalia, the patroness of Palermo that stands outside. Santa Rosalia’s feast day in mid-July, so I wasn’t expecting to see this piece of her regalia in late September.
Lunch was another culinary adventure! We ate in a little place called Zia Pina – open only for lunch. Everyone we asked for directions knew exactly where it was. A big smile would always accompany the rapid fire Italian directions. It was literally a tiny, little place, spilling out onto the street in front to accommodate all the diners.
Inside was a buffet of antipasti of the ultimate drooling scale! Eggplant done at least 5 ways, sardines in six and tomatoes! It was all fresh and delicious. We could pick our fish from a table where all the selections were laid out. Our choices were sardines, calamari, orato and swordfish. Every bite a delight!
After a short rest, our driver, Alex, met us downstairs to take us to Monreale, now practically a suburb of Palermo, but once the country destination of the Norman kings. Originally it was surrounded by orange groves and provided excellent hunting. It is up on a hill above Palermo itself, with a beautiful and extensive view of the entire valley. Our destination in Monreale was another cathedral with gold mosaics, built in the later part of the 11th century, by William II (competing with good old dad).
This church is considered to be the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily. It is a work of art of extraordinary beauty. The ceilings in this cathedral were also wood but were replaced in the 16th century following a fire. Both the Capilla Palatina in Palermo and the cathedral in Monreale are worth a visit but, for sure, you must see at least one of the two!
We also climbed up to the roof of the cathedral to see the panorama. Palermo is a large city, with plenty of suburbs and adjacent villages. From above, we also got to see the Norman Cloister. We were back in Palermo by 5:00 pm thanks to the speed and agility of Alex’s driving.
Later we took a walk, searching out the Rosanero pastry shop and indulging in a Sicilian cannoli. In search of an ATM we also happened upon a procession for La Merced. It was interesting to watch the carrying of the statue through the streets. Some of the processors wore costumes, but most were dressed in regular street clothes. There were lots of women involved … I do not know the significance of the saints and the Virgins to tell you why in this case. The plazas of the city are all decorated with lights, so we made our way back to the piazza of the particular church where this Madonna was resident to await her triumphant return. But it was taking a long time and it was getting late, so we contented ourselves with pictures of the expectant piazza and headed home.
Monday morning, Alex picked us up again to take us to the airport where we could pick up our rental car. That was a hair-raising experience! I was seated behind him so I couldn’t see a thing. Most everyone else admitted they had their eyes closed! Obviously, Alex had another job, for he unceremoniously dumped us in the rental car lot and took off again. No matter. Galina and Gerry negotiated the car rental, and we found ourselves to be the temporary “owners” of a “huge” Ford. The “huge” was the opinion of the rental agent – we found it perfect. The four of us are comfortable and all our luggage fits. By American standards it is a mid-size car.
So, now we’re on our own, navigating the Sicilian countryside, highways, by-ways and even the autostrada.
Our first stop was Segesta. The first thing you see in Segesta and the thing that your eyes keep returning to is the temple. It is so stately and majestic, as it sits all alone on the crest of a hill, surrounded by mountains and valleys. We had a perfect day to see it, too! There were plenty of puffy white clouds in the sky, so that we could see the temple sunlit, while the surrounding landscapes were in shade. It is quite impressive! We hiked up the long hill on the other side of the temple first. From all along the way, one just had to peek backwards to see the perfect proportions of this Doric temple and admire the workmanship that created it. I actually think we are fortunate to see it as it is now, and not as it was to the people living here in the 5th century BCE. We get to see it pure – free of its adornments (or possibly the scaffolding of its construction)- and we can admire it in a landscape devoid of competing structures and sights. We can imagine it as the monument to something eternal that it is, man’s quest to be at one with the controlling forces of the universe.
At the very top of the hill on this side of the valley, are the remains of the town, a market and a few other substructures remain. The best though has to be the Greek amphitheater, dating also from the 4th and 4th centuries BCE. It is in very good condition. Aerial views show clearly the outlines of the entire structure, including the stage and the service areas above the seating. The seating is in almost perfect condition. It requires no imagination to don tunic or toga and seat yourself to watch a performance! And the views are never-ending. Again, a lucky trick of history that we see the valleys that surround this ancient city, in all their modern agricultural splendor, the backdrop of the stage gone for thousands of years.
We didn’t want to pass up actually getting to see the temple up close, so we walked hurriedly back down the mountain to then ascend, hurriedly, the hill on which the temple stands. Whew! Was I winded! But it was worth it to stand in the shadow of that temple.
Once back in the car, we were on our way to Trapani, looking for a restaurant called La Cantina Siciliana, very highly rated place to eat in almost every guide we checked. Our lunch, which was all pasta and antipasti was quite tasty, and accompanied by plenty of bread and the famous Trapani olive oil. Two nice bottles of everyday white wine from the Planeta vineyard (a stop on our itinerary for Wednesday) left us feeling 1) sleepy (!) and 2) very pleased with the place! Following lunch, our server took us next door to see the wine cellar for the restaurant. The enoteca of this restaurant is one of the reasons it is so highly recommended.
Following a wine-induced nap at our hotel, we took off to walk around Trapani. Jon was not impressed, but I was struck by how much cleaner and well-taken-care-of this city is compared to Palermo. Perhaps part of the reason is that it is a vacationers’ town – not just tourists like us, but people who come to spend a couple of weeks, or even months. The restaurants and bars we saw were quite sophisticated and urbane.
We did get to see a sunset, complete with clouds scudding across the sky driven by the strong wind. Our evening wound down in the hotel bar, over a couple of beers, and delicious olives for dinner.