Waiting for the day when we can play the game of concentric circles as suggested by Lucia Busato in her last post, I’d like to bring you with me to Sicily for a while. I was so excited when I left home to go to Sicily for the first time! I knew that Sicily would have fascinated me with its contrasts, and I knew that it would have seduced me with its cuisine… And so, in a sunny June we take a week off to explore Western Sicily, and we start our tour from the visit of Palermo. Our program for the week is quite intense and we spend only one day in Palermo. I don’t have detailed plans for the day and so some places are a real surprise to me.
“In ten days, if you have nothing in mind, we could go to Palermo,” he said. “I prefer Geneva,” she replied. He stood in front of the easel examining a new canvas. “How can you live without getting to know Palermo?”Milan Kundera
The best breakfast ever (pistachio mon amour)
The day starts with a great breakfast made of delicious pistachio croissants (the revelation of this holiday!) and then we are ready to drive the 10km that separates our B&B in Monreale where we are based from the center of Palermo.
This short drive seems endless to me because of the chaotic traffic. Even if I’m not driving, I feel quite stressed until we reach a car parking. Then I take a sigh of relief, for the rest of the day we will only walk. Ah, by the way, for the rest of the week we will go around Sicily desperately looking everywhere for pistachio croissants! Warning: pistachio is addictive!
The crown jewel of Palermo: the Norman Royal Palace
Our first appointment of the day is with a unique masterpiece of the art history: the Norman Royal Palace with the amazing Cappella Palatina. The Norman Royal Palace is the oldest royal residence in Europe. Today it’s the place where the Sicilian Regional Assembly takes place and starting from 2015 it’s part of the Unesco World Heritage list of the Arab-Norman monuments of Palermo together with the cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. You can’t miss it if you visit Palermo!
The Norman Royal Palace is the symbol of the Arab-Norman Palermo, it’s a great synthesis of the wealth, the sophisticated culture and the political power that characterized the Norman kingdom. In the heart of the building is preserved the impressive Cappella Palatina, described by Oscar Wilde with these words:
“Then nowhere, not even in Ravenna, have I seen such mosaics as in the Cappella Palatine, which from pavement to domed ceiling is all good: one really feels as if one was sitting in the heart of a great honey-comb looking at angels singing”
As soon as we enter the Cappella Palatina we are dazzled by the sophisticated mosaics, the elaborate muqarnas (typical wooden inlays of the medieval Islamic art) of the ceiling and the precious marble floors. We spend a long time with our noses up admiring the beauty around us.
Well, during the visit of the Royal Palace I recommend to schedule the Capella Palatina as last visit, while I suggest you to start visiting the Royal Apartments, taking your time to walk through the sumptuous frescoed rooms of the palace and admire the perfect symmetries of the Maqueda Courtyard.
The city center of Palermo
After visiting the Norman Royal Palace I feel truly gratified, but the day is full of other surprises. We take a walk along the central via Vittorio Emanuele, where the most characteristic views of the city center are. We first meet the Cathedral with its large square, and then the Quattro Canti (known also with the name of Teatro del Sole). It’s an octagonal square at the intersection of via Vittorio Emanuele with via Maqueda, where the corner building façades are richly decorated by four fountains with statues and allegories dating back to the 17th century.
A few more steps and we cross Piazza Pretoria with the superb sixteenth-century Fontana Pretoria. More beyond is Piazza Bellini, with its interesting 12th century churches: the Byzantine-Norman church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as La Martorana, and the capitular church of San Cataldo, recognizable by the red domes (typical of the Arabic-Norman architecture) on the roof. Take the time to get in because it’s really worth it!
At this point we’re absolutely starving, it’s time to grab a bite. We’ve been strongly recommended by a friend to go to the ancient focacceria San Francesco for lunch, and of course we don’t miss it! I remember I have seen a report about it on TV recently, so that’s where we are headed. We refuel with lots of carbs and we are ready for the rest of the day.
Hidden corners: the Botanical Garden
Today it’s quite hot, the city is full of traffic and noise and after lunch we look for a quiet place. That’s how we discover that in Palermo there’s a large Botanical Garden that worths the visit: more than 30,000 acres full of greenery, peace and silence, where you can walk and fill your lungs with oxygen.
The Botanical Garden is located in the Kalsa district and is part of the University of Palermo Museums system. Its origin dates back to 1779 and then in 1786 it was moved to the current location to enlarge it. Only a few years later J. Wolfgang Goethe describes it as follows:
“In the public garden near the marina I spent hours of great peace. It is the most beautiful place in the world. Despite the regularity of its design, it has a touch of fairy; it dates back to a few years ago, but it brings us to ancient times.”
The noise of scooters running around the city does not penetrate in this cosy place, but on the other hand… near the water lilies pond thousands of mosquitoes hide ready to attack! Wearing shorts has not been a good idea…
Anyway, walking along the shaded paths where huge ficus trees grow (I had no idea that ficus coud reach such big dimensions), slipping between the bamboo canes moved by the wind, and walking around the flowerbeds of this enchanted oasis is an unexpected experience if you visit Palermo city center.
Open air markets
After this regenerating break (mosquito bites apart) we go back to the city centre and walk along the Vucciria market. In the afternoon it is not crowded and lively as I guess it is in the morning.
If you visit Palermo there are three main markets you might see: the most famous and characteristic is Ballarò, then there are Il Capo and La Vucciria. What I am sorry for is having missed the opportunity to experience the morning life of the markets, but I will keep this in mind for the day I will have the chance to come back to Palermo.
In any case what’s surprising in the markets is the intense smell of the fruits and vegetables (I’m not used to feel the same smell in the shops near home in north Italy!), and even more the low prices of the products.
The last revelation: the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Our great day in Palermo ends with the visit of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. It is part of the amazing places of the Arab-Norman Palermo and it is located in the middle of a chaotic neighborhood, not far from the Norman Royal Palace.
The Church dates back to the period 1132-1148 and it’s easy to recognize thanks to the red domes on the roof. The Islamic influences are immediately visible. After crossing the entrance gate, we follow a short uphill path shaded by palm trees and we reach the church (the interiors are empty today).
Close to the church there’s a suggestive cloister, embellished with a garden full of lush plants. The calm that reigns between these walls and the harmony of the architectural forms with the luxuriant vegetation make this place ethereal. It’s the ideal place to stop for a moment to reflect, and let your thoughts flow away.
Peanuts for travellers
- The touristic entrance to the Norman Royal Palace is from Piazza Indipendenza. You can check the opening hours and book your tickets online here.
- For more information about the Arab-Norman Palermo monuments protected by UNESCO there is a dedicated website.
- Keep in mind that many churches in Sicily are closed during the central hours of the day, so if you visit Palermo check opening times when planning your trip.
- Forget any kind of diet when travelling Sicily: Sicilian cuisine will open your senses and you will experience such a delicious food that you’ll dream to stay here forever.
- To sunbathe or to spend an evening out you can go to Mondello: it is the Palermitans beach, located 20km far from the city center. The place is full of bars, restaurants and kiosks… and of people of course!
- Another must-see monument located on the hills about 10km far from Palermo is the Monreale Cathedral (it’s part of the Arab-Norman Unesco monuments). It would deserve an entire chapter to itself, so if you have time try to spend an afternoon in Monreale and enjoy the landscape from the rooftop of the Cathedral.
- B&B Al Giardino has been our house for a couple of nights. It’s located in a marvelous villa on the hills of Monreale. Very kind hosts will welcome you.
- Sicily is a land full of beauty. If you are looking for inspiration you can read also this post by Lucia Busato about the Valley of the Temples and the Scala dei Turchi, and this one about Modica and the tradition of chocolate.