by Anne Spiselman
The more time I spend in Palermo, the less I understand it.
Of course, I’ve only had about three-and-a-half days in Sicily’s largest city so far, and a day of that was with the duchess in April (see previous post). The rest, on our 2013 visit, was divided between two trips from Aci Trezza on the east coast, a two-and-a-half hour drive that wouldn’t have been bad if we hadn’t driven back the same night.
Not surprisingly, if sadly, brevity breeds a tourist mentality. We arrived the first time determined to pack in as many of the main attractions as possible, at least those of historical significance.
Got off to a pretty good start, too. Although we’d been warned not to drive in Palermo because of the crazy traffic, it wasn’t as bad as we expected. People parking every which way and where (including in cross walks and at curb cuts) seemed to be the worst problem, yet we found a legal-looking parking space almost immediately. So what if we didn’t know where we were? We soon figured out that we were next to the Ballarò market, which extends in every direction from Piazza Ballarò and has all the foodstuffs you can imagine, as well as clothing, gadgets, and just plain stuff.
Ambling though the market, we made our way to Piazza Bellini and the information booth to pick up a map and information. Two of our targeted destinations were on the same square, but La Cataldo, a small Norman church with striking red domes founded in 1154, had just closed for lunch, so we never got to see the rather austere, unfinished (I’d read) interior. Instead we trudged up the steps to La Martorana, which was anything but austere. Frescoes, paintings, sculptures, and glorious mosaics filled the church, which dated to 1143 and was distinguished by an elegant Norman campanile on the outside. Tourists filled it, too, alas.
Across the piazza and up another flight of steps was Santa Caterina, the be all and end all of Sicilian Baroque. Bas reliefs, sculpture, and marble inlay adorned the entire17th and 18th-century interior, overwhelming the senses. A woman at the entrance was selling tickets but let us in free after watching us struggle up the steps with my wheelchair.
Next “must” on our informal itinerary was the Cathedral, founded around 1184 by the Archbishop of Palermo, Englishman Walter of the Mill, on the site of a mosque, which had been built over a small Christian church. In a political tug-of-war, his goal was to surpass the glory of the Cathedral of Monreale (more about this in the next post) built by the young King William II, his former pupil. He failed in my opinion. While the Cathedral is huge (and wheelchair accessible once you’re up the step to the courtyard), it nowhere near matches Monreale for mosaics and felt chilly—both physically and spiritually—inside.
A stroll down Via Vittorio Emanuele, a main shopping street, led us to and through Porta Nuova to get to the tourist entrance to the 12th-century Norman Palace. It was closed for some sort of conference on our first visit, but we were able to go inside to see the private Palatine Chapel, a jewel built by William II’s grandfather, Roger II, from 1130 to 1140. Because of the wheelchair, the ticket agent sent us to a side driveway and, after riding up an elevator so small, I had to stand and fold up the wheelchair, we had to find someone to unlock a wrought-iron gate and navigate a couple of steps. Definitely worth the work! Gorgeous Byzantine mosaics covered every square inch of the chapel. There were few other visitors, and the medieval chants playing in the background helped transport us back centuries, making this one of our most memorable experiences.
On the second day trip to Palermo, we parked near the Norman Palace and decided to see the rest of it—over the objections of the ticket agent who explained, using hand gestures, that going in and out of the rooms involved a lot of steps. He was right, and most of the furnishings were post-Norman and not all that interesting to me. The exception was the Roger II Room with arches and secular mosaics of hunting scenes and symbols of Norman power. Loved it.
After trying to find a tile museum that seemed to have closed (the building had a “for sale” sign on it), we decided to go to the Regional Art Museum in the late 15th-century Catalan Gothic Palazzo Abatellis on Via Alloro, a long trek on foot but worth it for the 14th-through-16th century paintings and sculptures. The highlight was the monumental “Triumph of Death” fresco, but I was also captivated by Antonello da Messina’s “Annunciation” and a couple of stunning painted and gilded crosses. In addition, the palace has been sensitively renovated and ramped to make most of it accessible while retaining its original structure.
We had tickets that evening for Verdi’s “Aida” at the Teatro Massimo, Italy’ largest opera house, so we explored the attractions around it on Piazza Verdi and settled on Pizzeria 59, the nicest-looking of several restaurants, for a light dinner. A turtle pond enlivened the gardeny patio out front and, although service was slow and inattentive, the food was decent enough—except for arguably the worst espresso I’ve had in Italy. We ordered a pizza parmigiana, which had a surprising amount of cheese and tomatoes (rather like American pizzas) plus nicely cooked eggplant, and the pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian specialty with bits of sardine, wild fennel, pinenuts and currants.
The Teatro Massimo (which had an accessible entrance and washroom) was wonderfully ornate with six tiers of boxes and plush red orchestra seats that were like individual armchairs bolted to the floor. Despite its enormous size, the surround-sound acoustics were fantastic. The orchestra and singers for “Aida” were great, but I found the staging and choreography disappointingly amateurish.
A kind of coda: Although the day with the duchess—and three hours we spent trying to find her palazzo —took up most of our Palermo time in 2014, we did discover the Orto Botanico a couple of blocks away. Run by the University of Palermo’s botany department, the huge botanical garden had myriad plantings, several greenhouses (we liked the one devoted to succulents), and all sorts of little buildings with mini museums, as well as a larger hall with exhibits about all the famous botanists. I think my favorite place was the Palm Museum with everything you’d want to know about palms, paintings of them all over the walls, and purses and other items made from various kinds of palm.
Most of the botanical garden was wheelchair accessible, and it was the perfect place to escape from the city’s hectic place and contemplate all I still have to learn about Palermo.