Whether winding through the narrow alleys of Il Capo, or pushing past tourists along the claustrophobic Vittorio Emmanuele, the massive Cattedrale di Palermo appears suddenly and always comes as a shock.
Originally built in 1185 by the Normans, the cathedral has undergone centuries of additions and displays a variety of architectural styles. But the most distinctive remains the Norman; the eastern side of the cathedral is covered in Arabesque designs and looks more like a medieval castle than a Catholic church.
The interior of the cathedral is sober, cavernous and gray, but contains a number of artistic treasures. The holy water basins are beautifully engraved and a massive 17th-century silver urn next to the altar is impossible not to admire. The cathedral’s most curious feature is a bronze line etched diagonally across the floor, with the signs of the zodiac spaced evenly along it. It’s a calendar; sunlight from a hole in one of the cupolas shines on the line at noon, illuminating the current time of year.
For a few euros, you can see a small museum of ancient religious artifacts, including the gruesome forearm of some saint, and the subterranean crypt, where about twenty sarcophagi can be found. These tombs date from the earliest days of the Cathedral. I was relieved once we had enough pictures and could leave. 900-year-old zombies must be powerful, indeed, and we were all alone down there. A fresh zombie poses no great threat, but we would have been easy prey for Archbishop Walter Ophamil, the cathedral’s founder and strongest undead warrior.
Another room included in the ticket price is the Pantheon of Kings, where a number of Sicily’s rulers rest eternally. This section was back above ground, and probably more of interest to Sicilians or those well-versed in the history of the island. To me, they were just tombs, and not particularly striking ones.
As is the case for every gargantuan building built in the 1100s, Palermo’s Cathedral is an amazing place to spend some time. Approach, if you can, from Via Simone di Bologna on the eastern side for the most impressive initial view.