Three red domes immediately call attention to the tiny church of San Cataldo on Piazza Bellini, near the center of Palermo. A pristine example of Arab-Norman architecture, San Cataldo dates from 1160 and has survived into the present-day in a mostly original state.
Once upon a time, Syracuse was the most mightiest city-state in the world. Ruled by famous tyrants like Dionysius the Elder, and home to Archimedes, one of history’s greatest thinkers, the power of Syracuse extended far beyond the Greek Empire, to which it belonged. The city’s influence waned only during the Arab occupation of Sicily, when the capital was moved to Palermo.
More than anything else, Palermo is awash in historic, beautiful churches. At least once a week, Jürgen and I will swear off visits to any further churches. “It’s enough”, we’ll cry! “We’re not even religious!” But then, we’ll read about another one, like the Magione. Founded in 1191. Used for three centuries as a lodge for the Teutonic Knights. Arab-Norman architecture. Five minutes from our house. With a lovely cloister.
“A lovely cloister, you say? Let’s do it.”
La Zisa was built as a summer retreat by Arab architects in the 12th century for the reigning Norman Kings of Sicily. Its name comes from the Arabic al-Azîz, for “glorious” or “noble”. Set in the middle of gardens with the Monte Captuo serving as a backdrop, the Zisa still basically serves its original purpose, providing a nice escape for the residents of Palermo, if not for royalty.
Almost exactly a kilometer outside of the town center, on the road to Monreale, we find the remains of the ancient pleasure palace of the Norman Kings called La Cuba. Built in 1180 for William II, La Cuba was originally the focal of a large garden, surrounded by a man-made lagoon. The pictures which imagine it in its full glory are wondrous, but little remains today apart from a hollow shell.
Entrance to Monreale’s mind-shattering Cathedral was free, so when the ticket lady at the neighboring Benedictine Cloister asked us for €6 apiece, we were expecting to be blown away. Unfortunately, we weren’t.
If you don’t want your jaw to smack painfully against the ground, you’d do well to wear a tight chin strap when visiting the Cathedral of Monreale. During our tour, my mouth was wide open, rivulets of drool escaping my gaping jowl. But I didn’t care, and I doubt anyone was paying attention. To be inside the Monreale’s cathedral and concentrate on anything other than its shimmering beauty is nearly impossible.
As we were leaving the Santa Caterina on Plaza Bellini, eyes still bruised by the church’s baroque extravagance, another of our senses came under attack. Like Micky Mouse following the scent of cake, we became captive to a strong whiff of coffee. Powerless to resist, we were carried to the doors of Torrefazione Ideal.