Our first few minutes in Sicily were spent navigating the streets of Messina, after having arrived on a ferry from the Italian mainland. Honking cars, crazy motorbikes and messy urban lawlessness, it was an immediate taste of the chaos which would accompany our 91 days in Palermo; an antipasto to the capital’s main course of noisy pandemonium. By the time we had gotten through Messina and onto the highway, my nerves were frayed and patience spent, but the wonder and excitement of finally being in Sicily remained intact.
A sense of faded grandeur permeates Palermo. The stately old palaces which occupy nearly every corner are usually shuttered up, damaged beyond repair, or have been converted for use as art galleries. The Palermitano aristocracy must surely have resided in splendor, but they’ve long since left the scene, removing all trace of their easy wealth. Today, in this chaotic and messy city, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life must have been like for them.
After a couple great months in the Vucciria’s Casa Zatlo, we’ve switched to a different apartment near Il Capo. The Casa del Bastione. It’s a nice change for us; we get to experience a new, noticeably quieter section of the city and we’re close by the incredible market of Il Capo. Best of all? It’s got a terrace. And although the last few weeks have been marked by rain, we’ve taken advantage of every hour of sunlight that has presented itself.
We had been in Palermo for over two months by the time we finally got around to visiting its Gallery of Modern Art. I don’t know what kept us; perhaps the over-abundance of things to do in the city, perhaps a personal aversion to modern art. But upon finally visiting the collection, we were blown away. This was the best museum we visited in Palermo.
After centuries of foreign occupation, Sicily enthusiastically joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Finally free of the hated Bourbons, Palermo celebrated its allegiance to the new King Vittorio Emanuele by ordering a theater built in his honor. After thirty years of construction, the Teatro Massimo (“Maximum Theater”) opened to great fanfare in 1897. It’s the largest opera house in Italy, and the third largest in all Europe.
For those of us born and raised in northern climes, celebrating Christmas without a thick layer of snow on the ground is a bit disheartening. Santa and his reindeer, sleigh and poofy red costume would look ridiculous cruising around Palermo. But there’s no doubt that Christmas in Sicily is every bit the festive season that we enjoy back home.
One of the finest palaces in Palermo is the Palazzo Abatellis, found on Via Alloro in the neighborhood of La Kalsa. The massive building is host to the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, which displays Sicilian art dating as far back as the 12th century.
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.
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.”