An aging monarch seated on his throne and holding a snake, the Genius of Palermo is the mysterious emblem of the city. No one knows where it originated or what it truly symbolizes, but it has come to epitomize the city itself.
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.
When you sit down in a small, family-run trattoria in Palermo, something like Trattoria Family Michele & Iolanda, expect to have the freedom of choice snatched away from you. You'll enjoy whatever plate you're given to eat, but you won't have much say in what that plate is.
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.
Thinking about Sicilian food nearly always sets the stomach to growling. Perfectly-baked pizzas, al dente pasta smothered in a rich ragú, fried arancine, swordfish filets, cannoli, pani c'a meusa. Mmmmm... Hold on, wait just a second. That last one, I don't recognize that. "Oh no? Well then, my friend, we must educate you. Pani c'a meusa!"
Palermo's football team plays in the top flight of one of the world's best leagues, Italy's Serie A. In the last few years, U.S. Città di Palermo has become one of the more feared sides in the country. This season, they had won all five games at home, in the Stadio Renzo Barbera. We went to a Sunday afternoon match against Fiorentina to see if they could continue the streak.
Set atop a mountain overlooking Trapani, in Sicily's northwestern corner, the town of Erice has a history rooted in mythology. We spent a few hours getting lost on the uneven stone roads and tiny alleys which curve senselessly about the town, and felt as though we'd stepped back in time. If only the weather had played along.
During our day trip to Sicily's northwestern extreme, we only had a couple hours to explore Trapani. That's not nearly enough time to do justice to this city of 70,000, but it was winter. Days are shorter, and we also had Erice to get to. So we confined ourselves to Trapani's historic center, which begins as the city branches off from the island and becomes a narrow strip of land jutting into the sea.
Sicily is a large island and, although we'd love to explore every city, village, hill and coastline, there's no way we'd ever be able to in just 91 days. But some cities are close enough to Palermo to serve as easy day trips. Trapani and its hilltop neighbor Erice are two such towns, just a couple hours away, and we hopped on an early morning bus to check them out.
Cozy and familiar, with great prices and a friendly waitstaff, Il Vicolo is a lovely little seafood restaurant in the southwest corner of the Albergheria. Don't let the neighborhood's relative grime keep you away.