On our second day in Syracuse, we made our way to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, where some of Sicily’s greatest ruins are bunched together, almost as though our ancient forebears wanted to facilitate future tourist groups.
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.
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.
In the 18th century, the elite of Palermo chose Bagheria as the place to escape city life and erect their villas. These remain into the present day, and give the town of 55,000 a peculiar feel. Gorgeous Baroque and Neoclassical villas with poetic names like Palagonia, Spedalotto and Serradifalco are spotted throughout the town, hidden among ugly newer constructions thrown together in the post-war years.
Palermo is bounded to the north by Monte Pellegrino, a rock jutting into the Mediterranean which Goethe described as “the most beautiful promontory in the world”. Near the mountain’s summit is the Santuario di Santa Rosalia, one of Palermo’s many patron saints. The mountain park and the sanctuary can be easily visited in a few hours, and make a great escape from the noise and traffic of the city.
Found on the outer limits of the city, the Capuchin catacombs hold the remains of over 8000 souls, their disembodied shells propped up against the walls or resting in open caskets. Down in the cold, dry basement of the monastery, the relentless march of decomposition takes its sweet time. It’s a gruesome display. Though some bodies have been reduced to skulls and bones, the majority of corpses are still rotting, and their half-decomposed husks are the stuff of nightmares.
Although it’s tucked into the maze-like alleys of the Albergheria, the Casa Professa (or the Chiesa del Gesù, as it’s more officially known) isn’t difficult to find. Just head towards that beautiful green and white tiled dome, visible over most of the neighborhood’s rooftops. One of southern Italy’s most spectacular Baroque churches awaits.
Apparently, cilantro isn’t an herb much used in Sicilian cooking. The stand in the Vucciria Market had piles of basil, sage and oregano, but the seller had never heard of cilantro. Still, he was determined to help me out, and asked if I would recognize it by sight. “I think so, probably”. Producing herb after herb from the back of his store, he held out branches for me to sniff and inspect.
One of the best birds-eye views of Palermo can be had from the top of the Torre di San Nicolò, near the Ballarò market in the Albergheria. The late-Gothic tower was constructed in the 13th century for defensive purposes, and now belongs to the adjoining San Nicolò church. For a structure built so long ago, the tower is in remarkable condition, and you’d have a hard time finding a better panorama of the medieval city.
Rather than have Chucky, our ten-year-old French Bulldog, endure another plane flight alone in the cargo hold, we drove from Rome to Palermo in a rental car. It was a long haul, but allowed us to see the mountains of Calabria and the northern coast of Sicily, and also provided an initial lesson in coping with Italian drivers.