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.
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.
One of the top sights in Palermo is the Norman Palace, on the western extreme of the old city center. A massive complex built in the 11th century, the palace is still used today as the seat of the Sicilian government. Tourists are allowed in, but understandably restricted to a small section.