The Albergheria is the oldest neighborhood in Palermo. This is where the Phoenicians founded the city, and it hosts the royal palace which all the city’s rulers have called home. Despite this rich history, today’s Albergheria is one of the most run-down sections of Palermo. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of dilapidated housing and exquisite historic buildings quite so jarring.
One of the most photographed objects in Palermo is the giant, snow-white fountain in the Piazza Pretoria, just southeast of the Quattro Canti. The fountain sits in front of City Hall and has become a symbol of governmental corruption. Disgust with Palermo’s legendary malfeasance, in addition to the fountain’s abundant nudity, are the two reasons that Plaza Pretoria is known among citizens as the Plaza of Shame (Piazza della Vergogna).
One of our Palermitano readers recently told us that although the most famous nickname for the city is la Felice (“The Happy One”), Palermo is more well known around Sicily as la Licca (“The Glutton”). I think both apply. As I munch down yet another cannolo, I am both happy and gluttonous. Yes, I know I’ve got cream smeared across my face and cookie flakes on my shirt. So what? BURP
One of the most controversial figures in recent Italian history is Salvatore Giuliano, who enjoyed a reputation as the Sicilian Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. But that’s a simplistic and overly noble description of Giuliano, who operated out of Montelepre near Palermo and was a constant thorn in the side of the government and police.
The Arab rule of Palermo lasted little more than a century, but constituted a true golden age for the city. Gardens and glorious buildings sprouted up, and Palermo replaced Syracuse as the island’s capital. It became the second largest city in Europe, renowned across the continent as a center of learning and for its privileged way of life. Among the many improvements introduced by the Moors was a system of underground canals, or Qanat, that provided the whole city with fresh water from natural springs in the Monreale area.
I would say it was a pretty successful night. We had discovered Mikalsa, a cool bar within walking distance of our apartment, and heard an incredible concert by Renzo Rubino, a local artist trying to make it big. Plus, we became instant addicts of Mikalsa’s home-brewed beer called Panormus, in honor of Palermo’s original Greek name.
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.