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.
The city of Syracuse is packed with beautiful baroque churches and stunning Greek monuments, still standing in defiance of the centuries. But the building which dominates the city's skyline was built just seventeen years ago. Say hello to the Santuario della Madonna delle Lácrime. Sigh. They just don't build them like they used to.
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.
Syracuse had been under the control of the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs, but was always home to a healthy Jewish population. As in many of the European cities to which Jews emigrated following the diaspora, the ruling hierarchies were grudgingly tolerant of them and their religion. That is, until the arrival of the Spanish who decreed the total expulsion of Jews from their kingdom, in 1492.
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."
When I was just a teenager in Ohio, Pizza Hut brought out its stuffed crust pizza. A revelation! It made... so much sense! Stuff the crust of the pizza with cheese! For the next week, I couldn't sleep and talked of nothing else. How could no one have thought of this before?
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.