The day we visited Palermo. Whatever I write about this city won’t be enough, I just loved it and would like to have some time to spent there and, if possible, in not such a hot weather, no matter that we visited it in the end of September…
So, here’s our start:
We had decided to use the public transport because, as I already wrote few times, the traffic is just terrible and we had no desire to test it again. But, the trip with the transport was something also… Apparently, every transportation in Palermo is a challenge.
Our apartment was at the end of Mondello and the transport network had bus stops only in it’s center and the far end, we had to walk around 20 minutes to get to the closest one. This wouldn’t be a problem usually, but it turned out that the sidewalk disappears under some bushes and the traffic was swooshing beside us. Crossing the road, even with traffic lights, was life threatening and the neighbourhood around the bus stop was filthy and looked abandoned. Long story short, I sighed with relief after we got on the bus and didn’t even want to think how we would get back, probably at dark.
All this coordination was made possible through google, quite accurate actually. The buses in Palermo reminded me of the time I used to travel with the old trolleys from my rental to my school in Sofia. I must say that there was air condition which was a huge plus, never mind that I was standing on half of one of my feet and our son had to squeeze between two seat trying not to be crushed.
After this amazingly sweaty, nerve breaking and squashing our strength journey we arrived in the city itself and first (of many) planned sites. I don’t think you can imagine how worn out and tired we felt and we were just getting started.
Fortunately, at the first glances of the beauty around us, my mood started to grow, which is always a good sign.
And here’s the main reason for this – Politeama Garibaldi Theater.
The Politeama Theatre is a theatre of Palermo. It is located in the central Piazza Ruggero Settimo and represents the second most important theatre of the city after the Teatro Massimo. It houses the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana. It impresses with its beautiful entryway and triumphal arch. It was built at the end of 19 century. The word “politeama” comes from Greek and means to be built for different functions, as Palermo already had an official opera house – Teatro Massimo.
Two rows of columns surrounds the round building meeting with the triumphal arch at he entry. Even the main curtain of the stage is a piece of art, depicting a scene from the Greek mythology, painted in 1891.
The theater itself is covered with red velvet and gold with two levels of theater boxes around the semi-round scene.
After Teatro Garibaldi we wanted to see the other beautiful one, but not without marveling at the beautiful views on the way.
With its 7 700 sq m Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third in Europe. It is a huge neo-classical complex located on Piazza Verdi. The theater was inagureted in 1897 with Verdi’s opera “Falstaff” and soon after it became the most praised, envied and talked about building in Sicily.
After years and years of neglect it was opened again in 1997 and today it’s a favourite destination for ballet and opera lovers in Palermo.
You can visit it through a guided tour every day from 9.30 till 18.00. The tour takes around 30 minutes and is offered in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German. The price is 8 euro for adults and 5 for people under 25. Kids under 6 go free. You can buy tickets here.
After visiting the theater we had some ice cream, nothing special so I won’t recommend the place and went on a stroll on the biggest market street – Via Maqueda. It’s biggest advantage was that it’s only for pedestrians and offers a few typical views.
Slightly away is the Market Vucciria. It’s not the most famous or interesting fish market in Palermo, but once upon a time it was an important place for the Mafia. It quite ruined and almost gone away, expect in the evening when it comes to life full with people.
From here our plan lead us to one of the prettiest places I saw today – Fontana Pretoria.
There was a time when the square in front of Palermo’s Praetor’s Palace was known as “Square of Shame”, due to the naked statues around the spectacular fountain at its center.
The Pretoria Fountain, sculpted by Francesco Camilliani, arrived in Sicily’s capital in 1574, after having enhanced a beautiful garden in Florence for a few years: it was transported to the island divided into pieces – 644 of them to be exact – and was put back together in its current location. Palermo’s Senate had purchased it from the original owner, who needed to solve his financial problems and pay his debts.
The people of Palermo looked at those half-dressed statues and identified them with the corrupt officials in their city hall… but in reality they were meant to represent mythological figures such as the gods on Mount Olympus, and Florence’s rivers – including the Mugnone, immortalized by Boccaccio in his “Decameron”. The Florentine writer set one of the novellas along the banks of the Mugnone, where his characters look for heliotrope, a stone they believe will make anyone carrying it invisible… the perfect remedy for anyone feeling ashamed of something.
After our eyes were full of beauty we managed to look around us and the buildings, amazing as well. Here are Pallazo Pretora, the church Saint Joseph of the Theatine Fathers, Palazzo Bonocore and the church Santa Catherina.
Despite the fact that the hot weather started to take its toll and even our son started to get tired, we hadn’t fulfill even half of our plan! There was no time for a break, we just sat for a while on the steps in front of the square and moved on the the next site – a little square with four corners called Quattro Canti.
“Quattro Canti” ( Four Corners), as it is called by Palermitans, is the central point of the old town. Located at the intersection of the two main streets, Via Toledo (now Via Vittorio Emanuele) and Via Maqueda, the square is always illuminated by the sun and is consequently named the “Theatre of the Sun” as well.
Its real name is Piazza Vigliena from the Viceroy Juan Fernandez Pacheco, Marquis of Vigliena, who was the noble man that really wanted it to be laid out.
A very spectacular monumental ensemble of the Baroque style.
The most important characteristic of “Quattro Canti” is the octagonal appearance of this crossroads created by the four corner buildings enriched with four curved, concave wonderful facades onto the interchange. They were designed by the royal architect Giulio Lasso in 1608.Each facade is decorated differently, sharing the same architectural style created by another royal architect, Mariano Smiriglio, who completed it in the following years.
Each facade rises to four levels with rising three orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. In the center of the base of each canton is a fountain topped by a figure representing a season: Spring is represented by Venus adorned with flowers; Summer and Autumn are represented respectively by Ceres, with fruits and crops, and Bacchus, while Winter is Aeolus with a lantern in her hand.
In the middle of the second order columns, above these statues, there are respectively represented four Spanish Kings: Charles V, Philip II, Philip IV and Philip III.
The last order hosts the four patroness Saints of the Palermo districts that are behind each corner: Santa Cristina is the Patroness of the Royal Palace, Santa Ninfa is the Patroness of ” Monte di Pietà”, Santa Oliva of “Castello a mare” and Sant’Agata of “Tribunali” (Kalsa). Each corner is topped by three coats of arms: the Royal coat of arms is at the center, the Viceregal coat of arms and Palermo Senate one are at the sides.
We bought some souvenirs and went to see two iconic churches in Palermo. Honestly, my legs just stopped working and I just sat on one bench in front of the churches and let my husband wonder around them. I don’t know if that was because of the heat or something else, but I needed a break.
And here they are, totally unrecognisable:
They are San Cataldo and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio.
The Church of San Cataldo is an Arab looking building block topped with three pinky domes. Simple and elegant inside with its original mosaic floor in porphyry and serpentine, this 12th-century small church is a perfect example of then Arabian-Norman Architecture. Built in 1154, it has undergone many changes throughout the centuries. Fun facts of this church: in 1787 it was consecrated and turned into a post office! …and the distinctive three pinky domes we see today were actually an error of the restorations of the 19th century.
Admission Fee: €2.50 full, free under 14. Opening Times: 10.00-13.00/15.00-18.00
Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is also known as La Martorana, and is a spectacular, sacred site in the center of Palermo. The church was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch, the admiral of Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. It was completed in 1185. The design and decoration are said to have been undertaken and overseen by George himself, who loved the Byzantine style and art of his native Greece. The church was built to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for her protection, and to give the Greek Byzantine monks a home church.
There is no mistaking the church, however, as it is distinctive. The original square Norman tower defines the church, sitting on Piazza Bellini. The facade was altered in the 1600s, given a Baroque portal, but the Norman arches and pointed windows belie its original architecture. The interior is a Greek cross plan with cross vaults. But you may not notice that, as is it hard to look beyond the glorious, gleaming wonderment of the mosaics that cover every surface of the interior. It is a truly breathtaking sight. These artistic creations were added in the 1150s and despite the passing centuries are still vibrant and depictive. They represent the oldest and best preserved mosaic work of the period.
After gathering some strength it was time to continue our plan. I had no idea when the adventure spirit would bring me back in Palermo so we had to use our time to the fullest!
Here are some photos to prove it:
… and here’s our goal – Palazzo Conte Federico. Palazzo Conte Federico is one of the oldest buildings in Palermo, built on Punic-Roman city walls which originally surrounded ancient Panormus.
The tower on the south side of the palace is one of the few remaining parts of the old city wall.
It dates back to the 12th century and is Arabic-Norman origin. Above the double-arched Norman windows can be seen the coat of arms of the imperial family of the Hohenstaufen, of the kingdom of Aragonia and the city of Palermo.
In the course of the centuries Count Federico’s palace has undergone several reconstructions. Because of this you can observe various architectural styles: High painted ceilings from the 14th century, baroque ceiling frescoes by Vito D’Anna and Gaspare Serenario, various sculptures and Marabitti’s lion fountain from the 17th century as well as the grand stairway with the interior walls done by Marvuglia. Unfortunately, the palace was closed during our visit so all photos are from internet.
Count Federico’s family, which can be followed back to the Staufen Emperor Friedrich II, has been living in this palace for centuries. You can visit it with a guided tour by the Count or his wife, but couldn’t find how much it costs. It is open everyday from 11.00 till 16.00.
Since we couldn’t visit the palace we headed to the Royal palace in Palermo, but not without showing you the Palazzo Conte Federico neighbours.
Here’s the Norman Palace:
There is a small park in front of it who didn’t impress me very much, but there are benches and few shades where you can rest before storming the castle.
On a plateau above the incessant traffic and hubbub of the modern city, the Norman Palace, Palermo’s stronghold, rises skyward. This piece of architecture offers a taste of the rich variety of art, the simplicity and the poised style of the Norman Sicilian kings’ court.
The fortress was rebuilt by the Arabs in the Ninth Century and was known by the Arabic name, Càssaro (which now refers to an area of Palermo). An ancient Punic-Roman stronghold on the site became foundations for the new castle.
The Normans, under Roger II embellished it, rendering the then four towered castle the royal mansion. At the heart of this splendid residence, is the Aula Regia, or Royal Hall, reserved for hearings and banquets.
Roger II, who reinvented the Castle as his palace in the Eleven Hundreds, was known for his multicultural style of government, and made sure his court soundly reflected his philosophy.
To this end, he had a beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Peter built in the castle, and summoned Arab and Byzantine artists to decorate it. The effect is stunning: the Cappella Palatina, (the Palace Chapel) is on the first floor and is worth seeing, notwithstanding tired feet, the sun, and possible queues. Made in the form of a Basilica, divided into three naves by granite columns with Corinthian capitals.
The mosaics of Christ the Pantocrator (classically Byzantine) the Evangelists, and images of stories from the New and Old Testaments, on a gold background, are masterly pieces of craftsmanship. With incredible skill, byzantine images and decorations are blended with Arabic designs (such as the classically Arab eight pointed stars placed in the shape of a cross) into the art and design of the building.
The roof, a unique structure with upside-down wooden “stalactites-like” pyramidal structures, suspended from the ceiling, resonates with Islamic images, creating an ecumenical fusion of Catholic, Islamic and Byzantine cultures quite literally in and under one roof.
During the reign of Frederick II, the Palace, continuing in the vein Roger had begun, became a melting pot and meeting place of cultures, races and traditions. This idyllic Swabian epoch, however, was not to last. New invaders and ages superseded the Norman Kings. After Frederick II’s death the Palace was abandoned and fell into decay; only the Palace Chapel was preserved for posterity.
In 1555, the whole building was renovated during the reign of the Fish Aragon dynasty. The viceroys altered much of the original building, raising the facade, demolishing three of the four towers and creating two large courtyards.
This castle was also equipped for battles: secret stairways, tiny hidden doors, in the base of the castle walls, to facilitate escape; pitfalls (covered traps in the floor) and mechanical defense devices for the accurate dispensing of boiling oil over the castle walls were found. Finally, dank dungeons lit only by a chink of light creeping through the narrow castle wall windows all testify to a medieval castle equipped for action.
Nowadays, the Palace, with its last facade dating from the Fifteen Hundreds, is the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. You can visit it for 12 euro, under 14 years – free.
Next to the castle is Porta Nuova. In 1536, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V came to the Kingdom of Sicily and crossed the arched entrance to Palermo after capturing Tunis from the Ottoman Empire. In celebration of the event, the City Senate decreed the city gate be rebuilt in a more elaborate form befitting the victorious visit.
The gateway leads to Palermo’s famous Cassaro, the oldest street in the city. The facade facing Independence Square has four magnificent large supports, or atlases, carved with figures of the Moors defeated by Charles V.
This current arch is actually the third version of the medieval city gate. The large arch was not just decorative; it was also used as a warehouse, which caught fire in 1667, destroying the structure. It was rebuilt in its final form in 1669. On a hot summer day the archway forms a very welcome shady refuge as you pass from the area around the Palazzo Normanni into the Cathedral precinct.
A few hundred meters down the road is one of Palermo’s biggest attractions – the Cathedral.
Before visiting we craved for something sweet and sat in a small pasticeria in front of the cathedral. This was some of its menu and there’s no need to say that everything was delicious.
The Cathedral of Palermo is one of the most important architectural monuments in Sicily. It was built in 1184 by the Normans as a re-converted Christian church on the site of a Muslim Mosque that was previously built over a Christian basilica. This Cathedral is a must see when visiting Palermo!
The reason for building this cathedral was to surpass in beauty the Cathedral of Monreale so you can imagine how architectural exaggeration was involved due to the competitiveness. What we see today is the result of a stratification of styles over the centuries from Gothic to Medieval, Arabic (an actual passage from the Koran is still engraved on one of the columns) to Neoclassical.
The impressive exterior builds up high expectations for the interior which is just as lovely but not as rich as other sites around Palermo covered in gold. Explore the diversity of the art inside for what it is and you will be assured a pleasant visit. The Church itself is free to enter to visit while there are other parts of the Cathedral that can only be visited with a ticket of 7 euro. Opening Times: Monday to Saturday from 9.00- 17.30; Sunday only the Royal Tombs from 9.00-13.00.
The sites are:
Treasury of the Cathedral of Palermo: if you want to see precious gold , silver and enameled objects.
Terraces: if you want to see the Cathedral with its lovely green domes and Palermo from the top.
Royal and Imperial Tombs of the Cathedral of Palermo: if you want to see the tombs of important royals and emperors. (you will see them anyway while going to the terraces)
After such a tiresome day we decided that it’s about time to visit something for our kid – a playground, one and only one in the city, near the harbour.
Playgrounds in Sicily are some kind of mirage, I have no idea where these kids play, maybe at home. Even in Mondello, a town supposed to be a resort, there was only a little amusement park where you can ride a Ferris wheel, swings, trampoline and lot more things, but no playgrounds.
I have no photos of the playground itselfs, but it was full with kids and their parents and was brand new. Here is its plan and exact location, if you need it:
On the way we saw some marvelous views and after the playground we went to find a little restaurant recommended by friends. Here are some of the views:
It was getting dark which turned out to be the perfect time to find a glorious Ficus Macrofylla, really impressive one.
There are really only two places to see these plants though, but these two spots are among the most beautiful of all places in the city: Marina Square and Palermo’s botanical garden.
While the leaves might be like a magnolia plant, there is no mistaking these Ficus Macrophylla. It has branches that will force themselves under ground, expanding the width of the plant. This particular plant would come from the Norfolk Islands, and has been here since 1845.
Here’s the restaurant, more of a with local sandwiches and meals. I was really pleased with the food and recommend it – Antica Focacseria S. Francesco .
This meal marks the end of my diary and this exhausting day and I’m leaving you with gorgeous views from beautifully lit Palermo. We came back to Mondello with public transport again, unpleasant trip again with changing buses on dark stops in the middle of terrible traffic, but we survived and didn’t abandon our plan for the next day, including driving to the other side of the island to an incredible nature miracle. But all of this – next time…
Stay tuned and don’t stop to travel!