In Palermo with the Tamas

22 to 25 February 2019

“Let’s go to Palermo at the weekend. It’s going to be cold in Licata and it’ll be good to have a nice warm hotel room for a few days” said Nici, our friend from SV Tama. 

It was a great plan. We wanted to explore Sicily’s capital before we left the island and it would be fun to go together before we go our separate ways. It was a great plan except for one tiny detail. Nici had failed to see the snow in the forecast for Palermo!

And so, oblivious to the icy temperatures in store, we headed off together. Having travelled Sicily so far by boat, car and bus, we took the tiny two carriage train north right through the centre of the island. It took three and a half hours through the agriculture of the south to the more rugged mountains of the north and by the time we got there it was dark.

Our first day in the city saw us eat our way through some of Palermo’s favourite street food, some delicious, some, well, interesting

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and nearly freeze to death in a flurry of snow in the street with our guide, Raffaella – but more about all that in our next post.

On Sunday we woke up to a little sunshine, a couple of degrees more warmth and a city inexplicably overrun by Scouts. We headed out for an expedition of our own to find Palermo’s main sights.

If our first introduction to Palermo had been a feast for our stomachs, day two was a feast for our eyes. After all the baroque architecture for cities like Catania, Ragusa and Marsala it was refreshing to see some more diverse styles.

On our way up Corso Vittorio Emmanuele towards the cathedral we were momentarily distracted by the Fontana Pretoria. Built in the 1550s its nudes were scandalous at the time leading to it becoming known as the fountain of shame.

But we were quickly distracted again just around the corner with our first taste of the Arab-Norman architecture for which Palermo is famous. The Islamic decoration on the tower of San Cataldo and its red domes instantly spoke of the Arab rule of the 10th century.

Further up Corso Vittorio Emmanuele we passed through the Quattro Canti intersection. The eponymous four corners refer to the highly decorative facades of the 17th century buildings that meet at the junction.

The narrow streets suddenly gave way to reveal the immense Cathedral first built by the Normans with a good dose of the Gothic.

We happened across an investiture service

but were on the hunt for Roger II or Roger the Norman, first king of Sicily, whose name for some reason has tickled us whenever we have heard about him. Roger just doesn’t sound like a monarchial name in  English! We found his royal tomb covered in scaffolding but sparkling with gold inlay inside the cathedral alongside his successors Frederick II, Henry VI and William II.

Through Piazza della Vittoria we found Roger’s palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni.

Inside we weren’t quite prepared for the brilliance of the interior of the Cappella Palatina. The beautiful, golden mosaics of biblical scenes juxtaposed with the painted wooden ceiling of the Arabic style, similar to those we saw in Seville’s Alcazar and Granada’s Alhambra.

It was hard to take our eyes off the glowing walls and ceiling

but when we did the marbled mosaic floor and wall designs didn’t disappoint either.

Elsewhere Roger’s Hall was equally beautifully decorated.

The palace is now home to Sicily’s regional parliament

and some opulent chandeliers, frescoes and paintings for hosting civic events.

The beauty of Palermo’s exteriors and interiors was only added to by the quirky street art we found around every corner. The painting of huge murals on the end of buildings reminded us of the wonderful murals of Estepona.

It might have been a bit warmer but the wind was still very strong. It made us realise how protected we are in the marina at Licata. The northern shore of Palermo does not get off so lightly and when we were inevitably lured towards the water we found spectacular rollers crashing against the seafront. We were all glad not to be at sea.

Beside the porto touristico is a huge mural to the memory of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, murdered by the mafia 57 days apart in 1992. Palermo’s airport is also named after the pair. Falcone is remembered particularly fondly at his tomb in San Domenico. The legacy of their determination to rid Sicily of the Mafia’s insidious influence lives on. Just in December 46 suspected members of the Sicilian Mafia were arrested with many other also arrested throughout Europe. Hearing stories about the grip the Mafia still has in Sicily and yet how they continue to be glamorised in popular media makes us sad. The fear and control they exert in the island’s communities is still very real.

Before we returned to the boat we revisited the cathedral to get another perspective on this wonderfully multi-layered city.

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Thank you the Tamas for a brilliant weekend. We will miss you crazy pair…

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