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Days of Sicily, Knights of Malta – Part 3: Palermo

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Continued from Part 2

As I described in Part 1, we made our initial base a beautiful agriturismo called Villa Cefala, in Santa Flavia, not far east of Palermo but a world away from that crowded, vital, redolent-with-history city.

Pomegranate tree, Villa Cefala, Santa Flavia, Sicily

Pomegranate tree, Villa Cefala, Santa Flavia, Sicily

We’re grateful to our friend Allison Scola, proprietress of the excellent Sicily travel site Experience Sicily, for the Villa Cefala recommendation among others.

From there we took the train into Palermo for a day in the big city, leaving our rented car in a parking area at the train station, where we couldn’t figure out from the signs whether parking was legal. I worried about it all day – needlessly, it turned out. Which brings me to a quick aside on travel methods:

That’s the sort of anxiety you have to expect when you plan your own itinerary on a trip to a foreign country. This kind of travel isn’t for everyone. We research and decide which locations and sites we most want to see and plan our itinerary accordingly, including transportation – sometimes a car rental is necessary, other times not. For us, the careful micro-planning and the inevitable, occasional incidences of confusion and anxiety are well worth it. The benefits are numerous:

You can see more sights than if you traveled for the same length of time with a tour group (or, worse, on a cruise ship).

Even if you have all your accommodations booked, you can alter your plans within a given day at the last minute if you discover something you want to see but hadn’t planned on (as we did when we detoured to Segesta in Part 1).

Bonus: You get to feel more adventurous than the noisy throngs of travelers packed into groups seeing specific sites at specific times, with little or no free time to explore on their own. (You’re sure to smack into some groups like this if you’re visiting heavily traveled tourist sites!)

End of aside. Back to Palermo!

Grand architectural and historic sites are great, like the Duomo (Cathedral) and the Quattro Canti (Four Corners). But sometimes a streetscape is just the thing for getting a feel for a place.

Palermo Duomo

Duomo, Palermo

Palermo Duomo

Duomo, Palermo

Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena, The Four Corners), Palermo

Quattro Canti (Piazza Vigliena, The Four Corners), Palermo

DSC01582-street

The 12th-century Norman Palace is a Palermo site (and sight) not to be missed. Though its facade and interiors are centuries newer, it certainly gives a sense of how ancient this city is. Ruggero II, who became King of Sicily in 1130, had it built on the foundations of an ancient Saracen palace. You can’t travel in Sicily without encountering countless references to old King Roger.

Norman Palace, Palermo

Norman Palace, Palermo

Nearby is a somewhat more obscure old site where we ended up spending a lot more time than we expected: San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits), one of those places that seemed like a second-tier attraction but that we detoured to check out and were very glad we did. It too dates from the 12th century, but was built on the grounds of a mosque, which inspired the bulbous domes (not painted red until the 19th century). The cloister and garden provide a wonderful respite from the busy urban surroundings.

Domes, Norman Palace, Palermo

Domes, St. John of the Hermits, Palermo

Garden, St. John of the Hermits, Palermo

Garden, St. John of the Hermits, Palermo

Cloister, St. John of the Hermits, Palermo

Cloister, St. John of the Hermits, Palermo

The cavernous, baroque Chiesa de San Domenico dates from 1640, with a facade completed in 1726. (The website Palermo for 91 Days dates it to the 15th century, but that must be a mistake, as it would predate the period of baroque architecture).

Chiesa de San Domenico, Palermo

Chiesa de San Domenico, Palermo

This bustling city isn’t known for its natural wonders, but I just have to show you this huge ficus tree in Giardino Garibaldi. (No, ficus trees aren’t native to Italy, but never mind.)

P1070199-ficus

A highlight of our visit to Palermo was the 17th-century Inquisition prison, opened just a few years ago as a museum. It’s not heavily trafficked and we got a private tour. The main attraction here is the graffiti, rooms full of it, written and drawn by prisoners, Christian and Jewish alike and of various nationalities, rediscovered only in the early 20th century. Scrutinizing the walls and walls of graffiti was a somber but endlessly fascinating exercise. We had a hard time tearing ourselves away. (The color looks different in the following two photos because they were taken with two different cameras, only one of which takes good pictures in low light.)

DSC01609-inquisition-graffiti

P1070203-inquisition-graffiti

Palermo’s highly vaunted Archeological Museum was, alas, closed, and looked as if it would be closed for a long time, with no signage of any sort. When we arrived at the square where it was supposed to be, we could hardly even find a clue which building it was. That’s what we get for assuming that something apparently so major would have to be open instead of checking online in advance!

There’s one more major Palermo site we visited, but I have no photos, because it’s the Catacombs of the Capuchins, dark, clammy, with no photography allowed and it would useless anyway without a flash. The mummified bodies of thousands of Sicilians stare down at you, or across at each other, most of them propped up against the walls, which contain some sort of preservative agent that made this a popular resting place. The bodies date from the end of the 16th century through the early 20th. A two-year-old girl known as “Sleeping Beauty,” who died in 1920, looks especially and uncannily lifelike. She’s so well-known she has her own Wikipedia page.

The Catacombs are some distance from most of Palermo’s other attractions. Nonetheless we elected to walk, giving ourselves in the process a good long taste of the everyday city as we navigated nondescript narrow blocks with little cars piled up on the sidewalks making walking tricky.

I’ll leave you for now with a picture of a building. Just a building. Nothing special, and rather typical of Palermo. The kind of architecture that would stand out as remarkable in New York, but doesn’t even register as something particularly notable in a great old European city. Actually, this one reminds me just a bit of the top of the Flatiron Building.

P1070196-building

And so we leave Palermo and set off on our eventful drive through Sicily to Cefalu, Taormina, and beyond. Continued in Part 4.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.