Everywhere you go in the old centre of town you find a church, or some other massive monumental building, you could spend an entire day just walking from one to the other. Here are just a few I don’t think I mentioned elsewhere!
The churchs of S.Maria dell’Ammiraglio, S.Carlos and S.Cataldo face each other across Plaza Belling, behind Quattro Canti.
You get the idea. If there is a Guiness Record for churches per square mile, Palermo must be in the running for it. The map we had showed about 40 churches and cathedrals in the old town area!
All in all Palermo is a beautiful city, a bit tatty in places but bright, vibrant and, well, monumental.
Valera found a fantastic ‘app’ called ‘visitacity’ which had excellent offline itineraries, maps and useful tourist information for Palermo.
There are a few palaces in Palermo but we just visited 2 of them, the Royal Palace and the Steri Palace.
The Royal Palace is home to the Palatine Chapel and the Royal Apartments, which are only open at the weekends. Construction of the Chapel was begun in 1130, is a mix of many differant styles and is quite beautiful, the decoration, inside and out is made entirely of mozaics.
It is accessed from the first floor of the Maqueda Courtyard which originated from a remodelling of the palace in in the late 16th century.
The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, was built in the early 14th Century by a powerful Sicílians nobleman and is famous for the painted ceiling in the great hall. The ceiling is covered in painted boards depicting subjects such as the Judgement of Solomon and the story of Helen of Troy.
From 1600 to 1782 the Palace housed the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, and the main ‘attraction’ is in the building alongside the palace which was a prison by the Inquisition. The walls of the cells were covered in graffiti by the prisoners using water, brick dust, blood, urine and excrement.
Some of the grafitti is in English, originating with various Protestant missionaries trying to convert the Catholics.
Once incarcerated prisoners were never seen again. Families had to pay the Inquisition for their food but many starved to death. Under torture prisoners admitted their heresy, their possessions were forfeited to the Church and they were executed. The prison was also famous for the murder of an Inquisitor by a prisoner; apparently this was the second on and last time that ever occurred. The perpetrator is said to have spent a year manacles to a chair waiting for his sentance to be sent from Spain!
And as was pointed out these were educated men, one drew a detailed map of Sicily on a wall, obviously from memory.
Prisoners, without hope, even concealed hair and teeth in cracks in the walls apparently in an effort to show they had actually been there.
Very evocative and if you think about it, terrifying.
On Thursday we went back to the Teatro Massimo Vittório Emmanuel. This was built at the end of the 19th century, opening in 1897. It is the largest theatre in Italy and the third largest in Europe and the area of the stage is larger than the auditorium. Again, another impressive building, inside and out.
All the sests in the theatre are available, and this includes those in the Royal Box; the only stipulation is that you need to book early as it is on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.
Conceived in 1861 after the unification of Italy the theatre was designed to raise the profile of Palermo, the second biggest city in southern Italy after Naples.
Having checked into our B&B we went for a wander in search of the Teatro Massimo, Palermo Cathedral and the Palazzo Steri a Chiaramonte. We found all three but the Theatre was only partly open and the Palazzo was closed for a conference; there is a theme developing here!
So the Theatre and the Palace went on our list for Thursday and we visited the Cathedral, and as we headed there we found the Quattro Canti rather by accident.
The Quattro Canti is a small road junction with 4 matching monumental corners and seems far too small to accomodate such enormous creations. The only place to really admire them is from the centre of the road junction, far from a healthy place to be!
And just behind one of these corners is a church. The front is impressive but doesn’t shout ‘church’. The inside, however, is huge and beautifully decorated, especially the ceiling.
The Cathedral is a differant matter; it looks every inch a Cathedral and has a massive piazza in front of it from which you can admire it.
It is massive and although built by the Normans (1169 to 1185) it has a heavy Arabic influence in its decoration. It is a beautiful building with fantastically intricate carvings on virtually every surface. Inside it is huge and relatively plain but the subdued decoration does’t detract from the overall impression at all.
As cathedrals go this is an amazing building, probably my favourite in Palermo. There is not one view of it that is anything other than magnificent.
Palermo was on our original itinerary, but then was dropped after our two wasted days in Messina. But then after our abortive visit to Taormina we decided we would visit Palermo after all. It is about 3 hours by train from Messina, a bit far for a day trip so Valeria found us a B&B and we travelled there on Wednesday and returned on Thursday.
We arrived at lunch time and asked directions of a friendly transport policemen. We got a photocopy city map, detailed directions to our B&B and crime prevention advice that wouldn’t go amiss in São Paulo. We set off wondering where our hotel actually was and following the directions found ourselves in progressively more dingy narrow side streets crowded with market stalls. As it happens this describes a lot of old Palermo off the main streets, but we didn’t know that. Our hotel turned out to be on the 3rd floor of an apartment block which, from the outside, looked pretty run down, but again, that description fits a large number of buildings in the back streets of the old town. However; once we were in the Colours B&B we were very pleasantly surprised.
Palermo is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and rejoices in the description of its architecture as Arab – Norman. Again, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Albanians, Spanish and French have been here but a large number of the monumental buildings, usually churches, appear to be Norman, with heavy Arabic influences. And there are a lot of churches. You cannot turn a corner without finding one, or sometimes 2 or 3 facing each other across a piazza; and they aren’t small either.
Although most of the buildings fronting the main streets are well maintained, every now and then the facade slips and you come across a rather sorry looking ‘doer upper’, in the side streets the majority of the buildings seem to fall into this category and yet the ground floors are generally occupied by shops and restaurants with the rest of the building looking very neglected.
This stark contrast between ancient and modern, decorated and decrepit is the defining feature of Palermo and yet it all seems to fit together seamlessly and gives the old city a distinctive character. You can walk through a thousand years of history in 100 metres, while passing tiny side streets that just look like they haven’t been repaired in that long.
And the history is everywhere, wall to wall churches, stunning architectural monuments, palaces, churches, piazzas, theatres, cathedrals and of course some more churches.
We spent Wednesday afternoon getting our bearings and visiting the Cathedral, then picked just three places to visit properly on Thursday, visiting a few churches in between. To actually see Palermo properly would take longer but would end up quite expensive on entry fees, although it would probably be worth it.
Palermo was unexpectedly good. A lively, busy atmosphere and plenty to see; we reckon we will have to come back. In fact there is so much to see I have split our visit into a number of different posts.