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.