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.
Things didn’t quite go according to plan after arriving in Messina; we lost 2 days due to strong winds bouncing us around against the berth we were put on and didn’t dare leave the boat!
The marina in Messina is just outside the harbour entrance and is built entirely from floating pontoons. The outer ones are big heavy concrete affairs known as ‘wave breakers’, and although they offer some protection from wind waves they offer none from the swell caused by passing ships and in stong winds with the pontoons and ourselves moving against each other, well, it is uncomfortable, noisy and destructive; one of our shock absorber springs broke. It was so bad we didn’t want to leave the boat unattended and were considering leaving the marina completely if the weather didn’t improve.
Anyway, our plight was noted and we were moved into a more sheltered berth and managed to spend Monday afternoon wandering around Messina. This is our second time here, the last time was a few years ago as guests of Julian in Celebrity Reflection, which coincidentally arrived just after us
Messina was founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC and has been occupied by virtually everyone since. Following the Greeks came the Mamertines, then Romans, the Goths, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs and then the Normans. Richard the Lionheart seized the city briefly in 1189 over a dowery dispute on his way to the crusades.
The city grew in importance, reaching its zenith under the Spanish in the 17th century boasting the first Jesuit School, a University and a Senate. The city rebelled against the Spanish, aided by the French but following the Peace of Nijmegan in 1678 the Spanish recovered the city, sacked it and stripped it of its institutions. Some Peace treaty!
Thereafter Messina went into a decline and suffered three devastating earthquakes in 1783, 1894 and 1908, and what was then left was bombed heavily during World War II. It is little wonder that there isn’t much of ‘old’ Messina left! Following the war the city was awarded a Gold Medal for Military and Civil valour.
The 12th century Cathedral was built by the Normans, then rebuilt after the 1908 quake and the war and now boasts a spectacular bell tower with an astronomical clock and a mechanically animated display of figures representing various aspects of the city’s history. This is run at noon every day and starts with the lion at the top roaring, then the cockeral beneath it crowing. Then the figures below the cockeral begin moving around the tower accompanied by an orchestral version of Ave Maria played over loud speakers. It is really cool and, so far, unique in my experience!
The inside of the cathedral is also pretty spectacular with a fabulous carved and painted wooden ceiling.
Outside the church is another survivor, the Fountain of Orion. This was commissioned in 1547. Dotted around the city are other monuments all with explanatory sign boards and in all Messina is an interesting place and pleasant enough to stroll around. Although it is busy it doesn’t seem crowded, or particularly ‘vibrant’.
Apart from the magnificent cathedral and clock tower there isn’t a lot in town to grab you. It had everything we needed as a base to explore Sicily and made a pleasant stop over, once we’d got a decent berth! We’re now planning some visits further afield.
We’re now on our way to Sicily now, planning to spend a week in Messina visiting some of the island before heading off to Greece. This was to be an overnight passage and I planned to sail along the north and west sides of Stromboli in the night so we could see the volcano erupting as we passed.
We slipped from our berth in Arechi at just before 9 on Thursday 18th and stopped off to fill up with diesel, and I managed to drop a filler cap in the water. Doh! They are held on to the filler pipe with a small chain, like the ones used to stop sink plugs walking and as I put the filler nozzle into the pipe I could feel the serrated underside of the nozzle rub against the neck of the pipe. Even as that was happening I could see the cap dropping into the water, in slow motion obviously. Now who carries spare filler caps? So, with the only other one like it on the fresh water tank I decided to use the pretty chrome one from one òf the Black Water tanks. This obviously had a fractionally different thread and so had to be sealed in place with gaffer tape. Very pretty, but, hopefully water tight. Mercifully it wasn’t to be tested as the weather was very clement.
The trip had three highlights. I managed to fly our Cruising Chute for the first time this year for about an hour at lunch time, we had a visit from a school of dolphins in the evening, come to see what all the gaffer tape was about, and of course, Stromboli over night.
The dolphins were with us for about 15 minutes, with one hanging around darting from bow to bow by itself for another 5, almost as if it was stuck there! It is wonderful laying on the netting watching them only a few feet below you.
As the sun set, anticipating little wind over night we lowered the sails and motored on towards Stromboli. I’ve mentioned before that it is sometimes referred to as the biggest lighthouse in the Med and that is certainly true. I came on watch at just after midnight and immediately noticed the characteristic ‘rotten egg’ smell of sulpher and within half an hour could see the intermittent bright orange smudge of light, as the lava erupted, from about 20 miles away.
Just after 2 am the moon rose, followed by, I think Venus, and Valeria came up on deck at 3.30 to watch the fireworks. We slowed right down and headed directly for the island and at a distance of about 5 miles had a grandstand view of fans and plumes of Lava being thrown up into the air. Being west of the island the moon was behind it, silhouetting it as the Lava show continued and we watched brief trickles of molten rock on the lip of the volcano. Really spectacular.
Way back in 1979, 38 years ago !!!, I was a Cadet in a Shell tanker called Aulica and we sailed passed the island in daylight, on our way to Messina from Genoa.
By sunrise we were south of Stromboli and on course for the Messina Straits. The wind picked up gradually to about 20 knots, from right in front of us, meaning we were battering our way into it and our speed was right down. Once in the Straits the wind dropped off and we found ourselves being escorted by the Italian Navy.
We arrived in the Marina del Netuno at 2.30 and have booked to stay until the 27th when we’ll set off for Cephalonia. In the mean time we plan to explore a bit of Sicily, and find a fuel filler cap, and a spare. Doh!!