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Trip Report Fabulous Palermo

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We stayed in the Kalsa area during our marvellous 10-day October visit to Palermo. We were delighted with our choice, in the bustling and vibrant old city quarter, conveniently in the centre. From our Via Butera third floor apartment we had panoramic views over the La Kala, the blue bay and tree lined Foro Italico stretching into the distance. From the balcony it was lovely watching the sun rise and seeing impressive cruise liners passing by.

Before travelling we enjoyed familiarising ourselves with the many attractions in Palermo, and further afield. We really looked forward to the visit and our high expectations were most certainly exceeded. We saw lots in a very relaxed manner. The weather was perfect throughout with dawn to dusk sunshine and blue skies. Ideal for sightseeing.

We would like to share some of our lovely experiences with you.

We love walking and did much, Palermo being a great city for this. Not only because of the almost incessant traffic congestion but also to admire the abundantly varied streetscapes, from Kalsa’s narrow streets to grand boulevards like Via della Libertà.

Our first evening we strolled around the attractive marina and promenade, passing the fine Porta Felice. We walked Via Vittorio Emanuele to the fine Quattro Canti, with the first segment particularly atmospheric as the streetlights weren’t yet on. We dined at the very good Casa del Brodo.

We often walked around lovely Piazza Marina with the Garibaldi Gardens at its centre and a good choice of cafes and restaurants. On the Sunday morning a major market appeared, selling everything from old typewriters and light fittings to sepia tinted photographs and dusty books.

Tuesday
We passed through the Vucciria Market that was just coming to life. We were told that this is no longer the best market and what we saw during our holiday confirmed this. While waiting for San Domennico to open we had breakfast at a café in gorgeous traffic-free Piazza San Domenico, admiring the attractive church façade, column and surrounding buildings.

The church interior is huge and pleasingly plain. It is the final resting place for numerous notable Palermitans; moving around we could see the source of many of Palermo’s street names.

It was interesting to observe the continuing fervent devotion to Madonna of the Rosary in Palermo. That night all Quattro Canti, surrounding streets and the church front were beautifully illuminated to mark the feast day. A marvellous sight.

After buying a 20 pack of AMAT tickets we hopped on bus 122 for La Zisa. It splendidly stands uncrowded against the background hills. Scarce water being sacred in Arab culture is reflected in the wonderful approach with the series of water elements leading to the castle. Inside it features again with the decorative fountain funnelling water to an outside pool where fish were kept. The Zisa tour is interesting with some fine rooms and lovely honeycombed stone features to be seen.

On the return bus journey plain clothes ticket inspectors boarded and there were animated discussions with some passengers over questionable tickets. Against vigorous protestation at least one fine was issued. Always immediately validate bus tickets!

In the afternoon we took a fascinating tour of Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, both the cells and palace. For nearly 200 years the Inquisition was based here. The extent of Inquisition prisoners’ graffiti in the cells was absorbing, done using wall mortar and whatever other materials they could get, mixed with water.

During the palace tour, conducted on a voluntary basis by a local archaeologist, we saw a number of rooms with high décor ceilings, one stalactite type and another in ship’s keel style. We had a great view of the massive banyan fig tree, the largest in Europe, in the Garibaldi Gardens.

We were looking forward to seeing Guttuso’s La Vucciria but had to settle for a lifesize copy as the original was on loan. It is an impressive work showing the market at its best and containing images of possible simmering conflict between various characters.

Wednesday
We started on a lovely walk to the Capuchin Catacombs. We had breakfast in the attractive Café Latino. The fabulous fountain in Piazza Pretoria was resplendent in the sunshine, surrounded by grand architecture.

Porta Nuova is most impressive, albeit the upper part is being renovated. From here there are fabulous straight-line vistas, east to Porta Felice and the sea, marking the extent of the medieval city, and west to the horizon. These straight, multi-km long boulevards criss-crossing Palermo are most impressive.

The Catacombs are unique and an immense reminder of mortality. Corridors of thousands of skeletons dressed in their original clothing, now inevitably faded, criss-cross the area, with the last remains placed here in 1920. There is strict demarcation into different categories - men, women, bambinos, priests, monks and academics. Next door is the lovely Capuchin church in which uncannily a funeral service was underway.

On Corso Calatafimi we noticed a monumental building that we thought served as a barracks in the past. We had a look in the foyer which has a lovely vaulted ceiling. It is the former 18th century Albergo delle Povere, built to house the poor and now the location for part of the Sicilian EPA, arpa.

We visited the magnificent Cathedrale, beautifully framed and pleasant with palm trees. Forgiving the candy-like confection in front, we admired the multi-styles resulting from long centuries of building and alterations. The overall impression of the interior is whiteness and restful. The long central nave lined with columns, each with a statue, is tremendous.

Later we went to Cefalù, a very scenic coastal train journey. On the way to Piazza del Duomo we had lunch of pasta and risotto in a pleasant street-side café.

The glorious Cathedral is beautifully situated in the Piazza under the looming Rocca. The double Norman towers dominate the great façade. Inside are superb mosaics, notably in the central apse depicting Christ Pantocrator against a golden background. The figure is shown in typical pose with the right hand raised in benediction and an open bible in the left. Standing at the back the eye is immediately drawn down the aisle towards this.

We couldn’t resist climbing the Rocca. The panoramas over the town, coastline and sea became ever more spectacular. Arriving at the extensive and impressive Castello gave a fine view of the geometrically shaped marinas with the scenic peninsular to the right. On the descent we went to the archaeological site containing the Temple of Diana. From the nearby battlements the total Cathedral can be seen.

Back at base camp we headed straight to the beach for a most refreshing swim. It is an attractive location with the setting sunlight highlighting the buildings and Rocca.

Thursday
We had a wonderful day in Agrigento, taking an early morning train and the 7pm Cuffaro return bus. It was interesting to see some of the Sicilian countryside, this area looking sparsely populated, with little greenery.

In a Panetteria we had another example of Sicilian friendliness and helpfulness. We were attempting to use a coffee machine, unprompted some of the locals gathered around and did it for us. We met this generosity from the people everywhere during our holiday.

After above coffee and snack we made our way up Via Atenea, which is an attractive streetscape, to Santa Maria dei Greci, a fascinating 13th century church built on an ancient Greek temple. The three plain aisles with their columns and arches are lovely. The walls contain faded frescoes. The Greek columns that were shaped to rectangular are visible along the walls and underneath the glass floor. In the underground passageway it was fascinating to see the Greek foundations.

At the nearby Monastero Santo Spirito one of the resident nuns gave us a tour of the Serpotta decorated church., which is delightful. She said there are now nine nuns in residence including a number of young ones. In the monastery we bought a tray of almond dolci, which sustained us at the next attraction.

To get the full experience of approaching the temples, we decided to walk to the Valley. It was wonderful moving along Via Panoramica dei Templi and seeing the Temple of Juno coming into view. The temples are spectacular. Concordia is the undoubted outstanding one given its near perfect state of preservation. Nearby fallen Icarus got attention. The Temple of Heracles, regarded as the most ancient, is quite impressive.

The western area comprising temple ruins contrasted with the three edifies we had just seen, but they further reflected the grandeur of the first three. We saw the huge Atlases prone on the ground.

Friday
This morning we stayed close to home and explored Kalsa. Spasimo Church, never roofed because of diversion of money to fight the 1530s Turkish threat, is unique and a symbol of the regeneration of the area. The lady told us that due to renovation no concerts are currently held there.

The area around Via Francesco Riso still suffers from the severe 1943 bombing damage. We were intrigued to discover that as part of the then clearance, rubble resulting from the bombing was dumped in the sea providing foundation for later reconstruction of the promenade.

The Basilica La Magione is wonderful. Through the attractive porta and a pleasant little garden is the entrance. The interior is pleasingly un-ornate. The adjacent Cappella della Misericordia, one of the oldest oratories in the city dating from 1150, is charming. The complex was badly damaged in the 1943 bombing; subsequent rebuilding is evident with ‘Restaurato’ appearing in areas like the peaceful cloister.

We adjourned to the seafront little beach, enjoyed the sunshine and watched the fishermen attempting to catch their dinner.

We enjoyed a visit to Palazzo Abatellis which is a grand location for the Regional Museum. We liked many of the works. Particularly the great Triumph of Death fresco in the former chapel. The depiction of Death riding a skeletal horse surrounded by pitiful humanity is powerful.

After a late lunch at the pleasant Palazzo Trabucco we took bus 139 to Arenella, an attractive seaside suburb. On the way for a stroll around the marina and beach we had a look at the modern Church of S. Antonio Da Padova, a cavernous plain interior, in striking contrast to what we had already seen.

Wishing to see Grand Hotel Villa Igiea which is only a km from Areella, we arrived to find a large crowd with camera-phones gathered at the closed gates and a heavy security police presence. We enquired whether maybe the President was in residence, or celebrities such as Amal Alamuddin and her new(ish) husband George Clooney. But much more importantly, the Italian soccer team was leaving for their Euro 2016 match against Azerbaijan at the Stadio (Italy winning 2-1).

With the team bus departed the gates were again closing but security allowed us in for a drink. It is luxurious and we enjoyed a cocktail on the terrace in the balmy evening. A private party was in full swing further down.

Saturday
On our way to Piazza Indipendenza we had breakfast at Café Latino. Bus 389 to Monreale was crowded but it was interesting to see more of the city, through La Conca d'Oro. Bus journeys such as this revealed a darker side of Palermo, passing through areas of urban sprawl, built under dubious circumstances, in what was termed the Sack of Palermo.

The Norman Cathedral is stunning. The Norman King employed the best craftsmen, both Arab and Byzantine, for the high decoration, with the results that we are fortunate to see today. From the floor to the ceiling everything is wonderfully ornate. The nave and apse are filled with religious imagery in mosaic, with Christ Pantocrator the central apse figure.

Moreale is pretty with nice streets and there are numerous viewing areas giving panoramic views down the valley to Palermo.

Back in the city we had lunch in Bar Santoro and very good it was too. After a leisurely walk to Poilteama we took bus 806 to Mondello for a swim. This was a great bus trip, along Via della Liberta then Viale Diana through the lovely extensive Parco della Favorita. We found that public bus trips were a great way of seeing the city, almost as good as a tour bus, minus the open top!

The beach was gorgeous and we enjoyed the warm water. Mida Lounge Bar being open, we partook of a coffee and watched the sunset.

From Poilteama we walked some of the surrounding streets and ended up on Via Spinuzza, which was humming with markets and eateries. Our plan to attend a performance or concert while in Palermo didn’t materialise but ambling around nightly street life such as this more than compensated.

After a grand dinner at La Rustica we turned homewards, through Piazza Domenico and crossing La Vucciria, which was one of our favourite nightly routes back. Vucciria was alive with bars, revellers and food vendors. One had a large pan of boiling water into which he chucked copious quantities of fish to satisfy hungry demands.

Sunday
Santa Maria della Catena is an attractive church, both the exterior aspect and the interior, which is relatively plain. The Stations of the Cross are noteworthy. On a wall is the chain that is the origin of the name.

We strolled along Via Emanuele and had delicious arancini and coffee in a Café. In Piazza Rivoluzione we saw on his green fountain the Genius of Palermo who is the secular protector of Palermo and complements St Rosalia, the religious counterpart.

We enjoyed a couple of hours in the marvellous Galleria d'Arte Moderna. We particularly love paintings from about 1850 onwards and it was great to see the fabulous collection of these.

From Poilteama bus 812 took us on the scenic trip to Monte Pellegrino. Probably being Sunday there were traffic jams and the bus was often stopped, which of course was great for viewing the vistas.

We were amazed at the beauty of the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, as we were not expecting a major church built around the cave she prayed in. Many people were devoutly worshipping here.

Later at dinnertime when we stopped to examine the menu at Vino e Pomodoro restaurant we were presented with a complementary glass of prosecco, which I think is a good marketing tool. We stayed and the meal was good. The resident magician with his card tricks was an amusing diversion.

Monday
We enjoyed a superb day in Erice. The cable car wasn’t operating but the (very infrequent) AST bus trip from Trapani, along the corkscrew road, was stunning.

After buying the 5-church ticket we began with the gorgeous Chiesa Madre. The vaulted ceiling is one of its most outstanding features with the sumptuously elaborate woven decoration. Climbing the adjacent bell tower rewarded with fine views.

We leisurely wandered around this unique town, admiring the stonework on the streets, the encircling wall and the buildings. Churches such as San Giuliano and San Martino are lovely. The area around Venus Castle gives a perfect perspective on the achievement in building the castle on such an exposed crag. We visited the archaeological site, which is extensive and informative on the associated myths.

We had sustenance at L'Oasi Del Gusto, with the outside seating attractively positioned on Piazza Umberto.

Tuesday
We did some window-shopping along Via Ruggiero Settimo and Via della Liberta. But I’m afraid we didn’t overly stimulate the fashion economy, as our only purchase was a €14 pair of sophisticated flip-flops.

The wondrous Oratoria di Santa Cita was one of the highlights of our holiday. Serpotta’s stucco creations commemorating the Battle of Lepanto and the mysteries of the rosary are awe-inspiring. The vignettes, each set on its own mini stage topped by charming mirroring putti, are superlative.

After a leisurely repast at the attractive Touring Café we went to Piazza Bellini to see Santa Caterina but it’s closed for renovation. We visited the charming San Cataldo, of three red domes fame. We read that the colour was a mistake, but as mistakes go I think this one can be forgiven. The interior plain stonework is beautiful. I asked whether religious observances still take place here and was told that the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre hold a monthly ceremony.

In complete contrast and on a whim we took an hour-long taxi tour driven by a young chap, who enjoyed whizzing around as much as we did. It was a white-knuckle ride around the city, bumping along the maze of narrow streets in Capo, where we walked through the vast food market.

To Poilteama, passing the steel plates monument to victims of criminality in Piazza XIII Vitttime, for bus 806 to Mondello for a last swim of the season in the balmy warm evening. For return journey we were advised to take bus 615 to Stadio followed by 101 to Via Roma. We did so, taking over an hour in total, but we weren’t hurried and it was another interesting tour of the city.

We dropped into the Grand Hotel et des Palmes for a coffee and dolci.

Wednesday
Our 9 pm flight from Catania afforded us a full day before the evening SAIS bus to the airport.

Palazzo Mirto is one of the few in the city open to the public and it’s definitely worth a visit. The interior is magnificent, in the original style and with many decorative artefacts. Fine chandeliers and ornate ceilings are common. There is a lovely grotto-type area and the stables with carriages are fascinating.

The Chiesa San Francesco D'Assisi is most pleasing. It manifests a number of styles including Gothic but the overall impression is attractive plainness. In contrast the Cappella Mastrantonio and Cappella dell’Immacolata are highly decorative.

After lunch in Piazza Marina we continued to the wonderful La Martorana, which has a rich legacy of numerous styles down the centuries, as apparent from Arabic script on one of the columns. The mosaics are phenomenal, the nave dome filled with the universal image of Christ Pantocrator.

Our last attraction, the Paltatine Chapel, was unforgettable and a perfect conclusion. The mosaics, which related religious teaching to illiterate penitents, are truly breathtaking. The image of Chirst being baptised shows in white mosaic the ripple effect of the water flowing over his body. Wondrous.

We loved Palermo and have cherished memories of our time there.

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