Part of the draw of circumnavigating Sicily, was to explore the different faces of this fascinating island. It was therefore essential that we stopped by in the capital, largest city and melting pot of people’s past and present – Palermo.
Everyone and his dog had warned us about the mad cap driving in Palermo. We were not disappointed, with cars and mopeds winding in and out of us on the road in to the centre, where we met narrow packed streets, honking horns and, on one occasion, street urchins joyriding a moped right past us, wheelie and all. It was a minor miracle that we arrived unscathed and found some where to park. That somewhere was the tightest space I have ever parked in on a dodgy looking back street, but, fortunately, a shop teller opposite laughed at how long it took me to park and promised to watch the motor for us.
FOR RICHER FOR POORER
Palermo is not a rich city, but it contains many treasures. Walking towards the historic centre through high, narrow, dirty alleys, it immediately reminded me of umpteen Latin American cities. Semi-grand buildings that had seen better days. Washing hanging out the windows between damp walls and chipped stucco. Street noises and kids playing football. The hot smell of pollution.
That may sound like a negative description, but for me it was immediately alluring. From experience, these kinds of places are full of interest, excitement and passion.
The comparison to Latin America is not just coincidence. Spaniards ruled Sicily on and off for centuries, right down to when Palermo was a twin capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (along with Naples). The influence can be seen in the density of imposing ornate baroque churches. The most impressive sites are though of older stock and this is where unique riches lie.
It may come as a surprise that at almost exactly the same time (well, OK, two years later) as a famous Norman by the name of William was invading England, another Norman, named Roger, was invading Sicily. His dynasty reached heights of sophistication rarely touched in medieval Europe.
A driver of this cultural blossoming, was the broad variety of different cultures in situ in Sicily. Amongst others, there were Arabs, Byzantine Greeks and, of course, the Normans themselves. Against the tide of an age, the Norman kings embraced these different cultures with open mind, drawing on the talents of each culture in terms of learning, philosophy and architecture.
This can be seen in the almost Python’esque named "Book of Roger" (check it out). For its time, a world map of unparalleled accuracy and beauty, created through the patronage of King Roger and the brilliance of Al-Idrisi, an Arab. This was a product of one of the great courts of medieval Europe. A cultural flourish built on familiar Norman military prominence.
The architectural legacy is arguably even more impressive. As a first port of call, we visited the Norman Cathedral. From the outside, it is an imposing and fascinating building. Combining Byzantine Domes, Gothic buttresses and touches of Moorish decoration. Unfortunately the inside is less interesting, with a later make-over which masks much of the original style, but down in the crypt the original Norman remains.
After that, we visited the most famous site in the city. Situated in the Palazzo Reale, which is itself no slouch in terms of interest and architecture, is the Cappella Palatina (the Palatine Chapel). This place is a wonder of the world.
At its heart it is a Byzantine church, with glittering mosaics beyond any I have seen. This is then enhanced with delicate Norman stone carving and simply beautiful Arabic wood carving. It is both surprising and inspiring at every turn. I was spellbound and had to be dragged away in the interest of stopping the kids climbing the walls.
Getting on for 900 years after it was commissioned by Roger II, the Cappella Palatina is testament to the enlightenment of Norman Sicily and the enduring benefits of reaching out to and fusing with cultures beyond our own.
INTEREST AT EVERY TURN
We spent the rest of the day pushing the pram around street after back street, discovering new sights sounds and smells (not all pleasant) at each turn. It was great to just get a little lost in the city, stumbling from dilapidated area to grand area and back again, and right through two bustling markets.
The first was for food of every description, the second for cloth and clothes. The kids loved this bit, meandering in and out of different stalls and getting a first grip on capitalism (finite funds in their hands but seemingly infinite amount of things to spend it on).
We were also pleased to discover that Palermo does gelato as good as any Italian city (as far as I can tell) and devoured the ice cream in the shadow of what we discovered was an old mosque. Palermo really is a city full of surprises.
Out on our feet with the day at its end, we made it back to our protected car. The smiling shop teller wished us well and gifted the children some sweets. A nice end to a great day in the city. I got a taste of it and I want more, perhaps in the form of Palermo's Nuttier sister... Next year Napoli?