On Thursday we got up early and drove to Palermo because we wanted to see the Christmas lights and decorations. This has been a goal of mine, to check out as many cities as possible and to enjoy their holiday festivities. Palermo's were as gorgeous as I had hoped. My family emigrated from that area and I have been dying to go to this ancient city to see what it was like, and while there, to visit the two cities where my grandparents were born. It was really just a quick trip. We planned to stay only two nights and to find a place to stay when we arrived.
We left Marina di Ragusa around 8 in the morning and by 11:30 or so we were driving into Palermo. The 3-plus hours went by very quickly though because the scenery between here and there is absolutely breathtaking. The route is not completely direct, as you must drive east about 2 hours to Catania to pick up the autostrada, and then west again across the middle of the island and north to Palermo. Mt. Etna, covered in snow, dominates the landscape along the east coast. We were so surprised that the major highway had the most incredible views. The fields of orange and lemon trees gave way to farms and fields of every shade of green imaginable, from the chartreuse of the fields to the deep greens of the cypress trees, filling the valleys and running up and over the mountains, which are huge. The interior of Sicily is very mountainous but not uncultivated and the colors are truly amazing. In some places it was like the undulating shapes of the mountains were covered in emerald green plush carpeting. I am not exaggerating. At about the center of the island we came upon the city of Enna, on a very high spot, promising ourselves to return to explore that city known as Sicily's "lookout point" because of it's high position among the fertile hills. Once again the feeling of vastness overwhelmed us and we were blown away by how absolutely lush and beautiful Sicily is.
We reached the coast about halfway between Cefalu and Termini Imerese, where the autostrada parallels the smaller Hwy #113, that hugs the coast. The autostrada passes above it and the views are just spectacular. We read a bit about Termini Imerese and its warm springs but our guide book failed to mention the industrial red and white striped smoke stacks and power plant type buildings that don't present the best view. The Gulf of Palermo is hidden from sight as you approach from the east, with a promontory that juts out into the sea just before the curve of the bay. (Next time we will have to go explore that point.)
I found it very thrilling to arrive in Palermo but no sooner did we reach the city limits than we were barraged with its chaotic traffic patterns and a never-ending intrusion of motorcycles, whose drivers we are convinced must all be insane, with suicidal tendencies! To Bob's credit, he is a wonderful - albeit inpatient - driver, but it was really stressful nevertheless to drive into this chaos, especially not knowing which way to turn or where we wanted to be! We have been pleasantly surprised at how well signed Sicily has been, more so than in other parts of the country I might add, but this is not necessarily the case in Palermo. Plus, you have to have eyes in back of your head and be a mind reader to anticipate what those erratic drivers will do next, as they weave in and out of their lanes, which I am sure they take only as a suggestion. Eventually we found our way to centro, which seemed not as large as I had expected and soon were driving through the Porta Nuova, the city gate built in the 16th century. It looked to us like a bell tower with a peaked roof, and we admired the splendid and gigantic carved figures and fanciful details that adorn its façade as we inched our way with the more-stop-than-go traffic and soon were driving into South Palermo. I must admit I had difficulty remembering what was in which side of the city and was confused about where I was a good part of the time!
Palermo is in great need of restoration. It is evident that some of this has already been accomplished and that they are working on it. Since this was our first trip there and a very brief one at that, I should temper my impressions with the knowledge that I have not seen enough of it yet to make an educated judgment. However, since this is my journal and I am recording my impressions, even though I might change my mind later upon further examination, I would have to say that at first glance I found Palermo both incredible and incredibly shabby, even trashy in places. I usually find a city with crumbling walls and pealing paint to be charming in an antique sort of way but sometimes it can just seem neglected. In parts of Palermo I felt the latter. There are a number of buildings with a bombed out look and we wondered if they have been that way since WWII or are just the result of years of neglect. We encountered some structures that seem to be held together by scaffolding posts and were not certain if they were undergoing restoration or simply trying to keep the balconies from falling onto passersby!
We stopped along Via Maqueda, in the center of the city and Bob pulled over so I could jump out to try to locate the Tourist Information office, which was supposed to be on this street. I went into a building that said it was the Public Relations office and a man in there took me outside and to the very next door! I guess he thought that was better than trying to explain! Inside were two young people who could not have been more eager to help me. They spoke pretty good English and told me about places to stay and gave me a map of the city, marking the sights they thought were important for us to see. Rather than driving around searching, we decided to just try the Hotel Sicilia, right across the street from the Tourist Information office and one of the suggested hotels. It was a little bit funky but clean, comfortable and affordable, with a place for our car, so we stayed there for the two nights. It was convenient to all the sights we wanted to see on foot and the room (#22) was at the back and quiet. Breakfast (as it was!) was included.
The young guy at the Tourist Info office recommended a place to get a good lunch and we headed in the direction he suggested, not realizing we would be right in the middle of the Mercato Ballaro, one of Palermo's famous open air markets. The Mercato della Vucciria is the more famous, but we are told that the Ballaro is more authentic. The sights and the smells were over the top, with outdoors stalls literally overflowing with produce and the remnants of produce that has been trimmed and hacked and tossed around! The colors and the textures are a feast for your eyes, as there are entire stalls with nothing but artichokes, chartreuse-colored cauliflower and deep purple broccoli and enough zucchini to feed an army. The oranges are literally jumping out of their crates, the color is so vivid and the bounty so rich. There were tomatoes of every size and shape and rows and rows of glistening black and green olives. Calamari, mussels, snails, eels and more fish than I have ever seen in my entire life filled the stalls of the fishmonger area, some staring back at us (the fish that is). We watched a man cleaning the octopus by dunking them in a pail of water and scraping at them with some sort of a brush and tossing them back onto the pile. Whole sides of beef were being carried along the streets; every part of the animal is there for the buyer who presumably knows what to do with some of this stuff that for us was totally unrecognizable and we shuddered to think what part of which animal it might actually be and how on earth would you prepare such a thing!
We wandered around and found some of the sights we wanted to see which are wonderful and ancient. The cathedral is an architectural marvel! The different influences that changed it and altered it through the years have created a masterpiece that is incredible to behold. Palermo is the capital of Sicily. Its origins date back to the 8th century B.C. Under the control of the Arabs, its splendor was said to rival Cordoba and Cairo at that time. It has been conquered and controlled by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spaniards. And all of these cultures left their mark on this city. It suffered terrible destruction during WWII and then the political corruption of the Mafia didn't do it any favors. My guidebook describes it as being "splendid and shabby at the same time" and I would have to agree with this assessment. But I do want to go return...
Quattro Canti, the area of the Four Corners is a riot of Baroque decoration and this is where the fanciest Christmas light decorations seemed to emanate from and it was dazzling! The Norman palace has recently undergone renovations and the Capella Palatina is now open after a lengthy restoration. The striking mosaics on the floor and altar inside the 12th century church of St. Cataldo, are original and were built by Arab craftsmen. Its exterior is similar to the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremeti with its pink domes, giving it a decidedly Arab feeling. The palm trees everywhere only add to the feeling of being in another time and place. The church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio or Martorana, is considered a "jewel of Normal architecture," originally founded in the 12th century and the main part of the church is covered in Byzantine style mosaics that reminded us of the Duomo in Venice and were just as lovely, even if the church is much smaller than St. Mark's. These mosaics and the ones in the Capella Palatina (which we did not get to see this time) are the oldest mosaic cycles in Sicily. I adore these shimmering mosaics, glistening gold with rich tones of reds and blues and the graphic nature of their Byzantine art.
During our afternoon of wandering we found a small puppet shop, where a craftsman was working on his "pupi" the marionette-style puppets so typical of this old Sicilian tradition. All around the shop hung a dazzling assortment of wooden puppets, all in elaborate costumes, staring out, seemingly waiting in the wings to play their parts. We were told that every evening, in a little theatre just across from the cathedral we could watch a puppet show and made sure we were back there at the appointed time to enjoy this unique form of entertainment. This was fun! We wish we could tell you we understood all the dialogue, but we didn't. The puppet master came out before the show started with one of his creations, to explain to the audience how his grandfather had invented this style of puppet that has jointed arms and legs and a different way of working the puppet by a center pole at the top which gives the appearance of the puppet actually walking without having elaborate strings attached to the feet. This ended up being the story of Orlando and Renaldo who both vie for the affections of the beautiful princess but end up having to fight off scores of Saracens (a story right out of the crusades). The battle scenes were as realistic as possible and they thrashed each other around, sparks flying from their clashing swords, with much murder, mayhem and James Cagney-style dying right there on stage! The kids were wide-eyed and totally captivated. This is a dying art in Sicily so we were especially delighted to be able to witness what may be the end of a tradition. We were heartened to see however that the children of the puppet master, now adults, are learning and mastering the skills of their ancestors and will hopefully keep the tradition alive. It would be a great tragedy to lose this.
We left there elated and enjoyed a great pizza at a restaurant nearby, the San Domenico (on Piazza San Domenico, near Via Roma). The best part of the meal was the dessert: a mouth watering, absolutely incredible cassata cake that was truly to die for! With its Arab origins this is considered THE classic Sicilian dessert. To any of you who don't know what this is, it is made from sponge cake filled with ricotta, sugar, chocolate bits and bits of candied fruit, sometimes covered with almond paste. It is truly amazing and this restaurant made one that is perfection itself! For dinner the next night in Palermo, we ate at a restaurant recommended in our "Travel Guide" called Sant'Andrea on Piazza Sant'Andrea that was excellent also but a bit more "upscale" and the food not so traditional. Bob had a nice sea bass and I had a delightful swordfish that was rolled and stuffed with shrimp and breaded. Very nice. The bread has been wonderful everywhere in Sicily. Lovely, crispy, crusty on the outside, doughy on the inside, bread. Sometimes with seeds, sometimes round, sometimes long, sometimes twisted. Really nice. WE LOVE BREAD!
(trying to post photos too, but I'm running out of time this morning and our host is really slow for some reason, so you may have to come back to see the photos!)
(to be continued: Cefalu, Baucina and Polizzi Generosa)