February 23 is our wedding anniversary. We were married in New York when I was only 19 years old and Bob, just over 21. Babies, we were and it seems another lifetime ago that we stood on that altar in St. Sylvester's church and promised to love each other till death. I felt like a princess in my Cinderella gown and veil that trailed behind me at least 25 feet (or so it seemed!) and when I look at photos now I cannot believe how young we were! We left New York the following day for Colorado where Bob was stationed at the time to begin our life together. I believe it was the start of our mutual love of travel and seeing new places that planted the seed for this adventure we are now on, living in Italy for two years.
Gift giving, since we have been in Italy, has consisted of not material things, but the gift of living in this beautiful place and every day we are aware and acknowledge how fortunate we are to be here, together, having all these incredible experiences. And so, arriving in Palermo, we looked at each other and said "Happy Anniversary honey, I give you Palermo!" We stayed in the same little hotel as our last trip, not fancy but conveniently located right in the downtown, went back to the same restaurant to eat a "Sfincione" (a type of northern Sicilian pizza that is made with onions, artichokes, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese and tomato sauce and I don't know how, but it all tastes incredible!) drink local red wine and once again enjoy their cassata cake that is do die for.
We talked with the owners and told them we are in search of my ancestors and asked if they knew of the name "Bivetto" and they did not. They even looked in the Palermo phone book but found nothing. As we have found, different names are associated with certain cities and we are not having any luck finding anyone who has ever heard the name! (more about our trip to Baucina later)
The weather was overcast but not cold. We walked around the Cattedrale again, a masterpiece of architecture that reflects the history of the city and the various peoples that inhabited and shaped it. Built by the Normans in 1184 on the site of a previous basilica that had been converted into a mosque by the Saracens it is quite an impressive sight. I believe there are four or five bell towers, tons of fancy details like the Catalan Gothic portico with its pointed arches and biblical scenes, Arab inscriptions, cupolas with majolica tiles, the huge baroque cupola added in the late 1700s, the arched crenellation motif characteristic of the Normans, and Gothic double lancet windows on the 12th century clock tower. The interior is baroque but it is the outside that really fascinates us and we never tire of walking around it, enjoying the architectural details from all sides.
Wandering around the Cattedrale we found an unexpected treasure! There is a shop that still paints the Sicilian carts, and on display in their workshop were more of these than we had seen anywhere! From floor to ceiling in this workshop were carts or pieces of carts as well as miniature carts and other artifacts. The name of the shop owner is Franco Bertolino and he told us that for 5 generations, his family has made these "Carrozze d'epoca" and the workmanship was masterful. Along the side street also, were the little 3 wheel apes and small trucks painted in the same style and a red Vespa parked outside the door fully painted as if it were a Sicilian cart! This shop is located at Salita Ramires n. 8, behind the Cattedrale.
The Cattedrale di Monreale
The town of Monreale is just outside Palermo. We wanted to see the Cattedrale there since we had read about it and the photos and descriptions intrigued us. The city sits high on a spur overlooking the bay and the broad, fertile fan-shaped plain around Palermo that is called the Conca d'Oro (bowl of gold?) so named for its shape and the color of the oranges on the trees that grow there, or so we were told by the young man in the information office in Palermo who has been so helpful. We were not disappointed. The mosaics in the interior are splendid. It was built in the 12th century by William II, one of the Norman kings of Sicily, on the site of a Benedictine monastery. It is an outstanding blend of Arabic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The mosaics with their gold background decoration cover a total area of 6,340 square meters and depict scenes from the Old and New Testament. It is among the most incredible we have seen and the gilded wood ceiling is nothing short of a masterpiece of its kind. There was no charge to visit the Cattedrale but it costs 6 euros each to visit the cloister, an inner courtyard, with its 228 small double columns decorated with elaborate carvings and mosaic details. And, I might add, not a smidge of scaffolding! We were delighted!
Back to Palermo
The next day back in Palermo, we went in search of the Norman castle, the Palazzo dei Normanni, built in the 9th century on the sight of a Roman citadel and transformed into a palace, and becoming, under King Frederick II, a culture center, only to find that it was closed that day and to learn also that part of the Cappella Palatine, another jewel of Norman art and mosaics, was partially under restoration. We decided to come back another day, when we could see both and ventured off to find the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and its five pink domes, dedicated in 581. It was built by Arab artisans in 1136 by order of the Normans and is one of the most important monuments in Palermo. We found it mostly interesting from the exterior with the interior consisting of small rooms in stone with Arabic details. The cloister is undergoing restoration and was therefore closed and we found the red and white tape in various places in the little garden a bit off-putting. The cost of 6 euros a piece seemed a bit steep for the little peek we were given of this once amazing place but decided it was our contribution to the restoration project which we hoped would restore this monument closer to its former glory.
I feel such a sadness for this once glorious city. That there is restoration work being undertaken is heartening. It is desperately in need of it. Its monuments are incredible but the city itself seems to be crumbling around them. On so many of its streets we found buildings half decayed, held together it seems by the dirt that cakes the facades. It's fascinating though in its shabbiness and I find myself wanting to go back, to look again, to uncover the little jewels that lie hidden among its streets. For its past splendor I feel a deep sadness and a hope that the future will see a return for at least some of these wonderful places. So much of it I fear will simply fall down around itself if not given a boost and that would be a great tragedy. That people live in some of these buildings is a wonder in itself and I cannot imagine what that must be like. It is a city like no other we have visited. There are so many places we have not visited in and around Palermo and I'm afraid we will not have time to see them all! I love passing the park, Piazza Vittoria, with its ancient palm trees and gardens, so exotic there in the middle of the city. I know we have barely scratched the surface.
One of the highlights of the day was lunch! Our friend in the tourist info office told us about something called Pane Panelle Crocchè and the look on his face as he described this told us we had to try to find it and have one, whatever it was! We headed in the general direction he described, through the Mercato Ballaro and all the fresh fruit and vegetable stands, past the cheeses and the meat guys with their crazy stuff hanging there and kept asking where we could eat this thing. Finally we found a little stand on the furthest corner of the market and told the guy there what we wanted. Certo! He replied and he filled two small, crispy loaves of bread with what looked like fried balls of seasoned mashed potatoes (any comparison to tater tots is forbidden!) and another flattish piece of, honestly, I don't know how to describe it, sprinkled it with salt and put it in our hands! The first bite was pure delight! I can never say that it would occur to me to make such a sandwich and I can only imagine the calorie content (don't think about!) but it was just about the tastiest thing I had ever eaten! And it cost 1 euro each! Can I have another, please??
Fat (literally!) and happy, it was time to leave Palermo and head back to Marina di Ragusa, with one more stop in Baucina first. I must say, one of the other things about Palermo is the crazy, insane, mind-boggling traffic! It can only be described as pure chaos! I am more in awe of Bob and his driving abilities than ever and am amazed that we do not see more accidents as people turn in front of you, make left turns from the right lane, tail gate, cut you off, cut in from side streets at break neck paces and just generally drive like maniacs. The way the Italians park their cars is a whole essay in itself! If they get even partially into a parking place they seem to be happy, regardless that the lower half of their vehicle is sticking out into oncoming traffic! If they are actually in a parking space and not double or triple parked on a narrow street! I won't even get into the pedestrians and the scooters! Those people must have death wishes! I swear! Even on the state roads, the driving habits are enough to give you a heart attack! Everyone is in a hurry, everyone wants to pass you, regardless of how safe it might be or whether they can see who is coming from around the curve in front of you and everyone drives really fast. From a traffic standpoint alone, we are happy we live in Marina di Ragusa and don't have to deal with this on a daily basis because I don't think our blood pressure could handle it!
Rosemary & Bob