In Sicily: A Taste Of Palermo

By Dalia Miller
Photos by Kip Miller

“Just how many languages do you speak, Giusi?” I ask our brilliant guide in Palermo. “English, Italian, French, Spanish and German,” she answers rapid fire. “And which is your best language, other than Italian?” I continue. “Why, all of them,” she smiles, not missing a beat.

Palermo’s sea shell-shaped bay, Conca d’Oro, lured many conquerors throughout the millennia.

Giusi points to a special high school next to Palermo’s cathedral where she was once a star pupil. Here many languages are taught to an elite group of students who pass rigorous entrance exams. The school is emblematic of Palermo’s layered history of invasion and assimilation, for nearly everyone in the Mediterranean has left a footprint here.

Palermo is breaking all our pre-conceived notions about Sicily. There are no sinister mafiosi lurking in dark corners, restaurants offer sophisticated fare way beyond pizza, and we are not driving on donkey paths, but on roads and bridges that are among the finest we have encountered in Europe. Truth be told, Sicily has become Italy’s hottest new destination, with upscale accommodations and Michelin-starred restaurants. “Why in the world did we wait so long to come here?” I ask my husband and our long-time Connecticut friends.

The Giardino Inglese, a restful oasis amid Palermo’s hustle and bustle.

Late April is a glorious time to visit Sicily. The countryside is a patchwork of green, with vibrant wildflowers and lush wheat fields that ripple in the afternoon breeze. Rivers rush in mountain ravines and citrus orchards are covered in new leaf. Palermo’s boisterous street markets are bursting with blood oranges, stacks of wild fennel, fava beans and artichokes, biancolilla olives, and bluefin tuna that mass in spring. The crush of tourists has yet to arrive, and you feel as if you have the Mediterranean’s largest island all to yourself.

We land on a late Friday afternoon after connections in New York, Munich and Rome. Unfortunately, our bags do not arrive with us. “They will get here eventually,” we are assured by the overwhelmed lost-and-found attendant who is being harassed by several unlucky passengers. The hour ride to Palermo, Sicily’s capital with close to a million inhabitants, winds along the rugged coastline, past brooding Mount Pellegrino and rocky outcrops that surround Conca d’Oro, its seashell-shaped bay. We continue beyond the harbor, passing several palaces and art deco villas surrounded by formal gardens. Our hotel, the Excelsior Hilton, built in 1897, is just two blocks from Viale della Libertà, the city’s fashionable boulevard near the Politeama Theater.

It’s time for a grand first dinner. Nearby, the recommended Trattoria Biondo on Via Carducci Giosue beckons, its cozy rooms hung with Sicilian ceramics and prints. “Buona sera, signore!” A gracious waiter with hair like Einstein ushers us in. We feast on house-made tagliolini with truffles and porcini, linguini with clams and a lip-smacking squid and shrimp risotto. Our taste buds are working overtime. I am convinced the Sicilian sun must infuse each flavor with extra punch. I gaze at the table next to us where an extended local family just got seated. Their lusty appetites, frequent toasts and laughter are a joy to behold. “Grazie mille, buona notte,” we wave to Einstein as we leave, promising to return on another night.

The hotel has a stash of toothpaste, shaving cream and other essentials right at the desk. “Late-arriving luggage must be a regular event here,” I blurt out loud. We make the best of it and hope to see our bags in the morning, only to be disappointed again. It’s National Liberation Day, a festive holiday with hardly anyone working, and even though our luggage finally arrived at the airport last night, it probably won’t be delivered until Sunday. Never mind. We have a glorious day ahead of us and our guide is already waiting in the lobby.

Giusi is a walking art historian. “Sicily is an island of serial conquest,” she begins with dramatic flourish. “Everybody has been here: Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, then Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Swabians, followed by Angevins, Aragonese and Bourbons. Naturally, Palermo’s architecture has long pedigree. “Avanti. Let’s go!”

Gaetano, our driver, leaves us at a small garden in Piazza Marina near the port. “Have a look at this statue of Garibaldi, the unifier of modern Italy,” Giusi exclaims. “He arrived on May 11, 1860 when Palermo was still under the Spanish Bourbons and quickly incorporated Sicily into King Vittorio Emmanuel’s Italian kingdom.” We pose for photos by a massive banyan tree with exposed roots, the centerpiece of the garden. Not far away, the crenellated Palazzo Steri is the site of the Palermo’s Spanish Inquisition, where the notorious grand inquisitor Torquemada had his office. “Many heretics were imprisoned here,” Giusi discloses. “Some were even burned at the stake. Jews were forced to leave Sicily unless they converted.” Today, the palazzo is part of the University of Palermo. At the side of the port, we can make out the church of Santa Maria of the Chains, named for a massive chain that was used to close off the harbor to invading ships.

A baroque corner of I Quattro Canti, the remarkable intersection that divides Palermo into four districts.

A bersaglieri (traditional running soldier) speeds past us on his bicycle as we stroll on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel, Palermo’s main street. “Buon Giorno,” he tips his feathered hat to us. At Via Maqueda, Giusi pauses with reverence. “We are standing at the most important intersection in Palermo, I Quattro Canti (the Four Corners): an amazing example of urban planning!” We gape at four identical baroque buildings with three levels standing at each corner. At the bottom, elegant fountains represent the four seasons. Above are statues of Spanish rulers, and at the very top, four of the city’s patron saints: Ninfa, Agata, Oliva and Cristina. The intersection divides Palermo into four zones: the colorful Vucciria open air market bordering La Cala harbor; the medieval Kalsa quadrant, heavily bombed during World War II; the Albergheria with its Norman monuments and crumbling villas; and Il Capo, Palermo’s busiest shopping area, its tiny lanes fragrant with street food.

The Fountain of Shame is known for its graphically nude sculptures crated by a follower of Michelangelo.

“Allora, let’s move on to the nearby Fountain of Shame, part of Piazza Pretoria. It’s the former headquarters of Palermo’s senate and now its city hall,” says Guisi. The “shame” label is due to its allegorical marble statues, each one graphically nude. They were commissioned by the Medici family from Florentine artist Camilliani, a follower of the great Michelangelo. “Look at the sculpture on top,” she points, “at the well-endowed man holding the cornucopia. Isn’t it remarkable?”

We head toward La Martorana church on Piazza Bellini, built during the Norman era on a Greek cross plan and renovated many times. It is dedicated to Eloisa Martorana, the founder of the adjoining Benedictine convent. Inside, delicate Byzantine mosaic floors from the 12th century have been recently restored. “Imagine, Eloisa used to decorate the interior with her marzipan fruit pastries,” says Guisi. “To this day they are a popular delicacy in Palermo and you can find them in almost any pasticceria.”

“Where is the old Arab-Jewish section?” we ask. Guisi motions to a neighborhood of narrow lanes where all the street signs are in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic. “Just wander down this area. It evokes the old days under the Moors, an era of great tolerance and achievement in Palermo.” After a few wrong turns, we locate the Church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, built on the site of Palermo’s main synagogue destroyed centuries earlier. Not far from Via Meschita and Via del Ponticello we find the old Porta Guidaica, where the gate to the Arab and Jewish quarter once stood. “Palermo was always a city of contrasts, of enormous wealth and of extreme poverty,” Giusi emphasizes. Today, the city’s growing North African population is reviving traditional crafts, a vestige of that long-forgotten era.

Street signs in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic identify the old Jewish-Arab neighborhood.

“Now I am going to take you to the jewel of Palermo, the Palatine Chapel,” Giusi announces. We drive to the Palace of the Normans, the seat of the Sicilian parliament, where hundreds of people are lined up waiting to enter. “Let me see what I can do to get us in,” she says as she runs off to find the entrance attendant. We take a spot next to a red-capped school group and several families enjoying their holiday. Suddenly she returns: “OK, the attendant knows me. We can bypass the crowd since we are only a party of five.” We are impressed with her clout. Typically Sicilian, we are sure.

In Palermo’s Palatine Palace, glittering mosaics tell the story of Isaac being deceived by Esau.

Europe has many notable holy sites, but most pale in comparison to this Byzantine-Norman hybrid considered Palermo’s number one attraction. “The chapel was begun in 1131 by Roger II. He was an enlightened ruler who made use of the city’s Arab and Byzantine craftsmen, the finest artisans on the island,” Giusi explains. “It is dedicated to St. Peter and its triple apse and dome are completely covered with gold and malachite mosaics.” The interior takes our breath away. The massive icon of Christ Pantocrator welcomes visitors with outstretched arms, generating a palpable emotional effect. Arabesque motifs enclose a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. We strain our necks to catch every detail. “It took 13 years to build,” says Giusi with enormous pride. I am sure she never tires of bringing visitors here. “Now you have seen it, but just wait until we get to Monreale!” she hints of greater wonders to come.

Our van passes through Porta Nuova, a monumental gateway commemorating victory over the Ottomans in 1583. We pause for few minutes at Palermo’s main cathedral, a massive structure blending many architectural styles from Norman and Catalan to gothic and neoclassic. “Look at the taller bell tower. It kind of resembles London’s Big Ben,” Guisi remarks. “Inside the cathedral are the bones of Santa Rosalia. She was a noble woman descended from Charlemagne who chose to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. Her relics reputedly saved the people from a terrible plague in 1624, elevating her to the city’s number one patron saint.” I am aware of some of Sicily’s festivals. “On Santa Rosalia’s feast day, aren’t her statue and relics paraded throughout Palermo on a Sicilian cart?” I ask. She nods. “Her feast is a week-long holiday in July, the biggest of the summer, and people come here from many surrounding areas.”

Located near the port, Bristol is a bustling, modern restaurant and pasticceria offering a large buffet of local specialties. A table has been reserved for us and we make selections from a huge spread of antipasti and salads, fish, arancini and tiny sausages. Too full for dessert, we gaze vicariously at rows of marzipan fruits, tiny pastry puffs and cannoli. Palermitani definitely crave their sweets and these delectable little morsels provide comfort to all those raised on cucina povera, the cuisine of poverty.

Pasticceria Bristol showcases cannoli and cream pastries, two cornerstones of the Sicilian sweet tooth.

Monreale is situated eight kilometers inland at the foot of Monte Caputo with sweeping views of Conca d’Oro. The site was once a hunting refuge for the Norman royals. “According to legend,” Giusi explains, “the Madonna appeared in a dream to William II, grandson of Roger, directing him to build a large cathedral in her honor with money hidden in a secret place by his father. William wanted the building to transcend the grandeur of the Palatine Chapel and rank as one of the great cathedrals of Europe.” We are astounded that it was built so quickly. Work was initiated in 1174 and completed in 1185. A Norman-Arab-Byzantine masterpiece, it includes two square towers and a wide central nave. To speed the construction, many marble columns and Corinthian capitals were repurposed from ancient sites. As in the Palatine chapel, a soulful Christ Pantocrator fills the central apse, the span between his arms measuring 42 feet. “He has two fingers up, signifying divinity and humanity,” Giusi explains, “conferring his blessings on all who come.” We move around the nave and notice that his eyes seem to follow us, an optical illusion no doubt. The cathedral is packed with a couple of hundred visitors speaking a babble of tongues. Most are staring at the Bible scenes depicted above the columns, brilliantly and realistically rendered in two tons of 24-karat gold spread over 68,000 square feet. In earlier centuries, these scenes from the Old and New Testaments brought religion to life for many illiterate parishioners. “I really like the one with Noah and the dove returning to the ark with a twig,” says my husband as he photographs the image.

A soulful Christ Pantocrator reaches out to visitors at Monreale’s Duomo, the greatest legacy of Norman art in Sicily.

“Take a look at the apse on the left,” says Giusi. “Here you can see the very first representation of Sir Thomas Becket who was canonized one year before the cathedral was founded. This image sent shock waves throughout the Catholic world.” We wander to the right to find the sarcophagi of William I and William II. The latter died in 1189. “What a pity that he only had a few years to enjoy his creation,” I remark. Outside, we admire two massive carved bronze doors with tiny scenes from the Bible, created in 1185 by Bonnano, the architect of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “Where did they get all the gold?” I ask Giusi. “Mostly from Egypt, and some from Spain,” she explains. “Palermo had a thriving silk manufacturing business plus many commodities such as cotton, wheat and sugar.” Apparently, the Normans traded everything for gold.

Monreale’s massive bronze doors were created by Bonnano, the architect of the Tower of Pisa.

Gaetano is waiting a few hundred yards below the cathedral, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the dazzling view of the bay and valley before us. By the time we return to the hotel, the sky is dark with rain clouds. Umbrellas unfurled, we seek out an unpretentious trattoria for a light evening meal, settling on Altri Tempi on Via San Martino. We huddle under the awning as the wind kicks up and rain pelts the canvas. Warm bowls of pasta with sardines and chickpeas are full of flavor. The waiter brings miniature cannóli to the table on the house. It has been a long and wonderful day.

Just before breakfast as we are beginning to despair, our bags magically arrive at the lobby. We race upstairs to change into fresh clothes before setting out toward Segesta, a popular classical site. Not many people realize that Sicily has more Greek temples than Greece. Segesta was an important part of Magna Graecia, the empire that ruled most of the island from the seventh to the third century B.C.

Segesta’s Doric temple reigns in splendid isolation at the foot of Mount Barbaro.
Its unfluted columns suggest it was never completed.

Gaetano drives west on the Castellammare coastal road and then turns inland. We round a final bend and suddenly a solitary temple gleams in the distance, surrounded by gently rolling hills at the foot of Monte Barbaro. It was built around 430 B.C. by the Elymians, descendants of a tribe that had migrated from Troy centuries earlier. The temple was never fully completed. We can tell even from afar that its 36 Doric columns are not fluted. As we get closer we notice that there are no remains of interior rooms. “But how did the temple withstand centuries of wars and earthquakes and still keep its pediments intact?” ask our friends.

Breathtaking views of the rolling countryside, coastal mountains and the Bay of Castellammare
serve as a visual extension of the stage at Segesta’s Hellenistic theater.

A new guide, Azzurra, is waiting for us by the entrance to the site. She is poised and well versed on the history of western Sicily. We board a shuttle and head up to a small Hellenistic theater gouged out of the mountain. A semicircle of gleaming white stones comprise just twenty rows of seats. The theater’s orientation here is exceptional, facing northwest with panoramic views of the countryside and the Castellammare Gulf beyond, as if the scenery was meant to be part of the stage. “You can understand how much the Elymians enjoyed this setting,” comments Azzurra. “There is a festival here every July and concerts and performances of ancient plays are presented.” We sit for a few minutes imagining what it was it must have been like 2300 years ago, when the stage and surrounding structures were all intact.

The shuttle drops us off a couple of hundred feet below the theater. The site is spellbinding in its isolation. We climb steep, uneven stairs to get a closer look. “Let me tell you a little about Segesta,” says Azzurra. “The city was always threatened by its arch rival, Selinunte, a large Greek colony in the south. It appealed to Athens for reinforcements and later tried to get help from Carthage. But Selinunte was allied with the great city of Syracuse and Segesta suffered its final defeat in 309.” Apparently, the city resurged briefly under the Romans, but later faded into obscurity, the site almost forgotten. “How I wish you could see the temple at sunset!” Azzurra exclaims. “It turns a beautiful shade of pink!”

Trapani is situated at the western tip of Sicily where a cable car lifts visitors up to Erice, a well preserved medieval town perched on Mount Eryx, 2500 feet above the coastline. In millennia past it was a sacred pilgrimage site where priestesses performed fertility ceremonies in a temple dedicated to the Phoenician Astarte, later replaced by the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus. During the 12th century, the Normans built Castello di Venere atop the temple ruins. Today, most people come just for the views of the rugged coastline and the Egadi Islands. Ancient salt pans stretch from Trapani all the way to Marsala and on a clear day you can even see Tunisia on the African coast. At 18 Euros for a round trip, the cable car seems rather pricey, but it is the most efficient way to get up and back.

But as we climb higher and higher, we find Erice completely shrouded in mist and myth. There are no views to be had and a thick fog has swallowed the castle and most of the town. It is drizzling and rain may start in earnest at any minute. Nonetheless, the town is crowded with Sunday tourists, the mainstay of its economy. We pass through Porta Trapani and head up Corso Vittorio Emmanuel, the widest street, treading carefully on slippery cobblestones. The Corso is lined with stately townhomes, enticing shops and cafes all the way up to Piazza Umberto. Here the town hall doubles as the Cordici Civic Museum, home to Erice’s archaeological treasures. “This place sure has atmosphere!” says my husband. I wander down a narrow side lane and discover I can simultaneously touch buildings on both sides. A sign points toward Chiesa Madre, the mother church that is supposed to have great views from its bell tower, just one of some 60 churches and convents here. It must be the altitude, I conclude, that makes Erice such a magnet for worship.

We decide to escape the weather. The server at a cozy cafeteria recommends his fish couscous, but grilled swordfish, another local specialty, seems like a better choice. Outside the drizzle is unrelenting. Luckily, Maria Grammatico’s world-famous pasticceria is right next door and we are seduced by the aromas of pastry and good Italian coffee. Display cases brim with sospiri (sighs), cuori (hearts), sfogliatelle (clam shells), Genovese cakes, and a huge assortment of marzipan masterpieces. Apparently, Maria spent 15 years in an orphanage in Erice’s San Carlo Convent where she memorized centuries-old, secret recipes made by the cloistered nuns. She is one of Italy’s culinary celebrities!

Like jewels in a treasure chest, Maria Grammatico’s marzipan masterpieces are artfully displayed.

We speed back to Palermo just in time to experience the early evening light. The city is visibly calmer now: fewer horns are honking, hand-holding couples and teenaged girls are strolling leisurely in their ritual passeggiata (promenade), and shoppers are locking in last minute bargains at sidewalk stalls on Viale della Libertà. We walk past a colorful banner emblazoned with a trinacria, the symbol of Sicily. It is triangular like the island, with three legs wrapped around the head of Medusa. I plan to bring one home, perhaps made of clay.

The trinacria, emblem of Sicily, features three legs encircling the head of Medusa.
It is represented in many mediums, from clay and metal to fabric and wood.

Einstein is all smiles when we return to Trattoria Biondo for a farewell dinner, immediately bringing an overflowing platter of caponata and antipasti to our table, all prepared to perfection. We sample their calamari, octopus and cuttlefish tossed with delicate pasta, as well as the pistachio gelato we had been craving ever since our first visit. “Everything was meraviglioso (wonderful), grazie!” We wave to the whole staff: “Arrivaderci.”

“Palermo is amazing,” I comment as we return to the hotel. Even though we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, Palermo’s palimpsest of cultures has been the perfect introduction to Sicily. One day we must return for a longer visit. But right now the rest of Sicily beckons and I am giddy with anticipation: In the morning Guiseppe, our next driver, will be taking us across the island on a new adventure!