Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Once again, I find myself far from my usual stomping grounds. This time, I’m on the beautiful island of Sicily.
Sicily is an intriguing place for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the wonderful food. (See the freshly prepared cannoli above!) If you’re a student of ancient history, there is plenty to see. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and is located smack dab in the middle of this body of water. Over the centuries, many different civilizations have taken a crack at running the place, starting with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, followed by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish … you get the picture. As a result, Greek and Roman ruins abound, and the architecture often has a distinctive Muslim and Norman flavor. Finally, the scenery is beautiful, whether it be the beaches, the quaint Old World cities, or the vineyards and olive trees blanketing the countryside.
The trip that we took was a motorcoach tour. We did the same thing in Spain a couple of years ago, and it worked out very well: no hassling with the idiosyncrasies of the local drivers, VIP access to the major attractions, and a tour director who knew her stuff. IMHO, this is a far more efficient use of your valuable vacation time than trying to organize the trip on your own and being lost half the time. (But that’s just me.)
We started off in Palermo, and pretty much followed the coastline anticlockwise to Taormina:
Map showing our itinerary for the tour. The boat ride to Motya was replaced with a side trip to the Greek ruins of Selinunte. (Map courtesy Globus Tours)
We had to scuttle the boat ride to Motya due to inclement weather, but otherwise followed the script. The trip was too comprehensive to cover in a single post, so I will spread it over several posts, as usual emphasizing the unique points of interest to Yours Truly.
First Stop: Palermo
Palermo is a gritty city of almost 700,000 people, with a metropolitan area of over a million. It is situated on the Tyrrhenian Sea, in a flat basin (the Conca d’Oro) surrounded by the Palermo mountains. A good summary of the city’s rather complex culture, architecture, and history can be found here.
Sicily is a traditional, family-oriented, religious place. We deliberately picked our travel dates so that we would be in Palermo on Easter Sunday. We wanted to see first-hand how this major holiday is celebrated in the Old Country.
Our tour officially started on Holy Saturday with a welcome dinner at the hotel, but I found myself with an hour or two beforehand to wander about (despite Alitalia’s attempts to the contrary).
I enjoy engaging in customs that are specific to the area I’m visiting. In many parts of Europe, there is the charming tradition of the evening stroll (passeggiata in Italian). The passeggiata is simply a leisurely walk, especially in the evening, and often involving the entire family. I first experienced this in Madrid a couple of years ago, where, on a Sunday evening, I found the streets jam-packed with walkers and people-watchers. Young children were everywhere, despite their having school the next day. It’s great fun to join the evening strollers, and pretend that you are a local for an hour or two.
In my ramblings, I stumbled upon a great place for the passeggiata: a pedestrian street near the hotel called Via Maqueda. There, we saw elderly couples dressed in their finest attire (remember, it was the evening of Holy Saturday), millennials in ripped jeans with T-shirts in English, annoying bicyclists, street musicians, and entire families. Not in the mood for walking? No problem! There are myriad cafes in the middle of (and along) the street, where you can practice the fine art of people-watching.
The evening passeggiata on the Via Maqueda in Palermo on Holy Saturday.
In the background, you can catch a glimpse of the mountains surrounding the city.
When I’m away from home, I often find it best to wander about without an agenda. (I’m actually quite good at this.) Simply walking down Via Maqueda, I came across two important landmarks: Teatro Massimo and Quattro Canti. The Teatro is an opera house located on the Piazza Verdi, which lies at the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Cavour. It is the biggest opera house in Italy, and one of the largest in Europe, renowned for its excellent acoustics. During the passeggiata, it is a congregation place for the locals:
The Teatro Massimo on the Piazza Verdi in Palermo.
The Quattro Canti (officially, the Piazza Vigliena) is a few blocks further west along Via Maqueda, at the intersection with Via Vittorio Emanuele. I knew of Quattro Canti from travel videos and the like, but stumbled upon it quite by accident during my passeggiata. I was surprised how small and tight the area is. In the travel videos, it had seemed so open and spacious.
Viewed from above, the Quattro Canti is octagonal: four of the sides are the streets themselves, and the remaining sides are comprised of Baroque buildings at the corners. The four near-identical, curved façades contain fountains at ground level, with statues representing each of the four seasons. The upper stories of the façades display statues of four Spanish kings of Sicily and four patron saints of Palermo in niches. For Holy Week (Santa Settimana), the façades were decorated with purple and gold banners:
View of the Quattro Canti façade representing Winter.
(We are looking roughly east along the Via Maqueda).
The Walking Tour on Easter Sunday
This was a great opportunity to experience the local flavor of the neighborhoods around Quattro Canti on a major holiday. Our little promenade took us through grand piazzas and down narrow side streets, providing an interesting view into Sicilian life. We covered a fair amount of territory during the walk, including myriad churches, so I will only inflict the highlights on you.
During the tour, our guide pointed out that many Sicilians have clothes washers, but there aren’t many dryers. The photo below shows why. Notice that the clothes on many of the balconies are covered with a plastic sheet. This protects them from the rain, but also from dripping clothes on the balconies above!
Clothes drying on the balconies of a Palermo neighborhood in the historic center.
» Our First Sicilian Cannoli
The morning walk continued into the Piazza Bellini in the La Kalsa district. There are three churches in this little plaza, all worth exploring. The first of these is Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, of Sicilian baroque architecture. The interior is impressive, with numerous oil paintings and rococo frescoes.
The chancel area of Santa Caterina, all decked out for Easter.
Multiple frescoes in the cupola area above the chancel.
Preparations were underway for live music at the Easter service later that morning.
We were surprised to discover that there is a pastry shop (I Segreti del Chiostro, “The Secrets of the Cloister”) next door to this church. It is currently run by a cooperative, but the pastries are based on original monastery recipes. Here it was, the morning of Easter Sunday, and the shop was buzzing with activity. We couldn’t resist having our first Sicilian cannoli here:
Sicilian cannoli traditionally feature a sweet ricotta filling, and are often dressed up with chopped pistachio nuts, cherries, candied fruit and dark chocolate bits. I gained weight simply savoring the aromas.
The monastery’s cannoli are a hit!
» It’s Complicated…
When I visited Spain a couple of years ago, I was surprised to discover the extent of Arab influence in that country. (I attribute this to the many naps that I took during World History lectures.) In fact, there are many common Spanish words that are Arabic in origin [e.g., aceituna (olive), café (coffee), and arroz (rice)]. A number of Catholic churches in Spain are repurposed mosques, such as the wonderful Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba.
A similar influence pervades Sicily, especially in its architecture. La Martorana and the Chiesa di San Cataldo, both directly across the piazza from Santa Caterina, are particularly good examples of this:
La Martorana (on the left) and Chiesa di San Cataldo (on the right, towards the rear) have elements of Islamic, Norman, Byzantine and Baroque architectures.
The first, La Martorana, dates from 1143 AD. The Martorana’s exterior is a combination of Islamic and Baroque elements. The Islamic features (on the left-hand side of the broad façade above) include the recessed niches, windows framed by a series of concentric arches, and a dedicatory frieze across the top. The right-hand side is clearly Baroque, with its curved façade, ornamental ribbon-like “ears”, and scroll features.
The Martorana, however, is better known for its spectacular ceilings, which are carpeted with 12th century gilded mosaics executed by Byzantine craftsmen. (See below.) Yes, this is a photo that I took, not a painting!
The interior of La Martorana, showing the extensive mosaic ceilings.
Interestingly, one of the pillars near the entrance contains a painted Islamic inscription from the Quran. The Quran? In a Christian church? Well, it turns out that the site of the church was once a mosque, and some of the previous columns were reused in constructing the church. This also explains, at least in part, why the columns do not match in the above photo.
Islamic inscription containing the Basmala on a column in La Martorana.
The nearby Chiesa di San Cataldo, dating from around 1160 AD, is of an Arab-Norman design that is unique to Sicily. In the exterior shot below, there are no less than four Arab architectural elements that can be seen in this Catholic Church:
- the spherical domes
- the recessed, “blind” windows
- the frieze around the top of the walls
- the concentric arches framing the windows
Detail of the Chiesa di San Cataldo in Piazza Bellini, showing its Arabic architecture.
San Cataldo was converted to a post office (!) in the 18th Century, and survived a major restoration in the late 19th Century. This latter effort included repainting the three domes. Mistakes do happen. Apparently, the restorer found a small swatch of red paint somewhere in the church, and came to the conclusion that the domes had originally been red. This was subsequently found to be wrong: the domes were originally painted white. For some reason, they are still red. (Well, this is Italy!)
» El Capo Market
No walking tour of Palermo would be complete without a visit to one of the celebrated outdoor markets. We visited one of the oldest, Il Capo (“The Boss” in Italian). This ancient marketplace is located near Porta Carini, a few blocks west of the Teatro Massimo shown earlier. It was established by the Arabs around the 9th Century AD along the now-underground Papireto River. Indeed, if you’ve been to modern-day Arab souks (as I have in Al Khobar), you will immediately notice the similarity: well-organized stalls of fresh produce, meat, fish, cheeses, pasta, olive oil, handmade clothes and household items.
Fresh fruit and vegetables at Il Capo on Easter Sunday.
You can also purchase prepared foods to eat either on the run, or back at home. These delicacies include bruschetta, lasagna, meatballs (aka polpette), stuffed peppers, rollatini, and grilled meats. In fact, our entire group had a lunch of street food like this nearby. Our menu included arancini (rice balls), eggplant caponata, croquettes and chickpea fritters. Delicioso!
By the way, Sicilians do use the English phrase “street food”. You can see it on signs in shop windows throughout the historic center of Palermo.
Prepared foods abound as well at Il Capo.
By this point we were dragging pretty badly, and were very happy to retire to a well-earned rest in the hotel.
The medieval town of Erice, and a working salt mill on La Via del Sale (“The Salt Way”) outside Marsala.
- Erice was a particularly nostalgic stop for me, as I had been there three times previously as a graduate student (in 1974, 1977 and 1981). I was eager to see how much the town had changed in forty or so years.
- Have you ever used the sea salt in a restaurant and wondered how it was produced? Stay tuned!