The Late-nineteenth-c. French traveller René Bazin described Palermo as “having all the air of a capital, an ancient sovereign city, this white Palermo, surrounded by oranges. In front of it one of the most beautiful bays in the world (…) behind it a dark green semi-circle, an immense citrus grove, the Conca d’Oro”. For Oscar Wilde, who visited the city in 1900, Palermo is the “city with the most beautiful setting in the world”, while for the contemporary French writer and habitué of the island, Dominique Fernandez “Palermo is above all atmosphere, sounds, smells, and a tightly-nit pattern of mysterious emotions”.
The long history of the city saw first the Phoenicians then Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines but it was with the Arab conquest in 827 that Palermo became “that city of commerce and leisure rivalling in the Muslim world pre-eminence with Cordoba, Baghdad, and Cairo” and became, according to the Sicilian author Vincenzo Consolo “the first, large cosmopolitan city of the Dark Ages”.
Its cosmopolitan vocation was further enhanced by the Normans who wrested control from the Muslims but used their excellence in building techniques and created with Arab and Byzantine craftsmen – again in the words of Consolo – “architectural masterpieces such as the Cappella Palatina, the Cathedral, S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio, and Monreale Cathedral, they created seductive eastern dwellings for these warrior kings who had swept down from the north, dwelling that go by the name of Ziza, Favara, Cuba… This Palermo with its singular Moorish Norman aura, with its church-mosques, mosaics, cloisters, gardens, fountains, and bright red cupolas has survived through the centuries, it passed through the reigns of Anjou and Aragon in which the powerful feudal families (…) built their royal strongholds; it survived the Spanish and Bourbon viceroyalties and arrived almost intact into the 19th century”.
The many aspects of the city
Palermo is a many faceted city, with as much an unmistakable as enigmatic identity, a combination of aristocratic magnificence and the colourful ways of the common people; the perfume of jasmine in the long summer nights and the pungent smells in the street markets under the mid-day sun.
Many seasons have forged its identity: after the ancient civilizations also that of an ostentatious 18th century in which visitors from northern Europe on their fashionable Grand Tour were as much struck by the liberal customs of an elegant aristocracy dedicated to every type of pleasure as to the strident contrast between the luxuries of the nobility and the misery of the common people; the Garibaldi Age as immortalised in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s the Leopard and Luchino Visconti’s film version of the book "Il Gattopardo"; the Belle Époque and Liberty season was one that saw many European monarchs charmed by the hospitality of the powerful entrepreneurial Florio family and Palermo’s cosmopolitan lifestyle as well as its natural and artistic beauty.
Today’s Palermo holds on to much of this, but also the many scares from the war and mal-governance that has often marked its recent history: a disconcerting mix but also a hugely interesting one.
Places to visit
The historical centre is divided into four by two long intersecting thoroughfares: one changes name several times and in the oldest section is called via Maqueda; the other, the ancient “Cassaro” is today Corso Vittorio Emanuele that leads down to a seafront full of aristocratic palazzos and the old port area of the Cala, today full of yachts and fishing boats.
The whole of this city waterfront is fine for a long stroll with many pleasant places to stop off. Close to these two main streets we find some of the most significant places to visit: the Arab-Norman Royal Palace inside of which shine the splendid golden mosaics of the Cappella Palatina; S. Giovanni degli Eremiti church was built in 1132 and is enclosed by a delicious small garden; the Cathedral is a really magnificent example of cultural stratifications that goes from the Normans to the 18th century; piazza Pretoria is home to the Town Hall but also a celebrated Cinquecento fountain and baroque church; the extraordinary Martorana church has a Norman floor plan, beautiful Byzantine mosaics and Arab characteristics; the street markets of Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria are an experience for your eyes, nose and taste buds as well as an occasion to explore the city on a human level; the not to be missed piazza Marina with Lo Steri, a 14th-c palace cum stronghold of the powerful Chiaramonte family, later a prison for the Inquisition, and a town garden named after Garibaldi containing a splendid ficus magnolioides, the tree with the largest crown to be found in Europe.
Of course, this hasty review reveals only a small part of what can be seen in Palermo, the rest you will discover for yourself, but I need to mention at least two places nearby (a quarter of an hour by car) that you must not miss: Monreale with its celebrated Arab-Norman style Cathedral and a breath-taking view over the city and the Conca d’Oro; and Mondello with its many seafood bars and restaurants and, above all, a delightful sandy bay where you can swim in crystal clear waters under the rock of Mount Pellegrino, “the finest promontory in the world” according to Goethe.
Monreale, set on the side of a hill less than 10km from Palermo, is a fundamental stage in an itinerary among the Sicilian Arab-Norman buildings.
The town grew up around the great cathedral that William II, last of the Norman kings, had built in 1174. His idea was to erect a great church to rival the beauty of the Cappella Palatina that his grandfather Roger had built, and it was no less an accomplishment. The splendid complex comprises a Benedictine monastery and large, beautiful cloisters. There are also traces of William’s original royal palace; this was his stronghold from which to counter the hidden struggle against the very powerful archbishop of Palermo, Guglielmo Offamilio - the English born, Walter of the Mill. The old royal palace is today incorporated into the archbishop’s palace that was built in the following centuries.
Here in Monreale Cathedral that fortunate mix among northern European, Byzantine and Arab cultures reached its climax. The exterior decoration of the apses is clearly in the Islamic tradition while the Basilica plan, large central apse and smaller flanking apses and twin, massive towers flanking the main façade are clearly Norman. Within, a rich mantle of golden mosaics is dominated by a Christ Pantocrator, the work of Byzantine craftsmen, but there are also columns supporting Arab-type acute arches. Take time to stop in the town gardens next to the cathedral and look out from the Belvedere over the Conca d’Oro in its entire expanse.
Then after a stroll through the pleasant streets and allies full of interesting sights and shops, walk back to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele next to the Cathedral and relax in a street café, the air cooled by the waters of the Triton Fountain. This is one of a series of fountains decorated in the themes of fecundity, abundance and regeneration that you will encounter driving down toward Palermo along the 18th-c. panoramic road that leads off almost from the piazza. Look out for the fountains but, above all, look out to the other side of the road and the magnificent panorama over Palermo and its gulf.
The Norman-Arab Capital
It’s impossible not to visit Palermo: the regional capital but, above all, many a time a regal capital where peoples very different from one another mingled, their cultures creating a particularly original fusion like the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style of its finest buildings. Nature too has been generous with the city, its protection assured by the greyish, pink surrounding heights that form the Conca d’Oro, rich in citrus groves, that tempers the climate and act as a backdrop to the splendid bay dominated by mount Pellegrino. The capital of Islamic Sicily looks northward, the opposite of Syracuse, Europe’s southernmost city.