Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Palermo: Faded Grandeur

Our flight to Europe departed San Francisco midafternoon on 26th May. We flew Air France on an Airbus A380-800. We transferred planes in Paris, flew to Rome, transferred planes again, and flew to Palermo. Including the car transfers to and from the airports, transferring to new flights, and simply passing the time in airport lounges our travel time was just short of 22 weary hours. We checked into our hotel, Hotel Plaza Opera, in the early evening on the 27th of May.

The Agata Suite, on the top floor, featured a living area, a private
 terrace, and a bedroom featuring an in-room Jacuzzi for two.
After unpacking and settling into our room, we had our friends, Lynn and Curt who had arrived 6-7 hours earlier, join us for wine on our terrace. With exchanges of travel stories, admiring the sun flushed views of Mount Pellegrino,

In his book Italian Journey, Goethe described Mount Pellegrino as
 the most beautiful promontory in the world. The mountain is home to
 the sanctuary of Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo.

watching migrating swallows darting about in the evening sky, detecting a faint smell of the sea, and enjoying our first bottle of Sicilian wine with friends ... we finally felt that we had arrived.

The next day  began with a buffet breakfast downstairs:

 Buffet  featured a selection of fresh seasonal
 fruit, yogurt and cereals, bread, cheeses and
 cold cuts, but also some hot dishes made on
 request, like Gus' favorite poached eggs.
Soon after finishing an adequate breakfast we met our tour guide, Josie, in the lobby.

Gus had arranged, through the exchange of numerous emails, the following full day private tour (the sites visited not only included those listed below but also intermittent unscheduled sites along the way):

Giuseppina Nicoletti
 or "Josie"
Morning Walking Tour

Afternoon Driving Tour

Palermo is a highly walkable city, with cobblestone streets that seem eternally damp, and, at least by daylight, safe.

Leaving our hotel, our first stop was Piazza Ruggero SettimoOn the square is the Teatro Politeama and in the center of the square is the statue of Ruggero Settimo which gives its name to the square itself.

Teatro Politeama
An important example of neoclassical architecture, the theater has a grand entrance framed by a triumphal arch at whose apex stands a bronze Quadriga with Apollo and Euterpe, by Mario Rutelli, as well as a pair of bronze rearing horses by Benedetto Civiletti.

Gus, Joan, Lynn, and Curt in the Piazza (Square) 
Josie took a few moments to set the stage for today's tour and offered a few comments regarding her beloved hometown of Palermo, her pride in being a Sicilian, and her frustration with being an Italian.

From an altogether different perspective, Gus thought of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” as well as its Luchino Visconti's classic 1963 screen version starring Burt Lancaster.

"ASK a roomful of readers about Lampedusa’s masterpiece “The Leopard” and more often than not you’ll find a few who will put hand to heart and say it’s their favorite book and a few others who will simply shrug — never heard of it — or ask if it has anything to do with the Visconti movie starring Burt Lancaster (yes, it does). I suppose it’s a coincidence that a roomful of travelers will poll in a similar fashion if you ask them about Sicily, the marvelous, maddening island disparaged and adored in “The Leopard”: it’s either a favorite place or they haven’t even thought of going there."

"... the bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia that pervades “The Leopard” is also the sensibility that savors the decaying grandeur of an island burdened with layer upon layer of tragic history — and also blessed with startling beauty, much of it perpetually waning." 

Leaving the Piazza, we turned left onto Via Ruggero Séttimo which was later to become Via Maqueda.

Via Ruggero Séttimo was made  famous by the exclusive and luxurious
 shops that once lined it. Today, however, Via della Libertà is
 Palermo's swankiest shopping area
Walking southwest, we passed by ...

Via Principe Di Belmonte is closed to traffic
 and surprisingly boasts a collection of upscale
 retail shops.
Upper floors of 18th-century building converted
to condominiums of varying sizes of 1,100 to
2,000 sq. ft. and selling for between $415,00
 and $750,000. Two hundred years ago this
building may have been a single family residence.


... and soon approached Piazza Verdi and leaving the New City and entering the medieval core of the Old City.

Joan and Gus
 in front of the Teatro Massimo
The Teatro Massimo was built in a neoclassical style meant to echo Sicily’s Greek ruins, such as those at Agrigento. At the grand entrance, visitors are greeted by statues of two lion-riding women, who represent Comedy and Drama. Although we did not go inside, we were "told of a magnificent interior with vibrant colors of gold and red and a stunningly beautiful painted ceiling. Other than the refurbished seats, most of the interior is original, including Murano light fixtures throughout the auditorium. Due to renovation in 1974, the opera house closed yet remained closed for 23 years as a result of politics, corruption, and financial issues. In 1997, it finally re-opened."

The steps of the opera house were featured in the dramatic ending scene of The Godfather III.

After Piazza Verdi we continued our stroll southeast along Via Maqueda ...

Via Maqueda
The stately old palaces which occupy nearly every corner were usually
 shuttered up, damaged beyond repair, or have been converted for use
 as art galleries and museums or employed by local government. Many have
just been left abandoned, their grand facades the only reminder
of their original status.
 ... to its intersection with Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the city's oldest street and home to many historic buildings as well as beautifully weathered, balconied apartments and tourist shops.

Quattro Canti (Four Corners)
or Piazza Vigliena is the most frequented intersection
 in the heart of Palermo. It is named after the Spanish
Viceroy, who, in 1611, ordered that the monument be
built here.
The monument, designed by Italian architect Giullio Lasso, consists of four baroque palaces. Each palace's façade is divided into three sections, and each section boasts a central statue and one of three orders of classical columns: Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian. The fountains and statues on each of the lowest registers symbolize the four seasons; the central icons represent the four viceroy kings of Sicily (Charles V, Philip II, Philip III, and Philip IV); and the upper statues portray the four patron saints (St. Christina, St. Ninfa, St. Oliva, and St. Agatha) of the old city. Due to decades of pervasive environmental pollution and a never ending lack of public resources for restoration, these once colorful monuments have acquired a grayish tint and a fading grandeur. 

In the southwestern corner of the Quattro Canti is, Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini (Church of Saint Joseph of the Theatines), a plain-faced church built between 1612 and 1645. The interior is baroque and has been reverently restored from tithes received from church patrons after it suffered substantial damage during WWII.

Our guide Josie was particularly taken by this church as she is Catholic but even more, her Sicilian name is Giuseppina or the female version of Giuseppe.

The grandiose interior of the
 Church of Saint Joseph of the Theatines

Ceiling fresco  over the nave  painted
 by Filippo Tancredi 

 Floor design made of Italian marble 
Statue of Saint Joseph 
Fresco in the vault of the transept
 painted by Giuseppe Velasquez

Soaring dome with a blue and yellow
 majolica covering
We exited the church to the east and found ourselves across the street from Piazza Pretoria. At the center of this lovely piazza is a spectacular fountain by the 1500’s Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani.
Fontana Pretoria
When the Fontana Pretoria was first unveiled in 1575 at Piazza Pretoria, the "outcry was so loud it could practically be heard across the city." Originally intended for a private Florentine villa and not a public square, it was uprooted from a garden and transplanted to Palermo as a showcase of its waterworks system, which rivaled Messina's. The fountain is adorned with nude figures galore. In time, Palermitans learned to live with this "outrage," although they forever afterward referred to it as Fontana della Vergogna, or "Fountain of Shame." Urban legend says that the nude statues gave much astonishment to the nuns of the convent of Santa Caterina that looks out from a side of the square (our guide, Josie, further embellished the legend a bit by stating that the nuns were said to have removed "tips" of the male statues  and storing them under their pillows).  
Three of the four sides of the fountain are bordered by buildings: the Praetorian Palace (the town hall) built in the fourteenth century and renovated in the nineteenth century, the Church of Santa Caterina (end of the sixteenth century), and two baronial palaces: Palace Bonocore and Bordonaro Palace. The fourth side of the square with a staircase descends to Via Maqueda.
Leaving Piazza Pretoria and passing to the east of Praetorian Palace we found ourselves standing in Piazza Bellini. Blending eastern and western architecture, this is one of the city's most beautiful squares. Three churches stand here: Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio), Chiesa di San Cataldo, and Santa Caterina.
La Martorana on the left and San Cataldo on the right, which, with
its three pink domes lent an oriental air to the place.
La Martorana was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch. Initially, the church was dedicated to the celebration of Greek Orthodox rites but this changed in the 13th century when it became part of the Catholic Church. Several parts of the structure were unfortunately replaced during the 17th century, and many of the original mosaics were discarded to make way for elaborate frescoes. However, the surviving mosaics are amongst the most impressive ever to have been created in Sicily. The wonderful bell tower outside is the apogee of Norman-Arab architecture.
Lavish interior of La Martorana

Window in La Martorana 
Dome of La Martorana

King Roger II being crowned king by Christ.
 This image is a highly political one, as it showed
 that Roger considered he had God's authority to
 rule, rather than requiring the Pope's.
As we were on a schedule that required us to meet our driver and begin our afternoon tour at 2:00 p.m. we pushed on. The route to our next stop, the Ballarò Market, was through the labyrinthine neighborhood of Albergheria. Here the streets grew more cluttered, the buildings more humble, the sidewalks more narrow and crowded with garbage and oddly parked vehicles, until we were dodging speeding scooters.

Apartments in Albergheria
(Photo courtesy of Palermo For 91 Days)
The Albergheria is the oldest and one of the most run-down sections of Palermo. In the past, it was home to Palermo’s Jewish population, before they were kicked off the island in 1492. Heavily damaged during Allied air raids in World War II (Operation Husky) the neighborhood has never recovered. Cheap housing went up around the tiny alleys, and a large immigrant population moved in to take advantage of the low rents creating an immigrant enclave. Today, a visit to the Albergheria almost feels like a trip to other continents. Romanians, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and Africans (mostly Tunisians and Moroccans, but many are from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast). The effects of this immigration are not difficult to gauge. Italians themselves are having fewer children, while the foreigners are having large families of children born and raised in Italy; integration or "mainstreaming" is typical among Sicily's new immigrants. Indeed, part of the immigrant population represents the only social segment of the general Sicilian population which actually seems to be prospering economically. Most of Sicily's businesses are small and family-run, so the immigrant entrepreneurs fit in well.

(Photo courtesy of Martino Ragusa, the Blog)

... but before entering the market, we stopped and bought two orders of panelle (deep-fried fritters made of chickpea flour and water, salt and some chopped parsley). They were delicious.

The market extends from Piazza Ballarò in the Albergheria district (near the church of San Nicolò) along Via Ballarò past Piazza Carmine toward Corso Tukory. This market is a cacophony of sights and sounds, as the street vendors have some of the best local delicacies. A colorful assortment of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat are displayed out for anyone to pick. 

Fruit vendor 
Cucuzze, a type of zucchini
Fish vendor
Olive and caper bar 
Palermo's Ballarò market is a place of the senses; and even though we only had a snack and bought only some grapes, some cherries, and "a couple of handfuls of" olives to accompany with wine tonight, the experience was gratifying.

Leaving the market and walking northwest through a maze of narrow alleys we came to Piazza Sett'Angeli. On the northeast side of the square is a high school, Liceo Classico Vittorio Emanuele II, which was formerly a monastery; why this is notable can be attributed only to the fact our guide, Josie, attended school here.

Liceo Classico Vittorio Emanuele II
 On the northwest side of the square is the Cathedral of Palermo.

The Cathedral of Palermo

Originally built in 1185 by the Normans, the cathedral has undergone centuries of additions and displays a variety of architectural styles. The interior of the cathedral is sober, cavernous and gray. We simply entered the southern portico, walked left to the back of the nave, and exited through the main façade on the Western side of the cathedral. Exterior (along with the Archbishops' Palace and the clock tower) was impressive, yet the interior was under-whelming.

We were ready for lunch and headed off to Trattoria Ai Cascinari which turned out to be a 10-15 minute walk. Our guide, whom we invited to join us, highly recommended this eatery and described it as a favorite with Palermitans.

Trattoria Ai Cascinari
Founded in 1949 and family owned
Quickly shown to our table, through a maze of small, crowded rooms, red tablecloths and a casual enough ambiance we felt "expected, welcomed, at home." We began with a mix of antipasti including eggplant meatballs in a tomato sauce, sardines in breadcrumbs with pistachio and fennel, arancini, veal with tomatoes and olives, and fritto misto. Our shared primi course was pasta with tuna and cherry tomatoes, and a ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach. Next, secondi included a roasted tuna steaks and caponata alla Siciliana. Excellent Italian crafted beer in bottles and fresh, dense crumb bread accompanied our "modest" lunch. There was no room for dessert.

Our driver was waiting for us. We boarded a comfortable Fiat minivan for a 45-minute drive to Monreale. Monreale is a historic hill town just outside Palermo. It's a picturesque place most famous for the exquisite mosaics in the town's magnificent Norman cathedral. The Monreale Cathedral, properly named Santa Maria La Nuova, was constructed from 1172 to 1176 on the orders of King William II of Sicily.

The most memorable aspect of Monreale Cathedral is its breathtaking mosaic decoration, covering virtually the entire interior. In total there are 130 biblical scenes depicted. Their art-historical and theological interest and their stunning dimensions aside, the Monreale mosaics should be enjoyed, most of all, for their sheer beauty.

Monreale - Il Duomo e il Chiostro dei Benedettini
Massive depiction of Jesus above the altar. His
 outspread arms fill nearly the entire width of the
 apse calotte, creating a grandiose, embracing
N.B. Few photos of cathedral due to camera battery expiry.

We had less time in the cathedral than we planned as a wedding ceremony had secured the venue for 3:00 p.m. One must ask, is there any other church in the world to get married that is more spectacularly beautiful than Monreale?

Back to Palermo ... by far Palermo's most bizarre attraction, but one of its most popular is the Capuchin Abbey, known for its Catacombs. We arrived at the catacombs, their exterior a plain, graying building with a small plaza and parking lot. Nothing seemed suspect. We entered, and walked down to the depths of the building.

The catacombs, first founded in the 16th century as a place to house deceased friars, were the most haunted place Gus had ever been. As Gus entered the airless, limestone corridors beneath the city streets he let out a genuine noise of surprise, a mumbled, “Oh my God.”

These underground passages were hewn in the volcanic rock after 1599 and used as burial places right up to 1881. Inside, we were greeted by the macabre scene of 1,252 mummified corpses, arranged by sex and status, lying in the passageways or hanging from the walls, and all dressed in centuries-old attire. Practically every inch of wall space was decorated with a dead body. 

The bodies were first laid in the colatoio, a small, tightly closed drying-room, and after eight months, they were washed in vinegar, dressed, and placed in the niches in the walls or in open coffins. Photography was strictly prohibited inside the catacombs.

The Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo by Bizzarro Bazar

In the 16th century, the Capuchin monks of Palermo discovered that
 their catacombs contained a natural preservative that helped mummify
 their dead. One of their brethren, Brother Silvestro, was the first to
 be mummified. Apparently, he was a particularly holy monk, and the
preservation of his body would have been useful in attracting pilgrims
 to Palermo. Apart from attracting pilgrims, it also attracted the attention
 of locals who wanted to be preserved in the same manner. Since then,
over 8,000 Sicilians of various walks of life have been mummified in the

One of the most recent, and perhaps most
 famous mummy is that of a two-year-old girl,
Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia was placed in
 the catacombs when she died in 1920. Her
 body is so well preserved that she looks as
 if she were just sleeping in her glass coffin,
 hence her nickname “Sleeping Beauty”.

“fascinatingly creepy”

On returning to our hotel, we had a few "errands" to run. First, hit an ATM. Next, browse a ceramic store of which Gus and Joan have been fans of for over 20 years. 

Ceramiche De Simone Showroom and Shop
just 2 blocks from our hotel on Via Gaetano Daita
Never a bad time to grab a gelato ...

Gelato & Cioccolato
just off Piazza Ruggero Settimo
 and finally,
Enoteca Buonivini Qualita' Sicilia Societa' Cooperativa
where we bought 6 surprisingly delightful Sicilian wines
 which we would enjoy over the next few evenings
We had dinner reservations at bye bye blues at 8:30. Our driver ...

Lynn, "Hot Italian Driver Filippo," and Joan
(courtesy of Lynn's Facebook page)
... picked us up at 8:00 for a 25-minute drive to the restaurant in the beachy Mondello neighborhood. 

The focus is on inventive cuisine inspired by traditional, regional
specialties. With its modern, minimalist decor and an impressive
 wine list (more than 500 wines to chose from), this restaurant is
 aptly named!
(Photo courtesy of Fine Dining Lovers)
Chef Patrizia Di Benedetto along with her sommelier husband, Antonio Barraco, opened bye bye blues in 1991 and it was an instant success. In 2010 she became the only Michelin-starred chef in Palermo and the only woman chef in Sicily to receive that honor. The restaurant specializes in all types of Sicilian seafood and shellfish ... we were "gobsmacked" by the black cavatelli with squid and prawn sauce and sea urchin.
Tasca d'Almerita Grillo 2014 
Elegant and cheerful white; paired
 with Primi Piatti; produced from
 Grillo 100; grown on the island of
   Rosso Di Marco 2013 
Pleasant with delicate tannins; paired
 with Secondi Piatti; produced from
Pignatello 100%; grown in the province
 of Trapani.
Sardines and wild fennel ravioli
(Joan as a  Primi Piatti)
Black cavatelli with squid and prawn sauce and sea urchin
(Gus and Curt as a  Primi Piatti and Joan as a Secondi Piatti)
Macaroni with lamb ragù and asparagus
(Lynn as a  Primi Piatti)

Pork cooked at low temperature caramelized in lemon honey
(Gus as a Secondi Piatti)

Grilled rib of Sicilian Cinisara beef
(Curt as a Secondi Piatti)
Swordfish rolls, Mediterranean style, and eggplant caponata
(Lynn as a Secondi Piatti)
We all passed on dessert, coffees, and digestives. Dinner was delicious and delightful. Filippo, our "Hot Italian Driver," was summoned and we were returned to our hotel.
Tomorrow we would depart Palermo for Sciacca. However before our leaving, a bit of reflection. After just a bit over 38 hours, Palermo revealed itself to be equal parts worthwhile and disappointing.  A few random impressions ...
  • Incredible churches, magnificent Baroque architecture, gorgeous piazzas, a rich and full history, vibrant street markets and delicious street food, and at least one fabulous restaurant.
  • And yet, crazy traffic and ridiculous gridlock. Garbage seems to be everywhere if you wander "off the beaten path."
  • The devastation from WWII still has not been completely repaired and restored.
  • And yet, Palermo is like a grand shopping bazaar ... a little bit of everything is here including boutiques of high fashion to artisans known for their skill in producing any number of goods.
  • The social fabric, of this once great European city, is changing dramatically as immigration is significantly impacting demographics ... employment opportunities, religious beliefs, cuisine, and cultural activities.
  • And yet, there is a richness and steadfastness of culture and tradition in the Palermitan lifestyle.
  • Economic activity and public financial resources are limited if not nonexistent.
  • And yet, there seems to be hope in the midst of Palermo's fading grandeur.

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