Lapped by the blue Tyrrhenian Sea, framed by mountains rising over 1,000 metres, Palermo is the bustling capital of the autonomous region of Sicily. Attracted by the natural harbour and strategic location, myriad civilisations landed on these shores and on its solitary headland, the iconic Mount Pellegrino has seen them all: Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish to name just a few, all leaving their mark on a city which became one of the richest on the Mediterranean.
Today Palermo remains an enticing mix of old and new, tree-lined avenues festooned in hibiscus and oleander, traditional street markets, hidden courtyards and breezy squares and narrow twisting lanes where laundry flaps on the balconies. The air smells of oranges and lemons and freshly-baked pizza, church bells mingle with the hooting of scooters and tuk-tuks and pony and traps rattle side by side.
Bursting with colour, Palermo is above all a city of palaces, theatres and churches, contributing to Sicily’s generous share of UNESCO sites. In a capital once protected by four patron saints, the most venerated today is Saint Rosalia, who freed the people from the plague. Churches pop up around every corner: austere or ornate, Norman, Renaissance, Baroque and more, but most endearing are the hidden chapels in the Vucciria neighbourhood, their gleaming interiors entirely covered in white stucco angels. Yet top of the list must be the Cathedral founded in the 12th century, boasting a magnificent doorway and royal tombs, a stunning Treasury and a rooftop walk, up 107 spiral steps but worth the effort for the panoramic view of the city bristling with domes, the sea and the surrounding hills.
Meanwhile, far below, visitors head for Piazza Verdi to pose on the steps of the Teatro Massimo and gaze at its refined neo-classical façade flanked by two bronze lions. Dating back to the late19th century, it’s the third largest Opera House in Europe, justly renowned for its acoustics, and the place where the final scenes of the Godfather Part III were filmed in 1990.
Stroll along the road and you come to another architectural gem, the Politeama Garibaldi Theatre; unlike Teatro Massimo, this was built for the common people who preferred operetta, plays, equestrian shows and the circus. Yet one of the theatre’s greatest moments was the performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in 1896, applauded by a near delirious audience after a disappointing reception in Turin. Now home to the Sicilian Foundation Symphonic Orchestra, it dazzles visitors with its grand entrance and superb decorations, while on some guided tours you might see the original painted stage curtain weighing 450 kilos.
As for Palermo’s palaces, most exotic are the Zisa and Cuba in Arabic style, set in the former pleasure grounds of the Norman kings, but most impressive is the Norman Palace, currently the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Following the Norman Conquest in 1072, the Arabic fortress was transformed into a sumptuous palace for the new Kings of Sicily, and as such is said to be the oldest royal residence in Europe. Beyond the 17th century façade, highlights include the splendid Ruggero Hall, named after Sicily’s first Norman King, and the 12th century Palatine Chapel. With its Norman architecture, its wooden ceiling in traditional Islamic style and its glittering Byzantine mosaics and dome, it exemplifies the rich blend of cultures which have shaped Palermo for over 1,000 years.
By Solange Hando