Palermo, the capital of Sicily, has been the vital heart of the Island since the 9th Century. Its architecture, neighborhoods, people, art and food are a fusion of cultures and styles — Arabic, Baroque, Norman, Hebraic, and African – as generations of invaders have come, ruled, and ultimately been ejected. (Top: Cathedral of Palermo)
It’s a beautifully situated port city, surrounded by dramatic mountains, dotted with lovely parks, graceful piazzas, and broad boulevards, and is home to some knockout ancient treasures. It’s a bustling, wealthy, modern city, as well, which is perfectly clear as one drives through its prosperous outer ring towards its historic center.
Despite the city’s many attractions, many people think of Palermo as a fairly scary place, Mafia dominated, with extremes of poverty, high crime, and dark alleyways. In the back of my mind, that’s what I expected, perhaps because of all those post-World War II histories that emphasized how Mafia boss Lucky Luciano was taken out of a U.S. prison and brought over to Palermo to help smooth the way for the Allied invasion. There may have been some truth to that point of view in the 1950s and 60s but, happily, times have changed.
Most surprising, Palermo is a city that has publicly turned against the Mafia. The anti-Mafia movement came about through decades of sustained efforts by brave citizens, lawyers and politicians, and in particular, by the heroic efforts of several prosecuting magistrates and a local priest who were murdered in the 1990s. These assassinations – and there had been many, many others – were so shocking that they proved to be a tipping point, turning the tide of ordinary citizens and political leaders against a group that, until then, many Sicilians refused to publicly acknowledge even existed.
During our visit, we came across two anti-Mafia memorials. The first, as we approached the city by car, a highway monument to Giovanni Falcone, the Palermo prosecutor whose car, in 1992, was blown up by the Mafia while he was on his way home from the airport, now named the Falcone-Borsellino Airport, in honor of the two magistrates and old friends who were murdered within months of each other. (Falcone traveled to New York City and consulted with Rudi Giuliani in the 1980s, when he was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in New York and also, like Falcone, prosecuting and winning cases against the Mafia.) The second memorial is a shrine, located in Palermo’s main cathedral, to an anti-Mafia priest, Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, who in 1993 was killed at close range by a single bullet in front of his parish church. He was beatified as a martyr in 2013.
There were other smaller but telling signs of anti-Mafia sentiment, including an organization, Libera Terra (The World of Free Land), dedicated to promoting organic farming, organic products and social justice in territory once dominated by the Mafia. I bought a package of Libera Terra’s spaghetti. Another organization, Addiopizzo (pizzo is the word for protection money), formed by local shops and businesses is growing. Look for their stickers where you shop, dine and stay.
The main entrance to historic Palermo is through Porta Nuova (1583), with its pyramid shaped roof and Moorish statues. It’s a fitting gateway to the Norman Palace, itself a mishmash of architectural styles. Originally built in the 9th century by Saracens, and enlarged in the 12th century Norman rulers, it underwent yet another addition in the 17th century by Spanish Bourbons. The highlight of the Palace is the Palantine Chapel, built by Roger II in the 12th century. Its interior cupola and apses are covered with gorgeous mosaics, which combine Moorish and Catholic iconography. Nearby is another Arab-Norman Church, with its three distinctive, round, red bell towers, San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
Not to be missed as one strolls down Corso Vittorio Emanuele is an intersection known as The Quattro Canti or Four Corners (which really aren’t corners), built in 1611, that features tiers of statues in each curved “corner.” It’s the exact center of the historic city. On the right is the Piazza Pretoria and La Martorana a 12th Century Church – and rare survivor of medieval Palermo — whose interior mosaics are spectacular.
Piazza Ballaro Market
Palermo’s famous fruit and vegetable market is a world unto itself and the city’s grittier side is easily glimpsed in the surrounding neighborhood.
The hill town of Monreale is worth visiting for two reasons: its panoramic views of Palermo and the bay, and its world famous mosaics, created by Greek and Byzantine craftsmen within Monreal’s Norman cathedral.
There is much more to see and visit in Sicily, from its Aeolian Islands to Messina and Cefalu. Depending on one’s age and inclination, there are villas to rent, beaches to enjoy, hikes and cooking classes to take. Sicily, geographically, is reminiscent of bits and pieces of southern Spain and France, but with a southern Mediterranean culture all its own. I hope the highlights of my trip have sparked an interest in others to explore this beautiful and island for themselves.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag