Palermo - not at all what we expected
2 Jun 2012
|We have finished our time in Palermo. This blog was written partly while there so excuse confusion in tenses if they appear. I wasn't able to do much in the way of blogging a) because I was so exhausted every night and b) because we had no wifi which was a total pain.
Palermo is wonderful. It's an exciting city. And there is so much to do that four days is way too little and we have been racing around somewhat.
The first day stepping out into that street that had seemed so abandoned and crumbling the night before, we find things so alive and buzzing that we just laugh out loud. All the roller doors are up and most of the giant arched doors are open revealing courtyards similar to our own or more elegant behind, And the traffic, well that never stopped.
We are in the centre of the old city on a buzzing multi-cultural strreet - at least where we are down the station end - Via Maqueda. A large number of jewellery/bead stores that seem to be largely Pakistani, North African stores of various kinds, grocery, internet, a tagine seller. A few Indian food shops. Unknown domiciles and businesses behind the elegant courtyards. Norman-baroque church. Norman-Islamic edifice. But the dominant view is of four or five storey buildings of baroque character, shuttered windows behind small but elaborate wrought iron balconies. A general dilapidation but much that contradicts this and is stunning and renovation everywhere. Even the decrepit is often beautiful if you stop and look at its basic lines or the colour it once was, now a faded wash.
We find that we are in the middle of everything, as the iPhone man had assured us we would be, in walking distance, sometimes long walking distance, of most things. The sea front with its marina, the markets, the Duomo, the Norman Palace, various churches and palazzos and museums.
The old city is divided in four by two intersecting roads, one of which is Via Maqueda, that meet at an impressive intersection with concaved 'corners' from each of which stares down Spanish soldier fellows above fountains that are now just a trickle. This place seems to have about a million names but the most common seems to be Quattro Canti - which I believe means 4 corners - an interesting name given one of its key characteristics is that the four corners have been concaved off. Horses with red head dressings and traps line up here to take tourists for a spin.
Within each quarter formed by these major roads is a spaghetti tangle of narrow streets and alleys and hidden piazzas, piazettas, churches and markets.
It's noisy, chaotic, buzzy, fast, a new sight at every turn, especially on the major roads. North Africa is close as you can see in the streets. It's a melting pot place. It's a place on the go. It's a place that has been poor and still is in quarters. Sometimes it strikes us like a very, very toned down India.
The first day we visited the Palazzo dei Nomanni.The oldest bits of this building date to the Arabs but the major section is Norman. It is an imposing fortress like ediface towering over this part of the city.
The Sicilian parliament or one part of it sits in the Royal Appartments section of this building, The security guards whose jobs relate to the parliament seem a little on edge about the tourists and we must go through this area in groups.
But the star attraction is the Capella Palatina, a chapel built by Roger II between 1130-1140. Structurally it feels light and elegant. From the squared upper sections of columns to the ceiling and covering the upper sections of walls are brilliant, dazzling mosaics in perfect condition. Not faded, no bits missing - pristine. Predominance of blue figures on a gold background. The figures are a mix of two and three dimensional in form, depending on when they were done, and on the whole rather static compared to those we will see a few days later at Monreale, of which more later. In the cuppola though are a magnificent Christ Pantocrator and below Mary in flowing blue. These figures are less detailed but more impressive. They too are on a gold background and they are large, simple, majestic and the effect is dramatic as they fill the bowl of cupolla looking down from above.
The ceiling is of wood and uses the Arab stalactite like formation called muqarnas. This was created by North African artists and apparently depicts scenes from daily life - Arab and Norman - my guide book says courtly and hunting scenes, drinking, dancing, games of chess, animals. However, they are too small to see without opera glasses - note to self for next trip! The guide book also says that this is the most extensive cycle of Fatimid painting to survive to the present day.
We also visited St John of the Hermit which is a tiny shell of an Arab-Norman church of 12th century also built by Roger II and sits in beautiful gardens of orange trees laden with fruit, bougainvilleas, small palm plants and other things I can't remember. What is interesting about the church is that it is topped by those abrupt cup-like Arab domes.
After this we wander through the labyrinthine back streets getting a feel for the place and hunting for lunch. Eventually, having rejected what are obviously tourist places, we ask a man selling material in the market for a trattoria in 'vicino'. He tells us the way which we manage to make out in our perfecto Italiano and soon we are seated in a small bar that serves the local area. John is grabbed and taken into the kitchen to be shown the various pasta sauce options. I follow not content to let my man make the choice, as it is assumed that he will, and also because I don't want to miss out on the fun. He is to try an Arabiata. A spoonfull is scooped out of the pot and stuck in his gob to try.
We settle on that and it is delicious with penne. The black olives are semi dried and fruity, the capers have more flavor than usual and the salami or cacciatore is nicely aged and rich and just right for the dark sauce that has a good chilli bite. Some parmesan and we are happy. We oo and ah and the next door table seem to think us very simple to be so taken by such a dish. John hears them say something like, 'It's just Arabiata!' It is a simple dish but all the flavours balance nicely. We enjoy watching the crowd in this small place at lunch time. I can only eat about half mine and John doesn't finish his but everyone else tucks in and finishes theirs.
I can't remember much else for that day.