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davidx Palermo - A travel report by David
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Palermo,  Italy - flag Italy -  Sicilia
10418 readers

davidx's travel reports

Only two nights in Palermo

  11 votes
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In a 13 night wish fulfilment visit to Sicily in February 2001 I stayed at 8 different places – so 2 in Palermo was one of the longest stops. Silly? Perhaps but which should I have left out?

San Catoldo
San Catoldo Palermo
It’s ironic but if you only had time for one thing in Palermo, that would be a short trip out. Monreale is only a 20 minute bus ride but the basilica there is absolutely stupendous – world class Norman-Arabic mosaics. [Don’t miss the cloisters, entered through a separate doorway.] There are also excellent mosaics of the same age in the Palazzo dei Normanni, where the autonomous Parliament of Sicily conducts its business, and in the church of La Mortorana, both in Palermo itself. I was almost equally bowled over by the very simple church of San Catoldo behind La Mortorana. I followed advice in confining myself to the outside of the city cathedral but I couldn’t stay away from the deconsecrated church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
One more mention is necessary for mosaics, although of a very different kind. This refers to the Roman mosaic of Orpheus playing his lyre to sundry creatures on the second floor of the Archaeological Museum. This floor pretends not to be accessible to the public but you only need to ask.
For something quite different you can take a bus up to Monte Pellegrino, which goes as far as the shrine of Santa Rosalia. The views of coast, mountain and woods are awesome; the shrine, to my view at least, and the market stalls nearby are awful. There is a footpath to the top for even better views if you are fit.
Now a word of warning – don’t dream of travelling without a ticket. Inspectors came onto the bus three times whilst I was travelling about. They hunt in packs of three and, once they are on, the doors are all locked until they have checked all tickets! Tickets are obtained from tobacconists but a lot of them don’t stock all-day tickets. These are available from the paper shop at the station, where many buses start.
[Given the concentration on mosaics above it’s worth saying that a trip [by rail] to the cathedral at Cefalu will show you perfect ones of yet another type – Byzantine.]

Favourite spots:
Cloisters, Monreale
Cloisters, Monreale
My favourite is easy to determine this time, although Palermo has many really fine sights. It’s that Basilica at Monreale. Apparently in the 12th century when an English architect was working on the building of Palermo cathedral, the king, William II, wanted to score one over the Archbishop and therefore this building on the royal estates at Monreale was erected in only about 15 years. What could it be other than extreme hype, when the Rough Guide refers to ‘the most extraordinary and extensive area of Christian mediaeval mosaicwork in the whole world?’ Believe me, it could be the literal truth and I believe it! The principal work is the huge head of Christ in magnificent colours but my own favourite is the frieze showing many Old and New Testament stories in mosaic. In the cloisters, mosaics appear on many of the columns, set in pairs round the whole area, no two pairs being the same.

PLEASE see pictures on

What's really great:
Detail from frieze, Monreale
Detail from frieze, Monreale
First a warning – don’t blame me if you take children and they are terrified. You have to decide for yourself whether it’s appropriate. I refer to Il Convento dei Cappuccini, where burials in the catacombs started for the monks burying their own dead. In the 18th century it became fashionable to leave a bequest in return for a place in the catacombs or for those who could afford it to have dead relatives put there. There are skeletons galore, fully glad in what were the best clothes of the time, now rags. They are classified and divided by sex, status and profession. There are many skeletons of little children and one ‘special’ one. This was a young girl, who was treated by a secret process – shortly to go with is creator to the grave. I don’t go so far as to say that she looks ready to go out with Mummy but and she’s far more like that than like she resembles the other skeletons around her.

3 photos on:

Basilica, Monreale
Basilica, Monreale
I only mentioned the Archaeological Museum above in passing. It is not purpose built but was once a convent and later was badly ruined by bombs. The story of the building is almost as fascinating as its exhibits, though the remains from Selinunte, a terrific site which I hope to cover in a later report, have a room to themself and are of particular interest.
If you have not been to Andalucia, you will like the old Moorish Building of La Zisa. It’s OK anyway but any claim that it equals the buildings of Granada, Cordoba or Sevilla is palpably absurd.
The Palazzo Mirto, with its own furniture and artwork is good but suffers from the European familiarity with ‘Italian’ buildings, art and artefacts elsewhere. It doesn’t stand out as special.

Detail of cloisters, Monreale
Detail of cloisters, Monreale
The Rosalia Conca d’Oro is in Via Santa Rosalia. This is the third turn to the left along the large Via Roma as you go from the vast square outside the station. The door is visible from the via Roma, which makes it feel safe and it might well appeal to women travelling alone. The building looks pretty tatty from outside but when you get out of the lift three floors up, you are in a scrupulously clean little hotel Rooms rae comfortable. Toilets and bathrooms are shared but there are enough and, again, they’re absolutely clean.
The owner has limited English [there is usually a relative around who can help] but she is most friendly and helpful. It’s really cheap too.

Il Palazzo dei Normanni
Il Palazzo dei Normanni
The Trattoria-Pizzeria Enzo, nera the main station, looks a bit like a transport café but the food is cheap and very good. The second night I found somewhere for myself and it was the only poor meal I had in Sicily!

Other recommendations:
Orpheus mosaic
Orpheus mosaic
In winter it’s not possible to get by public transport to the Villa Imperiale at Casale. This solved my problem about whether to go there or to do a rush job at Lipari [which again I hope to cover later]. Even so I feel upset at having missed the villa and I believe its Roman floor mosaics to be of exceptional quality.
There is much else in the area of Palermo, to encourage at least double my stay – unless, like me, there are other sights in Sicily that have been calling you for a long time.

Published on Wednesday January 5th, 2005

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Mon, Jan 10 2005 - 08:09 PM rating by italian-link

Another excellent report, David. I know Palermo quite well, and you really did a good job. I agree with you that the catacombs are quite a bizzare site to see! Monreale is awesome. If you ever get a chance. next time you should check out Mondello, a little beach town outside of Palermo.

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