Sicilia: Day 2—A (Long!) Walk in Palermo

Statue in front of Chiesa di San Domenico

On Saturday Kate and I took a walking tour that was recommended in Frommer’s Sicily book, which was an outstanding guide (if you go to Sicily, I recommend it). We had a couple of other guidebooks, but this one turned out to be the best. The tour emphasized several churches in Palermo, and we added a few more that looked interesting. Unfortunately one of the churches I wanted to see most, Chiesa della Mortana, was closed for renovations. Next time!

Chiesa di San Cataldo

Because the city was occupied by so many invaders, it has many different and interesting churches. Among them were a handful of Arabo-Norman-Byzantine churches that resulted from Islamic rule from 965 to 1060 AD and the Norman occupation that followed it from 1071 to 1250. The most important Norman ruler, Roger II, spoke Arabic, used Arab troops, kept and developed Arab agricultural techniques, and hired Arab architects to build monuments in the Arabo-Norman-Byzantine style. This style incorporates inlays of mosaics or metals; sculptures of ivory, hard stones, or bronze; Arab arches; and reddish-pink Arab domes.

Quattro Canti (Four Corners) – each corner has a niche like this one

In addition to churches we visited the Quattro Canti (Four Corners), the unusual intersection of Palermo’s two main streets. It was built by the Spanish in the 16th century. Just around the corner is the infamous Piazza Pretoria, which houses a lovely fountain constructed in 1575. Because of the many nude statues and mythological monsters inhabiting the fountain, it caused an uproar when it was unveiled, and the fountain has been known forevermore as the Fountain of Shame. (By today’s standards, it’s pretty tame!)

Northwest end of the immense Palazzo dei Normanni (photo by K. McKenna)

Near the end of our walk we visited the Palazzo dei Normanni. Its foundations date back to Punic times (8th century BC), and subsequent rulers added this and that and made it a hodgepodge of styles. The Royal Apartments still serve as the seat of government in Sicilia, so it is often closed to the public when parliament is in session. We were lucky to visit on a Saturday so we could see the Royal Apartments. Our tour was in Italian (most of them are), but our guide took pity on us and drew us aside in every room to point out the main features and relate the history (in beautiful English).

Garden in San Giovanni degli Eremiti

My two favorite churches were the last we visited: the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in the Palazzo dei Normanni and San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits). The chapel is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful churches I’ve ever visited—small and glowing with spectacular Byzantine mosaics. Eremiti couldn’t be more different—a garden straight out of the Alhambra and an unadorned stone nave.

We then hopped on a bus and returned to the hotel to join the rest of the tour group for our introductory dinner. Our great group—the two of us from the United States, two men and one couple from Australia, and a couple from Korea—made for such a nice cultural experience inside the van, at our daily lunches, and in the bar each evening. Hats off to you all, John, Gerilynn, Russell, Ross, the Kims, and Kate!

Weather=good enough—mixture of sun and clouds but no rain. Company=outstanding! Food=good. Palermo=fascinating! Total score=5 of 5 (the Capella Palatina gets 5 all by itself)!


Fontana Pretoria – Fountain of Shame

Oratoria del Rosario di Santa Cita – Baroque bas-relief works by Giacomo Serpotta

Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita – my favorite cherubs

Chiesa di San Cataldo

Chiesa di San Cataldo

The Duomo

Cappella Palatina in the Palazzo dei Normanni

Cappella Palatina

Cappella Palatina

Cappella Palatina

San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Sam Giovanni degli Eremiti

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