Italy Trip 2001 – In Palermo

Tuesday 19 June

Pic 1: Charles V – Spanish King who ruled in Sicily (16th Cent)
Pic 2: Church of Palermo – Madonna Statue (Glass?)
Pic 3: Palazzo Dei Normanni, fancy old coach probably for royalty
Pic 4: Capella Palatina – Dad in front of chapel
Pic 5: Capella Palatina – Star of David in wall mosaic

Late in the morning, still bushed from the trip over, Dad and I decided to get out of the hotel and see what we could see on a little walk, ended up going for 90 minutes. This is one of the oldest sections of Palermo, so of course there are a ton of churches-probably more than one per block on average. The most impressive on this stretch is the Church of Palermo (that is, the main church of the archdiocese). Very large, very well kept up, still used daily; a baptism seemed to be going on as we and dozens of other tourists wandered through.

At the far end of the portion of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle that we walked sits the Palazzo Dei Normanni, a palace built in the 11th century by Frederick of Norman, who conquered the region and setup a kingdom here. The Palazzo is an impressive castle still actively used as the regional military headquarters and the place where the Sicilian legislature meets. Tucked inside is the Capella Palatina, the palace chapel, a beautiful room whose walls, ceilings, and even supporting columns are covered with religious art. On our way back to the hotel we did some window shopping; several of the stores sell military and police uniforms-historical and current-and related equipment, including ceremonial(?) swords and guns, which one doesn’t see quite so casually in America. Back at the hotel, we had a couple of cold drinks and a rest in the lobby.

Pic 7: Teatro Massimo

90 minutes later, we set out again in a different direction. We walked east on Via Marqueda towards the Teatro Massimo eight blocks away. Being in no hurry, we turned down a side street and after turning back, walked through a street featuring wedding clothes and a block with an outdoor clothing market. Back on Via Marqueda, we passed a phone and internet store.

The Teatro Massimo is primarily used for opera; this week the performance is Mozart’s Magic Flute. The theater is a very nice large building with a quote engraved in large letters over the entrance (in Italian of course):

Art renews people and gives more meaning to life. Delight is useless pleasure unless you look ahead. (Franesco at the hotel translated for me, so the English may be less than perfect. The Italian is: L’arte rinnova i popoli e ne rivela la vita. Vanno delle scene il diletto ove non miri a preperar l’avenire.)

Mozart’s Magic Flute is playing this week – built 1875-97 according to the numbers in large stones out front . Now we’ve stopped across the street at Caffe Opera for a little lunch. A light breeze and awning make sitting at a sidewalk table comfortable. I had my first slice of Italian pizza but was disappointed; the cheese and bread were okay but the tomato sauce in between was dry and not very flavorful.

Pic 8: Bill & Dad at Caffe Opera

Leaving, we walked alongside Teatro Massimo and up a tree-lined street called Via Volturno. There are many stores on these streets but generally very small, 200-400 square feet, and may of the same kind near each other.

This city is very old, founded even earlier but taken over by the Greeks perhaps 2600 or more years ago. Which means most of the streets are very narrow (less than 10 feet across) and not well suited to cars. The cars drive down them any way and generally expect pedestrians to move out of their way.

We passed through another open air food market. Most of the stores put tables or glass-top refrigerated cases (on wheels) out front. The fish looked very nice, having come today out of the Mediterranean, or the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Tyrrhenian is a northern part of the Med, roughly bounded by Italy to the east, Sicily to the south, France to the North, and Spain to the west. Also interesting at the markets are the Zucchine Luonghi, long zucchini. Paler green then the zucchini I usually see in the States, almost pastel, these are really long–often one meter or more. We wandered down and up a few more side streets, one featuring several kitchen cabinet shops, and got back to Via Marqueda and the hotel for a tall glass of lemonade.

Almost five hours of walking our first day!

The odd thing to me, after walking all though this part of Palermo, is not seeing any restaurants. There were many tabacchi, small cigarette and coffee shops, and some slightly larger like Caffe Opera where one can get a sandwich or pizza. But no place to go and sit down for dinner. We’re going to ask the concierge to explain and recommend.

Wednesday 20 June

Pic 9: Castle over looking Monreale
Pic 10: View of Monreale from above

Very nice dinner last night at Casa del Brodo which, despite the name, didn’t have any soup on the menu that I noticed except zuppa del mar. Not much nightlife in our part of Palermo although I did notice a rooftop bar on a hotel we walked past.

We slept in until 10 this morning, threw on some clothes and just made the breakfast buffet. After showering, we went for a walk, bought a copy of “Art and History of Sicily” and had coffee back at the hotel so we could look over the guidebook and get some ideas.

Yesterday, we talked of driving to Taormina today, about 160 km, but the late start ruled that out. Instead around 2:30 we drove to Monreale, which is supposed to have one of the best preserved cathedrals of Norman origin on the island. This was some drive, first just getting out of Palermo and then through some steep, narrow streets climbing into the mountain. Lots of twisty roads climbing up and then in.

Driving through San Martina de la Siala, we saw Castellaccio up on the peak of one mountain. Very imposing with strong red brick walls, this “Big Castle” must have been an important position to hold in centuries past when armies fought over the island.

Several times we thought we’d missed the turn off for Monreale but since the road seemed to be leading us back to Palermo we shrugged it off and continued. Finally, after 45 minutes (double what I expected), we came to the little village of Monreale. I wanted to park, have a coffee, and ask directions but on all the streets we could see no empty parking places. Going on, Dad spotted the church through an opening, we circled around and found a lone space to park.

Pic 11 & 12: Front of Duomo del Monreal
Pic 13: Side wall
Pic 14: Looking down onto Palermo from a garden at the back of the Duomo
Pic 15: Dad and a Triton (sea sprite) in front of the Duomo

We had some pizza that was a good bit tastier than yesterday’s and walked around the outside of the Duomo del Monreale as well as the cloisters next door. As with many of the very old buildings, these are also being renovated.

For example, the Piazza Vigliera (The Four Canti) is just next door to our hotel but covered in wrap as its exterior is redone. From pictures in the guidebook it is a lovely example of early (1609) seventeenth century architecture. Rome must be sending a lot of money to the island to fund all this work.

Before leaving Monreale, we walked underground to use the public restroom-the entrance is a stairway in the middle of a wide sidewalk-and had to pay L1000 (about 40 cents) to go in. At least it was clean.

The drive back was much easier. Following a few signs and turns down the last bit at the mountain, we were on Corso Calatafimi. This street eventually becomes Corso V. Emanuelle, which our hotel is on, so that left only the afternoon rush hour and hordes of motorcycles and scooters, whose drivers rarely worry about cars or pedestrians on the road with them. By the end, Dad said I was driving like a real Italian!

Thursday 21 June

Today we hoped to go to Taormina and also pass by Mount Etna, both of which are far to the east. After breakfast, I asked the concierge (the ever helpful Francesco) how long we would be driving. The answer was a surprising three hours. Turns out there aren’t that many freeways on this island; even Agrigento is 90 minutes away at 85 km straight south.

So we thought we’d head to Agrigento to see the Valley of the Temples and left around 1:00. Struggling with traffic to get out of Palermo, I had the bad luck to run the passenger side mirror against a truck parked the wrong way on the right side of the road. The mirror was torn off but there was no other damage.

Dad and I decided that our best bet was to go to the airport and get a new vehicle from EuropCar. Ha! Getting out of Palermo and onto the airport highway took us another 30 minutes, then 20 more to get to the airport.

The man working at the rental counter was quite unperturbed about the whole matter and gave us the keys to an Astra station wagon straight away. After a few more bureaucratic niceties, we decided it was too late for Agrigento and headed west in the direction of Segesta and Trapani.

A few kilometers down the road, the water looked gorgeous and our stomachs told us to find a trattoria. We saw a sign for a likely place, Giardinello and Montelpre. Figuring one of them to be on the waterside, we took the exit. A half hour trek up into the hills and down again after finding few eating places and none of them open proved us wrong. Ahh, the open road in an unknown country!

Stuck at about 20 kph coming down the hill from Giardinello behind a gravel truck, we slowed down even more to ease our way through about two dozen cows apparently headed in after a day out at pasture. One might think we were frustrated by this but I was actually quite pleased and amused by the long, strung out line of differently colored cows.

Back on the highway, still headed west (that is, we hadn’t given up), we decided to try the next exit and this time we did get down to the water in a village called Balestrate. Stopping at a little pasticceria (a sweet/pastry shop), we each had a nice salami and cheese sandwich, a small but tasty cannoli, a drink, plus an espresso for me for the munificent sum of L7,000 (US$3.25). Very nice.

Pic 16: Greek temple at Segesta
Pic 17: Bill in front of the temple at Segesta

Continuing west, turned off to Segesta and its Parco Archeologico. The park is home a Greek theater and a well-preserved Greek-Siceliot peripteral temple; historians do not know which god was worshipped at it. The temple, which is way cool, was built over about a dozen years and not quite complete when the Carthaginians captured Segesta in 408 B.C. All 40 of the very large columns and the entablature are fairly intact to this day. Segesta was settled by the Elimi, a group that migrated to the area from Troy an about whom little is known today.

Pic 18: From inside, the east end of the temple
Pic 19/20: Bill and Dad in front of a column, temple interior

I have to say that standing inside a temple built over 2400 years ago was a new, very warm experience for me. Made a real connection for me to the ancient past. True, my ancestors at the time were a couple of thousand miles east in Israel, but being here and walking in the temple is so different than reading about it in a book or watching a show about it on Discovery Channel.

Dad says, “It’s there, it’s old, it’s mysterious kind of. Undoubtedly many stories to tell but we don’t know them.”

The ride back to Palermo was good, about 75-80 km, all fairly clear two lane highway. Once we hit Palermo, there was traffic but a few lucky street choices did us well. Being 8:00 already, we’re dining at the nice restaurant in the hotel.

Friday 22 June

Roll 2
Pic 1: Temple of Concordia, east side
Pic 2: Temple of Jove in the distance
Pic 3: The Mediterranean down below Agrigento
Pic 4: Dad in front of Temple of Concordia, north side
Pic 5: Bill with Temple of Concordia behind
Pic 6: Temple of Heracles
Pic 7: Bill inside the Temple of Heracles
Pic 8: Bill holding up a column in the Temple of Heracles

A morning stroll over to the Internet access store and a little time to catch up on some Hotmail.

This afternoon we drove to Agrigento, which is pretty much directly south of Palermo on the Mediterranean coast of Sicily, about 145 km from our hotel. Not the 86 km we were led to believe by road signs before leaving. Amusingly (to others), about 75 km into the ride I was getting excited about being close-until I saw the sign saying Agrigento 50 km. Urggh!

We had a nice drive anyway, about two hours down and a little less coming back, a nicely paved road but a single lane in either direction and fairly limited access. Or maybe just not that many places from which one might want to access the road.

On the southern side of Agrigento is the big attraction-we did stop first for a cold drink and a tasty Tartuffe (big piece of chocolate fudge!)-the Valley of the Temples.

There are several temples here and the best preserved is Concordia (goddess of harmony and peace, as well as the name of the development across the street from my parents’). You have to walk up hill about 3/4s of a mile to get to this temple and after getting to it in the hot sun we decided to skip walking at least another half mile to the Temple of Jove.

The cela, or inner temple, is still standing in the Temple of Concordia, unlike all the others we saw. Unfortunately, this temple is in the midst of some restoration work so we couldn’t walk in and see the cela up close.

Next we walked through a small orchard which had an early Christian necropolis (old style cemetery) that is in the process of being unearthed and restored.

Final place here was the Temple of Heracles (Hercules). This temple is pretty beat up, with just some of the foundation and a few columns remaining but, again, I really enjoyed being able to walk in and touch the columns. Very cool.

Dad says, “I thought it was interesting but I’ve seen these kinds of ruins before [in Greece, Turkey]. I liked the temple at Segesta better.” Me too!

Saturday 23 June

Not too much to report today as I wasn’t feeling well. A touch of some bug had me up most of the night. We walked around a couple of times including through the nice garden across the way from the Palazzo dei Normanni called the Piazza della Vittoria. Inside the garden is a fenced off space where an old (but not ancient Roman old) house or temple is being unearthed and recovered. No signs so I can’t say for sure. Lots of laying about, falling asleep for a few. Out to Il Bagatto for a nice dinner.

Sunday 24 June

Well, Sunday is a church day here, or something similar. People are out in cars but very few on the streets with us as we walk around Palermo a few more times during the day. Almost all the shops, even the tabacchis, are shuttered. The restaurant in our hotel as well, so instead of eating there we walk over to A’vucceria where we’d eaten some nice pasta and veal a few nights earlier. Otherwise we spend the day motly reading, watching CNN Global, and playing cards; after seven serious games, Dad’s winning 5-2.

Monday 25 June

Travel day today, which has me as anxious as ever, so I don’t get to sleep until 4 a.m. and out of bed at 7:30. Urggh. We probably should have traveled yesterday since everything was closed. Oh well.

At first, no problems as we get to the airport nice and early, get the requested seats (turns out the flight is 2/3rds empty anyway), and our plane actually takes off-not leaves the gate but gets in the air-five minutes early.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s