Palermo may seem like a maze of narrow streets and grand avenues, full of traffic and people, but it also has its share of green spaces, even in the centro. They provide a welcome respite from the noise and the diesel fumes, and a chance to soak in a bit of green among all the concrete.
Along the Via della Libertà you can find the Giardino Inglese, an English-style garden established in the 1800’s that contains fountains, plants and enormous trees. The atmosphere is quiet despite the dozens of teens (usually quite loud) sitting on benches and the sound of traffic; the park is surprisingly clean and well-groomed except for the ubiquitous graffiti.
We continue on the same street then turn on Via Nortarbartolo then Via Salinas. Here life is teeming, stores and apartment buildings line up the street, people go about their business without a care for tourists. It almost feels as if we’ve crossed a physical line and stepped into twenty-first century Palermo, although it’s only one neighborhood and there surely are many more different ones. As we amble along Via Salinas, we discover a pink stucco building with its gate open. The sign indicates that it is Villa Trabia. When we step through the gate, we discover an immense park (probably about two full square blocks).
The villa was constructed in the 18th century by Prince Luchesi Palli then passed into the hands of Giuseppe Lanza Branciforti, prince of Trabia and Butera, from whom the villa gets its name. It is now used by the Comune di Palermo as a public library and video archive, as well as a children’s library.
The park itself, organized in the same style as a botanical garden, thanks to the care of the chief gardener of the Trabias, contained in 1910 over 2790 species of trees and plants. Today, about 150 remain, including locusts, monkey puzzle trees, oleanders, conifers, palm trees and banyan trees. Elegant marble benches dot the area and wide alleys make it quite pleasant to walk around. It also has a nice baroque style bridge that used to separate the two levels of the park. The lower level is not maintained today and part of it has been converted into a fairly busy street.
Although the park at Villa Trabia is less well groomed than the English Garden, it has its own charm, like an old eccentric aunt the whole family loves. The sound of traffic completely disappears here and we can almost believe we’re back to the 18th century. This is also a park destined for Palermitans, which gives it its own particular attractiveness.
In contrast, the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) is visited equally by tourists and Palermitans, especially school kids who come for an outing with their teachers.
We’d tried to visit the gardens at the same time as we did Villa Giulia, but the workers were on strike and it was closed. A week and a half and a phone call later, we learned it was open again, so we went back to the Via Abram Lincoln by way of Via Roma.
The Orto Botanico di Palermo is as much a museum as a didactic and scientific institution attached to the Department of Botanical Sciences of the University of Palermo. The garden is also an Herbarium containing over 500,000 varieties of dried plants, collected from the XVIII century. It is considered one of the most important academic institutions in Italy, but it is also regarded as an important open air museum.
In 1779, the Academia dei Regi Studi established the Botanica e Materia Medica and gave to the new institution a parcel of land to start a small botanical garden for the collection of medicinal plants useful for teaching and public health. Its size soon became inadequate and in 1786 it moved to its actual site. The Gymnasium, the Tepidarium and the Calidarium were built in 1789 and they form the entrance buildings to the garden. They were built according to the neo-classical style, although they didn’t serve the role the Romans had for these types of buildings. Near the Gymnasium is found the oldest part of the garden, subdivided into four parallelograms, the plants organized according to Carl von Linné’s system of classification.
A large Aquarium was added in 1798 to host several species of aquatic plants. In 1823, the humongous ficus Magnoloides was imported from Australia’s Norfolk island, where it is a native species, and became the symbol of the newer botanical garden and its expansion.
Today, the garden contains over 12,000 different species of plants and trees, including, banyan, palm, cacti, bamboo, manioc and the very strange Chorisia speciosa, which looks like a thorny, pregnant tree.
What is striking in this garden, apart from the mind-boggling number of plants and trees or the lack of traffic sounds, is birdsong. All you ever see in Palermo are the ubiquitous pigeons and gulls, but no other birds. Here you can not only see the green parakeets haunting the palm and plane trees but you can hear and see all sorts of birds around you, including a heron or two.
If you’re interested in botany, or simply like trees, it’s easy to spend a couple of hours there. This was a superb addition to our parks visits.