Visiting the major sites in any new city is always exciting and often awe-inspiring. We love to feel the weight of time, of tradition, of history. However, if you have time it’s good to give your brain -if not your feet- a rest and just explore the streets. There’s a surprise at every corner: a piece of architecture, a museum, a pretty balcony, a crusty old man and his dog. Over the past three weeks, we’ve enjoyed many of these days. It was a journey of discovery, not always successful but, in its way, enlightening, surprising, often delightful. This is a compendium of our several days of roaming around the city of Palermo.
Tetti della Cattedrale. Since February of 2014, the Cathedral has opened its roofs to the public. Last winter, a privately sponsored project has added a series of LED lights along the walkways on the roofs and it is open at night non weekends from 9 to 12pm. It is also open, upon reservation (it is extremely popular), from 10 in the morning to 4:30pm. The 94 steps of the spiral stone staircase were worth the view. Even on the hazy day we went up, we had a 360 degrees view of Palermo. We were even able to spot the terrace of the apartment we are renting! Going up the stairs you can see the crenellated walls of the church, as well as its byzantine domes through the loopholes. It was fascinating to be able to see, from up close, the bells in the tower. Every night, for the first two weeks of October we’d been there, they played the Ave Maria at seven o’clock at night in honour of the Beata Vergine Maria Della Mercede, or the Blessed Virgin of Mercy, for whom the festivities carry on from 24 September to about 14 October. In our neighbourhood, the festivities culminated in a night procession with band, singing, flowers, candles and the Virgin with baby Jesus being carried on the shoulders of eight burly men.
Via Maqueda and Ballarò Market. Part of Maqueda is always an area pedonale, an area reserved for pedestrians, but on Sundays its entire length, with a portion of Via della Liberta into which it changes, becomes reserved for pedestrian and cyclists. There are balloons for the kids, demonstrations on Politeama square, stands from the Red Cross and others asking for donations, dozens of cyclists, people walking with their dogs (Italians do love their dogs). A few blocks down, many of the street signs are marked in three languages: Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. Perhaps a sign of the Sicilian heritage of conquests and invasions and accommodation. Only a few streets below Via Maqueda is the sprawling Ballaro Market. It seemed to us almost like a village, and a cosmopolitan one at that. There were a lot of Halal products, presumably to cater to the large muslim community (mostly Bengladeshi). It is at least three times the size of our own Al Capo market with maze-like alleys and a dizzying amount of vendors. Here they also sell cooked food; in some places, they’ll BBQ the fish of your choice in front of your eyes, or cook you a hamburger (just the patty, not the bun). There are rows upon rows of candies, pastries, and sellers of everything from dish soap to panties. The place is deafeningly noisy, as are all markets, with vendors yelling their wares at the top of their voices. It’s colourful and messy, a great contrast with the more “sophisticated” ambling of Via Maqueda. Most stalls in the market close at 1pm (especially the fish vendors) so you need to go early to experience the full effect.
Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore. A block or two from the Cathedral on Via Vittorio Emmanuele is the Church of the Holy Saviour, a baroque church with an interesting story and architecture, but sadly neglected, certainly due to lack of funds, not lack of value and interest. It was constructed in 1072 as a monastery for Basilian nuns, who were under the protection of Roger I (Ruggero) and Martin; but the convent’s celebrity was due mainly to the fact that Constanza d’Altavilla, who would eventually become the Emperor Frederico II’s mother was the Abbess there and that Saint Rosalie (San’ Rosalia), the patron saint of Palermo, had also made this her convent. When it was converted into a church in the 17th century, the architect Paolo Amati gave it its oval central part with several small chapels and a cupola. It is characterized by it polychromatic marble and by its army of putti, who climb all the arches of the nave. Badly destroyed by bombing during the WWII, it was built back but most remade parts are made of plaster and the marble is in dire need of cleaning. Although not one I would visit on a first pass, nevertheless it is an impressive church worth seeing.
Villa Malfitano. La villa is quite out of the way in a private park and is the seat of the Whitaker Foundation (it assists medical or bio engineers in completing personal research projects overseas). It was built in the late 19th century by Giuseppe Greco under commission of Joseph Whitaker, an entrepreneur who made a fortune from Sicilian olives and Marsala wine. He was also a noted ornithologist. The villa is neo-classical with three levels, with large columns flanking a portico. Whitaker imported trees and flora from around the world and surrounded the villa with an immense garden of 5 hectares. Unfortunately, we got to see only the exterior. This is a case of “call before you go,” as the information in guide books or the internet is not always accurate. The villa has been mostly closed to visitors for some time and, in speaking with a local, only opens a few hours a week for a guided tour. We were disappointed, but we did get to roam the garden, and ocean of green and peace — and bird song, a rare sound in Palermo- during the hottest hour of the day.