There were two sites we wanted to revisit from our trip last year, and one of them was Monreale. Last year, we had wanted to get there on our own steam and ended up wasting so much time that we had very little left to look at the church, and none at all to walk the town. To add insult to injury, there were so many people and tour groups, the church resembled more a circus -and a loud one at that- than a place of repose and reflection. The grandiose aspects of the cathedral seemed completely lost on most people there, who were more intent on taking pictures for later than taking in the atmosphere, the artistry, the celebration of art and God.
So we thought we’d go back, this time early in the week, a Monday. We’ve learned from experience that bus tours don’t usually make it to Palermo from the mainland before Wednesday because most museums and stores are closed on Mondays, and Tuesdays are often used for restocking, so the shelves are often bare. Wednesday to Saturday are the busiest, when buses cross over on the ferry and cruise ships are in port.
Another plus for our trip to Monreale, which is less than 10 km from Palermo Centro, is that public transit has resumed to the top of the hill where the cathedral is, so we wouldn’t have to wait for the shuttle that went up only a few times a day. Except we forgot a very important point: to reach the Duomo for opening time at 14:30, we wanted to take the 13:30 bus (bus #389). Unfortunately, all the teenagers going to high school in Palermo (it seemed it was the entire teen population of Monreale) finish between 13:00 and 13:20 and were going home. The bus was PACKED. I now know what a sardine or an anchovy feels like — actually, the fish don’t know what it’s like to be packed in a Palermo bus with 60 teenagers, regular bus takers, tourists, and the occasional seller of stuff. The bus takes, comfortably, about 35 people. Several times, the doors to the bus could not close because people kept wanting to get in and no one could move.
We’re laughing about it now. Then, we were just sweating and hoping no one in the middle would want to get out. The trip took 50 minutes, and we were ecstatic to get our freedom back. Since there is only one bus an hour, we were glad we hadn’t waited, despite the heat, the rowdiness, and the bustle.
The town of Monreale, since it is -as most ancient towns are- built on a hill, is an exercise in climbing if one wants to visit it. It is a typical lived-in town, and not just a prop for tourists. Beyond the piazza and few surrounding alleys that are full of restaurants and souvenir sellers, quiet descends and one can hear the sounds of real life: someone speaking on the phone, children playing, a dog barking from a balcony, a canary signing its heart out. We meet the usual groups of men standing on a street corner and gabbing or sitting at a couple of tiny tables in front of a nondescript bar, sipping an endless cup of coffee (which is a feat in itself since their coffee is a two-swallow cup of espresso).
People are proud here: they adorn their viccolo with a profusion of plants, their main doors are ornate and their stoops well-kept. The view from many apartments is amazing, as they look down on the Conca di Oro, the basin which is Palermo, surrounded by capricious mountains.
We make our way inside the church. For a “technical” description of the Duomo di Monreale, and a comparison with the Duomo at Cefalu, please see my previous post; in this one, I will address more the subjective aspects of the Duomo.
The church had about a tenth of the visitors it had last time, and we finally found the quietude we were looking for. The near silence of the church cannot but enhance the wise, almost beseeching look of the Christ Pantocrator looking down on us from the dome of the presbytery.
We sit at the back of nave and look forward along those soaring columns topped with elegantly curving arches and the double row of curved windows that bring in filtered light, up to the gilded and painted buttressed roof and imagine the feeling of certainty from those 13th Century parishioners -peasants and nobles together- that, looking at the magnificence man could create, God existed. Never could such beauty be erected if not for divine inspiration.
The church also served as an illustrated Bible; scenes of the Ancient Testament (Adam and Eve, Noah’s Arch) as well as the New Testament (The Annunciation, Mary’s flight to Egypt, the Last Supper) are pictured above the arches and in the presbytery, the side aisles, and the transepts.
Even though many of the mosaic tiles (set in the Byzantine style of Carthage) are golden, it is the pictorial representations that attract the eye — an they’re everywhere, even in the curves of the arches, each one having its trio of saints’ cameos.
Every surface is covered, even the curved windows. The walls are white marble and would impart a cold atmosphere if not for the richness of the art, an art that is not only on the walls but also on the roof. Again, the Byzantine have been at work, giving it a three-dimensional aspect, a wonderful depth that enhances the height and the grandeur of the church.
As we sat there, among the reverent whispers and quiet steps of other visitors, we could not help but mourn a past era, while at the same time celebrate the beauty human beings are capable of creating.