Sleeping until just about 9, I woke to find a warm and sunny day. In a light-colored polo shirt and shorts, I set out at 9:30 for the nearby Tukory-Ballaro bus stop and boarded a #109 west. After 5 stops, at Indipendenza-Palazzo Reale, I switched to a # 389P for a half hour, exiting at Fontana Del Drago.
I had a half kilometer walk to reach the Cathedral of #Monreale. At the top of the hill, one of this cathedral’s splendor, the eastern façade, is visible – the exteriors of the three apses. After passing on the north side, the Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria La Nuova faced out onto the Piazza Guglielmo II.
Having walked the length of the church, I knew this was another large building, at 102m in length. Facing west, a long nave meets a wide transept with three chancels and domed apses. The western façade has two broad stone towers enclosing a roofed porch; four marble columns frame three curved arches of this Norman cathedral. Four bells are visible from the front of the north tower, while the south tower is taller, with stepped back stages.
Actual entry into the nave is through the doors through the base of these towers. Resplendent with some 6000 m² of mosaic design on nearly every surface, and completed in less than 10 years, the stories of the Old and New Testament follow around the aisle windows. The center apse at the east end is a large golden Christ the Pantokrator. Built in the 12th century by the Norman King William II because his father William I of Sicily wouldn’t be entombed in Cefalù, both are now here. The “pavement”, all marble tiles, fills the floorspace.
The cathedral limits the number of visitors, so I was lucky to get in with little delay. As it was a warm day, with temperatures getting to the mid-80’s for the first time, I think many tourists headed to the beach. I was able to find the narrow access to climb to the roof, which gave splendid views of the cloister and the green and white roof tiles. And the cloister was equally awesome – the capitals on the 226 double columns (each pair is unique) are full of great carvings of fictional beasts, animals and people.
I had arrived about 11, so I made a point of leaving within an hour to allow others access. I read later that a guided tour handles timing when crowded (weekends), but I was fortunate to almost walk right in. My plan was to return to Palermo and visit the big cathedral. The problem I had was that there were 3 buses back in the twelve o’clock hour, all requiring at least a kilometer and a half walk (20+ minutes) to board, and leaving before 12:15. Otherwise, in an hour I could return on the bus I’d arrived on, and walk 10 minutes. Finding this out after my noon exit, I obviously had an hour to explore. (What I really wanted to do was head 9km further south to Piana degli Albanesi and see the cathedral there, but I had late afternoon plans in #Palermo.)
Pizza and ice cream places were around the square in front of the cathedral, but I really didn’t want touristy stuff. Crossing to take an alternate road down to the bus stop, I began walking down Via Palermo. At the Panificio Campanella, a bakery, I got a takeaway panini. Another 50m, an interesting looking church sat between the two roads, the Chiesa Teutonica Capitolare sede dell'Ordine Teutonico di Sicilia e dell'Accademia Enrico VI di Hohenstaufen. (Quite a mouthful!)
A different Equestrian noble order dating back to the Third Crusade, the side gate was open and the side door unlocked, so I checked. There’s a lovely chancel, trompe l’oeil fresco of the virgin, but no information. Left me curious.
At the bus stop, a parish church sat above the road, looking rather sad. I found a spot in the shade of a tree and sat, eating the sandwich and watching the traffic climb the hill. Soon enough, the # 389P arrived, and a half hour and 26 stops later, I was at Indipendenza, with a 10-minute walk in front of me. Passing through the Porta Nuova, I had a couple of parks off to my right, as I stayed in the shade of their trees. Arriving back at the Cassaro Alto, I turned and walked across the plaza to enter through the south portal. The Cattedrale di Santa Vergine Maria Assunta is, as I observed yesterday, huge.
The first thing I did, after getting a ticket allowing me into the crypt, and climb up into both the clerestory and on the roof, was to set my phone alarm. I had booked back-to-back GuruWalk tours to make sure I saw more of Palermo than the three cathedrals, and this would be one way to ensure I did so. Then I started my rounds. When I enter a cathedral, I will typically start at the west entrance and, as I cross the narthex, take photos down the aisles. Since I came in the south portal, I turned left to the rear, stopping at the two chapels where royal and imperial sarcophagi were kept. Then I made my shots as I crossed to the north aisle. The Palermo Cathedral has chapels and shrines along the outsides of both side aisles, many of which are behind locked iron gates. Also different, each of these shrines has a small lantern dome, providing natural light. As I got to the crossing, taking shots into the chapels and across the nave, the feeling of more openness started to happen. The last chapel, nearest to the main altar situated in the crossing under the huge dome, is the Eucharistic chapel, with a lapis lazuli tabernacle.
A walkway and stairs took me down into the crypt. More older, less ornate sarcophagi of venerable bishops are interred here. The lower, simpler arches and columns, some of which had Saracen carvings of the Quran still showing, was blessedly simple. Heading back upstairs, I crossed between the choir, with the king’s and bishop’s chairs facing one another, and the high altar and the central apse. The dome of this apse has a large red-favored fresco, while a brightly lighted statue of the Virgin is placed above and behind the cross on the high altar. Beyond the south apse, I turned and found the stairs up to the roof. The roof walk allowed me to walk from the towers at the west end along the peak to walk around the big lantern dome at the crossing and then down to overlook the apses’ domes. Spectacular views from the roof.
Descending, I began looking for the way up to the clerestory. In my travels, I think I can count on less than ten fingers the number of times I have been able to view the interior floor from a balcony or clerestory, so I was going to take this opportunity. While not much detail is actually visible, it was still a treat. As I was coming back down to the nave and south aisle floor to finish my first pass, my phone alarmed me. I needed to head outside shortly to find my guide. I made quick work of the few additional chapels, walked out to the center of the nave and took shots towards the altars, the west door, and the vault. And then left to head outside.
Once outside, I headed to the small fountain, where I met up with Emanuele, our native Sicilian guide, 4 Brits from Carlisle, 2 Dutch from Gouda and 2 Yanks from South Boston. Talk about a collection of accents! The Carlisle “Northerners” told Manny that his accent was from London, while the Dutch sounded like they were from Bristol. Me, I just sounded like a Yank, but the “Southies” had them totally confused. We all got a good chuckle, and Emanuele launched into his spiel.
We learned about the various “invaders” that have been coming to Sicily since before the Trojan War. As a key element in protecting the Tyrrhenian Sea, Sicily has been a prize jewel in many a campaigns’ crowns. Once the Normans drove out the Saracens, it has been Catholic for nearly 900 years. We then entered into the cathedral and got a 20-minute “highlights” tour, where I learned a few more details about the Emperors, Kings and Queens who have ruled. Probably the most delightful item was the lapis lazuli tabernacle.
Returning to the Cassaro Alto, we walked down the Corso Victorio Emanuele towards the port, which may be the oldest street in Palermo to the Quattro Canti, the intersection of two streets where there are elegant fountains on every corner. Officially Piazza Vigiliena, it is octagonal with nearly identical Baroque buildings with the four streets forming the sides. The fountains represent the seasons, each at a cardinal direction, with a patron martyred saint. Laid out in the early 17th century, it is considered to be one of the first examples of town planning in Europe. (I’d been through last night, and didn’t realize!)
The southeast of buildings on “Four Corners” (with the East fountain) backs onto Piazza Pretoria, with its landmark 1500s fountain known for its ornate tiered designs and nude statures of mythological figures. Yes, the one I’d seen and walked around last night. While open to Via Maqueda on one side, the Palazzo Boocore and Palazzo delle Aquile (now city hall) form two other opposite sides, and the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria the last. The Piazza is the heart of the historical district, and the fountain is supposed to represent the dozen major Greek gods, other mythological figures and the rivers of Palermo. Unpopular, as was the 18th and 19th century corrupt city government, the square became known as the square of shame.
We walked over and entered the side door of the Chiesa di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. Founded in 1310, it had been expanded and rebuilt in the mid-16th century in renaissance and rococo styles. Rather elaborate for a women’s monastery. We exited through the main entrance, down stairs onto Piazza Bellini. Now we were beside the Real Teatro Bellini, the oldest theater in Palermo, and still offering performances. Directly in front was Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, the other cathedral in Palermo that I had visited last night. Being now after 5:30, it was closed, so Manny related the history of this Albanian Catholic church. At the point he offered suggestions and answered questions, I tipped him and thanked him, and headed north past the Quattro Canti about a kilometer to reach the Piazza Verdi.
Arriving just before 18:00, I found Alexandra and 6 others gathering for a 2½ hour cultural and gastronomy guruwalk. A native of Palermo, Alexandra teaches yoga, speaks three languages, and surfs. My fellow participants were couples from each of Brest (France), Limerick (Ireland) and Kiel (Germany). All were on holiday, and had had a good day at the beach today, with the temperatures finally breaking into the 80’s and the clouds and wind being minimal. I saw several fresh sunburns. And we decided Alexandra didn’t have to repeat in French, as the Bretons had good English.
Alexandra would be relating a mixture of sensations - the cultural: Renaissance sculptures, Arab domes, Norman castles and Byzantine mosaics; with food, colors and smells: green palm trees against the turquoise sky, bright vegetables on the shelves of the markets; the aroma of fried foods and bakeries that flood the small dark streets and battered balconies.
Starting out as we were just north of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest auditorium, seating 1,387 in lavish fashion, we walked around the front and south, pausing a few blocks down at a bakery to talk about the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino. Alexandra ducked into the Fantasia bakery and returned with a paper bag and napkins, handing out half a biscotti each.
Apparently, the congregation has a good relationship with the bakery, as they provide food and coffee for post-Mass social hours, which are usually held in their large enclosed cloister. The church is known for its mosaic façade which we paused to admire.
After a block, we side slipped west a block, taking us past a pub, Sottocapo, and three small restaurants Odori e sapori al vecchio monte (Smells and flavors of the old mountain), PerciaSacchi (Sicilian takeout) and Al Monte (restaurant and pizzeria). At this point, my stomach was growling, everything smelled so good. Turing right again, down a long block, we were in the Guillia district, as we passed two parish churches with that indication. We soon came up on the east façade of the cathedral and its barrel apse. This gave Alexandra a chance to give her take on this megalith, which, as a twenty-something female came out as somewhat scathing and sarcastic.
Around the cathedral and skirting the Cassaro Alto, we headed down Corso Vittorio Emanuele through the Porta Nuovo, around past Piazza Indipendza to the back of the Palazzo dei Normanni. Highest point in the older part of Palermo, the Normans had built their palace transforming the spot where the Saracens had built on top of a Punic settlement. Norman and subsequent emperors and kings would sometimes live and rule from there, other times use it as an administrative center. Now its use is split between the military and the regional assembly. Alexandra recommended we return to visit the Cappella Palatina, a chapel/church renown for its blend of Arab-Norman-Byzantine style, the mosaics, painted wood and marble incrustation.
Walking around the south end of the palace, we headed through what she called the bedroom district: small hotels and B&Bs filled the north side of the street. (In fact, the Germans were staying in one and pointed it out.) After about a kilometer, we were at the Ballaró Market.
I immediately recognized that this was where I’d gathered some provisions last night, but we were guided to her preferred vendors, and various supplies for the several dinners were collected piecemeal. Clutching multiple plastic sacks, we pushed on. Less than another kilometer, but back into the heart of the old city, we heard about the Piazza Pretoria and its fountain before we arrived at the Vucciria Market, a rustic market square.
Part covered market, part open air haggling, this is apparently one of the places on the tourist trail. Some vendors had just finished clearing out, and the dining and drinking purveyors were setting up chairs and tables. We were about an hour early for “a real happenin’ scene.”
Alexandra got a plate loaded with mixed croquettes, and sent two men off to get us all bottles of beer. We pushed two tables together and shared this little repast. A second round of food and drink, with glasses of wine for the women, followed quickly, and then Alexandra advised us we had one more stop before the end. Finishing up, we self-bussed and turned around to head back to the Fontana Pretoria. Actually, we were heading to the church with the three red domes, San Cataldo, and we came in a back way to avoid the fountain. Our last talk was about the co-cathedral and the little Norman church, and how these two were part of the fabric of the old town, while sitting outside conventional Catholicism. Because I’d done some research last night, I was able to supplement with a few details, which earned a few raised eyebrows. Yeah, I’m the old guy with the cathedral obsession.
As we finished, the Irish and German men decided to cross the street to Bar Universita’ Da Maria Domenico for more beer, and the Bretons (never call them French, I’ve been told) and I joined them, as did Alexandra. The women ordered a bottle of white wine, while the men drank more beer. Several more plates of bar food appeared and then disappeared. About 9pm, I excused myself to return to my flat and do some writing, and the younger folks kept on. Back at the flat I pulled out my journal first, finishing up on Monreale and then writing first about the cathedral and then about the two walking tours. Now I’m nearly done with the blog portion, having downloaded photos and keyboarded for 90 minutes. Once this is on my website, I need to prep for tomorrow – the train leaves at 8:43 or 2 hours later!