Wednesday, June 20, 2007

May 2007 - Palermo, Italy - Return to the Motherland

Since we arrived in Italy, 9 month ago, we have eagerly anticipated our arrival in Sicily, where much of Kenny's family originated. We are circling the island by car over a 3-week period. Our first stop - Palermo, its capital. Is it as chaotic and gritty as everyone warned??? YES!!! But we loved the exotic architecture and (except for the purse snatchers) the people known for their exhuberant hospitality truly are the definition of warm and open.
One of the highlights of Palermo is its exciting and varied architecture, including structures built in the Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Spanish/Catalan-Gothic, and Sicilian Baroque styles. Above is the Fontana Pretoria and San Giuseppe dei Teatini with its majolica-tiled dome, just two examples the city's great man-made structures.
The other most striking feature of Palermo is its dramatic setting between the Mediterranean Sea and Monte Pellegrino (sloping down on the left side of the picture above) and adjacent mountains. Palermo owes its name to the sea: it was originally called Panormos or "port" in Phoenician times. When we were approaching Palermo by plane, we were shocked by its coastline with mountains and cliffs jutting sharply down to the sea. We soon learned that most of Sicily's coasts are lined with mountains, and in fact, the island, which is the largest (and third most populated) region in Italy, is one of Italy's most mountainous regions, with more than 85% of its total land area covered by mountains.

For our five nights in Palermo, we stayed in an apartment in this building (below) in the main shopping district on one of the only pedestrianized streets in Palermo. It looks a little like Lincoln Road on Miami Beach with street side cafes, restaurants and shops lining either side of the street for several blocks.
Our apartment was awesome! With one master bedroom, one guest bedroom, one bathroom with tub, a living room/study/library, a dining room, a full kitchen, foyer, windows and chandaliers in every room, sconces in every hallway, and every appliance and amenity immaginable, including dishwasher, washer and dryer, high-speed internet, an elevator and a doorman, it was easily the nicest place we've stayed in Italy so far.

Above, Casandra admires the books filling the bookshelves on either side of the living room/study/libary.
We got acquainted with Palermo by taking a bus tour which stops at all the major sites. Quite touristy, we know, but a great way to get to know the city quickly and learn which neighborhoods are safe or dodgy.

There are some very pretty buildings and squares in Palermo. The large building facing this large square behind Casandra (above) is Teatro Poleteamo, the newer of the two primary theaters in Palermo. Our apartment was two blocks off this square, in what seemed to be the most elegant (and safest) neighborhood in town.
One of the most impressive buildings that we passed was Palermo's Cathedral, an incredible church constructed over a period of 600 years blending Norman, Arab, Catalan Gothic and Baroque styles of architecture. I snapped this shot of it behind Casandra (above) while our double-decker was moving. It's nave is so long that I couldn't capture the entire thing in any one picture. We visited the church a day or so later.

And here's a picture of a Norman castle with some of the mountains surrounding Palermo in the backround. Notice how sharp the peak of that mountain is.

Above you can see how the mountains tower over and almost completely surround the city. If you look down just about any street, except those facing the sea to the east, you will see mountains like these.

Here is one of the gates to the city that faces the port on the east side of the city.

In this picture (above) we're in the center of the intersection named the Quattro Canti, dating from the 1600s when the town plan divided the city into four parts. This is one of the four baroque facades that were cut into the corners of the four buildings that meet to form this intersection.

Opposite the train station, at the intersection of Via Roma and Via Abraham Lincoln (as in the 16th U.S. President), is the city gate at Piazza Giulio Cesare (on the horse) built by Mussolini. Notice the fascist eagles at the top of each tower. All other fascist symbols were removed from the buildings when Mussolini was overthrown.

This is the main Post Office building, also built by Mussolini, as the stark, imposing fascist architecture suggests.
Here are two of many baroque palazzi that line via Roma, one of the two primary north-south thoroughfares of Palermo.

This odd-looking building, Santa Maria della Catena, is a Catalan-Gothic church dating from the early 16th century, evidencing the Spanish influence in the city at one time.

These iron towers, erected after a number of public officials were assasinated by the Mafia, serve as a monument to honor all those who were killed by the Mafia over the years.

Here, we are about to pass under Porta Nuova, the city gate built in 1583 in honor of Emperor Charles V (the grandson of Spain's Isabela and Ferdinand who funded Columbus' voyages to the New World) who visited Palermo 50 years earlier.
One of our favorite buildings in town is Teatro Massimo, Palermo's primary opera house, built from 1864 to 1897. It is one of the symbols of Palermo's rebirth and had just recently undergone a 25-year restoration. The theater is one the largest opera houses in Europe. We had to return to check out the inside and, perhaps, see an opera.
Amidst all of these impressive structures, Palermo has lots of green space in the historic center of town.
We later explored on foot some of the pretty parks and gardens that we passed on our bus tour.
We also explored the fresh fruit & vegetable stands which are set up all over the city. The largest of these markets is Mercato della Vucciria made famous by Renato Guttuso in his painting "La Vucciria." This characteristic market sells everything from produce and cheeses to meats, fish, and North African spices. Palermo's markets are most famous for their smells and colors. The markets make evident Palermo's addiction to fresh food.
We also spent quite a bit of time hanging out in the square closest to our apartment - Piazza Ruggero VII - in front of Teatro Politeama. This Neo-classical theater built from 1867 to 1874 was the center of Palermo's cultural life before the construction of Teatro Massimo and during its recent restoration. The piazza is the heart of modern-day Palermo and locals consider it the city's "outdoor living room." It's hard to find an empty bench here any time of day. The people watching cannot be beat.
We had a funny experience at Piazza Ruggero VII on our second day in the city. We were strolling and observing the locals when a very small car packed with 6 people pulled up to the curb next to us. They started honking and banging on the windows all shouting for us to open the driver's door. We thought - what kind of trap could this be??? So Kenny approached the car cautiously and opened the door freeing the family of 6. As they all explained in unison (in Sicilian italian with animated hand gestures), both car doors were broken so that they could not be opened from the inside and the power windows had not worked in a long time. So, honking and yelling is how they get some passer-by to let them out of the car. They seemed entertained and not at all annoyed by this situation.

We absolutely love the Sicilians and their attitude and look forward to spending the next few weeks with them.

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