Palermo: city of contrasts

by Andrea.Kirkby

The Sicilian capital of Palermo is an amazing mixture of Arab, Byzantine and Italian – a busy city, where the traffic never slows down, and life never stops

Palermo never ceases to amaze. It's a ferment of noise: chaotic streams of cars disobey all the traffic lights, and double park on every available inch of street; you have to push your way through crowded street markets where bursting ripe fruit spatters on the pavement.
 
It's a city of surprises, too. You'll see baroque churches and Renaissance palaces that could be anywhere in Italy – but there are churches with strange red turban-like domes and Byzantine mosaics, reflecting the heritage of the Arab-Greek-Norman kingdom of the middle ages.
 
With all these riches it's difficult to pick out the best things just for a weekend. It's like trying to eat only the glacé cherries out of a Christmas cake. But it can be done – just.
 
You'll want to stay somewhere that is reasonably central, but where you can recover from the sheer energy of the city. The Hotel Vecchio Borgo fits the bill well – it's a few blocks from the city centre, well modernised but in a characterful neighbourhood. Above all, it has good sound insulation to cut out the noise from outside.
 
Let's start with the baroque and visit the Oratorio of Santa Cita, entered through the church of the same name. This chapel glistens with white stucco – there's not another colour in sight. The 1690s plasterwork, by Giacomo Serpotta, is amazingly ornate. His angels are true Palermitans. They gang up together, dance and frolic and climb up on the window frames for a better view. You may have seen Roman baroque – austere and dramatic; this is much more playful, and more raucous too.
 
The Royal Palace shows you an older Sicily but one in which ornate display was equally important. The Palatine Chapel was built by Roger II, and it blends Norman architecture, Byzantine mosaic and Arab carpentry in a glorious muddle of styles. The muqarnas ceiling, with its hundreds of sparkling facets, is impressive enough – but look carefully and you can see paintings of courtly life: dancers, peacocks, lute-players.
 
Though the palace is now the home of the Sicilian parliament,  you may be lucky enough to gain admittance to some of the state apartments, including the hall of mirrors. The most impressive, though, is  Roger II's mosaic-encrusted bedroom. (If these mosaics really impress you, you might want to miss out one of the other sights and go to the church of the Martorana instead. This church was built by Roger II's admiral, George of Antioch, a Greek – and its mosaics are very nearly as splendid as the king's.)
 
Take your lunch from one of the stalls in the street markets; panelle, chickpea fritters, are a speciality. Or head for the Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (Via Paternostro), in the medieval Kalsa district, not far from the palace, for stuffed focaccia – cheap, authentic, and incredibly filling – or more of the almost inevitable panelle.
 
Spend the afternoon in the Palazzo Mirto, on Via Merlo, also in the Kalsa quarter. It's a little-known gem – an aristocratic palace that still feels as if the noble family that lived there have just popped out for the afternoon. Its origins are medieval but what's on show is mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries – a view of a life of leisure and ease that has long gone.
 
For our last stop today you'll need strong nerves. Head for the Capuchin catacombs, where 8,000 dead Sicilians from the 16th century onwards are on view. They've been naturally mummified by the action of chemicals in the soil. There are lawyers, doctors, girls in their first communion dresses, nobles; and even the tiny corpse of an infant in its swaddling clothes. It's gruesome; and if one of the flickering electric lights fails, as one did when I was there, it can get very spooky very quickly.
 
On Sunday, let's do something different and take a trip out of town (though if you missed any of the sights yesterday or want to add La Martorana, you could do that in the morning). Take a bus out towards Monte Pellegrino and hike up to the Santuario di Santa Rosalia. Palermo is spread out beneath you, on its curved bay, but you're far from the noise of the city – though this being a Sunday half of Palermo has probably accompanied you up here!
 
The rather plain neoclassical façade of the sanctuary doesn't promise much. But inside is a marvel – an entire church in a cave, water seeping down the bulging rock roof. A Heath Robinson-esque contraption of metal gutters, tubes and pipes collects the holy water for use in the church. Statues have been pushed into every hollow in the stone; it's like a mad rockery turned inside out.
 
For your last evening, head down to Mondello, Palermo's seaside resort. (There's a bus, but if you fancy a trek, you can hike it.) I came here one cold January to eat fresh sea urchins in a beachside restaurant – salty, soft, and subtle, the flesh was well hidden inside the spiny shells, but a deft twist will extricate it.
 

Andrea.Kirkby

Andrea Kirkby is a writer and photographer with a passion for travel. So far, she's hiked the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, climbed Oman's highest mountain, and walked around St Petersburg's canals at two in the morning during the White Nights. It's still not enough... Favourite places: the island of Torcello and the Venetian lagoon; the ice cream parlour by the pier on Buyuk Ada, Turkey; Laon, the first and most lovely of the Gothic cathedrals; Lubeck, with its Hanseatic warehouses and fantastic marzipan; Ruestempasha mosque and the Tahtakale market, Istanbul; the shipyards of Sur, Oman; the Fens with their huge skies and black earth; the Silver Tiger bar in Prague with Pilsner Urquell on draught; the front bar of the King's Head, Norwich.