Focus on Sicily: what to see, where to sleep, where to eat
WHAT NOT TO MISS
Beautiful and impossible to deal with, you cannot start a trip to Sicily without seeing Palermo. The regional capital is an enigmatic city of contrasts and contradictions, having always been the scene of domains, clashes, mixes and millennial influences that best summarize the crossroads of Mediterranean populations that characterize Sicily, and that here in Palermo have left their greatest historical, cultural and artistic legacies.
Great splendour and treasures on the one hand, decay and neglect on the other, Palermo knows no middle ground. We have organized this trip with Lonely Planet as our compass, (www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/sicily) a precious and unfailing companion of adventures, which offers a never dull and always ironic look on the urban, social and historical fabric of cities and countries.
Lying at the foot of Monte Pellegrino, Palermo's heart develops around two iconic streets in the old town that segment the city into four famous districts. The streets are Via Maqueda that runs horizontally and Via Vittorio Emanuele which runs vertically and "down" towards the sea. At the intersection of these two long arteries are the Quattro Canti, the hub and symbolic heart of the city, punctuated by four imposing baroque buildings which are best admired with your nose in the air. The districts are the Kalsa, the Capo, the Cala and the Albergheria, an intricate maze of narrow streets more or less accessible depending on the time of day, full of life, smells, markets, imposing churches worn by time and crumbling palaces. Exploring Palermo will exhaust you but you’ll be rewarded by the architectural and artistic gems that the city jealously guards. Abandon all hope to use public means or a car and wear a pair of comfortable shoes because the old town must be visited on foot, especially now that there’s finally a limited traffic area and the most beautiful streets are therefore almost solely accessible by pedestrians.
The tour can start at the Norman Palace, built by the Arabs in the ninth century and today home to the Sicilian Regional Assembly, inside which resides the Palatine Chapel, also of Norman period which alone would be worth the trip. Built by Roger II in 1130 and completely restored in 2008, the Palatine Chapel constitutes, according to many, one of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaic craftsmanship intertwined with Arab and Norman architecture. Continue the itinerary by entering the old town in style, passing under the imposing and mannerist Porta Nuova, on top of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and walk down until the Cathedral of Palermo will appear like a vision.
With its layering of styles, it encompasses in one monument the history of the city, because the Cathedral was built in 1184 and became a Basilica then a Mosque and again a church devoted to Christian worship, converted into last seat by the Normans. The exterior surprises much more than the indoor decoration and it’s definitely worth climbing the narrow stairs of the bell tower to reach the roof and get a 360 degree view of the city. Continue along Corso Vittorio Emanuele and you will arrive at the Quattro Canti; take Via Maqueda immediately to the east to find yourself in Piazza Pretoria, where the homonymic Baroque fountain stands.
A little further on, in Piazza Bellini, you can admire the Church of San Cataldo and the Martorana, the latter built in 1143 by an admiral of Ruggero II and decorated inside with astounding Byzantine mosaics which, along with those of the Palatine Chapel, constitute the oldest mosaic cycle of the city.
Proceed through the streets of the Kalsa, the Arab neighborhood par excellence (the name comes from the Arabic word Al-Kalisah which means the Elected) and be sure to end in Piazza Garibaldi, at the center of which is located the oldest tree in Palermo, an extraordinary Ficus Benjamin, which in all its centenary glory (150 years) embraces the small park. Explore further inside the Kalsa and take Via Alloro to reach Palazzo Abatellis, a magnificent former Renaissance style convent now home to the Regional Museum of Sicily, which boasts two works of art of inestimable value: The Triumph of Death in the International Gothic style the Annunciation of Palermo by Antonello da Messina.
From there Villa Giulia is a five minute walk, a stunning Italian-style garden, green heart in the center of Palermo as well as the adjacent Botanical Garden, a quiet and subtropical paradise. The visit of the gardens will serve as an energy booster and you’ll be ready to take Via Lincoln, which leads down to the sea and walk along the promenade the length of the Foro Italico Umberto I to re-enter the historic center, this time passing under Porta Felice (the opposite end of Porta Nuova) and proceed up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, back towards the Quattro Canti. Once there, turn right and keep going along Via Maqueda to the west, until you reach the grandiose Teatro Massimo, one of the city's icons, the largest theatre in Europe and the third in the world, perfect even for a stopover in its elegant cafe. At last, do not miss the markets (Vucciria, Capo and Ballarò, better seen in the mornings) that Lonely Planet too considers one of the musts of the trip, an unrepeatable experience that resembles the North African Bazaars. The aromas of the fruit and vegetable stalls mingle with hints of freshly baked or fried arancini, panelle and crocché, the markets are an extraordinary insight on the veracity of local life
Among the three, the Mercato del Capo is, in the opinion of the locals, more authentic, and you’ll be able to find antiques and Sicilian memorabilia. To wrap up the visit of the city just sneak into one of the many aristocratic palazzi scattered around the center, such as Palazzo Mirto or Palazzo Gangi Valguarnera (by appointment only) inside which was filmed the ballroom scene of the Leopard. You cannot leave Palermo though before having visited the Cathedral of Monreale, built by Guglielmo II d’Altavilla, King of Sicilly between 1166 and 1169. It became a Unesco World Heritage sight since 2015 and no wonder, because the mosaics there are beyond belief and will leave you in complete awe and wonder.
Separate chapter should be dedicated just to the Palermo of the Belle Époque, whose chief representative was Ernesto Basile, architect who decorated the city with its Art Nouveau style, supported and financed by the industrial bourgeoisie of the period, whose leading figures were the Florio, an educated and enlightened family that in a period of economic prosperity managed to turn the flashlights on Palermo and Sicily, thanks to their investments in art and architecture. The Villino Florio and Villa Igiea are among the finest examples of Art Nouveau in Palermo, the latter now a luxurious five-star hotel. So, if after a day of exploring, the vibrant and intense energy of Palermo has worn you out, there is no better refuge to find inner peace and soothing than at the Villa Igiea.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Spectacular hotel just a few kilometres from the city center, the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea (www.villa-igiea.com/en/) embodies the quintessential Sicilian luxury and is a precious example of Art Nouveau architecture.
Located at the foot of Mount Pellegrino on the Belmonte hilly road and overlooking the small harbour of the Acquasanta, it is one of the most renowned locations in Sicily and once you walk inside, it’s easy to understand why. It was constructed thanks to the foresight of the Florio family, who commissioned the design to Ernesto Basile in 1908 and who, in turn, built Villa Igiea on top of an existing building. It was meant to become a luxury sanatorium (and never did) overlooking the blue of the Mediterranean, a place where the European elite bourgeoisie could go to get treatment. Instead, it remained the private home of the Florio family, a worldly living room of high society and intellectuals, both Italian and international, until it was converted to a luxury hotel. Designed by Florio as a lavish winter resort, the Villa Igiea hosted among many the British Royal Family, the King of Siam and the Queen of Romania. To this day, the hotel attracts an international clientele looking for an aristocratic and sun kissed corner of Sicily.
Inside, the hotel has maintained the original Ducrot furniture and frescoes by Ettore De Maria Bergler, which shine in the Basile salon, where even the academy award winner Roberto Benigni shot a scene of Johnny Stecchino. Today the Villa Igiea has been able to combine the splendor of the past with the amenities of a five star hotel and the structure offers an elegant restaurant with crystals, soft lighting and Art Nouveau chandeliers, a lounge bar in a wonderful arcade room overlooking the bay of Palermo and 122 rooms decorated in Art Nouveau style, with drapes and bow wallpapers. Do not miss a walk in the lush garden blooming with Mediterranean plants and make sure you take and a dip in the swimming pool with a sea view, next to a temple dedicated to the Nymph of Health. The sumptuous breakfast, overlooking the sea and the garden, is bewildering: almond granita, Monsù cakes, freshly squeezed juices, pastries of all kinds and much more, served in the frescoed room. To tip everything off, Villa Igiea is complemented by a private access to the sea, decorated with Persian rugs and cushions, perfect for an aperitivo in front of the harbour.
WHERE TO EAT
An extensive chapter could be solely dedicated to Sicily’s gastronomy. And Palermo is without doubt one of the capitals of sicilian, italian and world street food, which has always been an important tradition for the city, as it served to feed the poorest people.
Nothing evokes Palermo and its culinary traditions as the Panino con la Meusa (a spleen sandwich) which one should try at least once in their life. A recommended address (by Lonely Planet as well as the locals and Slow Food) is the Focacceria San Francesco, a historic eatery opened by Salvatore Alaimo in 1834, who was a cookery teacher at the service of the Catholic Princes. He opened the Focacceria inside a deconsecrated chapel given to him as a gift from the family.
The original location is still there today and the spleen is one of the highlights of the local delicacies, cooked in lard and seasoned with ricotta cheese, lemon and local cheese flakes. The typical pungent aftertaste of the insides means this meal is only appreciated by strong stomachs. Refrain therefore if you have a weak palate.
Another iconic street food must is Pane and Panelle (a panino with chick pea fritters) and in Palermo Franco u Vastiddaru, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is an institution, recommended by locals and guides. You’ll have sorted your lunch with two euros and will walk the streets of Palermo with a sandwich filled with steaming hot chick pea fritters. Crispy outside and wonderfully soft inside, you can combine them with potato croquettes, called crocchè, to eat while you’re strolling around town.
For a complete Sicilian meal, you cannot go away from Palermo without having made a stop by the trattoria Ai Cascinari. This wonderful, family run restaurant is a cornerstone of Palermitan cuisine and is frequented by tourists as much as by locals. Un-missable spaghetti with alalunga, fennel and almonds and mouth watering eggplant meatballs drooling with homemade tomato passata. A jovial and friendly service, prices range between 8 to 12 euro maximum per dish.
To get a thorough, entertaining and multifaceted insight into the city, its monuments and its beauties, arm yourself of the Lonely Planet guide to Sicily (the updated version will be released in December 2016), a travel companion you want by your side to discover the true historical, cultural and social identity of the city.