Palermo, the Itinerary: What to See, Where to Stay and Dining Recommendations
by David Peretz
Begin your voyage of discovery as we did, in Palermo. We stayed at the Centrale Palace Hotel. Perfectly located in the center of the city, this four-star hotel is reasonably priced, beautifully refurbished and has a roof garden restaurant where you'll take buffet breakfast with terrific views of the city. Friends had recommended it and we were very satisfied. Ask for one of the larger rooms when you make your reservations. It is easy walking distance from many of the important sites you'll be visiting. For those who seek a “grand hotel” there is the Villa Igiea Grand Hotel on the western outskirts of the city. Beautiful gardens, tennis courts, frescoed salons and views of the sea, close to Mondello, the summer resort of Palermo- but keep in mind that you'll have to drive, be driven or take a cab into town and back each time.
You'll hear cautionary notes from friends and family about crime in Palermo. Our guide in Palermo and its environs, Luiga (a new mother and an architect) warned us not to stray into narrow, unpopulated side-streets. Apparently, purse-snatching does occur, though we saw no instance of it, nor did other travelers report it to us. The best alternative, in our opinion, is to leave your valuables (including passports) in the safe-deposit box at the hotel and tour with a credit card and money for the day in an interior belt or in a safe pocket. The same holds true for jewelry.
Relaxed and secure, you can begin the pleasurable exploration of Palermo's treasures- and they are many. Be sure to check visiting times for churches, palaces, museums as part of your planning. Many of them close from 12:30 or 1PM until 3-4P.M. Hours may be more restrictive in winter.
After checking into the Centrale Palace (the staff, by the way, is extremely helpful), we took a late afternoon stroll, sampling chestnuts braised on the fire, purchased on the plaza in front of the enormous Teatro Massimo, built in the last quarter of the 19th century, with Europe's second largest stage- the Paris Opera is number one. After years of renovation, the Teatro is open to the public, presenting ballet and opera. Want a preview? Have a look at “Godfather III”
Down the street from the hotel, you'll come to the Quatro Canti, the Four Corners, at the intersection of Palermo's two main streets- via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, marked by four beautifully wrought 18th century Palazzo fonts, a fountain and sculpture. The four seasons are represented.
In the same neighborhood, visit La Martorana, a church containing glorious mosaics, a preview of what you will find at the Capella Palatina. And don't miss Piazza Pretoria with its spectacular fountain. It was under restoration when we visited, but we had a few peeks through the covering and a glimpse of its magnificence.
On to the Chiesa del Gesu, with its flamboyant Baroque interior containing remarkable pietra dura decoration (paintings in marble with nuance of color) and your first viewing of the magnificent stucco work of the Serpotta brothers. The extraordinary sculpture by Giocamo Serpotta was for us, a major discovery in churches throughout Palermo.
See the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. A 12th century church, it is a superb example of Arab-Norman architecture.
The Palazzo dei Normani is to be found in the original old town, at its center. This fascinating Moorish-Norman structure is the site of the Sicilian Parliament and on the first floor, you will find a work of art: the Capella Palatina. Its mosaics are truly a marvel, recounting on the walls of this grand chapel, the story of the Old Testament and episodes from the life of Christ, of St. Peter and St. Paul. Except for the mosaics of Ravenna, you have never seen anything comparable. It is truly breathtaking. See the Cathedral nearby.
In the northern quarter of the city, you must visit the church of San Francesco d'Assisi with its eight statues by Giovanni Serpotta. You can stroll there from a morning visit to the Vucciria Market. Arrange your visit to the church before lunch, so that you can sample the food at Antica Foccaceria San Francisco. They serve foccacia farcita (stuffed with pomodoro, funghi or prosciutto), delicious arrancini di riso (deep-fried rice balls stuffed with meat or tomatoes and peas), or chick pea patties. You'll order these dishes across a counter which is an old cast-iron stove, then sit at marble-topped tables or outdoors In the piazza in front of the church you've just visited. Not exactly health-conscious dining, but a few bites of each dish go a long way toward making your culinary day.
Do not miss two beautiful Oratories in the Old Harbor District (a pleasant walk from the hotel). The Oratorio Del Rosario di San Domenico is a treasure-house of decoration in stucco by Serpotta, to whom we have referred earlier. His cherubs display an expressiveness of emotion (joy, playfulness, reflection which is captivating. This plaster sculpture, including an allegory of the Virtues and an Apocalypse scene, provides a setting for paintings dealing with the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. Pietro Novelli, one of the great Sicilian painters is represented on the walls and the frescoed ceiling. And Anthony van Dyck's magnificent Madonna of the Rosary sits on the high altar. Just down the street is the Oratorio dl Rosario di Santa Cita. Here, you will find what is considered the masterpiece of Giacomo Serpotta and it will stun you with its accomplishment. Note the central panel at the back of the nave: a relief of the Battle of Lepanto.
As for museums, we recommend two, though there are others which may appeal to you as well. The Archeological Museum has two particularly superb bronzes from the Greco-Roman period: Heracles capturing the Stag and a bronze Ram which looks like it will leap into action momentarily, so liflelike is it. Next on the list is the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia. There, you will encounter an artistic wonder: A grand fresco brought from the Palazzo Sclafani, “The Triumph of Death”. Painted in medieval times, loom for the striking examples of modernity as you view it both from above on a balcony and head-on. Worth the visit in and of itself. A superb bust of Eleonora of Aragon and two Antonello da Messina paintings are also must sees. The Museo Internazionale delle Marionette (Museum of Puppetry) is worth a visit if you have the time. And if you'd like to see a puppet show, inquire at the hotel for performance times and locations. At 95, via Bara, opposite the Teatro di Mimmo Cuticchio, you'll find All'Olivella, a puppet workshop that will remind you of Gepetto's, in Pinocchio.
The Cappucine Catacombs are outside of town, fascinating and macabre. The corridors are a maze, thousands of incredibly preserved, mummified bodies, perfectly dressed in clothes appropriate to their station in life and period (from the 16th century), are attached to, propped against, or in niches on the walls.
You'll need two or three full days in Palermo to enjoy its history and splendid sites. You can take side-trips in the afternoon to wonderful sites within an hour of the city (Monreale, Segesta, Selinunte) or conclude your touring in Palermo and make stops along the route to Agrigento. Before considering those stops, here are some Dining Tips for Palermo:
The cost of dining in Sicily is quite modest compared to major cities on the European mainland, a definite consideration for the cost-conscious traveller.
Trattoria La Cuccagna, Via Principe Granatell, 21/a, Tel: (091) 58-72-67
This charming, family-oriented trattoria provides warm service and delicious food.
Stefano, the headwaiter speaks English and is helpful with selections. We sampled a wonderful Pasta con Sarde (past with sardines), a flavorful Ravioli Melanzane (eggplant ravioli), a tasty but overcooked Spada brochette (Swordfish)in lemon sauce, a first-rate Sea Bass sauteed with wine, tomatoes and capers and exceptional Cannoli for dessert. A 1997 Ligoro (white wine) was an excellent accompaniment to the meal.
Restaurant/Pizzeria Italia, Via Orologio, 54, Tel: (091) 58-98-85
We'll sum this one up simply: the best pizza we have ever eaten anywhere! There were a full-range of dishes on the menu for those who are not pizza-lovers, but for us, a salad and Pizza Parmigiano (mozzarella, cacciocavallo, prosciutto, eggplant) with beer a terrifically satisfying meal. And incidentally, easy on the wallet.
Trattoria Stella, via Alloro, 104, Tel: (091) 616-1136
Outdoors, beneath a palm tree in a courtyard, Stella provided friendly service. We sampled Bucatini with spada (swordfish), a Salad, Grilled Orata (a delicious Mediterranean bass, Calamari stuffed with breadcrumbs and fruits for dessert. This time the wine was a 1998 Ligoro, quite respectable.
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