Sicily 2019: Palermo

Our two-week babymoon to Sicily was truly special.  Like I said in this post, taking a babymoon really gave Andrew and me an opportunity to celebrate what is to come, bond with baby and get in some much-needed quality time before our baby girl arrives.  We’re our best selves when we travel, and I don’t think it’s simply because we’re on vacation.  I think Andrew and I enjoy seeing and experiencing new things, such as unique foods and different cultures, and are at our best when he’s playing tourguide and I get away from our day-to-day.

After flying eight hours from Toronto to Munich, spending three hours of a five-hour layover sleeping (praise God for Unisom!), and a final two-hour flight into Sicily, we just about collapsed in our hotel room.  Why in the world did we choose our farthest European destination yet when I was pregnant?!  Our voyage over made me appreciate the relatively ‘quick’ six-ish hour flights to Paris we’ve enjoyed in recent years.

Sicily, about the size of Vermont, is located just four miles from the toe of Italy’s boot and has a unique history.  The island has been ruled over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans, and its architecture and food reflect all of those influences.  Where else can you see ancient Greek temple ruins, Arab mosques-turned-Norman-churches and eat both cannoli and couscous?

We spent our first few days in the capital city of Palermo, in Sicily’s northwestern region. We really enjoy Rick Steves’ city walks, which help orient us to each place and point out various sights along the way.

Palermo is a delightful mix of old and new architecture, palm trees and evergreens, long-standing street markets and modern billboards.

Sicily is a somewhat new tourist destination, especially for Americans.  While there, we ran across plenty of Italian, French and German tourists, even some Brits, but very few Americans.  Part of the reason is that Sicily in general, but Palermo specifically, wasn’t a very safe place to visit for a long time.  Up until about 30 years ago, the mafia ruled.  The two men featured in the photo below, anti-mafia judges, were murdered in 1992.  Instead of fuel the power of the mafia, their deaths enraged the locals and began to turn things around.  In fact, the airport in Palermo is named after them. Today, the mafia still exists for sure, but has less of a hold on the population.  For example, we likely interacted with the mafia a handful of times on the trip, in the form of paying a euro or two for using a public toilet or for help parking our car.  We never once felt unsafe, rather we enjoyed participating in the local culture.

Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

I think what I noticed the most about Sicily was its grittiness.  There is just no other word for it.  While mainland Italy’s big cities, such as Rome and Florence, are flashy and modern (at least a bit) and touristy, Sicily’s cities are not.  Sure, there are tourist sites and hordes of cruise-shippers being led like sheep by an umbrella-toting guide, but overall it’s gritty and authentic and unspoiled.

A piazza in La Vucciria market.

There is a square in Palermo, called Piazza Bellini, with three unique churches.  One of them, Church of La Martorana, has the oldest Byzantine-Norman mosaics in Sicily.  I think my favorite thing to see in old churches are the mosaics.  I’ve seen a number of old, European churches with a variety of architecture designs, such as Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine, Baroque…there are too many to list and I can’t say I can even identify all of them correctly.  But, what I love is color and the shiny, glass-y, brilliant-in-the-light flecks of gold found in mosaic ceilings.  My only regret is that I can’t get close enough to get a better look.

Mosaics on the ceiling in the Church of La Martorana in Palermo.

Another church highlight was Monreale Cathedral, located just outside Palermo.  We visited early on a Sunday morning and had the treat–if only for five or so minutes–of having the place all to ourselves.  It’s a Norman ‘church-fortress,’ which you can see from the outside.  However, the inside holds another beautiful mosaic ceiling, this one featuring multiple scenes telling the story of Genesis.

A rare moment of quiet outside Monreale Cathedral on a Sunday morning.

Additionally, the cathedral also has a courtyard cloister with more mosaic-adorned columns that we were able to tour. Every time I see mosaics, I appreciate the amount of time and attention to detail that went into each piece.

The cloister of Monreale.

Street markets are big in Europe for sure, but nowhere more than Sicily.  Palermo alone has three daily markets, two of which are some of Europe’s most famous.  We walked them all, and enjoyed the guided street-food tour we took. We visited Il Capo market, where our guide explained the ins and outs of Sicilian produce, arancine (fried, softball-sized balls of saffron rice enclosing a core of seasoned meat and peas) and the hottest local watering hole. The vendors are known to shout and sing to get your business, and seafood definitely steals the show.

Arancine at the market.
Sardines on ice at Il Capo market.
Taverna Azzurra was a stop on our street-food tour, part of La Vucciria market.

Other Palermo highlights included the Capuchin Catacombs, where we saw the bodies–literally–of monks and wealthy churchgoers who’ve been dead for hundreds of years.  It was interesting to be sure, and I wish I could include a photo, but photography was prohibited.

The Palatine Chapel had more amazing mosaics (below), the ‘Fountain of Shame’ in Piazza Pretoria boasts statues of men sans private parts because the neighboring nuns defaced them, and we got to go inside of Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house.

The Palatine Chapel, part of the Norman Palace.

The Quattro Canti is a large four-way intersection that divides the city into four neighborhoods.  It’s decorated with statues and marks the beginning of the passeggiata, in which locals come out to walk the traffic-free street each evening before dinner.

Two sides of the Quattro Canti (Four Corners).
The nightly ‘passeggiata’ on pedestrian-only streets.

I also enjoyed touring Palazzo Conte Federico, which is the modern-day home of a count and countess.  Our tour was led by their son, and it was neat to see the juxtaposition of a home built along the ruins of a city wall that houses both ancient family heirlooms as well as their mom’s home office and pet cat.

Perhaps our most fondly-remembered experience was what we began referring to as ‘priority baby.’  One evening, after striking out twice at restaurants already full for dinner, we stumbled upon Ferro di Cavallo (The Horseshoe), with a lively scene out front.  Almost too lively, in that we had no idea if we’d successfully gotten on the waiting list and we feared that we’d be waiting way too long with how many people were outside. Just as we were thinking about leaving, one of the servers came out, pointed at me, and said “priority bébé” and ushered us in.  We sat down, relieved we hadn’t been forgotten and surprised to be seated so quickly, and proceeded to use Google translate to decode the entirely Italian menu as quickly as possible!  We both loved our calamari:

Fried squid in Palermo.

Up next, Segesta!

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