Besides the colourfully swarming markets, scenes of the marginal spaces of central Palermo (the old city) were what intrigued me most, as a photographer and architect. The built environment reads as a cabinet of curiosities: the streets’ and alleys’ crumbling façades, people operating out of the smallest of spaces, a hobbit-like man living behind a church, vendors making chicken liver sandwiches in a garage, of all places!
In contrast to the old city’s many impromptu constructions, my friend and I then set out to see a truly magnificent construction, the Cattedrale di Monreale. From Piazza Indipendenza, we took bus 389 up the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking the fertile valley famed for its orange, olive & almond trees, to the town and commune of Monreale. One of the finest examples of Norman architecture, the cathedral, completed in 1184, is a national monument of Italy and definitely the highlight of the town. They say that the sumptuous interior is one of the most impressive creations of the Italian Middle Ages. I believe it! Almost every single surface is covered in shimmering glass mosaics depicting stories of the Old and New Testaments. Although the mosaicists were from Sicily and Venice, a stylized influence of the Byzantines pervades their work. If you have the chance, I highly recommend you seeing the cathedral, for, without overstating, it’s a beacon of medieval brilliance.
Later that night, back in the old city, we stumbled upon the modest Piazza Sant’ Andrea that, on first impression, looked to me like a theatre set. The surrounding buildings were dark, seemingly abandoned, and scaffolding had been propped up in front of 2/3 of them. The only light emanated from a little restaurant that spilled out into the piazza, like a beacon. With candlelight, yellow tablecloths and parasols creating such a lovely setting, you almost forget that you are in the kind of location people warn you about and advise you to avoid like the plague. We observed stray cats that dared to dart under the tables, seeking out generous donors. ‘Budget’ restaurant or not, our meals were undeniably superb and it was here that I made the discovery of caponata, the masterpiece of popular Palermo dishes.
p.s. I later came to find out that the location of that restaurant was the regular haunt of Peter Robb while he researched for the book Midnight in Sicily.