Tag Archives: palermo

Palermo constructions

crate walldumpsters
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!field_o_greenssqueezedmonkey seeemptyhobbit

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. monreale cathedral clng 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.sun worshippers

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.scaffold dinner

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When in Sicily…

The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittoria Emanuele, known famously as Quattro Canti, divides historic Palermo into four traditional quarters.  We stayed primarily in this gritty, edgy, and filthy historical center, as it contains the majority of the sights.  It’s perhaps not one’s typical destination vacation but I’m not into manicured, touristy spots – they are never as interesting.  To quote a friend’s remarks, “The city is still a real beauty, but its gems often need seeking out.”

There is lots of evidence of the ancient city’s ties with the Arab world, most visibly in the markets.  We explored the flea market Mercato del Capo, which extends through a tangle of lanes and alleyways, then the bustling street markets of Vucciria and Ballarò with their colourful fresh produce, fish, and household goods.  Weaving through the smells and yells, I ate the sweetest peach I’ve had in all my life, watched fishermen mutilate countless species of fish, and bought local herb concoctions that I secretly pray will make all my future meals delectable.palermo market We befriended vendors who proudly showed their family’s longstanding businesses through newspaper clippings, old photos, and their young sons.  Swaying sausages and carcasses, stray dogs were aplenty, and so were men.  Men everywhere.  In the evening, we’d occasionally get a glimpse from behind beaded screens into apartments’ street-level kitchens and see families seated for dinner.textilesmarket garlicmarket vendor

It’s best not to have expectations, ever.  I wasn’t expecting to see such shabby and poverty-stricken fish familyquiet marketfindingspalermo man_bluepalermo doggieneighbourhoods.  I should have remembered my only previous references to Sicily:  its troubled past linked to the notorious Mafia as well as The Golden Girls’ Sophia’s constant statements “Picture it, Sicily, 1953…..”, as a den of crime and filth, plagued by poverty.  From the walls of scaffolding, it was clear to me that plans for restoring the capital city’s old quarter (perhaps even to its former glory) are underway.  Palermo is artwork-in-progress.