Palermo is where our trip really took off . I had felt quite subdued and underwhelmed by Sicily so far but over the next few days, that changed!
Enjoyed breakfast on the terrace while trying to avoid scratching our mosquito-bitten bodies. The angry red welts had been building up on our legs and round our waists since Ortygia but seemed to really flare up here. I’m never usually bothered by mosses, my blood is too thin, though Chris gets targeted relentlessly by the blighters. Never heard them either – very strange. I read our bungalow’s ‘guest welcome pack’ about buying something to plug into the wall for overnight but typically, we managed to forget about this on our one foray to the shops. We had been burning a citronella candle in the evenings whilst sitting out, but overnight in bed we were easy meat for them.A small if itchy matter in the grand scheme of things…..
The train into Palermo
Bagheria Station was a 10 min drive away and offered safe, free parking. The town is part of the commuter belt into Palermo with trains every 10 mins , costing only a few Euros return.
We had met nothing but friendly helpful people everywhere in Sicily and the guy on the desk was no different as tickets and times were negotiated. Chris is brilliant at picking up languages very quickly and he was already able to interpret key words and form basic requests which just went over the top of my head. I don’t have a facility with foreign languages at all and forget simple phrases almost as soon as I’ve learned them. I can manage Grazie and Por Favor and Il Conto, café con leche. If it was a Eurovision contest I’d score ‘nil points.’ Once in Greece I got the simple ‘good morning ‘ greeting of ‘Kali Mera’ completely mixed up and for the first few days was gibbering ‘Calamari ‘ to all and sundry. They must have wondered who the poor mad woman was saying ‘squid’ to everyone!
Fifteen minutes later, our train drifted into Palermo Centrale, then a short bus ride took us to Piazza Indipendenza from where we would get the bus to the world famous cathedral of Monreale , another World Heritage Site.
However, the next one out wasn’t until 10.30am.With the cathedral closing at 12noon for lunch and with a journey of around 40 mins, it was a bit tight to enjoy it properly.Better to visit after it re-opened at 2pm. Vey nicely, that left us the morning to do a bit of a whistle-stop tour of Palermo’s grand sights.
Two minutes walk away was the tremendous 12th century Cappella Palatina, the Royal Chapel of the ancient Norman Kings, set within one of Europe’s oldest Royal Palaces, the Palazzo Reale. The chapel has a monumental, overwhelming interior, the like of which I’ve never seen in all of our European travels. 2000kg of gold was used in the Byzantine decoration which is exquisite. The superb wall tiling , the marble floors and an Arab honeycomb – styled wooden ceiling, made it a place where we quickly simply sat down in awe and tried to take in the grandeur of it all.We were almost speechless after that experience.
A Godfather Film Location
As a huge fan of The Godfather films, next up was a must see for me, the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest Opera House, a beautiful neo-classical building in Piazza Verdi. I just wished we’d had time to do the interior tour or, better, enjoy an opera here! This is where the final tragic scenes of Godfather 3 are played out, with Leon Cavallo’s dramatic ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ as backdrop. Here on the grand entrance steps, poor Mary Corleone, Michael’s daughter , is accidentally killed by the assassin’s bullet aimed at her father. It’s a shocking, deeply moving scene, Michael’s grief and pain so deep that his scream is initially silent until finally, it emerges as a primal, animal-like roar.
There was a nice café opposite, where we sipped at a Granita Limone each, a really refreshing drink of fresh lemon and crushed ice. Perfect during the heat of the day.
A 20 min stroll took us down pedestrianised Via Maqueda, an attractive street with smart shops, to the stunning Quattro Canti, a sensational small Piazza with stunning stone carvings on each corner. Built in 1608, it’s a busy intersection of traffic and people, incredibly atmospheric .
Just beyond it lay Piazza Pretoria which I fell in love with immediately. Those fountains! 16 nude marble statues of nymphs, mermaids and gods lined the circular fountain, a photographer’s dream. Elegant and gorgeous, it was a glorious spot lined with beautiful palazzos. It reminded me a little of Rome, to me, Europe’s most beautiful city.
Piazza Bellini, often called Palermo’s loveliest square, was a minute’s walk away and lined with lovely cafes and no less than 3 churches. This included the fantastic looking 12th century Arab – Norman San Cataldo church, with its Mosque – like triple red domes. With date palms on either side, it lent a very North African look to this corner of Palermo, really magical. My God, they knew how to build fine cities in those days of old.
I already knew I wanted to come back to Palermo for a weekend to explore it in far more depth, we just didn’t give it the time it needed. And that feeling only strengthened as we walked back towards Piazza Indipendenza and passed the fabulous 12th century (the age of these buildings!) , Cattedrale, another Arab- Norman masterpiece. We could only admire it from the outside as we raced to catch the 2pm bus. Palermo, we will be back!
The bus was full to the brim, so we stood holding on for dear life as it lurched through the city, halting at every stop. In half an hour, we emerged at a small roundabout at the entrance to the pretty sun – bleached town of Monreale and began the short walk up the main street to the World Heritage cathedral.
Monreale World heritage Site
It was as awe inspiring as Cappella Palatina, very similar inside. But there were differences – the cloisters were beautiful but overall I loved the high level outdoor terrace which allowed a wander around the cathedral’s exterior; followed by tiny steps which led (one person at a time) to the even tinier belltower. The black and white striped granite and the mosaics of the exterior walls could also be admired close from here as could the sweeping views over Palermo and the mountains. What a place!
Hopping onto the 3.30pm bus , we got a seat this time(thankfully) and were soon back in the city centre. We walked back to Palermo Centrale (25 brisk minutes) and then hopped on a train back to Bagheria. What an amazing day out, best yet of the trip!
Picked up the car and then got seriously lost trying to find the supermarket we knew was somewhere in the middle of Aspra. Round and round we went in circles for half an hour until finally, after getting stuck in one way streets and dead ends, found the small unobtrusive entrance to the shop and picked up food for tonight. Aspra didn’t hold any appeal for a meal out and we loved our bungalow overlooking the sea too much. Eating beneath the scented pines was too good to miss.
Another little buffet of cheeses, good bread and cold meats, tomatoes, olives….we never get tired of it! There was a classical music concert going on nearby and some Puccini and other opera classics sung by a couple of very good singers, came floating through the heavy night air. It was just beautiful and a perfect end to the day.
Next day : Mount Etna and my plans go wrong
Previous Days: SICILY IN A WEEK: Syracuse and Ortygia Sicily in a Week: Noto, Modica and Marzamemi SICILY IN A WEEK: Ragusa, the world’s finest Roman mosaics and the Madonie Mountains Sicily in a Week: It’s Highest Village and Cefalu