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Palermo is the capitol of Sicily, with about 730.000 inhabitants the biggest town on the island and has its own airport. Palermo is situated on the northwest side of Sicily in a bay, surrounded by two foot-hills. Unfortunately Palermo has a negative image like nearly no other town, everybody who hears Palermo thinks about the mafia immediately, which is existing of course but not visible for the common tourist. But Palermo has a lot to offer to tourists and looks back to a long history.

In Palermo, you can find numerous testimonies which show the different culture’s effect on the town. Characteristic stile signs from the antique, the Arabs and the Normans sum up to a unique mixture which demonstrates Sicily’s history chiselled in stone. This is in complete contrast to poverty, which you unfortunately can see at many places in the town. So Palermo today is the town with the highest unemployment rate in Italy.

Picture left: the harbour of Palermo
Picture right: streets of Palermo
Side road of Via Roma in Palermo
Many buildings in Palermo show considerable signs of decay at their front.
On the other hand, Palermo is rich at beautiful churches.
A typical souvenir shop

Sights in Palermo

In Palermo, it is worth to visit the cathedral, the Palazzo dei Normanni, and especially the Capella Palatina, in which beautiful Byzantine wall mosaics can be admired. Besides, the archaeological museum on the Piazza Olivella is very interesting and people interested in art can get their money’s worth in the Galeria Regionale Siciliana, where works of Sicilian artists are exhibited.

Quatro Canti

The busy crossing of the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele is also called Quatro Canti (translated this means “four corners”). It is the centre of the old town and therefore the ideal starting point for discovering Palermo’s various sights. In each corner of the place you can find a swung baroque facing; the Quatro Canti were set up by the Spanish Guilio Lasso in the year 1608. At this point, the four quarters of Palermo meet: “Capo” in the west with its cathedral, in the north “Vucciria” with its market and the access to the old harbour, La Cala. In the East you can find “Kalsa”, the name descends from the Arabian word “khalisa” which means “clean” but this name does not really seem to fit, the houses in the small lanes look more decayed than they are clean. You shouldn’t take a walk in the lonely side lanes after it has begun to turn dark, though also here in the past few years the situation turned better and a few bars and restaurants have opened in the quarter. The last of the 4 quarters is “Albergheria” in the South, here are the Norman palace, the Piazza Pretoria and the famous church La Martorana.

A quarter of Quatro Canti
A statue which is decorating one of the four buildings
The Quatro Canti are the centre of Palermo’s old town.

Piazza Pretoria in Palermo

In the centre of the Piazza Pretoria there is the Fontana Pretoria (Pretoria well), which made Palermo’s residents start a lot of discussions. It was designed in 1554 by the sculptor Francesco Camilliani, who was coming from Florence, and when the fountain was uncovered it very quickly got the surname “fountain of shame”. The nudity of the figures was a little too much for Palermo’s residents. The fountain consists of many various figures and offers some very beautiful sights. Besides on this place there is also the Chiesa di Santa Catarina, with a really interesting baroque front, as well as the town hall (Palazzo Pretorio).

Row of pictures above and left: About the fountain (Fontana) Pretoria on the Piazza Pretoria there was discussed a lot in former times because of the nude statues.

La Martorona

La Martorona is a very remarkable church in Palermo. By this church built during the middleages, you can recognize easily the mixture of Arabian and Norman as well as Byzantine and Baroque stile, the outside is equipped with four red cupolas from Arabian times. The bell tower from Arabian and Norman time is decorated with some really beautiful Byzantine mosaics. The original name of this church was Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio, it was renamed in the year 1433 by the Spanish king Alfonse of Aragon.

The Norman Palace of Palermo

The Norman Palace in Palermo was already built up in the 9th century AD and then was extended later on by the Normans; inside you can find Palermo’s biggest treasure: the Capella Palatina, a chapel of extraordinary beauty, a testimony of the unique Arabian-Norman style, decorated by Byzantine mosaics. At the first sight, it seems there are pictures, but when taking a second look you find out the plastic representations are put together from little mosaic stones. Just to see this chapel makes is worth to come here. But the palace still has more to offer, in the ground floor old walls from Phoenician and Greek time are exhibited and the royal bedrooms are definitely worth a visit. They can only be visited during a guided tour. Then the bedrooms of the king are shown, a Chinese room and the government hall.

Interior court of the Palazzo dei Normanni
Mosaics on the outside of the Capella Palatina
Capella Palatina inside
The wall’s golden brightness and the dusty twilight are giving the Capella Palatina its special charme.
Right: further pictures of the inside of the Capella Palatina
Mosaics in the Capella Palatina
Walls from Greek time in the cellar vault of the Palazzo dei Normanni
The Interior court of the Palazzo dei Normanni

The Cathedral of Palermo

The Cathedral of Palermo should be visited in any case; the different architectural styles give the building a unique style and a special flair, though experts in architecture maybe look at this building less enthusiastically. The Arabian touch of the decorations give a strange beauty to the building and also the interior of Palermo’s cathedral has a lot to offer: here you can find some royal graves. Left of the main door there are four sarcophaguses. Here are the mortal remains of Roger 2nd, Heinrich 6th, Friedrich 2nd (who originally wanted to get interred in the cathedral of Cefalú and not in Palermo) and his mother Constance de Hauteville. This part can be viewed against the fee of 1 Euro (March 2007), somebody who also wants to admire the crypt and the treasures of the cathedral has to pay 1, 50€ more and can astonish crosses that are set with jewels and bishop’s caps. Besides there are exhibited some holy relicts, e.g. a piece of bone of the upper arm of the Holy Agathe and a tooth of the Holy Agathe. Small stairs lead then from this room to the crypt in which you can admire sarcophaguses from different ages.

The Cathedral of Palermo
Frescos above the portal of the cathedral

The archaeological museum in Palermo (Museo Archeologoco Regionale)

A further highlight in the town is the archaeological museum in Palermo; it is one of the most important museums of its kind in Europe. In this exhibition, there are findings from Hellenistic time, the biggest collection of anchors and findings from archaeological sites from all over the island. The most interesting room is certainly the “Sala di Selinunte”; here findings from Selinunte, which is situated at the south coast, are exhibited.

The international museum of puppets

You find them everywhere in souvenir shops: the small puppets, knights with their metal arming. The tradition goes back into the 18th century and was brought to the island by the Spain. The presentations were very popular especially with the simple people who suffered many reprisals – here they could entertain themselves with stories about knights and dames and forget about their daily life. The international museum of puppets in the Via Buttera exhibits some very nice specimens which are a must for puppet fans. On Friday afternoon there are also held performances.

Safety in Palermo

In advance, one thing should be said: Palermo has become safer in any case, especially because of the redevelopment of the old town and massive presence of the police. Anyway there is still a risk to become a victim of theft and robbery. As a tourist you should follow some rules: no things of value should be worn visible (it is advisable to wear a money belt under your clothes), and you should avoid lonely areas and streets which are lighted badly; in Palermo there is still a lot of poverty, and where there is poverty, crime unfortunately isn’t far away.

Palermo’s history

The history of Palermo goes far back, the first bigger settlement was already built up 800 years BC, the town named Ziz was constructed in the area of a prehistoric town. During that time, Palermo was one of the most important towns for the Phoenicians on Sicily. But the real flowering time should come by far later. Neither under the Romans who where coming after the Phoenicians and who saw Sicily more or less only as a big granary, nor under the Byzantines Palermo showed its true potential. It was the Arabians under which Palermo experienced its first heyday. For them, the port town with its position was ideal as a commercial centre and reloading point, and in the Islamic world Palermo became one of the most beautiful cities of that time. Under the Normans, which took control over Palermo in the year 1072, Palermo could extend its splendour and became one of the most magnificent towns in Europe. King Roger 1st chose Palermo as his place of reign. The Normans managed to link the Byzantine, Arabian and Norman architectural style to a unique Sicilian-Roman style. Magnificent buildings, like the cathedral and the Norman palace with its Capella Palatina, go back to this time. (Still today the palace is the seat of the government of the autonomous region of Sicily). Also under the following reign of the Hohenstauffens’ Friedrich 2nd, Palermo blossomed out and became the navel of that times’ Europe. Only after Friedrich’s death the slow decent of the town began, after the short reign of the court of Anjou, which was stamped by suppression and enormous tax burdens for the Sicilians, which ended up in the Sicilian vesper that once started in Palermo. The legend says the revolt was started because a Sicilian girl was raped on Easter Monday; afterwards the rebels started moving through the streets and lynched every French soldier they could find. The rebellion extended further and the Sicilian nobility formed an alliance with the Spain which after a war lasting for 20 years took control over Sicily and ruled the island for more than 500 years. Under the Spanish reign, Palermo step by step lost its importance, a decay which lasted until the 20th century. During the 2nd world war, Palermo suffered a lot from the allies’ bombing and when after the 2nd world war the reconstruction started, a lot of money went into the mafia’s pocket which had got control over the building trade. So in the outskirts of Palermo extraordinary ugly areas were built up, and in countermove the restoration of the architectural treasures of the town was neglected. Violence and Crime were blooming in the city and Palermo’s bad reputation spread out all over Europe. Palermo still today shows a lot of scars from that time, but the reconstruction has started and the city has become by far safer. Massive police presence and the progressive fight against the mafia show their effects and now Palermo’s future is looking more pleasant.

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