It is called Città Felice and it looks a ‘Happy City’ indeed, at least in situation and climate, when you approach from seaward (the dramatic way): the twin headlands draw apart to reveal the sweep of domes and towers embraced by protecting hills. West of the bay is Mondello: soft sands, night spots, water-sports, a yacht harbour, Palermo’s playground.
From the Maritime Terminal a broad avenue lined with palazzi runs straight uptown and peters out in chaotic sets of crossroads, among market stalls and fruit shops. Streets are wide enough for a small car if you keep the doors shut. A few cracked thorough-fares come together to form a piazza: Piazza Rivoluzione as old people still call it, the piazza of noble causes.
Here in 1282 the spark of revolt against Sicily’s French overlords was struck. An officer insisted on searching a Palermitan bride for concealed weapons, the wedding party lynched him, bells tolled for evensong and riots broke out. The affair went down in history as the Sicilian Vespers.
Here in 1848, year of revolutions, they launched the rebellion against the Spanish Bourbons. Here, 12 years later, came Garibaldi and his Thousand, crying ‘Rome or Death’. And here in 1944 began the uprising against the Italian government which led briefly to civil war. No wonder they say that when Palermo plucks her mandolin Rome begins to dance.
The spirit and character of Palermo reside in the hucksters, bag ladies, truck drivers and vegetable sellers of the overgrown urban villages.
Churches, palazzi and sub-tropical gardens are the official sights. Among villa gardens the so-called ‘English’ on Via Libertà is a shady refuge on a torrid day. On Corso Calatafimi, southwest towards Monreale, the Palazzo dei Normanni has the island’s best Norman-Saracenic carvings and mosaics in its gorgeous Palatine Chapel. The cathedral is not attractive. The most attractive church is the bullet-domed pink San Giovanni degli Eremiti (1148) with a pretty flowered cloister and the remnants of a mosque. This church is empty and deconsecrated and usually locked up.
You could describe the regional museum, in a former monastery near Piazza Teatro Massimo (the opera theatre) as Sicily’s prime archaeological site. The collections’ quality and the way they are displayed make this a vehicle for a memorable voyage back in time. On Via Vittore Emanuele near the harbour is the amusing marionette museum. This entertainment, as the costumes and actions confirm, has been popular in Sicily for eight centuries. Most towns have marionette theatres and audiences get very involved.
Villa holidays: the Palerma area plus all of Sicily offer many holiday rental properties.
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