Palermo has been designated to be Italy’s Cultural Capital for 2018, coinciding with hosting Manifesta, the world’s biggest biennial festival of contemporary art. Yet, the main city of Sicily – Italy’s widest island set in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea – already was a capital in its glorious past: born as a Phoenician settlement in the VI century BC, it was then conquered by Romans and successively set under Arab rule. The city was chosen as the capital of the Emirate of Sicily and adorned with magnificent mosques, luxuriant gardens, lively markets and enchanting palaces.
When, in 1130, the Normans hailing from France conquered back Palermo, the city became the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and Emperor Frederick II chose it as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire contributing to make it one of the most beautiful places of all Europe. Most of the Muslim architecture was destroyed or converted into new shapes and function. Yet Normans, who admired the Arabs’ taste and skills, were deeply influenced by their style and created the so-called Norman-Arab architecture: a charming mix of classic Latin or Greek architecture, Byzantine mosaics and, secluded gardens and waterworks, domes and arcades. This earned the city’s historic centre – and the beautiful cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, located out of Palermo – the appointment to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015.
Yet, do not imagine one of those places frozen in time to preserve their beauty. Today Palermo is a modern and vibrant city with a brilliant cultural life and a slow-paced atmosphere, not to mention the sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters of the marine suburb of Mondello and the remarkable food heritage, mixing together the many influences of its past: from the Arabic-inspired sweet treats such as the ricotta-filled cassata or the honey and cinnamon scented biscuits to sumptuous recipes created by local chefs for the French noble families such as the pasta timbales or homely recipes using humble ingredients full of flavour, often mixing sweet and sour, such as the pasta chi sarde with fresh sardines, saffron, pine nuts and wild fennel. Just like its cuisine, the city itself hides many different souls and sharp contrasts.
The magnificence of ancient buildings often gives way to dark alleys and crumbling facades; worn-out wooden front gates lead into luxuriant courtyards; elegant avenues full of shops and restaurants stand side by side with traditional outdoor markets such as Ballarò, Vucciria and Capo – progressively loosing their authenticity yet still picturesque – and street vendors keep selling traditional food such as pane e panelle (bread filled with chickpeas fritters) or pane ca meusa (bread filled with offal).
One of the most impressive examples of Norman-Arab architecture is the Holy Virgin Cathedral facing over corso Vittorio Emanuele. A peculiar mix of different styles and ages, it was originally built in 1184 and partially transformed or expanded during the successive centuries, bearing witness to the city’s history and events. Mixing Gothic and Baroque elements, it also hosts Frederick II’s grave and the Treasure with Medieval jewellery and vestments. From the Cathedral’s roofs – which can be visited even at evening – it is possible to enjoy a magnificent view of the city.
Not too far from the Cathedral, the Normans’ Palace (or Royal Palace) stands in the oldest part of the city; originally built as a fortress, it was transformed into a royal castle by King Roger II in 1130 and here lived also his nephew Frederick II. During the Renaissance period it was then transformed into a noble mansion by the Spanish viceroys, which also built the beautiful courtyard. Yet, the most stunning part of the palace – and probably of the entire city – dates back to the Normans: the Palatin Chapel, built by Roger II combining Norman architecture, Arabic arches and muqarnas (ornamented vaulting made of hand-painted facets), decorated wooden ceiling and marvellous, shimmering Byzantine mosaics representing theological scenes on a golden background.
More recent yet not less fascinating, the Massimo Theatre facing on piazza Verdi is another key place for Palermo’s history and was built to highlight the importance of the city at the Belle Epoque period. Inaugurated in 1897, it’s Europe’s third biggest opera house: its wide stage has hosted representations of the most important operas since the Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff staged on the opening night. Closed for renovation in 1974, it was only reopened in 1997 soon reconquering a preeminent role in the city’s cultural life.
Today, the theatre is also open at daytime for guided tours leading to explore the stunning horseshoe-shaped auditorium with five floors of boxes – including the magnificent royal box with its private parlour, hosting cocktails and private events on request – decorated with golden stuccoes and wooden elements, red velvet and glass chandeliers and its notable ceiling: a "wheel" resembling a wide flower with eleven petals (painted canvas), it also is an original cooling system as the “petals” can be opened to let the hot air out. A longer tour also gives access to the impressive backstage and to the upper terrace which, as a reward to climbing on a steep stairway, offers a breath-taking 360-degrees view over the city.
Yet, not all Palermo’s beauty is so self-evident and many unexpected surprises are to be found beyond old portals and courtyards. For example, the amazing majolica collections put together by Pio Mellina and showcased in a huge apartment inside the Piraino Palace called Stanze al Genio (www.stanzealgenio.it); over 2300 majolica hailing from Sicily and Naples and dating back from the XVI century up to the beginning of the XX century are displayed on the walls, surrounded by vintage furniture, renovated majolica floors and mural paintings.
Another gem – open to public only by appointment – is the incredible Blue Chamber of Wonders set in a private apartment in via Porta di Castro 239 owned by journalists Valeria Giarrusso and Giuseppe Cadili: with its blue walls entirely decorated by Arabic motives and calligraphy probably dating back to the XIX century, it allegedly was a secret room used for magic rituals or for meditation and prayer.
So, this is hiEurope’s recommendation to those who want to visit Palermo: don’t miss, of course, the city’s most iconic attractions. Yet don’t forget to allow some time to loose yourself around the alleys of the Kalsa – the city’s waterfront, once hosting the emir’s fortress, where the renovated Palazzo Butera will soon host the remarkable art collection by the Valsecchi family –, enter an old portal to discover a hidden treasure or simply seat under the sun watching people passing by and savouring an intense espresso coffee or a tasty cannolo filled with sweet ricotta.