First Days in Palermo

The first few days in Palermo have been a collage of long walks, great meals with fish on the main stage, jaw-dropping mosaics in ancient churches, coffees and treats in piazze throughout the city, and interesting juxtaposition of architecture reflecting the layers of Palermo's history. I came to Palermo with a few friends for spring break, excited to visit the part of the country that my grandfather was from and have loved to get the chance to soak in the atmosphere of his home island.

We arrived on Sunday and, once in the city, didn't waste any time and headed straight for the trattoria Franco Franchi, around the corner from our place, where families sat at long tables having their Sunday meal and a child's birthday party was raging inside. We tried the fried sepie and polpette sarde as starters and toasted our arrival with some house white wine. The food was tasty, and sitting in the hubbub of the Sunday extended meal with kids racing around tables and in and out of the street, and the joyful atmosphere of the day of rest was a fabulous first view of the city. We followed up the meal with a long stroll through our neighborhood to get our bearings. Kids wove through the streets on bicycles, some decked out with sounds systems worthy of larger vehicles, pulling wheelies on their way down the street. Most places were shut down and the city was generally calm, resting from the week.


Such a ham 

Chiesa del Gesu, Palermo

Over the next few days, we wandered, exploring the rest of the city, poking into churches here and there, stopping to sketch a bit each day, and of course, making room for just one more snack when temptation struck. Palermo's churches boast some of the most impressive mosaic work I have ever seen, dating back from the Byzantine times. Looking at the ceilings and walls of the Cappella Palatina and the Duomo di Monreale (slightly outside of the city) gives an idea of how churches in Istanbul looked once upon a time- churches such as Chora (although its mosaics are very well preserved), Hagia Sophia, Fethiye Camii, and Molla Gurani Camii. The mosaics in these churches read like comic strips, depicting the stories in the bible coupled with words, and it is easy to see that these were once educational tools. Portraits of saints line the walls and arches like an ancient photo album, and the iconography is clear.

The churches in Palermo have also been interesting in the way that various styles from different historical periods overlap- from Byzantine to Baroque to Arab-influenced architecture. As you walk on Islamic-patterned tile floors, you can look up to see gruesome scenes on Medieval columns, then shimmering gold mosaics and flatter iconic Byzantine images adjacent to the theatrical Baroque arrangement of more realistically depicted saints on puffy cloud pillows. It is like walking through an art history book or a visual version of flipping through radio stations and hearing varied styles in quick succession- the variety in the architecture a reflection of the intermingling and coexistence of many ethnicities throughout Palermo's history, something which is still evident as you walk down the street today.

The food in Palermo has also been wonderful. A highlight has of course been the seafood, which is extremely fresh and flavorful. From pasta with tender mussels, octopus salad, and crostini with sea urchin (warning: these are not for everyone- especially people who are sensitive about slimy texture in their food), everything has been a real treat for the tastebuds. The sweets have also not disappointed.

At night we've come back to our neighborhood. A lively and diverse part of town rife with the smells of laundry and car exhaust. Teenagers race down the narrow streets on motorbikes and we walk on the cobble stoned street squeezed between parked cars and the passing vehicles, feeling at home, like we are in Istanbul.

Lucky horseshoe

Chiesa della Martorana

San Cataldo

Sketch of San Cataldo

Cappella Palatina, column detail

Cappella Palatina

Cappella Palatina

Ceiling of Cappella Palatina



Afternoon snack

Missing the Istanbul cats

The eggman on our block... coocoocatchoo
Mosaic comic strip at Monreale


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