Monday, January 23, 2012

A Traveler's Guide to Palermo

Tucked into Sicily's northern coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the capital city of Palermo is an enticing jewel in Sicily's crown. The look of this exotic city combines European and Asian flavours, as ornate Arabic and Baroque styles contribute to the impressive architecture.

To get to the genesis of Palermo's history, reach back to the 8th century B.C., when it was settled as a port. In fact, its original name, coined by the Greeks, was "Panormos," which means "all port." Control of Palermo shifted from the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians to the Greeks, then the Arabs to the Normans. The history of many of these controlling civilizations can still be seen in its buildings; sometimes, many coexist on the same structure.

While organized crime is, unfortunately, entrenched in Palermo's history, it has been on a downswing since the turn of the 21st century. After key Mafia leaders and players were either arrested or otherwise deposed, the influence of the organization has experienced a significant change.

Palermo residents unite every year in early July to celebrate the feast of their patron saint, Saint Rosalia, a 12th century hermit credited with easing Palermo's terrible plague of 1624. The faithful process a statue of the saint through the streets while celebrations of food and music consume the area.

The city's Arabic past comes to life in the Vucciria. A market reminiscent of the casbah, it is the busiest market in Palermo. The buzz of the shoppers blends with the scent of spices and fruits in the scorching heat to make a truly unique treasure-hunting experience in the ruins of the Loggia district.

Visitors who love churches and cathedrals are spoiled for choice in Palermo. Palermo Cathedral, officially known as Saint Mary of the Assumption, is a grand marriage of Norman, Byzantine, Arab, Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance architectural styles. Its tombs are the final resting place for Saint Nicodemus, Frederick II of Sicily, and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, among many others. The frescos on the ceiling of Santa Caterina are illusionistic, to go along with the rest of this visually impressive church. The Basilica of the Holy Trinity, commonly called the Magione, has a heavy Norman exterior which is softened by surrounding palm trees.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti was built on the grounds of a mosque in the 12th century. Easily recognizable by its red domes, "Saint John of the Hermits" features a Latin cross plan and a lush garden in its elegant cloister.

The Capuchin Catacombs make for an eerily fascinating diversion. The 8000 mummies inside range from monks to friars to surgeons to sculptors.

Palermo's famous opera house is Teatro Massimo, on the Piazza Verdi. It boasts perfect acoustics and holds the honour of being Italy's largest opera house. If you have seen the movie "The Godfather III," you have seen a bit of its interior as the movie's operatic climax was shot inside.

Even the city's everyday streets, where residents live stacked many stories high in apartments with laundry-draped balconies, are a feast for the senses. The constant hum of vibrant people living their lives under the Sicilian sun is an unforgettable experience for the traveller who enjoys seeing host countries off the beaten path.

Getting to know Palermo at a leisurely pace is easy if you choose to stay in one of the cheap villas nearby. Palermo villas offer the comfort of a hotel with the casual familiarity of a country cottage. When you stay in Palermo like a local, you can fully enjoy the character and history of this ancient and intriguing Sicilian city.

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