Thursday, 1 September 2011

Palermo-capital of Sicily

Palermo is the capital and chief port of Sicily. The Phoenicians were strongly attracted to the place and it became a permanent colony 8BC until it was conquered by the Romans. The city’s golden age began under Arab domination when it became one of the main Islamic centres in the West.

 In 1072 the city fell to Norman conqueror Count Roger and then to his son Roger II who built a lot of monuments- some of which remain today. It ‘changed hands’ rather a lot over the centuries with opening trade relations with Europe in the 19th century, revolts and the war of independence and integration of Italian states. The bombing Raids of 1943 badly damaged the historical centre and this was followed by a destructive earthquake in 1968.

I found the place disappointing. It is filthy and untidy. There appears to be no civic pride from either the residents or the city council. Everywhere there is rubbish, not just in the gutters, on the streets, in alleys and against buildings but any size of vacant earth looks like a dump site. It’s a very bad look for Sicily. Cacti in large pots on a main street were just left there, dead. You’d be hard pressed to find a flower anywhere. All the buildings have balconies but almost no-one uses them. On occasion you might see a pot plant on one but it won’t have flowers and if it does they are usually plastic. Almost no homes have rain tanks or solar panels. I did see some wind turbines on a hill or the odd solar array but otherwise there was no evidence of any appreciation for the environment from a social perspective. I wouldn’t want to live in such a soulless place.

We were driven over the spot where the Mafia blew up Judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 after he sentenced oodles of Mafia to jail. A car bomb right by the cement works-weird. Yes, the Mafia is alive and well in Sicily. Our tour guide spoke with distaste about it and the efforts various politicians, from Mussolini onwards, have made over the years to get rid of them. The trouble is, the agenda of the mafia and those of many current politicians are in sync. They’re all in it together; it’s hard to see what effective strategies for ridding Sicily of them can be found.

Palermo has an attractive cathedral, macabre catacombs, fresh produce markets, the garden of the Villa of Garibaldi and lots of churches. The Garden of Garibaldi contains specimens of giant Ficus trees. There really are impressive in size and no doubt very old.

We naturally were lead to the Cathedral of Palermo. This is worth a look. It was begun in 1184 on the site of a previous Muslim building. The four bell towers were built in the 14C. Here the Norman and Swabian kings were crowned and buried in the Imperial Tombs. The interior has a neo-classical style.

The Norman palace is one of the greatest monuments in Palermo. There have been monuments on this spot since the ninth century. It contains the Palatine Chapel which was built by Roger II and consecrated in 1143.

Pretoria Fountain is located in the piazza Pretoria square. It was sculpted by the 16C Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani and features Ceres, animals, pagan divinities and allegorical figures.

The Cappuchin Catacombs were very unexpected and unusual. Probably macabre and sad are more accurate terms. The monastery, built in 1621, has a large crypt where eight thousand partially mummified or embalmed corpses of clerics and members of the rich bourgeoisie lie or are propped up There are separate sections for the clerics and women and children. The mummification is not like that of the ancient pharaohs and is not understood. Most of the corpses are just skeletons with disintegrating clothes, occasionally papery skin and, rarely, strands of hair.

This macarbre custom was banned in 1881 yet we saw the embalmed body of a two year old girl who died in 1920 in an alcove in her coffin. She looked as though she was simply asleep. The doctor who injected her with chemicals died without revealing his recipe.

We wandered around the fresh markets. Dirty and smelly, they seemed to be manned by guys who looked like they had no reason to get out of bed or move far each day. I found some of the produce quite intriguing, such as the Barbary Figs which are actually the fruit of a large cactus. I have no idea what some of the other fruits were but I did recognise the name Corleone; a town which specialises in Durham-style wheat for pasta and other munchables.

 It’s now synonymous with The Godfather movies and Al Pacino. Hope there aren’t any ground-up body parts in the spaghetti. I didn’t find the markets exceptional, there are better ones in France.

Other spots to visit include the church San Giovani degli Eremiti which has Norman and Arab influences; La Martorana with its artwork of Christ Pantocrator; The Quattro Canti where Palermo’s two main thoroughfare’s intersect and carts pulled by ponies congregate.


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