Rich in layers of civilizations past, Palermo experiences exciting cultural renewal
Sicily’s centuries-long legacy of some of history’s most remarkable periods is reflected fittingly in Palermo, the Mediterranean island’s capital city. Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Arab, Norman, Spanish, Bourbon — the list of rulers and conquerors is a long one. Each new wave left its mark on the strategic port city with fine climate, from art to architecture, from language to cuisine, an intriguing mélange of styles, identities, and customs that make Palermo an especially rewarding place to explore.
Palermo emerged from each successive period of history profoundly influenced while adapting to new perspectives. The city is full of striking juxtapositions. Baroque palazzi may be around the corner from mundane apartment buildings still bearing the scars of World War II bombings. Perhaps just as fascinating is Palermo’s latest renewal. Emboldened by young people who refused to grow up as past generations did, accepting as inevitable the sway of local Mafia dons, the city in its few decades has seen stores and cafes rebel against paying ‘’protection money.” Sicily’s millennials grow citrus, jar fruit marmalade, and vegetable paté and produce wine and even pasta on fields and orchards confiscated by judicial order from convicted crime bosses.
Feeding off this energy is a cultural revival that has seen art galleries opening in once rundown neighborhoods, family-run trattorias adding vegan and other hip dishes to their menus, young professionals with children in strollers frequenting lively new cafes along a spruced-up waterfront while joggers do laps and sailboats skim the surface of the glistening Mediterranean Sea.
Encouraged by a maverick anti-Mafia mayor, Palermo since the 1980s has been busily reinventing itself as a modern European Mediterranean metropolis. That ambition has paid off, with Palermo being named Italy’s 2018 culture capital. For a city steeped in ancient civilizations, Palermo proudly was chosen to host a biennial of contemporary art. And UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, declared the Arab-Norman churches, palazzi, and monuments of the city, along with those of the picturesque coastal town of Cefalu, and Palermo’s ‘’suburb,” protected patrimony of humanity.
The designation pays tribute to the borrowing and appreciation of cultures and religions, during those two artistic and historical periods, a sort of integration whose success is still admired centuries later.
Modern Palermo is dense with churches, museums, cloisters, and other extraordinary artistic sites. But in Sicily, the pace is slow, and there is so much culture to absorb, so why rush? Consider discovering Palermo in all its vibrant colors and stimulating flavors over a few days.
In Palermo’s heart, and within a few blocks of each other, lie several of the city’s star attractions.
Among them is the 12th-century honey-hued, fortified cathedral, a handsome, imposing example of the Sicilian-Norman style, easy to admire from the pleasant, palm-studded square before it. Down the main boulevard is Palazzo dei Normanni, or Palace of the Normans, once the royal residence of ruler Ruggero II. Its interior decorated with exquisite mosaics, the palace is a magnificent structure built for the Norman dynasty by Muslim artisans, with its splendidly and extraordinarily, adorned Palatina Chapel, notable for its frescoed wooden ceiling. Sicily’s Parliament, the legislature of the autonomous region, now makes its home in the palace.
A charming stop a pleasant stroll away is San Giovanni Degli Eremiti, a former hermitage, then mosque which eventually was converted into a Benedictine convent. The five domes covering the church is further evidence of Arab influence on Christian buildings in the city. The church’s cloister and flourishing garden offer a delightful break from Palermo’s noisy, traffic-clogged boulevards.
A very current example of Palermo’s works-in-progress to give makeovers to its storied heritage is the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum. The museum recounts the island’s Phoenician, Greek and Roman past. Only partly made over so far, the museum has already become a hit attraction for Palermitani, as the city’s residents are called. Heart of the museum is a soaring, airy exhibition space in one of its courtyards known as Agora’ and decorated with archaeological ruins, including 5th-century-B.C. stone lions’ heads. Many of the artifacts on display were excavated from the ancient temple complex in Selinunte.
Like many vibrant cities, Palermo lives much of its life in its streets. While supermarkets are a reliable convenience at odd hours — they usually don’t close for lunch as many grocery shops do in Italy, especially in the south — many Palermitani regularly shop in street markets, often making them part of morning rituals. Catch of the day? The freshest fruit? Many fling open balcony doors or lean out kitchen windows to catch the drift — the city’s market vendors are famed for their colorful cries, trying to convince you to favor their stalls instead of their rivals.
Palermo has a handful of traditional markets. Vucciria often tops tourists’ lists. Its name is a corruption from the French Boucherie, drawing on the markets centuries-old beginnings as a place to buy meat and live animals, Nearby runs Via dei Maccheronai, which means Pasta Makers Street, its name reflecting a tradition where fresh-made pasta was stretched out to dry. Fish stalls and produce stands sprang up, all making for a whirl of color and movement that inspired work by Renato Guttuso, a 20th-century neorealist Italian painter.
But if you want to shop and stroll where the locals do, then Ballaro’ market is your destination. Palermo’s households pick up their mussels, fresh sardines, produce, cheeses, meats, chicken, spices and items of everyday life like plastic washing basins and mops from Ballaro’s multi-ethnic vendors.
Here Palermo’s people outnumber the tourists, and they may come in handy to help translate what the merchants are hawking at the top of their lungs. Produce sellers arrange their cabbages, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, melons and whatever else the season brings as if they were works of art in a gallery, and in a sense they are. Even the tiniest shop in a run-of-the-mill neighborhood wouldn’t just plop the blood oranges, round, violet eggplants or pale green long squashes in crates to be stacked one atop the other. Instead, they are lovingly arranged to catch the shopper’s eye.
Some of the produce comes in varieties not commonly seen in the States, like purple cauliflower and radicchio resembling peeled-back blossoms. Should you be renting an apartment during your Sicily stay, perhaps cook some of these exotic looking veggies up with pasta or risotto.
But strolling through the market you’ll also have your pick of street food, as an appetizer for that lunch ahead or a lunch-to-munch as you absorb the riot of colors and drink in the aromas.
In Palermo, street food is cherished culinary traditions. The offerings aren’t for the faint-stomached.
Fried food and concoctions based innards like intestines are tasty staples, and they usually aren’t dainty-sized. A local favorite is a sandwich stuffed with boiled spleen and lungs that are then thinly sliced and fried in lard. If that doesn’t sound filling enough, one can request the panino ‘’maritata’’ — dialect for married — and the meat will be coupled with shaved cheese, such a Sicilian caciocavallo. Boiled octopus is also popular street fair, especially at Palermo’s seaside suburb of Mondello. Less exotic but no less tasty possibilities for Palermo street food include cazzilli, a kind of potato croquette, and the seemingly omnipresent panelle, fried ceci, or chick peas, wrapped in sesame-seed bread.
But with a whole crop of new Palermo restaurants opening, it seems, weekly as part of the city’s renaissance, it might be wise to save room for dinner