Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Churches of Palermo and Monreale

dscf6348As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a religious person but I do find it hard to pass a church without popping inside. I’m drawn by the amazing architecture and interior decoration that I usually find within, as well as the opportunity for a moment of peace in what is sometimes a busy town or city.

Most people who visit Palermo will find themselves at the Cathedral. The exterior is a beautiful mish-mash of styles; Norman arches, Gothic turrets and Baroque capitals. However, the interior is a disappointment. The Royal Tombs are screened off and inaccessible without paying a fee and the chapels are rather plain.


dscf6200Luckily, there are plenty of other churches in the city and, although they may not be as grand in scale, they are actually a lot more interesting and beautiful. The first church I find near to La Cala, in an area that was mostly destroyed by WWII bombing. Santa Maria della Pieta has a very theatrical feel – red curtains, and gold wooden boxes topped with organ pipes.





I only have 5 minutes to see the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi as the guardian is about to lock up but he patiently waits while I wander and examine the exquisitely carved marble apse and a marble tomb by Domenico Gagini that seems so lifelike that I half expect the occupant to wake up and wander off.


dscf6381Probably one of the most visited churches in Palermo is also one of the smallest. The 12th century San Cataldo was built by Maione di Bari using Arab labour, hence the Arabic influenced décor in the windows and the domes on the roof. There is also a lovely mosaic floor and it is a very peaceful place. Bizarrely, during the 18th century it was deconsecrated and used as a post office.


dscf6383Next door is the 12th century La Martorana, so called because Eloisa della Martorana, who founded the nearby convent, used to decorate the church with marzipan fruits which are still a local Palermo treat. The ceilings are covered with a mixture of golden mosaics and Baroque frescos but somehow the two complement each other and it is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever visited, and I’ve seen quite a lot.






dscf6365I want to visit the church of San Nicolo which is advertised as having a 13th century watchtower offering some of the best views of the city. Even though I am not far from the Cathedral, I find myself in the Albergheria, the oldest and now the poorest area of Palermo. The streets are full of graffiti, dripping laundry, abandoned broken toys and immigrant youths. Changing direction, I duck into the 17th century Il Gesu, also known as Casa Professa. Founded by the Jesuits, it took more than 100 years to complete and was later badly damaged in WWII. However, the church was lovingly restored to its former Baroque splendour and even featured in the 1963 film Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), based on the book by Tomasi di Lampedusa.


dscf6371dscf6448San Salvatore church, on the main thoroughfare of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is an unusual shape, almost completely circular. The original church was founded in 1071 by Robert Guiscard as a convent for Basilian nuns. In 1682 the nuns decided that they needed a new structure and the present elliptical design was proposed by architect Paolo Amato. Like many other buildings in Palermo, the church suffered severe damage during WWII causing the collapse of the dome but it was restored and found a new use as a concert hall.


dscf6432I decide against visiting the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo Normani due to the extortionate entrance fee but, just around the corner, I stumble upon the church of San Giorgio di Kemonia which is frustratingly closed. However, for €2 I can climb the tower for a proposed view of the city. I’m given a hard hat to wear before I set off and, at first as I climb the interior stairs, I wonder why, but when I reach the spiral metal staircase which is loosely fixed within the tower, all becomes clear, as does the vista. The tower is not that high but it does offer a great view across to the Palazzo Normanni, the Cathedral and Monte Pellegrino in the distance. I can also see down to the red domed roof of the 12th century church of San Gregorio degli Ermiti and the charming little cloister in the garden.


8kms from Palermo, in the foothills to the south, is the town of Monreale (Royal Mountain). The cathedral and adjoining monastery were endowed by King William II in 1174 and he employed some of the best craftsmen to build and decorate them.


dscf6155Having already seen the marvellous mosaics of the churches in Ravenna, I have a good idea of what to expect from the Duomo of Monreale. However, what I really find distinctive about the mosaics in this cathedral is their ability to tell a story. The bible has literally been lifted from the page onto the walls and ceilings. It’s easy to appreciate God creating the earth, then Adam and Eve, Cain killing his brother Abel, Abraham about to sacrifice his son and Noah leading the animals onto and then off of the ark. The New Testament is also featured and Christ stands proudly in the central Apse, arms outstretched in a welcoming posture.


dscf6128In a side chapel I find the tombs of William I and William II, and beyond are the cloisters, accessed through and external doorway off the piazza. More than 200 columns with intricately carved capitals surround the open courtyard. Again, they tell biblical stories, illustrate battles and depict other historical events, such as William II giving the church to the Virgin Mary. Some feature tradesmen, others depict animals, both real and mythical, and a few are rather sexual in nature. I’ve seen several beautiful cloisters in my travels but this is one of the best and I spent almost an hour in the tranquil space examining the capitals, amazed at the artistic skill of the men who produced them more than 800 years ago.



Palermo – 2500 Years of History

dscf6406Arriving in Palermo after 24 hours of continuous rain does have its advantages as I don’t have to play dog shit hopscotch as many other visitors have done in the past. Although incredibly busy, the streets are remarkably clean. With a population of 700,000, not including the many illegal immigrants living here, it’s hard to imagine what the city would have been like 2500 years ago when it was a small Phoenician colony.

dscf6205I start my tour of historical Palermo at the 16th century Porta Felice, the main gate next to the quaint, old harbour of La Cala. Although the area was badly damaged by WWII bombing, some ancient buildings survived, including the fortress-like, 14th century Palazzo Chiaramonte, which housed the inquisition between 1685 and 1782. The walls still feature graffiti of the former prisoners and it is a popular tourist attraction managed by students of the university which is now located in the building. It overlooks the jungle-like Giardino Garibaldi where some very old and very large fig trees still reside.

dscf6262Down a side alley, I locate the 18th century Palazzo Mirto which boasts original décor and furnishings. A visit is like stepping back in time, with carriages stored in the stables, collections of china and artwork, black & white family photos and even a secret passage hidden behind a Greek marble statue. The Filangeri family lived here until 1982 when the house was donated to the Region of Sicily.


dscf6256dscf6314My favourite places to visit are often the ones not mentioned in the guide books and it is only thanks to the lovely lady in the Tourist Office that I dare to enter the Municipo (Town Hall). With half a dozen intimidating police officers stood in the doorway it’s easy to assume that there is no public access but I am welcomed inside and directed up a large marble staircase to the council chambers where I’m allowed to roam around at will. Some of the rooms are quite sumptuous, filled with statues and busts of famous Palermitani and a collection of golden guns presented to Palermo by Napoleon.


dscf6329-2dscf6309Outside in Piazza Pretoria is the beautiful 16th century Florentine fountain, so called because it was originally designed for a villa in Florence. Its alternative name is the ‘Fountain of Shame’ due to the presence of naked female figures fondling their breasts. The lower part of the fountain is surrounded with all manner of beasts spouting water.










Beyond the 12th century Cathedral, next to the impressive 14th century Porta Nuova, is the massive Palazzo dei Normanni. Built by the Saracens in the 9th century, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. The Normans enlarged it and the Spanish expanded it further resulting in hundreds of rooms, many of which are used by the Sicilian Parliament. Sadly, the Royal Apartments are closed when I try to visit and the main exhibition happens to be ‘Treasures of the Sicilian Seas’ which I have already seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.


dscf6529Instead, I move on to the Salinas Archaeological Museum, named for its most important Director of Antiquities. It is currently being refurbished and only the ground floor is open to visitors. However, because of this it is free. I mainly want to see the metopes from Selinunte and fortunately they are on display in one of the ground floor rooms. I’m interested to discover that many of the founding pieces of the museum once belonged to the English Consul Robert Fagan who funded many archaeological digs on Sicily and amassed a large collection of artefacts. When he committed suicide in 1816, due to concerns over huge debts, the Sicilian government took possession of his collection before his widow could sell them off.


dscf6490dscf6536The narrow backstreet between the Museum and the Massimo is lined with puppet theatres and I’m lucky to find someone cleaning the puppets in preparation for a weekend show. Palermo has a long history of puppet theatre. Pupi, the large Sicilian rod puppets, date from the 1600s and traditional stories enacted often tell of the adventures of Charlemagne. However, other famous Italians are also featured, such as Garibaldi and King Vittorio Emanuele.


dscf6544The 19th century Massimo Theatre is the largest opera house in Italy with an impressive neoclassical design. The façade was influenced by the temples of Agrigento and Selinunte and the entrance is guarded by two lions. Inside are five rows of boxes and an opulent gallery with a beautiful ceiling fresco, but I don’t see them as, although it’s possible to have a guided tour inside the theatre, at €8 per person for 30 mins I decide to save my money for other things.


dscf6551Just down the road is another theatre, the 19th century Politeama Garibaldi. It’s not as beautiful as the Massimo but the bronze chariot and horses above the entrance reminds me of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. However, instead of pigeons, the pedestrianised square in front of the theatre is populated by skateboarders and homeless men.



Odysseus and George Clooney

odysseusMy path has crossed that of the mythical Odysseus several times already on this trip. The Nekromanteion in Greece is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, as is Nestor’s Palace in the Peloponnese where Telemachus sought help from the king while searching for his father Odysseus. In Sicily, the port of Aci Trezza is supposedly the site where Odysseus escaped from the cyclops Polyphemus and the picturesque islands in the harbour are said to be the rocks that the blinded cyclops threw after him.

dscf5961Now, I find myself having lunch in the Bay of Guidaloca, believed to be the place where Naisicaa found the shipwrecked Odysseus and helped him to set off on the final part of his return journey to Ithaca.

dscf5956Not far away is the Tonnara di Scopello, an old tuna fishery set in an idyllic cove, guarded by ancient watchtowers built upon rocky columns. Since it closed down in the 1980s it has become a tourist attraction and was also used for the filming of ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones.

dscf5964In Castellamare del Golfo, the largest of the local fishing ports along the coastline, I learn more about the tuna fishing industry in the Museum, which is housed in the Norman castle overlooking the harbour. I’m amazed at the size of the tuna fish shown in the black and white photos and wonder if any of the tuna are allowed to get that big these days due to overfishing.



Erice is Melting

dscf5857Like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, Erice is melting. After several days of storms, during which the hilltop town was blanketed in snow and cut off, the sun has come out and is turning the streets into slushy streams. It’s not the most romantic of conditions under which to view the ancient city of Eryx, supposedly the site where Daedalus landed after fleeing from Minos. In season, a trip to Erice usually starts with a ride on a cable car offering exciting views back down to Trapani, the coastal salt pans and the Egadi Islands. This time of year it involves a drive up a steep road to get the same views but it is definitely worth it.


dscf5905dscf5834I’m disappointed that the museum, the castle (built on the temple of Aphrodite Erycina) and all of the churches are closed but I guess that they weren’t expecting anyone to be visiting given the extreme weather. I have the streets to myself most of the time but I do chat to a lovely local man, out walking his dog, who had no idea that he’d been cut off from civilisation. Hopefully the few residents that do live in the town year-round had a good supply of food in their cupboards as there are no supermarkets in Erice. As a last resort I’m sure they could raid the souvenir shops which stock an extraordinary selection of local products at equally extraordinary prices.

wp_20170119_11_36_42_proOpposite the post office is a small café where they could also dine on arancini and marsala. When I enter my nostrils are assailed with the scent of mulled wine and, though it is tempting, it is still only 10am so a hot coffee seems more appropriate. Having warmed up I continue my wander around the town, taking care not to slip on the icy north-facing steps but enjoying the magnificent views down towards Trapani and also to the east where my next destination lies. San Vito di Capo is a beach resort, though somehow I don’t think I’ll be doing any sunbathing.



Being Threatened, Followed and Propositioned in Western Sicily

I’ve been having a wonderful time in Sicily despite the recent inclement weather. The sites are interesting and the people are very friendly, especially in the smaller towns and villages. There have also been plenty of Italian motorhomers around to make me feel safe. However, the far west of Sicily is proving to be a bit more malevolent, or maybe I’ve just been unlucky.

dscf5712I pull into the large port parking of Mazara del Vallo where two Italian motorhomes are already established and I set myself up facing into the strong wind. While I’m organising myself outside the motorhome, two young Italian men approach, one flashes an ID card and claims to be the guardian of the car park. I had read about these parking scams and so reply that I think it is municipal parking. ‘Si’, he responds and then tells me it is free but he is security. I feign ignorance and say that I don’t understand. ‘I’m English. Tourist.’ In the end they just walk off, never having even asked for any money. I know the weather will be awful so I can’t imagine anyone attempting anything and the encounter is so relaxed and casual, I’m not worried.

dscf5716The next day, I explore Mazara del Vallo, once an Arabic capital for the region. The narrow backstreets certainly give it a North African feel. I stumble across the Civic Museum in the old Jesuit College where I find displays of shipwreck treasure and piles of barnacle-encrusted amphorae. Next to it are the remains of the Chiesa Madre, open to the elements and continuing to collapse. Luckily, the cathedral is in a better condition with a richly decorated Baroque interior and ornately carved tombs.


dscf5736dscf5706I move on to Marsala, determined to try some of the famous local product which shares the name of the town. The reason marsala wine exists is thanks to an Englishman. John Woodhouse visited the town in 1770 and, already having some knowledge of port, recognised the commercial opportunities in exporting this local fortified wine. The coast road is lined with large warehouses, some empty but some still operational. I find another English connection in the Chiesa Madre which is dedicated to the patron saint of Marsala, Thomas a Becket. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced into French exile in 1164 he was welcomed into the court of King William II of Sicily and, after his murder in 1170, King William II refused to marry the daughter of English King Henry II in protest. Only 7 years later and after the canonisation of Saint Thomas a Becket did the marriage finally take place.

dscf5748Like the rest of Italy, everything closes for a long lunch so I don’t venture out until 5pm and it is already getting dark. I’m on a marsala mission and, just beyond the Garibaldi Gate, I find Enoteca La Sirena Ubriaca. The bartender, Sonja, explains the different marsala products with the help of a chart painted on the wall behind the bar.

dscf5749She then offers me samples of the dry and the sweet versions of the wine. I much prefer the 7 year old sweet marsala and order a glass to sip while I chat to two charming young pilots who are also in town to taste the wine. Sonja treats us to a steady stream of spreads and pastes artistically applied to small pieces of bread and very useful in soaking up the alcohol. I’m quite taken with the spicy onion marmalade but find the almond and pistachio pastes too sweet and sickly, very similar to Nutella.

dscf5702The €30 bottle of marsala is out of my budget so, after saying goodbye to Sonja, I stop by another wine shop along the street where I locate a cheaper but equally nice wine. It’s at this point that I notice a man, who I had already seen outside the first enoteca, is now taking a keen interest in me. As I pass, he says something and then begins to follow me down the street, at a reasonable distance. I wonder if I am letting my imagination run away with me but I stop at the busy intersection by the Garibaldi Gate to confirm my suspicions. He is clearly stalking me and I have no idea why. Feeling like I’m in some Hollywood spy movie, I change direction a few times and dodge down some small side streets, eventually losing him but not the uncomfortable feeling that the incident has created.

dscf5829Moving on to Trapani, I spend the first day hiding out in MacDonald’s and the motorhome as the weather is appalling. Heavy rain and hail showers occur with little warning due to the strong winds which are carrying them across the Mediterranean. Luckily the next day is better and even the sun makes an appearance, so I get the chance to explore this gritty port town.

dscf5780The streets are lined with crumbling palaces and churches giving Trapani old town an air of decay. As I walk by the gardens of Villa Margherita, I notice a good-looking, young man is following me. I stop and feign interest in a shop window filled with local football kit which forces him to make his move. All I catch is the word ‘bellissima’, which means beautiful, but when I reply that I don’t speak Italian, he scarpers. I guess I should feel flattered but actually the whole encounter seemed a bit seedy.

dscf5812Luckily, there are a few shining lights in the old town to take my mind off it, such as the 17th century Town Hall with twin clocks, and the Jesuit College Church, a feast of Baroque marble and stucco, where the staff make me feel like one of their flock and send me on my way with a little prayer card and some hope.


dscf5815My walk along the breezy but deserted Lungomare (seafront promenade) is uneventful and my faith in Sicily’s friendliness is further restored when I pass through the fishing quarter and find a local fisherman mending his nets. I watch him for a while, then ask if I can take a photo, and he’s happy for me to do so. In my poor Italian, I ask about the black and white photos on the shelf behind him. His father and his brothers were also fishermen but he admits that the younger generation are not interested in the hard life of fishing. It seems to me that they are too busy scamming or propositioning the tourists!



Gibellina – A Town Buried in Concrete

dscf5615The road to the old town of Ruderi di Gibellina is so cracked and deformed that it is hard to imagine that the earthquake which flattened it occurred nearly 50 years ago. Up to 400 people died, a thousand were injured and 100,000 left homeless when the 5.5 tremor hit south west Sicily on the 15th of January 1968. The surviving inhabitants suffered even more until the new town was completed 12 years later nearly 20 kms away. Much delay was caused due to corruption and Mafia threats regarding building contracts.

dscf5624It’s a sunny day and I stop briefly at the cemetery of Ruderi di Gibellina, the only structure to have survived. A simple memorial remembers those who died on that dreadful day. The road winds down to the site of the former town, now almost completely covered in a layer of concrete, looking like a misplaced glacier. In fact, Alberto Burri’s modern art installation is named ‘IL Cretto’ (The Crevice) and the cuts in the concrete represent the positions of the roads that ran through the town. It’s almost as if the artist has sought to bury the pain of the past. However, a few derelict and crumbling buildings remain to serve as a reminder of what happened here 50 years ago.


dscf5644The following day, on the anniversary of the earthquake, I visit the new Gibellina. It is Sunday morning and the streets are empty, so I can drive around and check out the modern art which is dotted around the place. It’s clear that they applied lessons learned from the earthquake when they designed the new town. Houses and flats are only one or two storeys and the streets are very wide, but it is devoid of any real character and feels like a 1970s council estate. I wondered if there would be a memorial service at the church but perhaps it is too early as it is all locked up.










I move on to Salemi, high on a hill and not quite as badly affected by the earthquake, though the ruins of the Chiesa Madre are a reminder of that time. The sacred art from all the affected churches was collected up, restored and is now displayed in the Museum of the Jesuit College where there is also, bizarrely, a replica of ‘Mary’s House’ of Loreto. As well as the sacred art, the museum has a small archaeological section, a rather disturbing Mafia exhibition and some memorabilia related to Garibaldi. On the 11th of May 1860 he landed at Marsala with a thousand Red Shirts and managed to defeat 15,000 Bourbon soldiers at Calatafimi. Neighbouring Salemi became the first capital of the Unified Italy and proudly flew the Tricolore flag, if only one day.





Selinunte and the Abandoned Quarry

dscf5497I’m amazed at how many Greek temples and Roman cities Sicily has. I’ve already visited Taormina with its glorious Greek Theatre and Agrigento with its Valley of the Temples. Now I find myself lost in the huge site of Selinunte having attempted a short cut that turns out to be not that short.

The Acropolis of Selinunte was built on a raised site, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded in the 7th century BC and was once a very powerful city on the southern coast of Sicily. Sadly it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 BC and what remained was later toppled by the earthquakes which are quite commonplace on the island.

dscf5517I eventually get back on track and cross the Modione River to reach the furthest section of the site, the Sanctuary of Malophoros. Not the most impressive area with only a small, partially restored Temple of Hera Matronale (the goddess of fertility), whose image is surprisingly similar to the Virgin and Child of the Christian world, but I love being able to roam among the stones and touch the altar, which looks like it is stained with blood from the sacrifices made there.











I had started my visit with the impressive Temple E (They have a very unimaginative way of labelling the temples), dedicated to Hera and looking almost complete after extensive restoration in the 1960s. Neighbouring temples F and G are still just piles of column drums and oblong stone blocks but it is fun to scramble around and see just how huge the carved columns were.


dscf5459dscf5481I get a much better appreciation of the scale and beauty of the temples when I visit the small museum. Inside I find several cork models created by Paolo Lipari who had a passion for this type of work. When he died, his family donated them to the state and now we can all enjoy them. The museum guardian is keen to give me a guided tour in Italian and I’m surprised by how much I understand.


My not-so-short shortcut takes me high above the Acropolis to the ancient Agora. It looks like it was excavated in the past but now nature is reclaiming it and preserving what hasn’t already been removed for future generations.



dscf5597Much of the Acropolis is also covered by soil and vegetation, including the wild celery from which Selinunte gets its name. However, walking down the long, cobbled street it is easy to imagine the shops which lined it, evidenced by the carved stone containers just outside the door lintels.


The Acropolis temples (A, B, C, D and O) are mostly ruined, the huge columns felled like pine trees in a forest. I find another piece with a distinctive U-shaped carving and wonder again about the engineering involved in producing such immense places of worship.


dscf5609The next day I drive 15 kms west to the quarry of Cava Di Cusa where much of the material for the temples originated. I’m surprised to find the museum guardian there and he greets me like an old friend and insists on giving me another guided tour. Here I can clearly see the process in forming the giant column pieces as some are still in place, having been abandoned before completion. Others lie scattered amongst the olive groves, perhaps left because they were imperfect or unusable.

dscf5603I manage to lose my eager companion when I suggest a longer stroll along the 2 km length of the quarry. Finally, alone with the rock, I can imagine the stonemasons carving away to create a circular crevice around the emerging column. I come across the smooth curved sides of stone, all that remains once the column piece was removed, and piles of smaller stone fragments, presumably discarded from the rock removed.