Four hundred year ago Palermo was a very rich city. From the 1600s to the 1800s enormous palaces and churches were built to the highest standard here. Relics of that era are found everywhere. It sometime seems that there’s a baroque church and a rococo palace or two in every block. Those huge buildings are often used now as hotels, museums, offices and, more often, apartment buildings. Many of the churches have been re-purposed or closed permanently.
This is one a pair of grand portals opening onto a building that’s being restored (apparently). A pizza place is there now but it seems better days are ahead.
The many ancient palaces (called “palazzi” in Italian) seem to be faring better than the churches. Often the main door to the street is a two-story tall confection of carved stone, sometimes with the coat of arms of the family that built it at the top. Inside the door there’s usually a courtyard open to the sky, often made into a garden with tall palm trees and other Mediterranean plants.
Here’s my new friend Emanuele in front of the eastern end of the Palermo cathedral which I had completely missed seeing.
I’ve been fortunate here to have met a very knowledgeable guide, Emanuele DeGaetano. He has introduced me to some most interesting places in Palermo and has shared with me the history of each place. On two occasions we walked for hours, once in the city center and once in the marina district. Emanuele has shown me churches and museums but he’s also shown me giant murals and explained the murders of men who opposed the mafia. He is completely knowledgeable about his city.
The church tower at the end of this block is wrapped in scaffolding while being repaired. It’s one of two towers and the facade of a huge church that is now being restored. Note the narrow street in the historic center of Palermo and all the balconies. This street is typical of the center of Palermo.
Today Palermo is alive with the energy of young people, with the noise and confusion of a city where everybody seems to be in the street. Swarms of tourists from every part of the world add to the chaos. This is the most alive town I’ve ever been in. People sleep in ancient small apartments in the original city center but they live in the street. Sidewalk cafés are everywhere. Late Sunday afternoon I was surprised when I went to one of the main streets, Via Maqueda, and found it totally packed with people, reminding me of a state fair on opening day.
This picture wasn’t taken when the street was packed but it’s the same street, a pedestrian only zone lined with shops and restaurants, all of them locally owned. No McDonald’s or Starbucks here!
I’ve been to all the famous cities of Italy (some of them several times) and to other wonderful Italian cities that are less famous. Considering all of them, I’ve found Palermo to be the most fascinating and enjoyable. It is alive!
Postscript: March 21, 2019: This morning when I left the place where I stayed this week I found hundreds of young people marching up the main street nearby. When I asked a someone what it was about she said it’s an annual event in which students remember those who have been murdered by the mafia. It happens all over Italy on this day each year.The signs being carried also seemed to express a desire to rid Sicily of the mafia.
Emanuele DeGaetano is a professional guide. He has a thorough knowledge of his city and country. He speaks English fluently. If you will be in Palermo I recommend you arrange a tour with him. Reach Emanuele at email@example.com. His website is under construction and is missing the English translation now but still provides many ideas for time in Palermo. Find it at www.palermotour.it
The photo at the top of this post is of one of the very elaborately decorated Baroque churches in Palermo. The dopey little computer I brought on this trip has a terrible monitor. Pictures on it look awful to me. I hope they look better on your screen.
Tomorrow I’m off to Siracusa, an ancient Greek city in Sicily. Stay tuned!