about palermo

Information on the area Palermo (the west)

Palermo is both magnificent and grungy. Beautifully maintained Baroque, Norman and Arab monuments and palm-shaded parks stand only a few blocks away from ancient and decaying slums where the water sources are communal, skinny cats chase skinnier chickens and lines of faded laundry hang overhead.

As you'd expect, the city's sights are diverse and often quirky. The main monuments are clustered around the Quattro Canti, the intersection of four important roads, and are a medley of 12-17C churches and public buildings. Our favourites are the Baroque-gone-mad church of Santa Caterina for its over-the-top interior decorations, and the little chapel of La Martorana for its lovely colours and the fact that there is almost always a wedding party on its steps. Every pasticceria (pastry shop) window in Sicily displays a selection of fruits and vegetables made from coloured almond paste. These are known as frutta di Martorana and it’s hard to tell who actually eats them as they are exceptionally bland-tasting.

Convento dei Cappuccini

The oddest sight in Palermo, by far, are the 8000+ mummies hanging in the catacombs of the Convento dei Cappuccini. They date from a period in the 19C in which it was fashionable to have one's mummified body put on display for friends and family to visit.

Palermo Markets

Palermo has three main markets: Piazza Ballarò, on the Via Porta Carini and at La Vucciria, east of Via Roma. Any one of them provides a wonderful window on Sicilian life. Go to Piazza Ballarò to see an interesting warren of crumbling, lively streets; to La Vucciria for a market lunch.

Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento

Winding the roads may be, but the driving is pleasant in western Sicily, somewhat less congested than the east; a good motorway connects Palermo to Castelvetrano in the south. The Greeks established their first colonies on Sicily's eastern coast in 735BC. These evolved into independent city-states and sprouted subcolonies in the western part of the island, which was already inhabited by Carthaginians. Wars erupted between the two groups and continued until in 241BC, when Rome evicted the lot of them.

Ruins of the Greek cities are sprinkled throughout Sicily, but the western sites, notably Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento, are both more extensive and more dramatic as they stand in splendid isolation, free of urban encroachment.

Monreale Cathedral

In 1061, two Norman brothers, Roger and William de Hauteville, began their assault on Sicily, taking 30 years to wrest control of the island from the previous occupiers, the Arabs. Roger's son, Roger II, had himself crowned king and ruled well and wisely, if eclectically: he Europeanized the island's administration, habitually spoke Greek, kept a harem and introduced Christianity. The great cathedral at Monreale, built half a century after his death, reflects the same fusion of cultures: the layout is Norman, the shimmering gold mosaics - including a 20m/65-foot Christ above the apse - are Byzantine, the columns in the cloisters are Arab.

Lo Capo San Vito

The long, beach-fringed curve of the Gulf of Castellamare leads from Palermo to the base of Lo Capo San Vito a gorgeous promontory with a nature reserve at the south end, the Zingaro, and a perfect beach at the north, next to a formation that looks quite like a smaller Rock of Gibraltar. At the north-western tip of Sicily is Trapani, not a beauty spot but worth visiting for three reasons: the salt pans with their windmills, the cable car ride up to Erice and the ferries to the Egadi Islands.

I'd never heard of Trapani salt until after I'd discovered, entirely by accident, the salt pan area to the south of the city. It's a lovely, open expanse of water and windmills, where the salt is piled into pyramid shapes to dry, and covered with roof tiles. While you're there, visit the excavated 8C Phoenician settlement of Mozia on the island of San Pantaleo.

Erice

You can drive up to Erice but you might have more fun, and will certainly have better views, on the Funierice cable car that climbs the 750m/2,500 feet from a base station on Via Caserta. According to legend, it was here that Daedalus landed thanks to his wax wings; his son, Icarus, whose wings melted, didn't make it. In Daedalus' days, the site was occupied by a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Erycina, a structure so vast that ships at sea used it as a landmark. Today, it's a thoroughly medieval town with cobbled streets and arches. You could be in Tuscany. 

The first of the three Egadi islands is easily close enough to the mainland for a day trip - about 30 minutes by hydrofoil. One goes there to hike and swim. The commercial tuna-fishing season occurs in May and June The vineyards of Marsala occupy a great swath of western Sicily – a good place to stock up for your holiday.