Dwight Peck's personal website

Sicily in December 2012

On the track of the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Italians and Commissario Montalbano

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Just off the boat in Palermo

The Behemoth. We're bringing Fritz, our Volkswagen mascot, so the 20-hour ferry trip is the way to go. That's La Superba, pride of the Grandi Navi Veloci line, and we're virtually first in line on the docks of Genoa. (First on, of course, means last off.)

'Glamorous' is the word. Maybe we'll meet some movie stars, etc.

The room appears to be satisfactory.

Most of the passengers are still down on the car decks grappling with the luggage, but the piano-bar d.j. is already tuning up.

Genoa by night -- the monster trucks are still loading. We're leaving port at 11 p.m., facing very high seas which, on a boat this size, we'll scarcely notice.

Checking out the swimming pool the next day, contemplating dozing off on lounge chairs in tiny bathing suits to soak up the sun; a thought to keep for a future journey.


Invigorating winds on the high seas

The ferry docked after dark the following day -- not very convenient -- and there was nothing easy about driving round and round Palermo, where most city streets are only one car's width, with only the idiotic Google Maps directions to help out misleadingly.

But we're here now, at the excellent B+B Porta di Castro, in the Via Porta di Castro a block from the Norman Palace and two blocks from the Duomo. Inexpensive, and brilliantly renovated a few years ago.

Ahem. Every room has a theme.

And we didn't get the nautical theme.

We're only in Palermo for five days, so we're off at a run to see ALL the sights. The city started off as a Phoenician trading post 3,000 years ago and grew in stature under overlords supplied by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, nearly everybody, including two centuries of Arabs and their effulgent culture, but when in the 1060s Roger of the Norman Hauteville family of mercenaries invaded with encouragement from his big brother Robert Guiscard, as Count Roger I he set the stage for Palermo to become the capital of the multicultural 'Kingdom in the Sun' and probably the most culturally advanced city in 12th century Europe.

We're in the Albergheria quarter of the old town and the city's liveliest street market, the Ballarò. When Sicily's Norman dynasty was superseded after 1189 by Hohenstaufen Germans, Angevin French, Aragonese Spanish, English, and eventually Italian rule, Palermo's downward trajectory was more or less continuous, and in the 20th century Allied bombers finished the job. US wartime reliance on the Mafia, some say, for help in administering the city after the allied invasion of 1943 helped to establish the mob's dominance in the post-war era, which pretty much turned the place into a once-elegant dump. Thanks to the Mafia's malevolent supervision, it's still a once-elegant dump, but in recent years, we're told, public revulsion against the Mafia and a campaign of civic restoration are creating a new future.

The Chiesa del Gesù (also called Casa Professa) in the Albergheria quarter -- the first of more than 2,400 churches we're visiting over the 2½ weeks.

Oooff. Mightily overdone (count on the Jesuits), but very pretty.

First built in the 16th century, scarcely a moment can have gone by since then without major improvements of one sort or another.

As public art it's impressive, but in terms of holiness, sanctity, and what not, perhaps it inclines towards the lowest common denominator.

Eat the rich! "Pigs off campus!"

Worthy sentiments in the neighborhood

Street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. No Japanese.

The old superseding the new.

The Albergheria district was resplendent in Norman times, but since the World War II bombings it's been down on its luck. Between national neglect and Mafia corruption, postwar reconstruction seems largely to have been a farce, and the district is now inhabited increasingly by the immigrant population. (When the restaurants were closed on our first night, we had a fabulous kebab near the train station -- Via Abramo Lincoln.)

Mutatis mutandis, it's still very beautiful in its own way.

Heartfelt sentiments

The numbers man is in the neighborhood.


The Norman Castle was closed when it should have been open, so we've hopped a bus ride up to the Monreale Cathedral, and we've just got time for lunch before it reopens. 8 December 2012.

The Cattedrale di Monreale, in the cooler Palermo suburbs up the hill a ways, was completed in 1184, commissioned by William II "the Good" to compete with the contemporaneous Duomo in Palermo and the other prodigious Norman churches in the region.

The Arab-Norman Monreale Cathedral, a half-hour's bus ride south of Palermo

Jesus, in the central apse, is giving the sign of blessing in the Byzantine manner. This representation is still in the civilized tradition of the Triumphant Christ, not the western European tradition of the miserable guy getting dragged through the streets, kicked all round, and hanged up like a felon.

The porphyry sarcophagus of William I, "the Bad" ('history is written by the winners'), who died in 1166 . . .

and another of his son, William II, "the Good", founder of the cathedral in 1174, who died in 1189. (Significant inner body parts of Saint Louis the French king are stored in an urn on the other side of the choir.)

But Monreale, said to be the greatest Norman edifice in the world, is all about these incredible mosaics.

The mosaics, done by local and Venetian artists, are in the Byzantine style and feature a vast collection of visions from the Old Testament alone.

St Peter in one of the two side-apses. Bring binoculars next time you visit.

Here's the famous cloister, from a walk along the cathedral roof.

Multiple gazillions of thin columns all the way round it, each with a different capital on it.

We're sneaking round to the other end of the cathedral. To get the bird's eye view.

And up a little tower at the far end.

Greater Palermo, seen from the cathedral of Monreale

Bagheria just over the way to the east, and Monte Catalfano looming over it

Down we go.

And back along the roof

And then round the back. Kristin was here some years back and is trying to cross-reference old visual memories.

Arabesque decorations all over the outside of the apses. It's starting to rain, and the bus back to Palermo is late, worse luck.

Next day, 9 December 2012, we've set out from our B+B to see the Palermo Cathedral (there it is, awaiting us. Or rather, not; it had just closed for the day).

The famous portico of the Duomo, in the rain.

The Archbishop's Palace, not too shabby. Looks a lot like an Oxford college.

Ready for the next sacred parade through the streets. And a parade float behind her.
(That's the Diocesan museum in the background, not bad but not a priority.)

Sicilian tourist sites closed when they were meant to be open ("government austerity") was a minor inconvenience throughout our visit, but we'll use the time well by admiring the ancient air-conditioners hanging off all the walls.

The Ballarò market festooned for Christmas

'For sale -- apartment, partially restored'.

Apartment for sale, mostly gone.

Street scenes

Rain, Rain, Rain, Rain, No Kidding!!

Street art

The church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in the old Kalsa quarter closer to the port -- a forlorn edifice begun early in the 16th century but incorporated into the city walls not long afterward, in response to the Ottoman threats at the middle of the century, and later pressed into service as a lazaretto or hospital for lepers.

The nave; we immediately note the lack of a roof on it.

It's raining in the apse. The Spasimo del Virgine, or Fainting Spell of the Virgin, was a popular Marian-cult fantasy of the 13th to 15th century, discouraged by the 16th century because the story conflicted with received opinion about the Virgin's activities in the canonical Gospels.

Umbrellas up! The church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo must have looked like a munitions dump or German HQ from the air, because Allied bombers blew it to smithereens in 1943.

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang

Now the church is used occasionally for cultural events in good weather (it's not like Palermo is suffering from a great lack of functioning churches anyway).

The port of Palermo in the rain, and the Monte Pellegrino overlooking it.

Patriotic reminders of time's passage

Religious reminders, too

And we're back to the hotel in time for the second half of a Gary Cooper movie.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 17 January 2013.