Palermo is one of those cities with a very distinct, almost tangible atmosphere, a place of mystery where the way of life doesn’t seem to fully belong to the 21st century. It’s a city that becomes familiar far faster than others, and with such a weirdly vivid intimacy it's as though you had been here before, and each step and turn is already a memory.
Palermo is continuously evolving, thanks largely to pioneers who believes in its extraordinary potential. Once known as the Capital of the mafia, today Palermo is redeeming itself, standing out with its millenary heritage and flourishing through modern art.
2018 is set to be the year of wonders for this city, crowned Italy’s Capital of Culture, alongside hosting the 12th edition of ‘Manifesta’, the Nomadic European Biennial of Contemporary Art, leaving Palermo brimming with cultural events and art shows. A great example of this cultural buzz in Palermo is “Cogito, un aperitivo per la mente” (an aperitif of the mind) organised by Francesca & Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, it is an evening of dialogue that faces and explores various themes with open talks.
A special edition with Massimo Valsecchi, the art collector who renovated Palazzo Butera, took place on the occasion of Manifesta12. Valsecchi acquired the building in 2012; through a complete renovation, not only the whole structure was brought back to life, but it was transformed into a dynamic space for art and culture to meet art as an unique catalyst in creating the future.
Manifesta’s theme for Palermo is ‘Planetary Garden, cultivating coexistence’ which describes Palermo as “a laboratory for diversity and cross-pollination.”
A walk-through Palermo’s city centre reveals to you just this. There is a lovely simplicity to the old city's layout: two straight, perpendicular roads dividing everything into four quarters.
At the centre of the old city, the intersection of these quarters is called “I Quattro Canti”, a grand, rounded crossing of four concaves each one facing a cardinal point. Its façade is divided in three levels: at ground level there are four fountains, representing the four rivers of Palermo and adorned with statues impersonating the four seasons. Today they are crumbling but their elegance remains.
From Quattro Canti we head towards Palazzo dei Normanni: the palace is a mirror of the many different cultures that make up the city. Partly Punic, partly Phoenician, partly Roman, partly Arab, Palermo is a fascinating cocktail of traditions, a multiethnic mosaic that celebrates the beauty of different cultures. Palazzo dei Normanni was built by the Arabs in the IX century; the palace later became the seat for Sicilian kings and rulers. An assortment of rooms, halls and courtyards lead you to its real treasure, nestled within the palazzo is the Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily. Commissioned by King Ruggero II of Sicily, who was the first one to allow and promote the meeting of different cults, he put together the best artisans of the day to create a jaw dropping building, that still today allows visitors to look into the past.
The chapel illustrates the architectural and artistic genius to juxtapose Sicily's melting pot of cultures and religions, a meeting between Christians, Orthodox and Muslims translated in a composition of shimmering golden mosaics, massive arches and breath-taking decorations.
We leave the Palazzo and continue up to Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past Piazza Vittoria with its splendid collection of palm trees, Palermo Cathedral majestically emerges on our left.
Its front is like an encyclopaedia that embraces 1500 years of history: with Arabic decorations, Norman arches, medieval battlements, gothic porches and cupolas from the baroque, it’s a thrilling composition hard to fully take in at first sight. The interior is not particularly exciting as the exterior, but provides us with with some much needed cool from the hot June Sicilian air.
Off we go again into the heat of the day, Palermo has swiftly become a disorienting city, a place to get lost. Alongside all the city’s grandeur you will find its unruly and rough side. Streets pull you in with smells of roasting coffee and fried goods. Street football games divide to let us pass, as we look up there are housewives lowering baskets from their high apartments down to the fishmongers. Yet suddenly in these narrow streets adorned with motorcycles, silence reigns: we hear nothing but the sound of our steps and the waving of the clothes hanging above us.
As soon as you step foot into the local markets, you will stumble onto another world.
Dating back to the Saracens domination, today the Arabic roots are still very much present, and the atmosphere makes one think of a Middle Eastern souk. Inside, the narrow streets are covered with thick red tents, turning the rays of sun into a bright red light.
The colourful assortments of fruits and vegetables, the vendors barking in vain for bargains, the smell of fresh fish and spices at every corner create a cacophony of sights, sounds and scents that numbs you. The best time to walk into the labyrinthine markets is late morning just before lunch, when the stands and the passage in between them is filled with people looking for the best goods at the most convenient price.
On our way through the Vucciria market, getting lost in the noisy maze in search of some fresh fish, we bumped into Angelo, a lovely fish vendor who installed in the middle of his stand an electric pan to grill his freshly caught goodies directly on spot, leaving us speechless! Probably moved by our astonished faces, Angelo approaches us with some sardines he just cooked and two glasses of house wine in plastic cups, welcoming us in a very warm, Sicilian way. Around us local oldies are playing cards while the noise around us starts to increase as hungry bellies draw palermitane into the market.
Sicily has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst, making it the most precious daughter of the Mediterranean. This sequence of different cultures turned it into an island lying outside time, where past events endure in the present.
The layers of architectural styles, the yelling of different dialects on the street, the fusion of ingredients and smells of the local dishes can mystify visitors. It is an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures.
It is an island that changes, slowly, under the warm gold sun and the breeze, blowing from the sea reaching the mountains to bring stories of past times. Nostalgic and extravagant, Palermo is the harbour on which the tides of successive civilizations have heaped in disorder their treasures.