SICILY 2007 - Weeks 1~2
views of Sicily were masked by heavy rain clouds over the mountains
above Palermo docks as our ferry from mainland Italy approached (Photo
1). After a 1,150 miles journey from Calais, it was a chill greeting,
not at all the glorious Spring sunshine expected.
Boarding the ferry at Civitavecchia was chaotically bewildering: we had booked with SNAV, on a ferry operated by rivals Grandi Navi Veloci, and owned by a 3rd company Grimaldi - all very Italian. But at 8-00 pm the huge ferry slipped her moorings and moved out into the Mediterranean for the overnight crossing. The following morning, pouring rain obscured the rocky headland of Monte Pellegrino as we approached Palermo. Despite being early morning, the traffic was intense as we found our way the 12 miles out of the city to the village of Sferracavallo and Camping degli Ulivi, set amid aged olive trees (hence its name) and prickly pear cactus. We had arrived, having survived Palermo's traffic unscathed, and the rain eased. The warden was welcoming and provided tickets for the buses into the city: number 628 from Sferracavallo to the Stadium and then a 101 into the city centre. And be sure to validate tickets on the bus; merciless ticket inspectors can impose €50 fines. The bus journey revealed the very worst of Palermo's traffic problems: narrow streets congested beyond belief and buses allowed the wrong way down one-way streets; total anarchy but somehow Sicilian driving culture has adjusted.
We spent this first day, bemused by rain and unfamiliar surroundings, getting our bearings in Palermo. Starting from the grandiose Teatro in Piazza Politeama Garibaldi (Photo 2), we walked the length of Palermo's trendy shopping streets, Via Ruggero Settimo and Maqueda, where on each side dark and mysterious seedy alleys led to who knows where. We reached the city's central crossroads of Quattro Canti (literally 'Four Quarters'), not the grand piazza imagined but a narrow space enclosed by towering Baroque monumental frontages. Just beyond, we found Piazza Pretoria, its fountains exuberantly decorated with white marble statues. Weaving between parked cars blocking every pavement, we made our way back to Via Roma to catch our bus back to Sferracavallo. Palermo was a total culture shock: no amount of reading could prepare you for overcrowded narrow streets and anarchic traffic, its ornately decaying Baroque palazzos and churches, and rubbish piled everywhere among the ubiquitously parked cars. You certainly could not call Palermo elegant, but its unique character had a fascination al of its own. And for all the over-hyped forebodings about petty crime and personal safety, sensible precautions as always made the city seem less threatening than many places nowadays in UK.
On the Sunday morning, we again caught the buses into Palermo, to visit what is without doubt the city's artistic gem, the Palazzo Reale dei Normanni. Originally built by the Saracens over Phoenician foundations, the fortified palace was enlarged by the Norman King Roger II in the 12th century to become a lavish medieval court, and now houses the Sicilian Regional Parliament. The palace's arcaded courtyard led to the royal chapel, the Capella Palatina, awe-inspiringly decorated with Byzantine mosaics and richly carved Saracen woodwork; except that it was now totally swathed in coverings for renovation and we could see nothing of its artistic treasures. Nearby, across a park filled with exotic palm trees, was Palermo's Cathedral (Photo 3), an even more impressive inheritance of the 11/12th century Norman period of occupation. The beautiful triple apse and towers and the Norman-Sicilian ornamentation along the southern façade gave the cathedral a distinct Moorish appearance. Of all Palermo's places of interest, none is more intriguing than the Convento dei Cappuccini Catacombs. Again no amount of reading can prepare you for the gruesome spectacle of seeing rows of semi-decomposed and contorted skeletal corpses stood in niches along the Catacombs underground chambers. Some 8,000 deceased, preserved by dehydration processes and dressed in clothes chosen for internment, stare down at visitors. Stunned by this macabre experience, we returned to the city for our buses back out to Sferracavallo.
A visit to Palermo's Archaeological Museum is a must, with its magnificent collection of Prehistoric, Carthaginean, Greek and Roman finds from sites in Western Sicily. The highlight of the exhibits were the carved frieze-panels (metopes) which had decorated the temples of the 5th century BC Greek colony at Selinunte on the south coast. After such a feast of historical aesthetics, we spent a happy afternoon ambling around the markets of the Vucciria and Albergheria districts, a warren of seedy back streets and alleyways filled with stalls selling all manner of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables (Photo 4).
Long shall we remember our time in Palermo and the treasure trove of new experiences it gave us; but we now had the problem of extricating ourselves from the city. Driving in Sicily is certainly not for the faint-hearted, where the horn is used more regularly than indicators. Despite the stressful driving, we fought our way out of the conurbation and up to Monreale high in the mountains overlooking Palermo, to visit the 12th century cathedral. Begun in 1174, Monreale Duomo embodies the ultimate artistic creativity of Byzantine, Saracen and Sicilian-Norman craftsmanship. Every internal surface is gilded and decorated with mosaics portraying Biblical scenes. Necks crane upwards in admiration, but the eye is drawn inevitably to the huge mosaic figure of Christ Pantocrator lining the central apse, an awesome depiction full of compassion with arms outstretched in blessing (Photo 5).
Ahead of us lay an uncertain journey across bleakly mountainous country, to wild-camp at the archaeological site of ancient Segesta. The following morning, the sun breasted the hill of the ancient acropolis to give a beautiful warm spring morning for our visit to the magnificent temple. Segesta had been founded by the Elymi, according to legend descended from Trojan émigrés. By the 5th century BC, Segesta was Hellenised but constant conflict with neighbouring Greek colonies caused an appeal to Athens in 415 BC for help. It was said that the temple of Segesta was built to impress the Athenian delegates of Segesta's wealth; the ruse worked and Athens launched the ill-fated Great Expedition against Syracuse. Afterwards, the temple was left uncompleted, as we now see it, standing alone amid a profusion of wild marigolds, borage and wild fennel on this remote green hillside (Photo 6). It is still one of the most intact of all ancient temples, and one of the most spectacular particularly in this isolated setting. On the hillside opposite are the excavated remains of the ancient city with its small theatre looking out across the mountains.
We moved on to the mountainous coast at the north-western corner of the island to wild-camp at the Zingaro Natural Reserve. Conservationists had saved this spectacular terrain from road development; mountainous slopes dropping down to the craggy coast-line are covered with dwarf fan-palms which grow in profusion among the maquis scrubland. The 6 km walk undulates over headlands high above the rocky shoreline with mighty limestone mountains towering overhead. Tiny coves with gleaming white shingle and azure-blue sea are lined with Opuntia cactus (Photo 7). At this time of the year, the sun is bright without being overpowering and the plant-life at its best. We spent a similar day walking around the western coastline of this peninsula with the craggy pinnacles of Monte Cofano overshadowing us. And our day culminated with a magnificent sunset trailing golden light across the western sea, lighting up our wild-camp at Cala Bugato (Photo 8).
first week in Sicily has brought a wealth of contrasting new
experiences, and we now move on to explore the towns and sites along the
western and south-western sea-board of the island. Join us again for
more news next week. Sheila and Paul
Published: Wednesday 21 March 2007
Sheila and Paul Published: Wednesday 21 March 2007