Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A walk in a park and then arrivederci Palermo

We always like to have a good walk on days that we fly. Not too far from our hotel were the English Gardens which surround a public historical villa in the centre of Palermo. It is a quiet and peaceful place for a leisurely walk or to just sit in the shade and relax. The park is well cared for and boasts a romantic atmosphere with its wide walkways, benches and exotic flowering trees and bushes.

Designed in 1851 by Giovani Battista Filippo Basile, the Giardino Inglese also features an artificial lake with a statue of Rutelli, a botanical garden of considerable interest, statues, busts and monuments in memory of famous people - such as the one dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi.

After enjoying the gardens we once again window-shopped our way along via della Liberta. The fashionable clothes were stunning, but for us it was a trip to the airport. One good thing about Italian airports is that the food is usually good and it was. We bought a bag of pistachio marzipan brutta ma bionni (cookies) that helped to sustain us as our flight was an hour and a half late in leaving Palermo. Other than the delays it was a very good trip.

Renovations curtail museum visit but opera is superb

On Sunday morning we headed off to the Archeological Museum. It was a really pleasant walk even though once again it was hot and humid.  Nothing is better than walking down old streets in Italy and finding other very narrow streets filled with the colours of laundry hanging out to dry or finding a beautiful square tucked away.

We were pleasantly surprised to find admission was free but this was because most of the museum was closed for a major renovation that has been going on since 2010. Situated in a Renaissance monastery surrounding a gracious courtyard, the museum houses some of Sicily's most valuable Greek and Roman artefacts. Sadly, we wouldn't get to see them today. The entrance opened through some small cloisters centred around a lovely hexagonal fountain bearing a statue of Triton.

We did admire a Phoenician sarcophagus from the 5th century BC and pottery from various inhabitants throughout the ages. In fact we were lucky to catch a glimpse of the largest collection of ancient anchors in the world.

It was time for some refreshment and we stopped at a little place on one of the narrow streets. The servers were very friendly but in the way of hucksters the world over with the greeting, "Where do you come from?" This always engages you in conversation. Later we wandered around and went back to this restaurant for lunch since they had veal on the menu, something you hardly ever find in Spain.

I chose a veal stew that was as tough as old boots when it arrived. Needless to say I sent it back. I didn't appreciate the accompanying lecture about how to cook veal. I know very well how to cook it. Then some regulars came and were offered the “menu of the day”, which we hadn't been given. Watching the "greeters" I noticed if a foreigner came along the menu of the day was taken out of the menu folder. Finally I got veal scallopini that was edible. Before we left I asked one of the greeters why visitors didn't get the menu of the day. He responded that Italians have different food tastes. Bollocks. This restaurant had a good rating from trip-advisor, which we find you can never really trust.

In the late afternoon we went to Palermo's grand neoclassical opera house, the Teatro Massimo that took over 20 years to complete and has become one of the city's iconic landmarks. The closing scene of The Godfather: Part III, with its visually stunning contrasts of high culture, crime, drama and death, was filmed here.

We had come to see Lucia do Lammermoor written by Donizetti in 1835. At a time when there was a European interest in the history and culture of Scotland. Sir Walter Scott made use of these stereotypes in his novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which inspired several musical works, including Lucia.

The story concerns the emotionally fragile Lucy Ashton (Lucia) who is caught in a feud between her own family and that of the Ravenswoods. The setting is the Lammermuir Hills of Scotland (Lammermoor) in the 17th century. The staging was a bit dark and dour but suited the opera. We enjoyed our evening at the opera sitting in our box, and the smoked salmon sandwich at the interval. Even though things didn't end well for Lucia and her lover it was a good day for us after all.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dead but not buried in Catacombe Dei Cappuccini

One of the most bizarre things I have ever seen is the Catacombe Dei Cappuccini or Catacombs of the Capuchins. What could be better than spending time with mummified cadavers under the Capuchin Monastery?

We made our way down to the catacombs' dank corridors among the mummified bodies. Many of the bodies were standing up in various poses. Some faces are contorted as if posing for Edvard Munch's, "The Scream." Although many corpses are still remarkably preserved, time and gravity have been cruel to others. Some are downright creepy, with body parts such as jaws or hands missing.

Some 350 years ago, it was discovered that the catacombs contained a mysterious preservative that helped mummify the dead. As a result many Sicilians — 8,000 of them — demanded to be buried here. The oldest corpses date back to the sixteenth century. The last corpse to be buried here is that of a two-year-old who died in 1920. She has been dubbed "Sleeping Beauty" by the locals.

There were areas for children and even an area for virgins. Much of the clothing was still intact. Other areas had the corpses lying in repose. One funny sight was a woman turned in such a way that she looked as if she was talking to her husband.

Our busy day ended in a local restaurant in our neighbourhood full of locals. What better way to end the day with Sicilian pizza with a kamut crust and a bottle of red?

Tides of history reflected in cathedral architecture

Our next stop was the old Palermo Cathedral. Palermo's cathedral has suffered aesthetically from multiple reworkings over the centuries, but remains a prime example of Sicily's unique Arab-Norman architectural style. The interior, while impressive in scale, is essentially a marble shell whose most interesting features are the royal Norman tombs.

Construction began in 1184 at the behest of Palermo's archbishop, Walter of the Mill, an Englishman who was tutor to William II. Walter held great power and had unlimited funds at his disposal. The cathedral  was erected on the location of a 9th-century mosque; a detail from the mosque's original decor is visible at the southern porch, where a column is inscribed with a passage from the Koran. Since then the cathedral has been much altered, sometimes with great success as in the 15th-century three-arched portico that took 200 years to complete and became a masterpiece of Catalan Gothic architecture, and sometimes with less fortunate results as in the  dome, added between 1781 and 1801.

Throughout the cathedral there were lots of tile decorations reminiscent of what you might see in a mosque along with the contrasting gold leaf of the altar area. It was fun for us to watch the arrival of a wedding party.

Next we walked over to the Palantine Chapel. This priceless chapel, designed by Roger II in 1130, is Palermo's top tourist attraction. On the mid-level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, it glitters with stunning gold mosaics, inlaid marble floors and wooden ceiling, a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving that reflects Norman Sicily's cultural complexity.

The chapel's well-lit interior is simply extraordinary. Every inch is inlaid with precious stones, giving the space a lustrous quality. Swarming with figures in glittering, dreamy gold, the exquisite, highly sophisticated mosaics were mainly the work of Byzantine Greek artisans brought to Palermo by Roger II in 1140. The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, though other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades.

The painted wooden ceiling featuring muqarnas, a decorative device resembling stalactites that is unique in a Christian church. The walls are decorated with handsome marble inlay that displays  Islamic art, and the carved marble in the floor is stunning. Marble was as precious as any gemstone in the 12th century, so the floor's value at the time of its construction is almost immeasurable.

Building of the Royal Palace was begun by the Arabs. With the arrival of the Normans in 1072 reconstruction and extensions were built. In the 16th century the Spanish made further additions. Today the building is used as the Sicilian Parliament. The Hercules Hall is where the members of the Regional Assembly of Sicily gather. It takes its name from the series of paintings dedicated to Hercules. The Sicilian parliament was the first Italian parliament and is one of the oldest in Europe.

Some of the rooms in the palace we didn't see as they were used as offices for departments such as anti mafia. Other rooms were beautifully decorated with wooden ceilings, hunting scenes and lavish frescoes.

Capo market sprawls across whole neighbourhood

Our morning started out with a visit to the stunning Capo Market. It was a large, rambling affair where vendors sell produce, meat, and fish. Butcher shops display the skinned heads of recently slaughtered animals in the manner of North African and Middle Eastern bazaars; fish are stiff with rigor; produce is ripe and local.

My favourite was the huge heads, complete with swords, of the swordfish standing upright. All the Mediterranean fish, sea bream and dorado looked like they had just been pulled out of the water. The fruit and vegetables were beautifully displayed with loads of artichokes selling for ten cents apiece, zucchini flowers, long, winding pale zucchinis, eggplants and every kind of lettuce imaginable. Oranges, including lots of blood oranges and strawberries were sold at every stall. What a magnificent place.

This was the spot to sample some of the street food. We saw men with wicker baskets draped with fabric to keep their contents warm-ish and relatively fly-free. People walked up to the basket man and order frittola, a sandwich made with the meat bits (cartilage, fat and tendons, too) he plucked from his container and stuffs into a roll. If you are watching your carbs, you can get the chunks in a paper cone. Another favourite street food is sliced sesame seed rolls filled with slices of spleen cooked in lard. Needless to say we gave these particular foods a miss.

There were lots of other street foods including fish and vegetables cooked in batter and Arancini, which are stuffed rice balls, coated with breadcrumbs, which are fried. They are usually filled with rag├╣, a meat and tomato sauce, mozzarella, and peas. There are a number of regional variants that differ in fillings and shape. One little take-away cafe had every kind of stuffing imaginable.The name derives from their shape and color, which is reminiscent of an orange. They are said to have originated during the tenth century Arab rule. Delicious.

In Italian literature, Inspector Montalbano, the main character of Andrea Camilleri's detective novels, is a well-known lover of arancini, which has helped to popularize them all over the world.

By the time we had finished wandering through the food market and giving the tacky clothing market a quick look we were in need of some refreshment. Since it was hot and very humid we stopped for a granita, which was originally a Sicilian drink made of sugar, shaved ice and in our case blood orange juice, one of my favourite things. Perfetto.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Dirt, noise, crumbling buildings all part of Palermo's charm

Arriving at Palermo airport we were just in time to catch the airport bus into town. Our hotel was in a residential neighbourhood within walking distance of the Old Town. It didn't take us long to unpack and be on our way.

We enjoyed the walk along Via della Liberata, window shopping at all the high-end Italian stores like Gucci and Prada with all their elegant clothes. Eventually, we ended up outside Teatro Politeama, a lovely round-shaped building where the symphony plays. Crossing the road in Palermo takes all of your attention. You don't walk out at crosswalks but wait for a lull in the traffic. Sicilians don't really see a need to stop for pedestrians. We bravely negotiated two streets to end up in a gelateria and patisserie where we had a well deserved espresso and cannoli. While we were enjoying this we watched two girls have a brioche gelato — that’s right, ice cream in a brioche bun. It looked lovely.

Fortified, we continued on our walk along the pedestrian streets passing the Teatro Massimo. The street eventually became a little seedy as we ended up in Piazza Pretoria, Palermo's most famous square. Its beautiful fountain — originally intended for a Tuscan villa — was bedecked with nude statues and mythological monsters. It was called Fontana Della Vergogna or " fountain of shame" by outraged churchgoers. I loved the expressions on some of the statues. The piazza is flanked by two churches and the Palazzo Pretorio, the city hall ,complete with a plaque commemorating Garibaldi's 1860 triumph ending the Bourbon reign in Sicily.

We were discovering just how chaotic Palermo's streets were. The buildings are magnificently disheveled with a mix of architectural styles that point to the wave upon wave of invaders who have claimed the city as their own, as does the look of the locals. There is no one style or people in this urban melting pot.

We headed south to Palermo's most famous market, La Vuccira. The Muslims were active traders and the markets still have an Arabic feel.This area is viewed as a dangerous place at night, especially along its little alleyways. In Sicilian dialect, vucciria means "hubbub" or "voices" and that is exactly what we heard. We stuck to the main roads as we visited the old market. It is known for its street food and there were barbecues cooking meats and fish as we wandered by. Although the market is busier during the day the night market still had some action.

We wended our way down to the port bordering La Kalsa district, which is beginning to be revitalized. Much of this area was bombed by the Allies and not much was done with it until recently. In fact we saw several buildings with just the facade standing. After a walk along the promenade we had dinner in a little alleyway, which was the outdoor eating area of the restaurant located in part of a decayed old foundry. We enjoyed several Sicilian appetizers followed by grilled swordfish, which for some reason we never get in Spain.

After dinner it was quite a walk back to our hotel but enjoyable in the warmth of the Sicilian evening.

March is blustery but Spring is near

March in the Port was pretty tiresome with endless winds and some rain. We did manage to have a few really good walks but then there were the others where we were sandblasted as we walked by the beach.

The rain once again leaked through the ceiling in our guest bedroom. While we were in Gran Canaria the ceiling had been repaired and painted. We were told that this wetness was caused by condensation, but know it is much simpler than that:  It rains -- and then it leaks! By not repairing the leaking terrace the problem continues. We don't really care anymore as we have given our notice and will be leaving the Port. It's not just because of a leaky ceiling. The weather here from January until April can be quite harsh. In August the village and the beaches are incredibly busy, too busy. It is very noisy in the summer with the disco that doesn't start until 11:30 pm and finishes at 6 am. Either the disco is louder or the trees that have been cut down for a firebreak used to absorb some of the disco noise. Then there are our next door neighbours with all their dogs. In fact the old couple appeared last week with their two dogs that bark incessantly. They seem oblivious to it. We are not. Every time we move in the kitchen or go by a window these dogs bark. They were here for two days and already I was shouting at the dogs to be quiet. We will be gone before the summer moves in to full swing.

Easter brought loads of people, mainly from Barcelona, to the village. Suddenly at night there were lots more lights from homes in the village. Parking became worse than in any other year. The sandlot was full and so was the parking lot behind the Valvi supermarket. Just about all the restaurants opened up making the place much more lively. On Easter Saturday the sun came out and it was 27 degrees Celsius encouraging some very brave people to venture into the water. They didn't really swim as the water temperature was 13 degrees.

There were still lots of people here the week after Easter but for us it was time to travel again. This time are were headed for Palermo, a spot we missed on a previous trip to Sicily.