How do the people of Palermo keep their history straight? Over 2,700 years ago, the Phoenicians started a settlement here which traded actively with Carthage. But then the Greeks of Siracusa tried to gain control of all of Sicily, which ended when both parties decided to join forces to defeat the Romans. The Greeks took over briefly, but the Romans, of course, triumphed.
When Rome fell, the Vandals took over, but eventually lost to the Byzantine Empire. Enter the Muslims in 904, who ruled for 120 years, and crushed Christianity on the island. The Christians reconquered Palermo in 1072, creating the wealthy Kingdom of Sicily. But then the Holy Roman Empire ruled, leading to control by the Aragon and Barcelona dynasties. Spain was in charge from 1479 to 1718, with a few interruptions, and then there was Austria, France, Sicilian rule, France again, and then the unification of Italy in 1861.
The city seems to have always been a hotbed of hotbeds. Today it is the struggle against the Mafia that underlies a relatively peaceful atmosphere – if one ignores the motorbikes.
We saw some wonderful parts of the city today, but what will be most remembered is the tour we took of Palazzo Chiaramonte. This 14th century building has recently been restored, but the grace and elegance of its original design remain, along with an amazing wooden ceiling that has survived against all odds.
Those with the misfortune to be imprisoned in the palace left messages that resonate today. Many used brick dust and ash to create amazing works of art and faith on the walls of their cells. Incredibly, many remain.
We also wandered around some interesting alleys, after going to the Massimo Opera House to get Don, the opera buff, a ticket to Cinderella tonight. (Complete seasons provided for the record and for you culture fans.) Here are some shots he took inside:
Last night we decided to hunt down some pizza. Without venturing too far, we stopped in a small place serving pizza “Roma style” — meaning, of course, with a thin crust. The charming owner gave us detailed descriptions of the several different variations he offered. Hard choice. But I went for a simple topping of tomato and basil. Jo tried a version that featured some type of ham. The crust was somewhat thicker than I would have expected. But it was crispy all the way through. Both choices were fine variations on the pizza theme.
We had a very good breakfast this morning at the hotel and that put us a little off our feed for what I had hoped would be further street food tasting. But we tried our best by first stopping at a small place in one of Palermo’s lively street markets.
We first spotted the place because there were four young people sitting on tiny children’s chairs around an even tinier turned over wooden crate being used as a table – but laden with various types of street-food style fried goodies. We weren’t hungry enough for the goodies (can you believe it?), so we settled on just the lemon “bio”granita.
When we asked for the granita, the owner waved us to one of the little chairs in front of another tiny over-turned crate. Unlike any other we’ve tried, this one came in a glass, and was very substantial. We could tell the lemon juice was fresh because there were seeds in it. The owner proudly told us that the lemons used were from his yard. Another delightful version of this Sicilian invention.
For what we expected to be a fast lunch before getting to a 1PM museum tour, we chose the closest place handy. We had a simple mixed salad – which seems always to be served just with oil and vinegar on the side instead of a prepared dressing (as you always get in France). That was fine. We’ve learned that these salads are very large and therefore we always share one.
For our simple second courses, Jo chose ricotta-filled ravioli served in a very heavy, rich pork sausage sauce. I went with gnocchi with four cheeses. I’m not sure what the four cheeses were, but they combined for very thick and very rich experience. It took almost an hour for those pasta dishes to show up and by that time we were running late for the tour, so we didn’t linger to experience any nuances.
In the afternoon, we made a pilgrimage to a famous gelateria on the waterfront founded in 1860 and noted for a dish called granita gelsi neri panna brioche. This consisted of a big scoop of granita (mine almond-flavored, Jo’s strawberry) with an even larger serving of very thick whipped cream on top (with a little cookie stuck into the whipped cream). The granita was very fine and intensely flavored. But we weren’t sure that the heavy whipped cream added much to the experience. We still have a few more gelaterie to try – and only one more day to do it. Does this mean holding back on breakfast?