The altars of history

Seeing Palermo through its churches is an interesting way to follow the history of some of its conquerors, Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman, and Sicilian. We had a good run of them yesterday, ending with the most exquisite of them all.

La Matorana is a 12th century church which was originally planned as a mosque. Once an order of nuns took it over in the 15th century, it took on a split personality, with wonderful Greek mosaics mostly replaced by fussy baroque frescoes. Mussolini gave the church back to the Greek Orthodox community, who worships here today. And did you know it’s a new thing to have your engagement pictures taken professionally in ancient churches that charge admission? Well, now you do.

The Chiesa Capitlare di San Catlado is an amazing building in the Arab-Norman style. (Did you not know that was a style?) It was also built in the 12th century and is very striking in its simplicity.

Just across the street is the Chiesa di Santo Catrina, very baroque of 16th c. vintage.

And then there is the Palermo cathedral, huge and in the same Arab-Norman style. It began in the 12th c. under the auspices of an Englishman, showing off his power in the Sicilian hierarchy. This was built on top of the site of a mosque, which was in turn built on top of an early Christian chapel. It’s not a warm or entrancing building, but certainly large enough for whatever Palermo wants to celebrate.

But the icing on the ecclesiastical cake was the Cappella Palatina. This jewel is an incredible example of the genius of Byzantine Greek artists, whose mosaics are quite extraordinary. Every part of this chapel glows and is breathtakingly lovely. The 12th century certainly had enduring and incredible art before painting took over.

We saw art of a different kind in the market of Il Capo. This ancient Arabic marketplace is known for its fish stalls, but just about anything else you would want – or not want – is here also.

Other lovely parts of Palermo included the Quattro Canti – an intersection surrounded by a perfect circle of four baroque fascades. Nearby was the Piazza Pretoria, with its grandiose fountain, situated between a convent and another major church. It is known as the Fountain of Shame for the nudity it flaunted in the face of churchgoers, who were originally just appalled.

Lots of other wonderful scenes in this puff pastry of a city, with so many layers of richness. We topped off the day with a performance at a traditional Italian puppet theater, which was very clever and creative. The place was packed by the time it started. Thank goodness we missed all the morals, as they were in Italian and it was far beyond us. But we do know the good guys won.

Today we are flying back to Rome and expect to be busy traveling most of the day. Good-bye to Sicily, which we have enjoyed tremendously!

 

Don’s Food Corner

We ate lunch late yesterday — nearly 3.  Other than informal snack shops, most restaurants close, or stop serving lunch, at about 2:30 or 3 and then reopen at about 7 for dinner.  We were lucky to find a place.  And, surprisingly, we found a very decent place by hitting “Near me” on TripAdvisor.

We started with a dish the restaurant called tortina di bufalo e speck.  We expected some type of bufalo mozzarella tossed with some prosciutto and speck.  Instead, it was a ball of bufalo mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and baked.  The cheese was melted.  There was some speck sprinkled around, but that was secondary to the mozzarella.  There was an incredibly fine balsamic vinegar reduction drizzled on top and on the plate.  A very pleasant surprise.

Then, we decided just to have some pasta.  I went with bucatini con sarde e finocchietto  — long hollow pasta strands with sardines and fennel.  But there was plenty more going on in this dish.  The sardines were finely minced along with the fennel.  The rest of the sauce (which was almost dry) was toasted bread crumbs, onions, currents, pine nuts and saffron.  This was supposed to be a Sicilian specialty showing all kinds of influences of Middle Eastern and North African.  It was a gigantic portion, but somehow I was able to leave nothing behind.

Jo focused on another version of tagliatelle, this time with a meat ragu and mushrooms.  The sauce had an unusually deep red color.  I suspect this was another “slow food” sauce.  You can’t whip up a sauce this rich and with such deep flavor in a few minutes — or even an hour.  I know; I’ve tried.  I’m not sure I could have come up with anything better even after three days of effort.  Grade for lunch?  A winner.

 

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