A Letter From Europe: Palermo, Sicily


By Sophie Ibbotson


If there is ever a day when the sun doesn’t shine in Palermo, I haven’t seen it. Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy, and Palermo is its capital. It is famed for its architecture, culture, and gastronomy, so I am doing my very best to immerse myself in all three. Every day I have been here I have started with coffee and cannoli from the passticeria at the Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. The passticeria is as old as the monastery, so it seems that the nuns have always taken their morning pastries seriously!

If you come here you absolutely must visit both the monastery and its church, the Chiesa di San Catoldo. The church’s three domes are a prominent feature on Palermo’s skyline and they have survived centuries of change in the city, including the Ottoman occupation. The church’s architecture blends influences from both Christianity and Islam.  Inside, if you look up, there is a square inside an octagon inside a circle. This represents God in Islam: the circle is God, the square is Earth, and the octagon – faith or believers – joins the two. The craftsmen who created this remarkable design believed it was forbidden to make or draw any physical representation of God, so they represented the relationship in geometry instead.

Nearby is the 16th century Fontana Pretoria, which is known to the locals as “the fountain of shame”. I have heard two different reasons for this. Firstly, the components of the fountain were built in Florence on the Italian mainland and had to be transported by land and sea to Palermo. This cost a huge sum of money, at a time when most people could not afford to eat every day. So, the residents ascended on the square to yell “shame! shame!” in protest at what they saw as a waste of public funds. Secondly, the statues on this monumental fountain are all naked, posing alluringly and letting it all hang out. From the windows of the monastery the nuns can see the male nudes in all their marble glory, and the mere thought of this horrified the chief nun. She was so worried that her fellow nuns would be thinking about sex instead of prayer that she went down into the square one night and chiseled the penises off the sculptures. If you look closely, you’ll see they have all been crudely castrated.

I have been staying at the Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, which ranks amongst Palermo’s grandest buildings. It is in the historic center, very close to the street markets of Mercato del Capo and Vucciria. The ancient cloister around which the hotel is built is a popular location for concerts, so if you sit out on your private balcony in the evening, you might well be serenaded with music. Another favorite spot of mine is the roof garden terrace, which looks out on the terracotta rooftops and domes of Palermo. It’s so beautiful in the soft evening light, and I am making the most of the opportunity to try some of the excellent Sicilian wines which are rarely available abroad.

Although you could easily spend weeks just wandering the streets in Palermo, I urge you to take a few hours out of the city to visit Mondello, the beach which is a short bus or car ride to the north. Originally Mondello was a simple fishing village, but for the past hundred years or so it has been the playground of the Sicilian aristocracy and an exclusive tourism destination. Many of the villas along the seafront are in the Italian Art Nouveau style, as is the magnificent Antico Stabilimento Balneare, the fanciful building on the pier. The bay is around a mile long, so do take a stroll along the white sand beach and feel the waves lapping at your feet.




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