Short break: Palermo, Italy
Sicily is a scenic joy, from its volcanoes to this year’s Italian Capital of Culture, Palermo, whose food and history offer a fine initiation, says
Sicily’s new Capital of Culture is a riot of architecture, food, tradition and… err, puppetry. Discover why the past is writ large in the streets, buildings and marionette theatres of the city
Play a game of word association and it’s likely that the word ‘Sicily’ will be met with one response: ‘the Mafia’. It’s a great cause of frustration for Sicilians that, with so much to offer on this beautiful and diverse island – fine food and wine, a flower-filled countryside, beaches, Mount Etna and pretty coastal villages – they’re still widely known as the home of a crime syndicate featured in films and TV series such as The Godfather and The Sopranos.
Italy’s largest island – and, in fact, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea – has been conquered across the ages by many of its neighbours, including Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish forces. All of them have left their marks, with castles, palaces and temple ruins on hilltops and coastal outlooks, and a mix of international cuisines, from couscous (often served with fruit) to cannoli, the ricotta-filled biscuit dessert loved by Tony Soprano, which was introduced to the island by the Arabs but later adapted by nuns who arrived with the Spanish.
That mix of food, art and architecture is nowhere more evident than in the island’s capital, Palermo. The highly walkable Old Town is rich with cultural treasures, many of which were given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016. At the Zisa, in western Palermo, for example, you’ll find Moorish architecture and calligraphy alongside Norman, Byzantine and Latin influences, while Martorana Church’s ceiling has plenty of Byzantine mosaics and Islamic inscriptions.
The city has been named Italian Capital of Culture 2018, and will also host the 12th Manifesta (manifesta.org; until 4 Nov), the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, so there are lots of events planned through the year – see turismo. comune.palermo.it for more information.
But there is plenty to see, do and eat in any given year in this culture-filled city, which locals say has been cleaned up immensely. Here, you can stroll around flea markets or be overwhelmed by the food stalls of Capo, Ballarò and Vucciria, loading up on arancini (fried balls of rice filled with meat or cheese; see p14 for a recipe), cannoli and cassata Siciliana, a tasty ricotta-filled cake.
It’s easy to soak up the local culture, with opera and classical music events at Teatro Massimo (teatromassimo.it/eng), the grand opera house seen in The Godfather III, and centuries of paintings and sculptures at the Galleria d’arte Moderna (gampalermo.it/en). But perhaps your most memorable experience will be watching puppets chopping each other’s heads off at one of the many Opera dei Pupi (puppet theatre) shows, a traditional entertainment listed by UNESCO as part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. That’s the way to do it.
Culture club Food, palaces, history and (yes) more food are all on offer in Italy’s Capital of Culture