Si­cily’s Palermo still col­or­ful, but cleaner

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - TRAVEL & ARTS - Rick Steves Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

One thing I en­joy about my work is get­ting my out­dated im­pres­sions back up to date. Europe is al­ways chang­ing — and re­cently I dis­cov­ered that Si­cily’s cap­i­tal of Palermo has be­come a whole new city since my last visit. It’s cleaner, safer and more ef­fi­cient than it was in years past. But it still re­tains its col­or­ful edge — and that’s why I love it.

Over the past decade, Palermo has re­vi­tal­ized it­self with new mu­se­ums, gen­tri­fied neigh­bor­hoods, pedes­tri­an­ized streets and up­scale shops and ho­tels. The Mafia’s in­flu­ence has also sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished. Sure, the traf­fic is a free-for-all, and even the city’s pret­ti­est pub­lic spa­ces are rough around the edges. It’s like Naples in that re­gard — but most visi­tors come to ap­pre­ci­ate Palermo’s grit­ti­ness and what lo­cals call its “bella chaos.”

The heart of the city is Qu­at­tro Canti (“Four Cor­ners”). It’s where two main streets — Via Maqueda and Via Vit­to­rio Emanuele — in­ter­sect, di­vid­ing the city into four ma­jor his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hoods. Be­tween the streets are four Baroque fa­cades, each adorned with three tiers of stat­ues. The bot­tom stat­ues rep­re­sent the four sea­sons, from a young maiden for spring to an el­derly woman for win­ter.

A few steps from Qu­at­tro Canti is a trio of glo­ri­ous churches, fac­ing one an­other across Pi­azza Bellini: La Mar­torana, with gor­geous gilded mo­saics; San Cataldo, fill­ing a for­mer mosque; and the high­light, the Church of Santa Ca­te­rina, where a sim­ple ex­te­rior hides an ex­plo­sive Si­cil­ian Baroque in­te­rior.

Nearby, in Pi­azza Pre­to­ria, the fa­mous “Foun­tain of Shame” is one of the few Re­nais­sance works here. Its gath­er­ing of mar­ble stat­ues in­cludes gods, god­desses and grotesques on sev­eral tiers, with the vir­gin god­dess of hunt, Diana, pre­sid­ing above the com­mo­tion. The nick­name comes from the nude fig­ures — con­sid­ered quite racy in con­ser­va­tive Si­cily.

While Palermo can seem a bit ram­shackle, be­hind its gritty walls hide ex­quis­ite no­ble man­sions re­mind­ing visi­tors of the is­land’s rich her­itage. One of my fa­vorite places to sneak a glimpse of aris­to­cratic life is Palazzo Conte Fed­erico, an el­e­gant and ex­tremely lived-in man­sion built upon the city wall. Count Fed­erico’s fam­ily has lived here for cen­turies, and the cur­rent count is a race-car en­thu­si­ast (though af­ter he flipped his car in a Si­cil­ian road race, the count­ess said, “No more rac­ing”). Tours of the man­sion are led by their sons.

Per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing sight is about 1.5 miles from the cen­ter, in a Palermo, Si­cily, en­ter­tains visi­tors with

crypt be­low a Ca­puchin monastery. The Ca­puchins, a branch of the Fran­cis­can or­der, have a pas­sion for re­mind­ing peo­ple of their mor­tal­ity. His­tor­i­cally, when their monas­tic broth­ers died, their bones were saved and put on dis­play. The Ca­puchins of Palermo took this tra­di­tion a step fur­ther, pre­serv­ing bod­ies in their en­tirety.

In­side the Cat­a­combs of the Ca­puchins, a maze of cor­ri­dors con­tains about 2,000 clothed skele­tons and mum­mies: monks in brown robes, women wear­ing fa­vorite dresses, priests in their vest­ments, sol­diers still in uni­form and chil­dren look­ing al­most as if they are just tak­ing a long nap. The old­est body — Brother Sil­ve­stro — has been hang­ing here since 1599. These “bod­ies with­out souls” are meant to re­mind the liv­ing that their time on earth is tran­si­tory, and some­thing much greater awaits. If you be­lieve in God, this crypt is ac­tu­ally a beau­ti­ful cel­e­bra­tion of life. At the very least, it’s a thought-pro­vok­ing re­minder of your mor­tal­ity.

Palermo be­came a ma­jor city af­ter the ninth-cen­tury ar­rival of the Arabs, who were the first in­hab­i­tants to spur the city’s de­vel­op­ment. In the 11th cen­tury, the Nor­mans, ar­riv­ing from north­ern France, con­quered and re-Chris­tian­ized Si­cily. Yet the Arab in­flu­ence lives on through­out the city.

A great ex­am­ple is at the Pala­tine Chapel, built in the 12th cen­tury in­side the Nor­man rulers’ royal res­i­dence. The king at the time hired ar­chi­tects and crafts­men from dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, and to­gether they built a sim­ple Nor­man struc­ture with Arab-style arches and geo­met­ric de­signs, and then adorned the walls and ceil­ing with shim­mer­ing Nor­man-Byzan­tine mo­saics. strik­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, Once the city’s beat­ing heart, Palermo’s Vuc­ciria is no longer a tra­di­tional the city’s street food.

Arab in­flu­ence is also felt in Palermo’s street mar­kets, where mer­chants re­tain the tra­di­tion of singing their sales pitches. My fa­vorite place to wit­ness this is the Bal­laro Mar­ket, the city’s old­est, most au­then­tic and liveli­est mar­ket. And the Vuc­ciria, with just a smat­ter­ing of meat, fish and pro­duce ven­dors, has one of the city’s best street food scenes — a one-stop shop for boiled oc­to­pus, spleen sand­wiches and Si­cily’s fa­mous fried rice balls (arancine).

While the Vuc­ciria neigh­bor­hood is lively in the morn­ing, it’s even bet­ter vivid street

af­ter hours. Make it a point to ex­plore its char­ac­ter­is­tic back lanes at night, where you’ll likely stum­ble onto a won­der­fully con­vivial scene un­der the stars — a kalei­do­scope of edgy graf­fiti, cheap plas­tic chairs, soc­cer on the big screen, big-eyed kids with gelato and peo­ple em­brac­ing life with Si­cil­ian gusto.

If you visit

Lodg­ing: Din­ing:

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUC­CELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

life, a cos­mopoli­tan vibe and a fun-lov­ing en­ergy.

CAMERON HE­WITT/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

street mar­ket, but it’s a great place to sam­ple

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