Palermo Cathedral and surrounds

We head onwards from the market to take a look at some of the main architectural treats that the city has to offer.
Below is the Palazzo dei Normanni or the Royal Palace of Palermo. This was the seat of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily.
Today it is the seat of the regional parliament of Sicily.


The palace stands in what is the highest point of the ancient centre of the city, just above the first Punic settlements, whose remains can still be found in the basement.


The Porta Nuova, or new New Gate, close to the Norman Palace, was for centuries the most important entrance to Palermo by land.

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The original New Gate, first commissioned in 1583 by the viceroy Marcantonio Colonna to commemorate the victory of Charles V over the Turkish army, was destroyed in 1667.

In 1669 the architect Gaspare Guerciore rebuilt it entirely and decided to put on top of the building a pyramid roof covered with  majolica tiles with the image of an eagle with spread wings. The decoration is dominated by four telamons (male sculptures), depicting the Moors defeated by Charles V.


Next on our walking tour of the architectural big hitters of the city we come to the epic Cathedral. The original church was erected in 1185 and had lots of additions throughout the centuries.


Before we head for a closer look, the man has to have his obligatory caffeine fix and also trys his first Sicilian Arancini – a traditional stuffed rice ball filled with a mix of meat or cheese and rice, coated in breadcrumbs and fried.

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The Cathedral is a mishmash of additions, reflecting its chequered history. At one point it become a mosque in the 9th century following the Saracen’s conquest of the city.


The Cathedral’s architecture is a mix of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical.

The upper parts of the Cathedral’s towers were built between the 14th and the 15th centuries, while in the early Renaissance period the southern porch was added.

The present neoclassical appearance dates from work carried out between 1781 to 1801 which was supervised by Ferdinando Fuga

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The Cathedral is connected with two lintelled ogival arcades, arching over the street, that connect the façade to the bell tower in the front, that is also annexed to the Archbishops Palace on the left.


Below, behind the man, you can see a famous portico created by Domenico and Antonello Gagini.


Inside the Cathedral is quite austere compared to a lot of the other churches in the city. There are no epic ceiling frescos to be gawked at sadly!

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But what the cathedral may lack in decorative flourishes, it makes up for with the fact that you can climb up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof!

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Here’s the narrow little walkway that you get to inch along in order to get some wonderful views out across the city.


The grey misty sky is beginning to clear by this point so we can get some great views out and across to the hills in the distance.


Luckily we both have a head for heights so we’re enjoying our elevated position above the rest of the crowds.

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At one point we had the entire roof to ourselves (except for a few pigeons)


It is a very peaceful, bird’s eye view of a very bustling, often frustrating city.


Below we can look down on the Baroque small side cupolas designed by Ferdinando Fuga.

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Next up we’re heading for a very macabre tourist site. Watch this space and prepare to be thrilled and chilled by a most disturbing spectacle . .

First Sicilian market

Just incase “regular” (ho ho, as if I have any of those!) readers were starting to wonder where my staple holiday subject had got to, never fear – here’s the first batch of lots of market photos!!


Markets in Sicily are a real treat. Due to proximity to North Africa, Sicily has more in common with the souks and raucous trading of Tunisia and Morocco than it does to mainland Italy.

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That makes for an sensory overload in terms of colours, sounds and smells. There are lots of places to discover but if time is short then there’s three quite famous ones to seek out – Ballarò, Capo and Vucceria. However Vucceria is now a sad shadow of its former self and the first two are far better.

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The first market we hit is Ballaro. Famous for its fresh produce it is believed to be the oldest of Palermo’s Arabic markets.

It’s a rumbustious sprawl of stalls selling mountains of jewel bright fruits and vegetables but also continues into a flea market and antiques section too.

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You’ll be accosted on all sides by the “abbanniate” –  the Sicilian word for the yelling of the sellers. It is their way of getting passers-by’s attention – and boy oh boy is it deafening!

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The derivation of the name of this particular market is unsure but may come from the name of the North African village where most of the Arabic traders working in the market originated: Balhara

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Above you can see some of the traditional staples of the market including the surprisingly large swordfish that is a staple ingredient of many dishes.

You can also see the detailed marzipan fruits know as frutta di Martorana. Named after the nuns of the Martorana Convent who first made them they are detailed little delicacies, not only of fruit these days but of cannoli and other foods.

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Some of the produce is recognisable such as almonds and other nuts, whereas the giant vegetables below left us stumped. Are they giant runner beans or a type of courgette?

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However, after the bustling crowds and traders have left, the rubbish and detritus of the day shows the downside of this vibrant city. It can be dirty, depressing and lawless as well as exciting.


San Giuseppe dei Teatini

San Giuseppe dei Teatini is a Baroque marvel of a church opposite the Fountain of Shame. It’s a colourful spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.


The church, also close to the Quattro Canti, is considered one of the most outstanding examples of the Sicilian Baroque in Palermo.

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The church was built at the beginning of the 17th century by Giacomo Besio. Below is a rather blurry shot of the spectacular ceiling fresco.


The church suffered a lot of damage during the second world war and its ornate frescoes had to be painstakingly restored.

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Inside the rather austere exterior there is a wealth of beautiful details at every turn.

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From plump little marble Putti peeping out at you to flickering candles left behind to commemorate loved ones and send hopes and prayers directly to the man upstairs.

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Even if you’re not religious, you can still appreciate the iconic Sacred Hearts and aura of peacefulness that pervades this old structure.

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The Fountain of Shame!

In the heart of Palermo’s  Piazza Pretoria, stands Fontana Pretoria, the work of sculptor Francesco Camilliani in 1554 and 1555

It’s decorated with animal heads, nymphs, monsters, ornamental staircases and balustrades as well as the gods and goddesses who make up the inhabitants of Mount Olympus.

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However, this ornate decorative wonder was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the somewhat prudish inhabitants of the city.


The multitude of naked figures was met with horror and approbation.


Originally intended for a private Florentine villa and not a public square the fountain was moved from its original setting to Palermo in over 600 pieces to be reassembled as a showcase of its waterworks system.


In time, Palermitans learned to live with this naked outrage, although they stubbornly referred to it as Fontana della Vergogna, or “Fountain of Shame.”

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Make up your own mind whether or not it still has the power to shock and outrage! There are rather a lot of rudey nudey bits on display it has to be said. . .


Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio

The church of Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio , commonly known as Martorana, is another ornate delight to be found overlooking Piazza Bellini.


It’s a golden, glittering jewel that shimmers with a multitude of religious mosaics.

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The church is a mix of different cultural styles, all culminating in a glittering array of pattern and texture that bombards the senses.


The church was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, the admiral of the Norman King Roger. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it became known as Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio – St. Mary of the Admiral.


The church’s more common name comes from Eloisa Martorana, who founded a nearby Benedictine convent in 1194.


The nuns of the Martorana convent were famous for their moulded marzipan, which they made in the form of various fruits.

Although the convent no longer exists, frutta di Martorana are still one of Palermo’s most famous and distinctive foodstuffs and can be found in every shop window.

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The glittering Norman-Byzantine mosaics date from c.1150 and cover the interior, including on and around the columns that hold up the main cupola.


Even after hundreds of years the colours still remain vivid and eye poppingly gorgeous. If you get a chance make sure to pop in and enjoy the shiny spectacle.

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Sicily – chaos incarnate!

Finally getting around to document (in painfully minute detail) the latest Italian trip, this time to the island of Sicily.

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Sicily conquers up images of brooding Mount Etna, the shadowy tentacles of organised crime and chaotic excitement around every grimy corner.

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Well it certainly does chaos and grime fairly well I will freely admit! We landed in the capital city of Palermo and headed to the battered old district of La Kalsa.

We were staying two nights in the delightful, family run Harmony B and B. It was a delightful experience. A huge, spotlessly clean suite with a free fridge of beer and soft drinks overlooking a narrow backstreet. Guiseppe the owner was a ball of energy, delighting in providing the perfect guest experience. And he succeeded!

Palermo is a big, noisy, energetic city. It’s dirty, hassled and impatient. It’s not a romantic, idyllic Italian getaway by any means.

But you can find oasis of calm and culture in amongst the graffiti, dirt and madness – if you look hard enough!


Here’s a typical example of the ornate buildings that can be found dotted around the city.

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Complex, devout and benignly neglected. The architecture is almost a metaphor for Sicily itself that feels somewhat hard done by, literaly the football that is kicked by the boot of Italy!


Here’s the majestic Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele. It is the biggest opera house in Italy and one of the largest of Europe.

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The streets are lined with majestic, detailed buildings with decorative flourishes at every turn.


While in the distance the ominous presence of Mount Etna reminds us mere mortals of the ever present dangers that the island lives beneath.

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Another famous sight of Palermo is the Quattro Canti – sited in Piazza Vigliena.

The pizza has four streets and four Baroque buildings, the near-identical facades of which contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and of the patronesses of Palermo,

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Our first day was a bit grey and overcast so I can’t show it in its best light!


Just around the corner is the Fontana Pretoria, aka the Fountain of Shame due to the multitude of naked statues on display! P1060310

Fear not, lots of nude statue pictures to follow!