Palermo, Sicily, Italy

My trip to Sicily was a lovely relaxing train ride that lasted all day and included a jaunt on a ferry boat with the train, much to my delight. Crossing from Villa San Giovanni on the mainland to Messina is a very short hop – most of the time was taken up in rotating the ship around so that the train could exit the same way it had entered. I rushed up to the deck and gloried in the sea air for an hour and then returned to my quiet coach and my sweet Italian grandmother traveling companion for the last three hour trip along the north coast to Palermo.

I liked the city at once. Leaving the train station I walked down the main drag, Via Roma, dating back to the city’s founding and modernized to enlightenment standards with several important neoclassical theater facades, a fascist art deco post office and a number of ancient churches. My hostel was on an alley-like street just behind the main road and after spending the night in, I set out the next morning to explore the immediate vicinity. A medieval tangle hid behind the wider main street and I happily got lost and found myself again, popping out at the waterline, at a city park with astonishing strange trees and finally following my map to a courtyard with three interesting churches which caught my attention for most of the afternoon.

San Cataldo’s is a byzantine chapel circa the 12th century with stark bare stone walls and arches and a really amazing detailed tilework floor where I lost several hours in making a detailed sketch of said tiles.

Next door La Martorana is overwhelmingly tiled both on the floor (simple solid colors) and the walls and roof (quite a lot of gold). The foundation and the central dome are the original Norman but a baroque addition to the north extended the church into a more traditional nave. The contrast between the ornate tile of the original and the ornate frescoed ceiling and marble patterned floor of the addition are a study in changing style over time but feel oddly related to each other.

The nominally more significant (and much larger) Santa Caterina across the little piazza was a disappointment after all that medieval tile work splendor. The intricate baroque interior left me totally cold and, though I’d paid for the privilege of entering, it was all I could do to take a lap and walk out again. I’ve always been drawn to the medieval in art and having access to it in architecture has made everything more recent pale in comparison!

I got kicked out of San Cataldo’s when they closed for lunch still in mid sketch of the entry way tile floor so I wandered down the main axial cross street (unsurprisingly Vittorio Emanuele II) to visit the Cattedrale which was likewise breathtaking. The interior actually had been renovated at a (or many) later periods and was a tragically boring neoclassical white wash job but the exterior was a stunning riot of detailed carved marble, crenelated roof lines and green tiled domes. My guidebook informs me that the arched facade is Catalan Gothic (which I couldn’t have pegged) but the entry is clearly Norman

Palermo is a hugely old and rich city with foundations in Phonecian times. The deep port and protection of overhanging mountains then made it a Carthaginian colony and later Saracen and Norman. It was powerful in the 16th and 17th centuries (as evidence, the so-boring-to-me-now Baroque churches and ten again in the 19th century when it built outward from the old center into new boulevard-ed areas north and west. The Muslim-influenced Norman period of Palermo’s architecture is the most interesting to me but far from the only one. The city is a complex stack of layers through time with each new period inserting its stamp in the older areas. Strolling westward down the Via Roma and its counter-directional main street, Via Maqueda, served as an informal transect through time taking me past the heavily classical neoclassical Garibaldi Concert hall and then out into an area of apartments gradually passing from the turn of the century through to the near present. I made a collection of balcony designs (which you can view below) and stopped only when I hit the belt line high way and got my obligatory snap of Suburbia, sprawling beyond.


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