Palermo, Day 2. 3/26/18

We have a lot scheduled today to make up for losing a day yesterday. We start by walking through an outdoor market on the way to the Palermo Cathedral. Sicily has fertile, volcanic soil and a great climate for growing everything. On the sides of the road and between sidewalk slabs there is fennel growing! Also, being an island, Sicily has wonderful fish and shellfish.

A type of cauliflower, artichokes, fennel fronds, and more

Fish and squid


We round a cornier and see the very Norman looking towers of the cathedral. They look a lot like the towers we saw in Cefalu.

Towers of the Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral is a mash up of building styles from different ages. It was begun in the 12th century but not finished until the 18th century.

Palermo Cathedral

The beautiful portico on the front hails from around 1500.

Portico entrance to the Palermo Cathedral

Inside any of the older components have been redecorated away. The most interesting thing is the meridian or solar observatory. A small hole was made in a minor dome and the image of the sun is projected on the floor. With this device they were able to fix the time of  the vernal equinox and to provide the correct date for Easter. The signs of the zodiac are a part of the instrument. Of course I take a picture of my sign, Sagittarius.

Solar observatory

My sign, Sagittarius

Lots of church helpers are scurrying around getting the church ready for Easter. We see a guy on a ladder with a long pole shining up some of the decorations.

Man on ladder attending to shining up decorations for Easter

From here we walk to the Palace of the Normans. Much like the Palermo Cathedral it is a building that was added to over the centuries starting with the Emir of Palermo in the 800’s. The building is the oldest royal residence in Europe, the home of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV. But what everyone comes to see is the Palatine Chapel added by King Roger II in 1132. The chapel is a mosaic jewel with influences from Arabic, Byzantine, and Norman architecture and art.

Sarah in the gardens in front of the palace


Palatine Chapel

Back wall – Jesus with Peter and Paul

Creating Adam

Creating Eve (on the right)

St. Paul hiding in a basket

Islamic wall decoration

Hipster lion

Noah’s Ark

Every inch of the Palatine Chapel is decorated with sparkling mosaics. The mosaics were made in the 12th century but they look like they could have been created yesterday.

We look around the rest of the building which is interesting but really takes a backseat to the chapel with the exception of King Roger II’s Hall which is interestingly mosaiced with each mosaic being a mirror image.

Mirror-imaged mosaics in King Roger’s Hall in the Norman Palace, Palermo

Time for lunch! It is hard to escape the “tourist special” kind of restaurant when you are in this section of the old city. We finally decide on Antica Trattoria mostly because they did not accost us as we walk down the street. The lunch is so-so. After seeing the tremendous amount of pasta in a serving I decide on pizza – bad choice. Sarah’s lunch turns out best. She has cacio e pepe.

Sarah’s cacio e pepe

My not-so-good pizza margarita. John’s pizza was about the same except with pepperoni

After lunch we head to Martorana, another church with mosaics. Since no one has checked to see when it is open, we find that it is closed until 3:30 PM. I am somewhat annoyed that my companions never take the initiative to find out when things are open. I have left the planning of the day to them and now we are stuck with over two hours to kill. We stop at the Liberty Bar and Sarah and I have an afigato which is espresso with vanilla gelato. John has a caffe corretto which is espressos with grappa.

Afigato – we should have ordered the espresso and gelato separately because the gelato was a tiny scoop and melted too quickly

Since we cannot figure out how to kill the two hours left, we decide to go back to the hotel for a little rest. I decide to opt out of the long walk back to the church. I have seen it once before and my knee needs a rest. Sarah and John go and have brought back pictures of this little church which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built in the mid-12th century.

Exterior of the Martorana

Church interior overview

Nativity scene mosaic

Mary death with Jesus carrying her soul to heaven

St. Joachim, Mary’s father

St. Anne, Mary’s mother

Dome mosaic

Two angels

Jesus crowning Roger II

All the buildings we have seen today are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the Cefalu Cathedral. Tomorrow we will see the Monreale Cathedral which is the biggest example of this confluence of Byzantine, Norman, and Islamic art and architecture.

For dinner tonight we are going to Sapurito, Cucina Povera e Pizza. It belongs to the Slow Food Movment. We last ate at one of these restaurants in Pompeii . We hope this one will be as good. Turns out later I have some horrible distress from something I have eaten but I cannot say which of today’s foods is to blame.

We share an appetizer of fried artichoke

John has grilled squid that he really likes

Mary has involtini of veal (I think)

Sarah has an ancient grain pizza with pine nuts

We share a small dessert

Tomorrow (Tuesday) we are off to nearby Monreale to see the fabulous cathedral and then we head to the Palermo airport for a flight to Rome. On Wednesday we take the long flights home.

Spleen sandwich. 3/25/18

No, this is not just an attention-getter. It is a famous Palermo street food. And there are some people in our family who want to try this delicacy. I am not one of them.

We wake up to a rainy day in Palermo. The high today is around 50F and along with the rain, windy conditions are expected. It is a perfect day to stay in, do some laundry, write my blog, and read a book or play games on my iPad. Sarah suggests that she and John go out and find a purveyor of pane di ca meusa, spleen sandwich. I am happy to have them go without me.

Spleen sandwiches

Sarah has found a restaurant, Nino U’ Ballerino that sells them. They have big pots of spleens and other innard parts bubbling away. Their pane di ca meusa is so good they have won the 2017 award for best street food!

Nino U’ Ballerino’s pot of guts

Many tasty things to choose from

The red shrimp award for best street food

All I ask is that they bring me back a can of Pringles to munch on. They stop in at the local supermarket, Conad, and find my Pringle lunch. Sarah strolls around the store comparing Italian to American prices. Most things in Europe are pretty pricy but we have found that bread, wine, vegetables, and pasta in Italy are much cheaper.

Barilla pasta – we are excited when it is $1 a pound at home. Here it is for .69 euro for a kilogram (2.2 lbs.)

In case you are wondering what they thought of the spleen sandwich John found it quite delicious with a bit of a funky taste and soft texture. Salt, pepper, cheese, and lemon finish off the preparation and it is served on a soft sesame bun. He wished there had been a little raw onion served on it for some crunch. Sarah did not make much comment, only that she needed to go lie down to let things digest.

Not much else to report today. Even after their spleen sandwiches Sarah and John were ready to go out to dinner around 8 PM. We got a recommendation from the front desk to try Trattoria Bionda. It is quite full when we get there. Lots of Sicilian families are eating in the front room and several tables of Germans and us are in the back room. There is a German tour group staying at our hotel. The front desk guy probably gave the same recommendation to everyone. The food was good and we enjoyed ourselves.

Fancy stoneware at Trattoria Bionda

Sarah’s penne with eggplant, meat, and mushrooms

John’s rice curry with shrimp

Mary’s veal with a lemon and white wine sauce, roasted potatoes and onions (This was really good!)


In search of Odysseus and more… 3/24/18

As we are leaving Taormina and the lovely Villa Ducale, Paolo says to me, “we see you next year, yes?” And I wonder if I will see these places again. Then Sarah says to me, “you said that last year, too, Mom.”  So too much drama and gloom and doom. I will get my knee fixed and I will back in fighting form next year. That is a promise to myself.

Before heading down the hill and towards Messina we take a ride up to Castelmola, high above already high Taormina. I have been wanting to go up there for years. Unfortunately a    police officer comes after us tweeting her whistle as we stop to take a picture. “NO PARKING!” she yells at us. Since we tend to get at least one ticket every trip, we scoot away and take some pictures as we descend the hill.

Looking down on Taormina from the heights of Castelmola

Usually I have quite a few shots of Mt. Etna but the volcano has been hiding in the clouds the whole time we have been here. There is a little clearing as we descend the mountain and I get a partial picture.

Mt. Etna with snow and probably some steam

Okay, wish one granted. Now on to Odysseus.

”Then seizing two strong spears I took my stand on the ship’s bow, for it was there I expected first to see the monster of the rock…Then we entered the Straits in great fear of mind for on the one hand was Scylla and on the other dread Charybdis.“

As you approach the embarkation point for the ferry across the Strait of Messina there is an exit for Scylla. We have never taken it and I wish we had. I figure that on Sicily there should be a spot for Charybdis. So we drive all the way out to the point, Torre Faro, in search of Charybdis but there is no mention of her. You can, however, see the giant rock which is Scylla. This point is between the spit of Sicilian land and the great rock of Scylla is the narrowest point of the strait and no doubt the most turbulent and dangerous for ships.

The distant large rock in the water on the right is Scylla, and Charybdis is a whirlpool on the Sicily side

We have been trying to time ourselves so that when we get to Cefalu, our next stop, the cathedral will be open. It seems that almost all the churches take the most holy of institutions, the three to three and a half hour lunch break. We decide to take our lunch break too and stop at a rather grotty Autogrill for a salami sandwich.

Haute cuisine

By the time we reach Cefalu, park the car, and take the pleasant walk to the cathedral it is 3:30 PM and time for the church attendants to go back to work.

Pretty seaside town of Cefalu

The Cefalu Cathedral is in a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses Arab-Norman Palermo and The Cathedral Churches of Cefalu and Monreale. These nine sites are examples of the meeting of Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures on Sicily which gave rise to new concepts of architecture and showed how people of different origins had a fruitful coexistence (at least for a time.)

The Cefalu Cathedral was begun in 1131 and the mosaics inside were begun in 1145. In the picture below imagine the cathedral without the two spires on top of the towers and lacking the porch facade, both of which were added later, and the church is very much a fortress.

The facade of the Norman Cefalu Cathedral

Inside only the apse is decorated in mosaic. I read somewhere that they ran out of money. They had brought in masters in mosaics from Constantinople and the mosaic artists and the materials were probably pretty pricy.

Looking toward the apse

The mosaic features Christ giving a blessing with one hand and holding the Gospel of John in the other. His face is a little less Byzantine then many others we have seen. Below him are Mary and four angels and then the Apostles.

Fabulous mosaic

Mosaic of Christ Pantokrator on a golden field

After a lengthy look at this beautiful cathedral we head back to the car for the rest of our journey to Palermo.

Sun reflecting on the Tyrrhenian Sea

We check into our hotel, the Best Western Ai Cavalieri in Palermo. It is kind of a big let down after Villa Ducale. We go down to the Graal Bar which we have been to before. Last time when we ordered glasses of wine we got a giant free spread of appetizers. In the last three years they have wised up. We have to pay for the appetizers now and they are not nearly as good but are definitely plentiful!

Un-free appetizers at Graal Bar but still a cheap dinner