SPRINGTIME IN SICILY, Part 1: Three Days in Palermo

View of Palermo, Sicily, from the roof of Monreale Cathedral
At the end of May my husband and I took a two week trip to Sicily, staying in Palermo, Erice and Catania, and taking day trips to the ancient Greek ruins at Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento, to the 4th century Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and to Mount Etna. The weather was warm, but not hot, and hillsides were covered with poppies, Queen Anne’s lace and a host of other wild flowers.  Here is the first of several reports of our trip.

Piazza San Domenico. Horse and buggy rides through the streets of the historic center of Palermo are a popular tourist activity.
We began our trip to Sicily in the capital city of Palermo, a bustling historic city dating back to pre-Roman times. We expected to find beautiful churches,16th century palaces, thriving street markets, and an abundance of restaurants as described in our guidebooks, but were surprised by the discovery of the hidden museum of hand painted tiles that was our B&B, the green retreat of the Botanical Garden and its art gallery filled with colorful ceramics, and a butterfly house tucked in a courtyard along the busy main tourist street, Via Vittorio Emmanuel.
Stanze al Genio, Ceramic tile museum and our B&B
On our first morning we shared a taxi with two other guests from our B&B (Stanze al Genio) for the half hour ride to Monreale to see the magnificent cathedral perched on the hill overlooking the valley of Palermo.
Monreale Cathedral. Christ Pantocrator is shown in the typical style of the Eastern Orthodox Church The gold background of the mosaics was created by sandwiching a thin piece of gold leaf between layers of glass.
Built in the 12th century, the Monreale cathedral is covered with glittering Byzantine mosaics reflecting the stories of the Bible but also with patterns and designs showing the Arab influence of the Muslim culture that preceded the Norman conquest of Sicily.
One of many stories of the Bible depicted on the Cathedral walls.
We rented wands with an English narrative to get an overview of the cathedral's history as we toured the inside. Then, climbing a winding staircase we went to the roof for a spectacular view.
Spring flowers at the Palermo Botanical Garden
In the afternoon, after a relaxed lunch back in Palermo, we walked to the Botanical Garden, a haven of greenery with shaded paths, benches for resting,  greenhouses, a water garden, and an art gallery filled with colorful ceramics.
Ceramic vase by Sicilian artist Giovanni de Simone, on display at the gallery of the Palermo Botanical Garden
On our second day we did a self-guided walking tour of the historical center of Palermo starting with a visit to the Piazza Bellini (also the location of the tourist information center) and its trio of churches–Santa Catorina, La Martorena and San Cataldo..
La Martorena, begun in the 12th Century, is a mixture of Baroque and Norman styles. The Baroque altar was added when the church was enlarged in the 16th century.
We paid the entrance fee and went inside La Martorena, filled with gorgeous gilded mosaics of the same period as Monreal, but feeling much more intimate because we could see them up close.
Close-up of one of the mosaics at La Martorena
A few steps down the street is another piazza and the Fontana Pretoria, or Fountain of Shame, notable for its statues whose private parts were removed (a long time ago) by nuns from the adjacent convent who were offended by the figures’ nudity.
Animal heads at the Fontana Pretoria
I was more intrigued by the variety of animal heads–a horse, giraffe, rhinoceros and more-- circling the fountain’s lower level, each spouting a stream of water into the surrounding pool.
Palermo Cathedral
Baroque architecture dominates the historic center of Palermo–from private homes and palaces to the massive Palermo Cathedral (actually a mixture of architectural styles.) Visiting the Cathedral is free (unlike most other churches) and provided a welcome place to rest during our walking tour. We made a point to visit the Regional Archeological Museum, hoping to see the ancient sculptures found at Selinunte (which we would visit later in the trip) but found that most of the museum was closed and the only exhibit was of items from Pompeii.
Ballaro market stall
On our last day in Palermo we visited the boisterous Ballero market, an open-air string of stalls winding for blocks through the neighborhood west of the train station. Vendors compete with one another, shouting out their wares–from slices of swordfish and  plates of octopus (cut up and marinated) to eggplants, oranges, cherries, giant zucchinis and more.  Food in Sicily is always fresh and delicious. From pasta and pizza to antipastos and pastries, it was difficult to choose what to eat.
Our lunch at Cavu, a neighborhood restaurant near our B&B
After three days in Palermo we were making progress on getting over our jet lag (nine hours from Los Angeles) and ready to go to Erice, where Art would be attending a conference for five days and I would explore the cobbled streets and historic sites. For more information about what to see and do in Palermo, click HERE.
Butterfly at the Casa della Farfalle on Via Vittorio Emmanuel in Palermo

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