Itinerary 1: from the Quattro Canti to the Norman Palace


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Our 1st itinerary begins at the Quattro Canti, Palermo's junction par excellence, the epicentre of the old town centre's four quarters, a circus formed from the union of the city's two most important thoroughfares, Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda.

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Map of Palermo | Sicily

The Quattro Canti

The Quattro Canti comprises four concave, inward-facing, early 17th century buildings, one at each cardinal point. Their façades are arranged in three distinct tiers: at ground level is a fountain (representing Palermo's four rivers), topped by an an allegorical representation of a season - autumn to the north, winter to the east, spring to the south and summer to the west; the second tier features a Spanish king - Philip IV (n), Philip III (e), Charles V (s) and Philip II (w); the third level, meanwhile, is dedicated to one of Palermo's patron saints - Sant'Oliva (n), Sant'Agata (e), Santa Christina (s) and Santa Ninfa (w) - Santa Rosalia had not yet saved the city from the plague. 

The official name of the Quattro Canti is Piazza Villena, after the Spanish Viceroy who commissioned it in 1611, but it has also been known as L'Ottangolo - the Octagon - for evident geometric reasons, and Il Teatro del Sole - the Theatre of the Sun - because at any time of day, one of the four façades is illuminated by the sun.

The Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini

Just a few steps up Corso Vittorio Emanuele from the Quattro Canti is the Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini, a must-see for anyone who loves baroque architecture. Filled with an abundance of frescoes, and busy stucco and marble work, it also boasts an impressive painting by the Dutch artist Borremans entitled The Triumph of Sant’Andrea Avellino, produced in 1724.

Piazza Pretoria and the Fountain of Shame

Heading southeast along Via Maqueda from the Quattro Canti, you will soon come to Piazza Pretoria, home not only to a splendid fountain, but also to several other impressive buildings including the City Hall, the florid baroque Chiesa di Santa Caterina and the 16th century aristocratic Palazzo Bonocore. The fountain, known for generations as the Fontanta della Vergogna (the Fountain of Shame), has an interesting history, not least because it is one of the only examples of pure Renaissance architecture to be found in Palermo. Commissioned in 1554 for the Tuscan villa of the Spanish Viceroy, Pedro de Toledo, the fountain was designed and crafted by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani. On the death of the Viceroy in 1573, his rather prudish son, offended by such gratuitous nudity, sold it to the City of Palermo, where it eventually arrived in dozens of pieces in 1574. 

Full of vitality, movement and joy, the fountain is surrounded by a series of statues of classical gods (including Bacchus, Mercury, Apollo, Venus and Diana) and other mythical beings. Their naked frolicking seems innocent and charming to our modern eyes, but for 16th century Palermitans, who lived under the fiery gaze of the Inquisition, it must have been quite a sight.

The Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (aka La Martorana)

Just behind the City Hall is another square, Piazza Bellini, home to one of Palermo’s most historically and artistically fascinating churches: the Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (more commonly known as La Martorana).

La Martorana was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch, the Syrian-born Admiral of King Roger II's fleet and until the 13th century, the church was dedicated to the celebration of Greek-Byzantine Orthodox rites (George was himself Greek Orthodox). 

Parts of the structure were adapted during the 17th century and large sections of the original gleaming mosaics were (unfortunately) removed to make way for rather  more banal baroque frescoes. However, the mosaics that have survived are amongst the most impressive ever to have been created in Sicily and it is likely that some of the Arab and Byzantine master craftsmen who had worked on King Roger II's Palatine Chapel and his Duomo in Cefalù, also contributed their artistry to this church. 

Of particular note are the geometric wonders and the glorious golden mosaics of the cupola, where, at the centre, surrounded by his archangels, sits Christ Pantocrator, a leitmotif of religious architecture during Roger II's reign. Two other smaller mosaics (seek and ye shall find!) give us a fascinating insight into the history of the church and its creators: the first depicts George of Antioch in an act of prostration at the feet of the Virgin Mary; the second shows Roger receiving his crown directly from Jesus, an unusual piece of iconography that highlights Roger's conflictual relationship with the Pope, who was generally responsible for the investiture of kings.

Last but not least, is the wonderful bell tower that rises above the main entrance, a pure expression of Norman architecture with a hint of Arabic influence twist. La Martorana is part of Palermo's Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Church of San Cataldo

Standing next to La Martorana is the mid-12th century, cubic Chiesa di San Cataldo, immediately recognizable thanks to the three red domes that emerge from its roof.  The Chiesa di San Cataldo was also built at the behest of an Admiral of the Norman fleet, this time Majone da Bari. His Puglian provenance explains the dedication of the church to San Cataldo, who, in the late 7th century, became the much-revered first Bishop of Taranto (curiously, Cataldo, or Catald, was originally from Ireland). 

Majone was assassinated in 1160, an event that had artistic significance for his church, which remained gloriously undecorated. Its plain, geometric jumble of stone niches, flying arches, cupolas and lofty windows is redolent of Escher's Relativity, and the atmosphere is one of asceticism and meditative peace. 

Since the 1930s, the Chiesa di San Cataldo has been the religious seat in Palermo of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. It is also part of the Palermo's Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Casa Professa - Chiesa del Gesù

Continuing a few steps southeast along Via Maqueda, you will come to Via del Ponticello on your right. About 150m along this road is Casa Professa, also know as the Chiesa del Gesù, a voluminous Baroque masterpiece built by the Jesuits over an initial period of 14 years, between 1564 and 1578. Subsequent additions were made until the mid-1630s, when, finally, the church was deemed worthy of consecration. Much of the artwork inside was carried out by the Jesuit priests themselves, and its florid decorations are amongst the most splendid in Palermo.

The Ballarò

Turn left on leaving Casa Professa and you will stumble on another world: the Ballarò, probably the oldest of Palermo’s Arabic markets. The etymology of the market's name is contested, but most believe that it derives from the North African village from where many of its original traders hailed: Balhara. Today, the market’s Arabic roots are still very much in evidence, and the vibrant colours, odours and noise are redolent of a Middle Eastern souk. You'll find a vast array of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as bars, trattorie and street-food vendors.

Good Thinking

For beer lovers, there is a great craft beer hall, (which also serves wines, cocktails, and other drinks) called Ballarak (in Via Saladino). The market's multi-ethnic population is catered for at Molti Volti, a restaurant in Via dei Biscottari that serves a mix of Palermitan, North African, West African and Afghan dishes (there are chefs from all these countries).

Piazza Bologni and Corso Vittorio Emanuele

Returning to Casa Professa and heading up the road opposite, Salita Raffadali, you will soon come to one of Palermo's finest squares, Piazza Bologni, home to a few bars and restaurants, the enormous baroque Palazzo Alliata di Villafranca, and a 17th century bronze statue of Chalres V (Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, and King of Sicily, etc.). Piazza Bologni opens out onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo's most ancient street (think Phoenician!), formerly known as the Cassaro. Straight as an arrow and flanked by aristocratic palazzi, it extends for some 2km, from Porta Felice down on the seafront, through the Quattro Canti, and up to Porta Nuova and the Palazzo dei Normanni at its western end. From there it continues, under the name of Corso Calatafimi, for another 6.5km, all the way to Monreale.

Facing Palazzo Bologni is Palazzo Riso, Palermo's Museum of Contemporary Art, certainly worth a visit. Turn left, and you'll soon see Palermo Cathedral emerge on your right.

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo's cathedral is one of the city's most extraordinary sights. Its façade is a veritable textbook of architectural history, covering some 1,500 years. It is flamboyant, dazzling and nigh impossible to fully take in. Florid Arabic decoration and lavastone intarsia remind us that the cathedral was once a mosque (as a plaque in Arabic at the entrance also indicates), Norman arches abound, not least in the fantastical bell tower, mediaeval crenellations hint at a fortified past, the Catalan Gothic porch records Sicily's Spanish domination, while the cupolas bring us up to the Baroque age. The spaces around the cathedral, including the piazza in front, meanwhile, are crowded with statues, an exhaustive who's who of saints.

With such a thrilling exterior, the rather plain interior may come as a bit of a disappointment, but history buffs will have plenty to reflect on, as the cathedral is full to brimming with excellent cadavers, including King Roger II (the first Norman King of Sicily), Gualtiero Offamilia (aka Walter of the Mill, the 12th century English Bishop of Palermo), Henry VI and Frederick II Stupor Mundi (both Holy Roman Emperors), and King Peter II.

The crypt, the oldest part of the church, is piled high with a collection of gloomy tombs, but it is into the sunlight that we recommend you head: spiral stairs at the west of the cathedral lead up through the bell tower and out onto the roof, from where the views of Palermo are fabulous.  

The cathedral is part of the Palermo's Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Norman Palace

From the cathedral, continue up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past the splendid Piazza Vittoria (with its high-rise collection of palm trees), under the 16th century Porta Nuova (built to commemorate the visit of Charles V), and on to Piazza Indipendenza, home of the Palazzo dei Normanni. 

The Palazzo dei Normanni has been the seat of Sicilian Kings and rulers since the Arabs built a castle there in the 9th century (castle in Arabic is al-Qasr, whence Il Cassaro, the alternative name of Corso Vittorio Emanuele). Surrounded by an enormous hunting park called Il Genoardo (jannat al-ard in Arabic, meaning paradise on earth), both the castle and the park underwent significant expansion during Norman times. In keeping with its historical use as a seat of power, today the Palazzo dei Normanni is home to Sicily's regional parliament. 

A variety of halls, rooms and courtyards are open to visitors, some of which host important international art exhibitions. The real treasure of the Palazzo dei Normanni, however, is the Palatine Chapel.

The Palazzo dei Normanni is part of the Palermo's Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Palatine Chapel

One of the most significant artistic treasures to be found anywhere in Europe, the Cappella Palatina should not be missed. Completed in 1142, and built at the behest of King Roger II, the chapel is a small, compact masterpiece hidden away inside the Palazzo dei Normanni. Its fusion of architectonic and artistic elements incorporates a Basilican plan, leaping arches supported by slender Corinthian columns, a sea of glowing, golden Byzantine mosaics, an intricately carved wooden ceiling with Arabic muqarna, tessellated floor and wall decorations, and much more besides. The apotheosis, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, is the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator above the altar. The craftsmanship is of a superlative quality, the vision of those who designed it, remarkable, and the collaborative harmony of its Arab, Byzantine and Norman contributors, heart-warming.

The Cappella Palatina is part of the Palermo's Arab-Norman UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Good Thinking

If you're feeling inspired after your visits to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina and the other Arab-Norman UNESCO Heritage Sites, why not head over to another jewel in the crown of Palermo's Arab-Norman heritage, Castello della Zisa? It's a 15-minute walk northeast from Piazza Indipendenza.

Itinerary 2: the Kalsa district
Itinerary 3: from the Capo market to the Cala marina

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