For ardent explorers considering future destinations, Palermo offers a plethora of adventures, and the destination is only an hour’s flight from Rome
Steeped in a fascinating, rich and vibrant history, Palermo was once a Phoenician colony, an Arab emirate and a Norman kingdom. The intriguing legacy of villas, palaces and churches are constant reminders of a truly enchanting past. The locals exude a warm and laid back attitude and the lack of petty council regulations allows local restaurants, bars and shops to open and close at will.
In the evening, young and old gather together around tables, sipping wine, deep in conversation, while the children play together. That continental sedate atmosphere, which is created when families dine alfresco demands that you take a seat, relax, order a glass of wine and just enjoy the warm weather or the balmy evening breezes, whilst you admire the surrounding splendour.
I wandered around the Piazza Verdi and admired the newly renovated and magnificent Teatro Massimo opera house, a cultural treat dating back to 1897 and the third largest opera house in Europe. If you book well in advance you may secure tickets for one of the many opera, ballets and concerts performed here.
Other attractions include the splendid Palazzo Reale, one of the finest courts of Medieval Europe, adapted by the Normans from the original Saracen palace, by creative Arab architects and gifted craftsmen.
The Palatine Chapel within was built between 1132 and 1143. The intricate interior, richly carved ceilings and ornately patterned marble floors are quite beautiful. The lush green oasis of the Orto Botanico, which houses an extensive variety of exotic plants and the excellent Archeological Museum should satisfy the most discerning nature lovers and culture vultures.
For lovers of art, a visit to the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia on Palazzo Abatellis is a must. The gallery, built in 1490, was extensively damaged during WWII and beautifully restored by Carlo Scarpa in 1954. It is an exquisite building exhibiting a fine collection of Sicilian sculptures and paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The most famous work, Triumph of the Dead, dating from 1449 and often credited to Pisanello, is a powerful image and I was mesmerised. Francesco Laurana’s 15th century white marble bust of Elenara di Aragona is simply stunning and there is also a remarkable collection of Arabian ceramics.
With an abundance of places to visit, it will, of course, all end in aching feet. For those of us who like to be pampered, the luxurious Rocco Forte Villa Igiea, due to open in June, is sure to provide the highest standards of service and comfort, first-class accommodation and facilities.
Overlooking the Bay of Palermo, the property was purchased in 1899 from Sir William Domville, an English admiral. The Sicilian buyers, the Florio family, converted the property into a luxury hotel, which attracted the highest echelons of society. In 1907 King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria and the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, who were sailing onboard the Victoria and Albert royal yacht, disembarked in Palermo to explore the city and stopped for luncheon at the Villa Igiea.
The interior of the property will retain many of the originally designed features of Ernesto Basile, the master of Italian Art Nouveau, while the jasmine scented gardens by the swimming pool, overlooking the sea, offer the weary traveller the perfect sanctuary to plan a day’s activities or to snatch an extended snooze.
Be sure to take a passeggiata (leisurely stroll) around the centre of old Palermo, the baroque intersection known as Quattro Canti, which includes the quarters of Albergheria, Capo, Vucciria and La Kalsa. There are bustling markets in Albergheria and Vucciria and a warren of narrow alleyways with small family owned boutiques displaying the latest Italian fashions. Carrying all those bags, crammed with Italian shoes, bags and clothing can become a burden after a while but, rest assured, the most tantalising aromas drifting from the many restaurants dotted along the way are sure to entice you away from all that extravagant activity.
Sicilian cuisine includes Arab, Greek and Roman influenced recipes making use of the finest local ingredients such as swordfish, pine nuts, red chillies, sardines and capers. Local specialities include ‘pasta con le sarde’ (fresh pasta with sardines and fennel) and ‘pesce spade all ghiotta’ (swordfish cooked in onion and tomato sauce). Any one of these dishes is sure to satisfy the most discerning palate.
For a spot of people watching, the Antico Caffe Spainnato on the Via Principe di Belmonte is the place to be. This café and pastry maker was established in 1860 and the décor is sumptuous and very cosy. The property is set in a quiet pedestrian only street and is very popular with trendy locals, which is always a good sign. The vast selections of calorie crammed pastries and cookies are a real dilemma and a losing battle. You may have to queue for the one of the tables if you wish to dine alfresco but it is well worth the wait. The evening’s entertainment is quite sedate and includes a rather handsome pianist with a fine repertoire of romantic tunes.
Of course, the recent history of Sicily will always encompass images of the Cosa Nostra. After the trials of the 1980s, the assassination of two anti- Mafia judges in 1992, and the gangland killings in the mid 90’s, Palermo, is for many, synonymous with the Mafia. Although the visitor is unlikely to see any obvious signs of Mafia life, the imagination runs riot and you find yourself being highly suspicious of any out-of-the-ordinary characters!
Palermo is certainly a fascinating spot and you can be sure of a warm welcome.
Top tip – For more information on the featured hotel, visit roccofortehotels.com.
Top tip – To learn more about Sicily, go to Visit Sicily at visitsicily.info.
Rebecca took this trip to Sicily prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.