Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Italy chapter on Sicily has to say about Palermo:
“Palermo is a city of decay and of splendour and – provided you can handle its raw energy, deranged driving and chaos – has plenty of appeal. Unlike Florence or Rome, many of the city’s treasures are hidden, rather than scrubbed up for endless streams of tourists.
Be prepared to explore: this giant treasure trove of palaces, castles and churches has a unique architectural fusion of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and baroque gems. Palermitans themselves have inherited the intriguing looks and social rituals of their multicultural past. Life here is full on: a very public, warm-hearted and noisy affair.
While some of the crumbling palazzi bombed in WWII are being restored, others remain dilapidated; turned into shabby apartments, the faded glory of their ornate facades is just visible behind strings of brightly coloured washing. The evocative history of the city remains very much part of the daily life of its inhabitants, and the dusty web of backstreet markets in the old quarter has a tangible Middle Eastern feel.
The intersection known as the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) divides the historic centre into four traditional quarters that contain the majority of Palermo’s sights. Nearby Piazza Pretoria is the civic heart of Palermo, where a crowd of imposing churches and buildings surrounds the ornate Fontana Pretoria. This huge fountain fills the piazza with its tiered basins, supporting the sculptures, rippling in concentric circles. The city bought the fountain in 1573; however, the flagrant nudity of the provocative nymphs proved too much for Sicilian church-goers attending Mass at the grandly formal San Giuseppe dei Teatini, and they prudishly dubbed it the Fountain of Shame.
The flip side is the modern city, a mere 15-minute stroll away, parts of which could be neatly jig-sawed and slotted into Paris with their grid system of wide avenues lined by seductive shops and handsome 19th-century apartments.
At one time an Arab emirate and seat of a Norman kingdom, Palermo became Europe’s grandest city in the 12th century but, in recent years its fame (or notoriety) has originated mainly from headline-grabbing assassinations and political corruption.
Behind the splendours of the Palazzo dei Normanni lies the contrastingly shabby, run-down district of Albergheria, once inhabited by Norman court officials and now home to a growing number of immigrants who are attempting to revitalize its dusty backstreets. This is also the location of Palermo’s busiest street market, the Mercato di Ballarò, which throbs with activity well into the early evening.
It’s a fascinating mix of noise, smells and full-on street life, and the cheapest place for everything from Chinese padded bras to fresh produce, fish and meat, plus the best and most appetizing cheese selection imaginable – smile nicely for a taste.
North of Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, Palermo elegantly slips into cosmopolitan mode with some fabulous neoclassical and art nouveau buildings hailing from the last golden age of Sicilian architecture. The grand neoclassical Teatro Massimo took more than 20 years to complete. Nowadays the theatre is an iconic Palermo landmark and has become a symbol of the triumph and tragedy of the city. Appropriately, the closing scene of The Godfather: Part III, with its visually stunning juxtaposition of high culture, low crime, drama and death, was filmed here.”
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