Palermo - Abbey Travel, Ireland

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Welcome to Palermo


Corrupt, decaying, noisy, polluted, over-populated, jumbled and crime-ridden. All these unpleasant adjectives can be applied to Sicily's capital, Palermo, but this does not stop most holidaymakers falling in love with this city on the northwestern coast of the island. It may be exceedingly ugly in some respects, but it is also a place of beauty that is slowly being revived and restored by the determined city fathers to regain a semblance of its former glory. At various times during its varied and colourful history Palermo, beautifully sited on a wide bay under the bulk of Monte Pellegrino, has enjoyed a position as one of the greatest cities of Europe, particularly under Arab and Norman domination in the Middle Ages. The legacy of the past is evident today in its treasure-trove of Byzantine, Baroque and Norman historic buildings and relics in its many museums. The rescue of the holiday resort of Palermo has been aided by funds allocated by the European Union and the wane of the reign of the Mafia. Today the pulse of the city beats fast and furious even in the oppressive summer heat in its hectic street markets, cobbled squares and narrow alleyways, where sirens squeal and traffic roars indiscriminately. Old, historic quarters like Kalsa are being restored and restaurants, galleries and cafes are opening to cater for the tourist trade. Several days are required to appreciate the sights of the seething city before moving on to explore the rest of the island.

Information & Facts

The official language of Italy is Italian. English is understood in the larger cities but not in the more remote parts of the country.

The Euro (EUR) is the official currency, which is divided into 100 cents. Those arriving in Italy with foreign currency can obtain Euros through any bank, ATM or bureaux de change. ATMs are widespread. Travellers cheques can be exchanged with ease in the large cities, not so in the smaller towns. Credit cards are accepted in upmarket establishments and shops around the cities. Banks are closed on weekends, but tend to have better rates than casas de cambios.

The subterranean catacombs that contain the mummified remains of about 8,000 ancient inhabitants of Palermo may be macabre, but are fascinating to visit. The Capuchin friars began mummifying and embalming the bodies of the city's nobles back in 1533, and the tradition continued for centuries with the last body (a seven-year-old girl named Rosalia) being embalmed in 1920. After embalming, the corpses were hung along the walls of the catacombs dressed in their best, which they still wear proudly, like the military officer in an 18th-century uniform complete with tricorn hat.

Palermo's largest art museum, devoted to medieval works, is housed within the gothic-styled Palazzo Abbatellis (built in 1488). The collection includes several particularly interesting works. The Bust of Eleanor of Aragonby Francesco Laurana, for example, dates from 1471 and is considered to be the epitome of Renaissance Sicilian sculpture; while the beautiful masterpiece painting Our Lady of the Annunciationis considered Antonello da Messina's greatest work. Also renowned is the chilling Triumph of Deathfresco by an unknown 15th-century artist that covers an entire wall.

One of Palermo's most unique attractions is the engaging Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, a museum dedicated to the art of puppetry, an age-old Sicilian form of entertainment. Free shows are often put on in summer, but the museum collection itself, the greatest of its kind in the world, is entertainment enough. Most of the antique puppets on display evoke Norman Sicily, representing chivalrous heroes and Saracen pirates, knights, ladies and troubadours. The collection includes puppets from the Far East and even some English 'Punch and Judy' dolls.

Of all the many architecturally beautiful and fascinating places of worship in Palermo, probably the most renowned is the 12th-century cathedral in the suburb of Monreale, high on the mountain slope about five miles (8km) from the city centre. The dazzling cathedral is a mixture of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles, a blend of medieval Christian and Muslim architecture. The magnificent mosaics that cover 68,243 square feet (6,340 sq metres) of the cathedral's dome and all of the walls on the interior are unsurpassed. The adjacent Benedictine abbey features a cloister with 228 carved stone columns, many inlaid with mosaics depicting scenes from Sicily's Norman history.

The excessive opulence of the Baroque period is nowhere better demonstrated than in the magnificent Palazzo Mirto, one of the few aristocratic homes of Palermo that is open to the public, offering visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of Sicily's noble 19th-century families. The Palace was the residence of the Lanza Filangeri family, whose last heir left the estate to the Ministry of Cultural Assets in 1982. Most of the princely rooms and salons are furnished with original items that once belonged to the family.

Some of Europe's greatest archaeological treasures are tucked away in Palermo's somewhat musty museum, which is well worth visiting even though it's rather shabby. The collection is housed in several old convent buildings, dating back to the 13th Century, and includes artefacts from the Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Roman and Saracen periods found on the island. Highlights include two Phoenician sarcophagi dating from 5 BC, and the Pietra di Palermo, a black slab discovered in Egypt containing hieroglyphics and known as the 'Rosetta Stone of Sicily'. One room is devoted to the marvellous finds unearthed at the temples of Selinunte. There is also an interesting section devoted to underwater archaeology.

The Roman ruins at Solunto overlook the coast near Santa Flavia, on the slopes of Mount Catalfamo. The site was originally a Phoenician village that was expanded by the Greeks who conquered it in 396 BC. By 255 BC it had fallen to the Romans, who rebuilt much of the original town. No complete structures remain and the ruins consist mainly of floors and the lower portions of walls and columns. Portions of mosaics and paintings are still visible. An impressive view of the Gulf of Palermo can be had from the hilltop above Solunto, and there is a small archaeological museum at the site, although most of the artefacts from Solunto are in Palermo's Regional Archaeological Museum.

An underwater city and a landscape of petrified black lava are the characteristics of the unusual little island of Ustica in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just a short ferry ride of 36 miles (57km) from Palermo. The ancient volcanic island was originally inhabited by the Phoenicians and often fell prey to pirate raids during the Middle Ages. In the 20th Century Ustica became a penal colony. Today, the island is a designated national marine park and its crystal-clear waters and undersea treasures, particularly the submerged ancient city of Osteodes, attract divers from all over the world. Every year in July the island is the venue for an International Underwater Activity Show.

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