Getting to know Palermo

Cosmopolitan, mysterious and sensual, Palermo puts you to the test.

The word ‘travelling’ has many meanings. You can travel in search of something, observing and absorbing the new surroundings you find yourself immersed in. Travelling is also a way to find yourself and get to know the place through which you are travelling.

Palermo puts you to the test, because it is a city that is cosmopolitan, mysterious and sensual at the same time. Founded by the Phoenicians, it lost its independence during the Punic Wars and was then subject to rule by various groups of people, all of whom came from the sea: they were Roman, Visigoth, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Svevi, French, Catalan, Spanish and, finally, Italian.

Palermo is the capital of the island, and you can truly feel the influence, but it may also constitute a journey in and of itself. You can walk through the old city, as the historic centre split into the four districts (Kalsa, Albergheria, Seralcadio, Loggia) is called. These districts were once filled with people; noble familigies who lived in palaces inhabited it right next to humbler people, attached to their city.

Half a square kilometre on is medieval Palermo – the Steri tower, the residence of a powerful family and then seat of the Inquisition’s Court. There is also the Catalan district, full of simple, refined architecture – Abatellis palace, which is home to the Regional Gallery. Furthermore, the Baroque district is more flashy – Butera palace, Professa house, and the oratories decorated with Serpotta’s stucco works.

Another important destination is Piazza Marina, which, in its centre, has a garden surrounded by magnificent wrought iron railings in a liberty style, threatened by the roots of the ficus magnolioides, introduced to Sicily in the nineteenth century by the English, which acclimatised perfectly; the pachyderm roots and blossoming foliage dominates the square. There is also Piazza Magione, a little far out, which is something else altogether. It is broad but desolate, with solitary tufts of parched weeds. But here, you can find one of the most beautiful churches in Palermo, built with a light-coloured stone, with smooth walls of perfect proportion. This is the Magione Basilica, built together with the adjacent convent almost a thousand years ago in an Arab-Norman style. It represents a tribute to the spirituality that united the commissioners – the rough Christian conquerors landing from northern Europe – to the constructors and workforce – educated Africans of the Muslim faith, defeated but not humiliated.

Palermo, however, is not just the past. It is the Capital of Culture in 2018 and the home of Manifesta 12 biennale itinerante. The city is literally bursting with cultural events linked to its past, present and near future.