Oh my, where to begin, and where to end? I now adore Palermo beyond all reason, and I imagine even more remains to be uncovered than in other beloved towns and cities discovered in recent years: Göttingen, Trieste, Reykjavík. Only by living there - if only that were possible for a while - would one strike the darker notes which Peter Robb's grim but brilliant Midnight in Sicily leads one to hope are much diminished since the terrifying Cosa Nostra heyday of the 1980s (I was in Sicily as an Interrailer then, and found the people sombre, but stuck to Siracusa, Taormina, Lipari and Stromboli).
The only way to cope, blogwise, is to take the four districts of the extensive old town at leisure: you can always skim and stick to the more current posts I hope will unfold between the rhapsodies. Where better to start than with our enfolding haven, La Kalsa, which takes its name from the Arabic Al-Khalisa, meaning 'pure'? I won't even try to write yet about the Lampedusan delights within our residence at 28 Via Butera. Let's begin where Goethe did.
He came straight off his ship - what a way to arrive - and lodged just down the street. To my mind he writes little of interest about the city other than his first observation about the baroque Porta Felice, begun in 1582: 'we entered the city through a wonderful gate, consisting of two huge pillars but no crosspiece, so that the towering chariot of Santa Rosalia [the city's patron saint who apparently rescued it from the plague] can pass through on her famous feast day'.
The massy ramparts built by the Spanish separate La Kalsa from the seafront Foro Italico and a swathe of land reclaimed from the sea after all the detritus of World War Two destruction gathered there; Lampedusa recalled looking down on the prostitutes leading GIs into the rubble. Something may or may not be done about the wasteland, said our host Gioacchino, according to what funds are available next year.
As for La Kalsa, it now offers the best of all possible worlds except a lively market like the three other quarters. Some buildings and spaces remain as they were, bombed out, at the end of the war; others have been beautifully restored and chic cafes, restaurants and B&Bs are springing up. The quarter, like the rest of the old town, is very much lived in. I fear the two rough and ready fish restaurants further down our street have been a little spoiled by joining the tourist list (though there were few non-Italian visitors before Easter); we had an OK but not outstandingly fresh meal at the Trattoria Peppuccio for the standard 20 euros.
Sicilian cooking will have to wait for another entry, but I should add that as you progress down the street, passing two fine baroque churches and the Piazza della Kalsa with another gate through a handsome palazzo to the seafront
there's a wonderful bakery. And as you head out through another break in the walls
you're spoilt for choice between two cafes. The Bar Rosanero, named after the colours of the Palermitan football team to whose matches you can buy tickets here, and much else besides, is the most vibrant, serving typically strong coffee and fresh cornetti, but the bar on the other curve had the liveliest seasonal cake display, including all these paschal lambs.
Our first destination proper was the church of La Magione, an atmospheric introduction to the city's Norman-Arab architecture. Consecrated in 1191, at the end of the Norman era, as a Cistercian abbey by Matteo d'Aiello, it became the religious base of the Teutonic knights in 1197 once the Hohenstaufens had overrun Sicily. I instantly thought of the chilling white-tunicked enemy in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, and a nearby bar underlined the image.
With the Magione begins an enigma I never found answered while we were in Palermo, and certainly not by the skimpy Rough Guide: how much of the many mosques and Arab buildings became incorporated into the Normans' churches and castle? Anything? Nothing at all? The fusion here may well just be the legacy of Roger I's willingness to live alongside Muslims as well as Jews and other peoples, to integrate what they had to offer. Whatever the case, La Magione (pictured up top) is a handsome limestone fusion, especially in the ogival windows of its massy south facade.
There's no harm in following the Palm Sunday entry with a calmer view of the west front and the beautiful grounds in which the church is set.
As I wrote in the earlier piece, the church itself was closed on the Thursday, but a small donation graciously requested admitted us to the 13th century chapel and cloisters where good parishioners were preparing olive bouquets for Palm Sunday.
The water basin at the centre of the garden is capped by a Judaic tombstone.
A street in the district is one of two I noticed with the name in Hebrew and Arabic.
Indeed, the streets in that part of La Kalsa - despite the lack of food markets, for which you have to proceed south to the Albergheria - have the feel of Middle Easter souks. There's a whole zone devoted to metalwork, for instance, hammers clanging on anvils as in Damascus.
And on the Via Garibaldi along which the facade of the once-splendid Palazzo Aiutamicristo runs, hatters abound.
Before we headed in that direction, though, we retraced our steps north-east across the piazza which takes its name from the Magione. The Rough Guide calls it 'a rather bleak park area', and maybe it is in the height of summer, but its greenswards and cypresses look picturesque in the spring. The open space was formed by bomb damage, but fortunately it's been left alone, despite plans in the 1960s to drive a main road through it. As there's a big school for all ages on one side, and youth music festivals are held here in the summer, the crumbling walls are subject to some imaginative graffiti which Banksy should admire.
Another mixture of antiquity and contemporary comment
brought us to the Oratorio dei Bianchi. I'm glad we saw it before the other oratories encasing the even greater splendours of baroque stucco master Serpotta - that's for another day - but at any rate a fine job of restoration had been done by the Italian monuments commission on this gem. It was founded in 1542 by the Company of the True Cross, which looks to my untutored gaze like a quasi-Freemasonic order avant le lettre (much like the Teutonic Knights - 'magione' means 'lodge'), since the artwork in the oratory features not only the all-seeing eye in the triangle,
but also serpents on crosses and some esoteric choices of Biblical narratives (Salome and Judith feature among them). And what's with the elephants? Maybe a better versed reader can tell me. Most of the work here seemed to have been done in the 18th century, including the splendid Carrara marble entrance staircase,
the oratory proper, with a restraint surprising for that era
including a handsome ceiling,
remains of typically attractive Sicilian tilework
and a more richly decorated room encasing handsome specimens of Islamic metalwork on loan from the nearby Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in the Palazzo Abatellis, of which this was the finest.
Putti by Serpotta, long ago moved to the Oratorio from elsewhere, were in a 'hospital' room for restoration
and I couldn't help drawing a contrast between that and the scene on the street just outside:
Now I hope you're still with me - and if you're not, I should add that in the absence of postcards and guides many of these pics might serve as a useful reference - because we now hit the official glory on the southeast edge of the Kalsa in Piazza Bellini. Let's start with the outwardly and inwardly majestic little duo of the Martorana church, Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (bell tower in the middle), and the Arabic golf-ball domes of San Cataldo (again, whether this might originally have been a mosque none of my sources reveals).
The Martorana is so dubbed because of the Benedictine convent later founded on adjacent property owned by Eloise Martorana, its nuns the makers of those marzipan fruits sharing the same name. You enter the church alongside the splendid Romanesque bell tower
and are greeted at first by what seems like a baroque-decorated forest, with an Arabic inscription on one of the pillars. But the real splendours, the Greek-executed mosaics, dazzle - especially in the late afternoon sun, as we saw them - when you head eastward. The 'ammariglio', or admiral, who founded the church in 1143, was George of Antioch; the original building was completed by the time of his death eight years later. George was also the principal minister of goodish King Roger II. The founder is protected by the Virgin in a panel now placed to the left in the nave
and his king has Christ's blessing in a complementary mosaic to the right
I can understand traveller Ibn Jubyr when in 1184 he described this as 'the most beautiful building in the world' - but had he yet reached Roger's Cappella Palatina or the rival grandeur on an even larger scale of Monreale? These marvels can wait, and I shouldn't overload with Martoranan mosaics. Let' settle for a glimpse of the dome (natural light - no flash!)
a fabulously winged Gabriel
and the nativity.
After all these riches, San Cataldo could not be simpler. It remained undecorated for the simple reason that the funding admiral in this case, King William the Bad's Majone di Bari, had no sooner stumped up for the church in 1160 than he was assassinated. The bare bones allow us to see the mixture of Norman and Arabic in the design.
The beginnings of San Cataldo's decorative plan can be seen in the fabulous floor with its malachite and porphyry panels
while on the Romanesque altar can just be made out the symbols of the four evangelists around the Paschal Lamb.
For more elaborate decoration, though, you have to cross the piazza and enter Santa Caterina by the west door. The riot of baroque and rococo slapped on the original 16th century building gave us our first taste of a specifically Sicilian extravagance. The twisted and barley sugar columns reminded me of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna.
The first chapel to the right has a splendid marble panel in which Jonah, having been cast off his Spanish galleon, heads for the whale's maw.
Exiting to the north, we came out in to Piazza Pretorio with its famously elaborate Florentine fountain, but as this seemed to have been restored with some distinctly un-Renaissance-style statuary, we didn't spend long looking at it. Anyway, the piazza in shadow lent greater brilliance to Santa Caterina in the late afternoon sun.
Well, I've walked my feet off and craved your indulgence for long enough. Our side-excursion to the splendid Botanics, as well as the marvels of Serpotta in the oratory of San Lorenzo next to another treasurable church, San Francesco, also strictly speaking in the Kalsa quarter, will have to wait for another day. Next entry non-Palermitan, I promise.