Saturday, 25 July 2015
The Sicilian capital made me love it like no other city I've encountered in the past decade or so when I first went there in April 2013 (among towns, Pärnu on what one might call the Estonian riviera worked a gentler charm to the same end last week, but that's another story). So when we decided, post-wedding, to have a little holiday, to spend time walking and swimming around the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro further west, a night and the better part of a day at the start had to be devoted to Palermo.
We took a beloved route, with crucial variations, on the first morning, walking along Via Butera from our apartment in the palazzo at No. 28 - a different one this time, looking out on the street -
past the three churches with their splendid baroque facades, the fish shops and restaurants and the more closely-packed dwellings at the south-east end of the street
to the essential bar, the lively Rosanero where the cashiers also sell football tickets (the colours of the team in question are rose and black)
and ice cream comes in massive dollops ('pistacchio' in front of 'bacio' on the left).
Then across the Via Lincoln and back to the old Botanical Gardens, their main 'temple' guarded by two sphinxes.
I waxed lyrical about the flora here back in 2013, so I'll try not to be too repetitive or long-winded. Of course the vegetation was more profuse in June, with the datura blossoms so fatal to poor sweet Lakmé in Delibes's opera (Brugmansia versicolor, originating in the Amazon) in full flower.
Diverse lilies were flowering both in the small pond by the cast-iron greenhouse, largest and most beautiful of the ones here
and in the Botanics' central pride and joy, easily the most fascinating structure here, the so-called Aquarium of 1794-8, where we had found turtles basking around the rim on the first bright day of spring. They were more elusive this time, but still to be found among the lilies
along with a restless baby moorhen.
The massive Ficus magnolides, introduced to Sicily in the early 1800s from its home on Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia and quickly spreading, is still casting its slightly ghastly influence, though beyond it the reddish-orange flowers from Brachytora acerifolius, also an Antipodean guest and just about visible here, provide warmer terrain as they cover the ground.
There's a nice collection of mimosas in this southern corner, with Albirizza julibrissum in fluffy-flowered abundance
and the outdoor cactus garden looked especially impressive (here with Opuntia pailana in the foreground).
Along with many-berried coffee plants, Bougainvillea glabra graced the iron-cast greenhouse
with the avenue of spiked Chorisias from Brazil beyond
and jacaranda blossom contrasting with fallen clementines just outside the cactus greenhouses.
Then we crossed back into the Kalsa quarter of the old town, the part I know and love the best, and had to pass the beloved Magione
on the way to the major museum we hadn't quite had time to see on the last visit, the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in the beautifully-sculpted Palazzo Abatellis. The main objective for me was to see the four Antonello da Messina portraits (last time I only got to see the remarkable Portrait of a Man in Cefalù's Mandralisca Museum, then under threat of closure, but going back to the website, it looks as if it's still open). It's easy to overlook the subtleties of three saints - I blush to say I only really noticed them on the postcards, because reflective glass didn't make it easy to see them - but the Mary of the Annunciation is a gem of instant appeal, partly because of the face and mantle,
partly because of the positioning of the hands.
I admit I did what I usually avoid, photographed because of the detail, but of course without flash. Other unpostcarded treasures needed recording, not least where there's individuality in the works of the Gagini clan. Antonello Gagini's virgin and child might have come straight out of a very beautiful workshop
were it not for the trouble he's taken to show her hair behind.
The room with the celebrated 15th century fresco of Death's Triumph was closed, but we could peep in and catch such details as the bony head of the Grim Reaper's horse and the minstrel below it.
The upper rooms seem to have been handsomely restored, not least the great gallery with two superb painted crucifixes in the centre.
After the Antonellos, it was a case of bigger canvases and lesser pleasures, with a few exceptions like an exquisite Jan Gossaert Nativity painted for the Lanzas of Gattopardo fame - the crest of the not-quite-leopard is on the back -
and upstairs a Bronzino on loan and some lovely Sicilian wooden figures of shepherds redeem the decadent dregs. But it was high time for a late lunch, so we headed to the nearby Antica Focacceria San Francesco which had been closed for renovations when we were last here. And now it was summer, so we could sit in my favourite Palermitan square looking out on the facade of San Francesco d'Assisi with its beautiful rose window
while opposite is the old establishment, serving a tasty selection of traditional street food for starters including the notorious Panino alla Milza, veal spleen and lung in a bun, and superb fresh pasta dishes.
Definitely the best meal we had on the holiday, though all the food was good and several others ran the Focacceria close. We strolled back to Via Butera chancing upon the oddities that make Palermo always a pleasure: a vegetable cart with a pre-recorded cry to come buy repeated over and over, a car passing with an accordionist playing away in the passenger seat and a string of shoes hung up to dry.
The meal required a siesta, which J took but I - rather foolhardily - didn't, determined to experience the Via Maqueda from the Teatro Massimo down to the Quattro Canti as a newly pedestrianised zone (albeit a temporary one).
I approached it via the justly celebrated ensemble of buildings including the Martorana and Arabic-domed San Cataldo churches, quiet two years ago, very busy now
and took an excursion into the more complex streets of the Capo district, not so familiar with the market over for the day, lost my sense of direction and had to run back to Via Butera where our taxi to Scopello awaited. And so it was that within a couple of hours we were strolling around the former tuna factory beneath the village, finding the huge thyrsi of the agaves outlined against a dramatic evening sky
and looking back across the bay towards what we'd left behind.
Next Sicilian instalment, with fewer photos - I promise - must be devoted to Scopello and the wonders of the Zingaro.