Saturday, 25 July 2015

Palermo ancora

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.


Susan Scheid said...

The positioning of the hands on Mary of the Annunciation caught my attention immediately, so delicate and fluid. On a totally different tack, I wanted some of that ice cream! What a wonderful trip it seems to have been. (PS: over my way, have you had a chance to have a look at Leslie's garden? Where to see it is in my comment back to you. Perhaps it doesn't really come through, but I think you would have loved it--and likely would have known the names of all the flowers, too.) Your photographs of gardens in Sicily are all lovely. I don't think there could be too many (photographs, I mean). You give us with them a beautiful window on this part of the world. I'm curious about something terribly banal, too: how was the temperature when you went? Was it comfortable enough, or on the verge of getting too hot?

David said...

It was comfortable enough for walking round Palermo and lazing on beaches, but possibly on the cusp of getting too hot for walking. On our first day in the Zingaro, I thought I'd suncreamed up sufficiently but the winds put me off my guard and I got quite burnt on the upper arms and legs. By the coast there's usually a sea breeze anyway.

I've commented re the film, which is charming and truthful. As I put it there, with the passing of the years one wants to capture the ephemeral nature of flowers, which is why it's most rewarding to follow through in a single place (though I wish I had Palermo's Botanics on the doorstept,my chosen haunt is the Chelsea Physic Garden, which I went to every week until mid-June when the schedule went haywire, and I know yours is Innisfree on Hudson. By the way, I was delighted to see in J's beautiful new Irish passport an image of Yeats's Innisfree and lines from the poem. Such a magical name in itself).

Susan Scheid said...

David: Yes, it is a particular pleasure to observe a garden through the passing of the seasons, my aim with my 2, though I never seem to realize it in full! You remind me that once, when I put up photographs of the Central Park Conservatory in winter, Leslie (whose garden Lois Dodd is standing in) wrote something to the effect that you can always tell a great garden by its bones. Palermo's Botanics appears to have very fine bones, indeed.

David said...

Well, them cactus bones are always there. It struck me what fine bones the big trees in Kew had a couple of winters ago. Amazing how shapely they grow without the awful pruning that afflicts the London plane trees in our square (every bloody year).

David Damant said...

In heraldry a leopard is sometimes shown the same as a lion

David said...

We had this discussion on the 'Via Butera 28' comments thread, do you remember? It doesn't look hugely like a lion either. Curiously in the astonishing film The Visit, which Malian Sophie urged me to watch - blogpost imminent - Ingrid Bergman's compelling millionairess has a leopard in a cage she calls a panther (which is how it's described in Duerenmatt's original play).

toubab said...

Glad you had such a lovely time : would love to visit Sicily one day!
I wouldn't want to ruin your idyllic pictures or memories with this comment, but in New Orleans someone told me that shoes hung out on a line like that over the street is the sign of a crack den- it could be wrong of course, or it could be relevant to New Orleans only. I am not an expert thankfully!
much love to you bothXXX

Laurent said...

Palermo one of my favorite towns in Sicily, it has a charm all its own, faded grandeur. Did you ever visit the church where the work of the Sicilian artist of the 17th Century Giacomo Serpotta's can be seen it's the Oratory of the Santissimo Rosario, St Cita church. Always loved this artist with the mischievous Putti.

David said...

How funny, and just a bit alarming, Sophie dearest. I doubt if shoes on a line in that part of Palermo are anything other than shoes on a line, but you've enlightened me. Should I hit New Orleans - and after Treme, I'd like to - I'll be on the lookout.

Yes, Laurent, we went on the Serpotta trail on our first visit, starting with the Oratory of San Lorenzo just along from San Francesco and the Antica Focacceria before crossing into the Vucciria quarter for the other two. I think I even wrote a blog post on it called 'Serpottiana'. The local discovery this time was Gagini, a name I hadn't heard until our hostess mentioned it just before we went to the Palazzo Abatellis. So far the faded grandeur still sits alongside the renovations in the old town, and I guess a lot of those will have come to a standstill in the current financial climate.

Liam said...

So excellent as always!
Please write a book on Palermo.

Have you read Helena Attlee ,the land where lemons grow?
A most elegant book.

Warm wishes ,

David said...

Thanks, Liam. To write about Palermo, I ought to live there for at least six months (the idea appeals, but the likelihood at the moment is zero).

If you commend Atlee's elegance, I should read her. In the meantime, Mary Taylor Simetti due in the post; just finished Gavin Maxwell's The Ten Pains of Death, which should have been about the Tonnara in Scopello (coming up here), but isn't, because that tuna-fishing season was a disaster. Interesting interviews, thought, with Sicilians. How things have changed, surely for the better, since the 1950s.