Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge. Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera. So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes. Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable. Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.
Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture. The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.
Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city. The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple. Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.
I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli. As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place. It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.
Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.
In his use of stucco, he created a new art form. Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.
One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque. The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.
Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls; life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.
The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.
The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity and the last major engagement fought between more than 400 rowing vessels. A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.
I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays in this work, an anti-war sentiment, or if not anti-war then a compassion for the enemy unusual at that time.
The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls. It was originally famous because it held a masterpiece by the great Caravaggio, a Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609), but this was stolen in 1969. It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered. It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.
In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.
And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.
*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze, This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble. Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.
Address: Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo. Tel: 0921 582370
Becky’s lovely Tavira vase post reminded me of the beautiful ceramics we saw a few years ago on a trip to Faenza in Italy, the town between Bologna and Florence which produces work of great originality from old, traditional, designs and occasional new designs. These ceramics go by different names, depending on who is speaking about them: sometimes they are called Majolica ware, and sometimes they are called Faience, the French word for the ceramic, and the word from which the town derives its name.
Faenza has been a flourishing city from the 2nd century AD; from the 11th century it started to really expand and grow and by the Renaissance period it had reached its peak, thanks to good relations with nearby Florence, the centre of Italian artistic life. The city we see today with fine Renaissance architecture and Neo-classical monuments is a testament to this period of prosperity and growth.
Faenza majolica was born here because the land was rich in the type of clay needed for the production of fine pottery and because the inhabitants were able to mould the clay into beautiful objects. Over the years the craftsmen absorbed the knowledge flowing from Florence and became experts in shape and line as they perfected the pottery and became artists.
Majolica is terracotta clay, glazed with powder and water which makes the object waterproof and gives it a high gloss surface on which traditional designs are painted. Sometimes the object is fired twice to give it strength and sometimes it is baked in a plaster cast which is then broken to expose the piece.
The designs are etched on to the glaze, or sometimes the object is covered in paper on which pin-pricks are made, after which black coal-dust is used to stamp the lines through the pin-pricks – a form of stencilling. Precious metals are also used and this makes the object more expensive, of course, as gold, silver and platinum need 3 firings and to be heated to 750 degrees.
This is the sign for the oldest workshop in Faenza
In September and October international contemporary and classical ceramic art events draw majolica amateurs, collectors and artists to Faenza from all over the world.
The ceramics alone make the trip to Faenza worthwhile and there are over 50 workshops most of which welcome visitors – look for the signs outside the shops (see one above).
However, Faenza is also a town of outstanding artistic and architectural features, two beautiful squares in Renaissance style, elegant arcaded streets, palaces, a 15th-century cathedral and an 18th-century theatre add to the aesthetic enjoyment while the food is superb.
Not to be missed: The magnificent Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza has some of the world’s most beautiful pieces of majolica from every epoch and from all over the world, including a section dedicated to pottery from the Renaissance period.
A ‘Majolica line’ can be traced from Faenza to the UK, through the centuries right up to the nineteenth when the technique of tin and lead glazing was further developed in London and Brighton before moving to Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Herbert Minton’s porcelain factory in Stoke on Trent was already quite famous when, Leon Arnoux, the great French ceramic chemist joined it in 1841 to help regenerate the production of lead-glazed pottery based on Renaissance designs.
These early pieces were destined for English gardens as the lead glaze protected urns, fountains, garden seats and ornaments from the English weather. Minton then used the same process for their fast-growing trade in culinary dishes, each piece descriptive of the food that would be served on it, oyster plates, fish platters crab, lobster and sardine boxes, and game dishes showing rabbit, partridge, pheasant and quail.
(I have seen references to the effect that the word Majolica refers to the fact that the goods were first exported to Majorca and then re-imported, It seems plausible but I haven’t been able to ascertain that this is, in fact, where the word came from).
One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops. Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.
Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.
The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns. The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times. These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.
There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation. On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.
I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church. The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again! Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.
The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings. Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built. The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari. In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.
I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.
Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.
It’s not a walk around Lake Orta, but rather a walk around the small Isola San Giulio (St. Julius’s island) a short boat ride from the town of the same name on the lake. I have to confess it’s not up there with Jo’s Monday Walk, as it takes no more than ten minutes to walk around the entire island. That said, I spent forty minutes on the walk as I stopped often to listen to the sounds and to think about the words printed on plaques high up on the walls in phrases like “Listen to the silence” and “The Walls are in your Mind”.
Lake Orta is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Italy, as far from the touristy Lake Como as it’s possible to be, and San Giulio is possibly the prettiest town on the lake. It is named after St. Giulio who is credited with expelling snakes and dragons from the island when he arrived in 390 AD (via a raft miraculously made from his cloak) in order that he could build his 100th church there. The Basilica one sees today is dedicated to him and was built on that same site in the ninth century.
Today as one approaches the island, one sees a cluster of buildings built right at the edge of the water, private residences now but once the homes of priests who lived on the island. Inside this ring of villas is the basilica and a Benedictine Abbey where 70 nuns dedicate themselves to silent contemplation and prayer. In a world without words, they go about their work of repairing ecclesiastical garments.
The entrance to the area is through a small arched doorway at the top of a set of stone steps and once through this one is faced with the Romanesque basilica which contains a feast of frescoes and sculpture.
Sometimes called The Way of Silence, other times The Walk of Meditation, it is a cobble-stoned alleyway that circles the island, enclosed by towering grey stone walls topped with green ferny plants that reach for the sky. From the walls project ornamental signs in four languages, one side of which instructs you to listen out for particular sounds while the other side lays down inspirational advice – ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’.
My interest was in the walk, however, so I didn’t spend much time in the church but hurried outside to the cool path that curved around the island, shaded by the buildings on one side and the outer wall of the monastery grounds on the other. There were visitors aplenty on the walk, most observing silence, but there were pockets of noise from one or two groups who didn’t keep to the spirit of the place. There was no discernible movement behind the windows overlooking the path so no doubt the nuns are used to a certain amount of noise.
I completed the loop in about 20 minutes by meandering rather slowly and absorbing the ambience. There are no benches or seats along the way on which to rest which seems a pity, not because I felt tired, but because I felt it would have added to the experience to be able to sit and meditate for a few minutes in these very special surroundings.
Having reached the end, I turned and walked back along the “Way of Meditation” in order to read the words from the other side of the plaques: then I exited through the arched door to board the boat that would take me back to the town of San Giulio for a much-needed café e gelato!
Before I left the island I sat on a boulder overlooking the sea and listened to the silence, a silence only slightly disturbed by the lapping of the waves, the wind sighing in the trees and in the distance, the phut-phut of a motor-boat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit here as dawn broke over the lake and the mist rose from the shoreline opposite. The nuns sing Matins every day at 4.30 and in my mind I heard the sound of music drifting from the Abbey as day broke, and I promised myself that I would return one day to experience this moment.
There are a few rooms available and the Abbey welcomes visitors seeking a retreat from the world.
The round-trip fare is 5.50 Euros and the boats shuttle across the bay all day.
Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney. Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger. And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.
I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home. Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks. It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.
Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.
As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396 through to 1740, Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.
Having seen the Duomo – and it is worth seeing – there are many more churches, museums and architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.
Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits. This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.
Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and
Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200. It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars. But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!
But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in. The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio. Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo. The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.
But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible. In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it. It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.
The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not, this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it. The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.
The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents. There is a restaurant, a café, and a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning. On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain. In the mosaic of my photographs taken from 750 metres above the lake, (below) you can see the Duomo in the middle of the town, its copper copula now verdegrised, glinting in the sunlight.
Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.
Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate. A popular one is a 30-minute walk to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.
On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent. I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.
And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!
When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara in Stresa. I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town on Lake Maggiore.
The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the waiting 9-carriage Royal train, on to Paris for an overnight stop at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train. I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.
Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.
The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through Greek and Roman remains, and the journey served as a rite of passage for the British nobility, landed gentry, and artists and literati who could find a sponsor. A few women managed it – usually widows of sufficient means.
In 2008, the New York Times described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years. The Queen couldn’t spare the time for such a long trip, and financially, I couldn’t afford it.
In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground. I took in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoyed meals along the lakefrontL I took the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – and walked the trails, delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau.
I took a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandered through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace and I spent a day at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over the larch covered hillsides that swept down to the lake which lay 500 metres below. Another day was spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited the offshore island of the same name and walked around the perimeter of the island on a cobble-stoned path called The Silent Walk, a walk which encouraged an appreciation of the island’s beauty.
Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border was another interesting day trip from Stresa by train and coach, and across the border and into Switzerland was Zermatt, a town which turned out to be completely different to what I’d thought it would be. I had imagined sophistication and high rises but instead, I got a villagey atmosphere – rustic wooden houses and hotels but with high-end prices. The highlight of my visit to Zermatt was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but with plenty of snow-covered mountains around me over which hang-gliders hovered, and plenty of hiking and walking trails to keep me occupied.
If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.
I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon. With any luck, I should manage to link to this post today.
Another lazy Sunday afternoon, thinking I should be gardening, blogging or doing something more useful, and then I opened The Observer, my Sunday paper of choice, to find a picture of a village I’d visited back in 2004, and I shot awake.
The village was Civita di Bagnoregio and there was a whole page article (well, almost a whole page) about the place which, when we’d been there was deserted, save for a few cats and the charming owner of a small, inky-dark, Bodega into which we’d wandered. It was June and there were blazing logs in the open fireplace. Deserted wasn’t the word to describe the village. It was the sort of place you felt you would want to leave come sundown as ghosts seemed to haunt its medieval streets.
What has brought about the article in today’s paper is the fact that Civita has become the first area in Italy to charge tourists for visiting. Venice, where marches against tourism are a regular event, may care to take a lesson from the Mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, who made the decision to charge visitors for accessing the footbridge to the town in 2013 when the charge was 1.50 Euros, raised to 3 Euros this year with 5 Euros on Sundays.
Not only does this small fee enable the mayor to monitor the numbers entering the hamlet, it has also meant that communal taxes have been abolished in Civita and nearby Bagnoregio (pop.3,650) of which he is also Mayor, but it has provided much-needed employment. In fact, the town has zero unemployment now. Four hundred jobs have been created via two hundred new tourism-linked businesses that have emerged in the past few years. And there’s more: there is now transport for disabled local people and an improved health service. With an estimated 850 visitors due this year, the charge has obviously not had a detrimental effect on tourism.
Back in 2004, our party of nine people had been staying at a nearby agriturismo farmhouse in Aquapendiente in Italy’s Lazio region, and one of the places recommended for a visit with our hire car had been Civita. There is no access for cars so visitors must be prepared for the walk across the sloping footbridge. We’d visited Orvieto, Siena and other surrounding towns and this fascinating cobble-stoned village built high on a plateau of volcanic rock surrounded by steep ravines promised to be a complete contrast.
Lying approximately 74 miles north of Rome Civita was founded by the Etruscans nearly 2,500 years ago and its year-round population is only 10 people. It was known as ‘the dying town’ due to floods, landslides and earthquakes that constantly threaten its survival. In 2014 and 2015, some of the old properties plunged into the ravine when the sides of the outcrop on which they were built gave way.
Once at the top of the footbridge, you are faced with a huge stone gateway, the entrance, through which you arrive at the main Piazza which contains a 12th-century church with a bell tower. Off this are meticulously maintained streets of old stone houses, some of which have now been turned into holiday homes. At sunset the stones glow golden, softening the aspect of what could seem fortress-like.
I have no hesitation in recommending Civita as a perfect day-trip from any of the neighbouring towns, Siena, Orvieto, even Rome or Florence, if you have transport and are willing to hike up to the village, but remember, there is no post office, supermarket, chemist, doctor or hospital.
The site is under consideration to be given world heritage status by UNESCO and two important names from the world of cinema are backing this, Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone and director Bernardo Bertolucci. But even if it is not successful, the outlook seems positive for Civita which will live once again, thanks to a tax on tourism.
Now, let’s see Venice do likewise.
I acknowledge, with thanks, the information on the Mayor’s initiatives which I got from the article by Angela Giuffrida in The Observer of 20th August 2017, on p.21
Just literally bridges. I thought of all sorts of ways in which to interpret the challenge, but when I started looking through my photos I decided to go with the obvious. It’s too hot for serious thinking today, so here is a selection of some of my favourite bridges.
Above – Sur le Pont d’Avignon
Amsterdam, Triana Bridge Spain, and Ponte Vecchio Florence, Italy
Rome, Italy: Pisa, Italy: and the famous painted bridge at Lucerne, Switzerland
La Somail, France, Linked houses in Strasboug, Williamstad, Curaco from our cargo boat.
The Daddy of them all – the bridge at Avignon, France.
Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe. It’s a crazy, chaotic, crumbling city with a vibrant life that has led it to defy the Mafia, the last in a line of exploiters bent on conquering and subduing the spirit of its people. Every neighbouring power at one time or another. has occupied this island that lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with the result that it offers the visitor a heady mixture of aromatic Arabic food served in tiled restaurants that hark back to Spanish invaders, and stunning architecture and artefacts from Greek and Norman periods. All this in streets lined with crumbling buildings, visual proof of the Italian Government’s neglect of a region for which it seems to have no respect.
View from the Cathedral by Solange Hando
We all think we know Palermo from years of watching films like The Godfather (in all its parts), and Scarface, but the films have never shown the beauty of the baroque palaces, the marble statues that are public art, the beauty of the bay at sunset and the tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.
Outdoor Art in Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson
The façade of the Teatro Massimo, the magnificence of the Cathedrale at Monreale, five miles south of the city, with its fabulous mosaics brought to Sicily from Byzantium, and the hidden beauties of the marble Serpotto Cherubs in the Oratorio del Santissimo Rosario, are Palermo at its best. At its worst are the alleys strewn with litter, the almost feral children that chase each other around the stalls in the markets, itinerant sellers of silver jewellery and leather belts who accost you at tourist spots, and neighbourhoods filled with ghosts.
Teatro Massimo In Piazza Verdi, Palermo – Photo Mari Nicholson
Italy in the raw is on every Rococo street corner, the Italy of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano (he operates in a different region of Sicily but the sense of his world is here). Stand in the Piazza Verdi opposite the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house, and look towards the steps of the theatre on which the final scene of The Godfather III took place, and I defy you not to hear the swelling music of Cavalleria Rusticana and hear the howl of anguish from Al Pacino as his beloved daughter died in his arms.
But it is in its streets that the real Palermo, and Sicily, is revealed and in its boisterous street markets with their mixture of fresh food, dusty shoes and lurid outerwear vying for your attention with the fast-food stall, the fresh orange-juice seller and the suspect ‘antiques’. Crumbling baroque facades look down on this carnival of life which attracts the rich and poor of the city.
The Orange Juice Seller, Palermo, Sicily – Photo by Mari
Despite advances made by the justice system and the reverence in which Giovanne Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are held (the two Judges gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992) the honoured society is still a reality in Palermo. Its presence is a burden the Sicilians have had to bear for many years because few were prepared to defy the demands of the organised crime ring and, let’s face it, it dispensed a type of justice, the only sort on which the poor could rely.
Herb Stall in Palermo Market, Sicily – Photo by Mari Nicholson
Yet by the end of the 20th century and as a result of the assassination of the two popular judges, the Sicilians began to challenge the status quo. Led by Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated judge, a native of Palermo and anti-Mafia activist, an anti-Mafia movement, Libera, was formed. Now another movement called Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to protection payments’ is operating but this movement is trying to involve tourists for the good of the city.
Addiopizzo was founded in 1994 by a few young restaurateurs who had a vision of a Sicily where the Mafia did not control all sectors of the economy and where businesses of all sizes could keep 100% of their profits.
This organisation has now moved into offering anti-Mafia tours and accommodation and lists of bars and restaurants are available where it is guaranteed that the owners are refusing to pay protection money. Addiopizzo offers walking and cycling tours, car hire and accommodation, and can even arrange a tour to Corleone.
Addiopizzo could be the saviour of Palermo and the means by which the people’s pride and their strength to resist the corruption which has ruined their city, could be resurrected. I personally, can highly recommend all their tours and the walk around Palermo is truly an eye-opener.
In the midst of the chaos, the crumbling architecture, the fading grandeur and beauty of its palaces and mansions, the city has a vibrancy not felt in any other city in Italy. It has a life of its own, a language of its own, and it has art spilling out on to the streets. Go see for yourself, and when you’re there, do support ADDIO PIZZO.