Palermo -Sicily’s Chaotic Capital

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Ubiquitous Scooter – Photo by Mari Nicholson

 

 

 

 

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Photography Challenge 101: Landscape

Took me a while to think about some landscapes, and unfortunately, I was unable to get out and about to photograph some, so here is a selection of some of my favourites.

 

Chicago from Sears' Toweer
Chicago, from Sears’ Tower – Photo Mari Nicholson

This was taken on a fairly good day in Chicago from the top of the famous landmark, the Sears’ Tower.  The skyline is probably more impressive from ground level, but I found the view from above quite exciting.   See another Chicago photo, bottom.

 

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Citava, Italy – Photo Mari Nicholson

Citiva is in Lazio Province, within driving distance of Siena, Rome. and Orvieto.  Inside the mountain fastness is a quaint old town of cobbled stoned streets, a couple of good restaurants serving rustic food, and a Bodega where the wine flows very liberally.

Walking trails to Stanserhorn
Walking trails to Stanserhorn in Switzerland

This was taken from a cable car as we floated over the mountains in Switzerland.  I seem to remember that it was quite a long cable-car trip, longer than most I remember.  It was a magical journey over the mountains and villages below, the brown and white cows hardly visible and their cowbells muffled by the distance.

Village in the Madonie National Park, Sicily
Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson

One of my favourite places in Sicily, the National Park of Madonie, where wild figs grow along the roadside and just a few locals are left in near-deserted villages to sit outside their doors and chat to whoever passes by.  Now and again one sees a thriving village like this one, which is being slowly restored to its former glory by returning families who have made some money working elsewhere and now are coming home to reclaim their birthright.

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Chicago skyline peeking from out the clouds

Madonie National Park, Sicily

Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit.  Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country.  The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.

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Mountain Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily (c) Mari Nicholson

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Sicilian Men in Village Square
Three Sicilian men in Village Square Photo: Mari Nicholson

With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily.  What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel.  It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting.  Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.

Inside Castelbuono Church
The altar in Castelbuono Church Photo: Mari Nicholson
Hundreds of Years old Olive Tree Breaking Through the Rock
This olive tree is hundreds of years old and has pushed through a granite rock! Photo: Mari Nicholson

Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them?   The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.

Steep Narrow Street in Mountain Village
Steep Narrow Streets in Villages Photo: Mari Nicholson

In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.

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Semi-Deserted village in Madonie. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Wild mushrooms
Wild Mushrooms awaiting a buyer. Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods.  The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.

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Wild Figs Growing by the Roadside Delicious! Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Wild Mushrooms awaiting Chef’s attention at a Mountain Restaurant. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.

As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species.  The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat.  Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox.  And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.

Provola delle Madonie
Madonie Provola Cheese

Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk.  This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.

Mountain Honey for sale
Mountain Honey for Sale. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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View from the Church at Castelbuono. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula.  A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold.   It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).

High in the Mountains Looking Down on the Sea
From the Mountains to the Sea. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it.  It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold.  In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina.  A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.

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Jasmine and Geraniums most Popular Flowers in the mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Huge Granite Rocks lend Grandeur to the Scenery. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages.  It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts.  Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.

Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages
Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Village in the Madonie National Park
The Villages seem to Blend into the Mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson

A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays.   It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.

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Madonie National Park in its Grandeur. Photo: Mari Nicholson

When to go?  Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below.  Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.

Siracusa, Sicily: Greatest Greek City in the World

Siracusa (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but, if possible, the visitor to Sicily should not miss this surprisingly large city that was once described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.

El Duomo, Siracusa, Sicily
El Duomo, Siracusa, Sicily

Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified in Siracuse’s Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Siracuse.

The façade of the cathedral is 18th century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive works to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which temple were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to see how nothing was wasted: one example is the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena that were incorporated into the church that superseded it.

Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo
Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo

Siracusa Town

Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa
Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is full of people, as the ground floors of the once-great palaces are now mostly restaurants, cafés and bars and on a warm evening there is no better place in Siracusa in which to sit and enjoy a café or aperitif.

A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa
A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa

There are two main areas in the town, the archeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and ruins, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.

The Archeological Area

Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa
Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa

In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.

Greek Theatre, Siracusa
Greek Theatre, Siracusa

The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripedes are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodated up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.

The Ear of Dionysis

The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Siracuse.

The Ear of Dionysis 4

Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.

There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!

Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily
Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily

The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.

Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History

At only 1km by 500m the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Greek and Roman remains, the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun by sitting at one of the many cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island.   Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.

Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily
Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily

One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious.

Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Siracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that we can see today.

Sanctuary of La Madonna delle Lacrimi, Siracusa
Sanctuary of La Madonna delle Lacrimi, Siracusa

The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.

Temple to Apollo, Siracusa, Sicily

It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.

Citrus from Sicily
Citrus from Sicily

Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus who sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and the city remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.

Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.

Arethusa Spring, Siracusa
Arethusa Spring, Siracusa