See you at the Kahlesa! …

23 February, 2010

Not very much remains of Palermo’s old city walls: several 16th century gates and some short stretches of  wall; nothing more.  But inside part of the remaining wall that faces the sea you will find the Kursaal Kahlesa – bar, bookshop, restaurant, music venue, and general meeting place.  Palermo is good at turning the ruins of its past into magical entertainment venues; nowhere has it done it better than at the Kahlesa. 

On my first trip to Palermo, I stayed in a hotel built on the site of the demolished wall, next door to the Kahlesa.  One night I was driven back to the hotel after dinner with friends in a restaurant in the old city.  As we stopped beside the wall, they said: “The Kahlesa will still be open – if you haven’t been there, you must go in!”  I hadn’t been there – in fact, I hadn’t even heard of the Kahlesa – but of course I went in.  The door is unobtrusive, set into the wall without any signage at all.  I didn’t know what to expect, and I was surprised.  The space is impressive  – stylish and modern, but at the same time suggestive of Palermo’s exotic past.   

The area inside the high stone walls is vast and cavernous with vaulted ceilings, from which two huge white geometric shaped sails are suspended.  At one end of the space, there is an elegant bookshop with a big oval book-covered table in the centre and three striking white shaded lamps with bases of geometric shaped natural wood.  At the other end, there are low tables and chairs with cushions covered in richly coloured silks.  That night it was quiet, the music was low, the lighting soft, and as I browsed in the bookshop I felt excited by both the Kahlesa and the city I had begun to explore during the day.      

 The space occupied by the Kahlesa is part of the huge Palazzo Forcella De Seta which extends along the ramparts beside and above Porta dei Greci, one of the old city gates, its large terraces overlooking the sea.  After being badly damaged in the early 19th century uprisings that preceded the unification of Italy,  the building was acquired for restoration by Enrico Forcella, an enterprising marquis with a passion for the arts and antiquity.  As a result of his restoration, and that of subsequent owners including the Princes of Baucina and the Marquis De Seta, the Palazzo is now an interesting mixture of architectural styles – from Norman and Spanish to Moroccan and Neo-Gothic.  Its large hanging garden, which in the summer houses the Kahlesa’s restaurant, is one of the largest remaining in a private residence in Palermo.  The Palazzo, once more in need of restoration, is only occasionally open to the public.  A recent announcement that the latest restoration project has been suspended for lack of funds suggests that is not likely to change in the near future.   

 The Kahlesa has become something of a focal point in the city, the perfect meeting place.  The bar has a wide selection of Sicilian wines, the food in the restaurant is good, there are regular concerts, often jazz, sometimes soul or Sicilian folk music, and the bookshop often hosts book launches.  

 Late in the evenings, the bar is usually crowded, sometimes very crowded.  As an outsider, one can indulge in  people-watching and eavesdropping, and feel you are getting a sense of Palermo’s night life and social scene.  But I also like coming when it is quieter, in the late afternoon or early evening.  Then, you can enjoy the surroundings uninterrupted.  This week, having spent the afternoon out of the city, I called in just as it was beginning to get dark.  Several people were sitting around at the low tables, either reading newspapers or talking quietly among themselves; the music was low and there was a fire burning in the large fireplace in the alcove.  I browsed in the bookshop for a while, made a purchase, bought a glass of wine at the bar, and settled myself down in front of the fire to relax and enjoy the book I had bought and the ambience of the Kahlesa.

6 Responses to “See you at the Kahlesa! …”

  1. CateM Says:

    Having had the pleasure of visiting the Kursaal Kahlesa (or the ‘bookshop bar’ as I refer to it) on a number of occasions, I think you have captured its charm and ambience perfectly. I can’t wait to go back!

  2. Antonio Says:

    I agree with Catherine on all counts, come sempre.

  3. Sally F Says:

    You have the atmosphere to a T – I loved my short visit to this place with you.

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