It might seem fanciful to describe this tangled and overgrown green area, close to one of Palermo’s busiest thoroughfares and hemmed in by ugly modern apartment blocks, as the garden of a Norman king.  But, although a certain amount of imagination may be required to see it, that is what it is.  The area was once part of a huge and exotic pleasure garden created by the last of the Norman Kings, William II, in the second half of the 12th century.   

What led me down a side street and away from the chaotic via Calatafimi to the remains of William’s pleasure garden was a tantalising glimpse of a little red-domed Islamic styled stone pavilion.  The little pavilion, obviously part of Palermo’s Arabo-Norman past , lay behind an attractive iron fence, at one end of a surprisingly large, overgrown and forgotten looking green area.   At the other end, stood a large, obviously once grand, but now abandoned and neglected, villa, with an elegant external staircase and huge ficus magnolioides trees nearby.  Linking the two structures was a tangle of citrus and palm trees, vines, creepers, wild flowers and grasses and here and there the remains of old stone walls.  The fact that these buildings, and the fragment of garden, remain, and the air of abandonment that hangs over them, combine to stir the imagination.   Read the rest of this entry »

One of Palermo’s most interesting five-star hotels, the Villa Igiea, sits on a rocky headland overlooking the Bay of Palermo, just north of the city centre.  Below it, at the bottom of sheer rocky cliffs, is the tiny fishing village of Acquasanta, so called because of the curative thermal waters that have flowed through its rocky caverns since ancient times.  By the end of the 19th century, these ‘miraculous’ waters were attracting the rich and famous to the thermal baths that had been established there; now the thermal baths are deserted and the precious waters left to flow into the sea.  Acquasanta has seen better days.  If they come to this part of the world at all, the rich and famous are now likely to remain on top of the cliff at Villa Igea, completely unaware of the existence of the little village of Acquasanta and its precious waters below.  

Villa Igea’s history, however, is closely linked to that of Acquasanta and its healing waters.  There are those who wish that its future might be too.         Read the rest of this entry »

I was recently asked by a visiting friend, as we made our way through a once grand, but now sadly neglected, piazza in the historic centre, why I had chosen to live in Palermo; what it was, in particular, about the city that appealed to me.  I answered as best I could, but I knew at the time that the answer I was giving was inadequate.  I talked about the fascination of exploring the city’s past: whereas in other places I often feel alienated from the past because it’s been beautified, turned into a show-piece, here I’m constantly being drawn into the past.  And that is important, but its only part of the city’s appeal.  Being able to shop in markets and small shops, where people know what they are selling and are willing to talk, is a real source of pleasure.  I also get great pleasure from visiting the small workshops that exist in the historical centre, where artisans and craftsmen work away quietly to produce goods – often, but not always, traditional goods – that they sell direct to their customers.  You can chat to them, watch them work, see how their products are made – and you can make a purchase, usually for not a lot of money.  In a world of mass production, where profit is God, these little workshops are oases in the desert.   

One of my favourites is Cittacotte, a tiny space, little more than a small room opening onto Palermo’s oldest street, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.  Here Vincenzo (Enzo for short) Vizzari, a former architect, has been working since 1993 to produce scale terracotta miniatures of Palermo’s buildings and monuments – the Norman Palace, the old city gates, the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice, the church of S. Francesco and many more.  He also makes miniatures of less important buildings such as the little houses you find in the laneways that wind their way through the old centre .   The models are unpainted terracotta, intricate, but at the same time simple, and beautifully made.  As soon as you talk to Enzo Vizzari, you realise that he is both passionate about what he does and extremely focused. Read the rest of this entry »

This week I took a bus south from Palermo through the panoramic  countryside of vines, olive groves and sweeping tracts of golden stubble almost to the south coast. I was visiting a recently opened Ceramics Museum in the small hill town of Burgio. The museum, housed in a beautifully restored 16th century convent, was well worth the visit. But more of that another time! At the end of my visit, I was lured, not at all unwillingly, down a side-track that  produced the most intriguing tale of the byzantine icon that once again resides in Burgio’s main church, the 12th century Chiesa Madre.

The attendant at the ceramics museum was a young girl who had grown up in Burgio, and was both knowledgeable and passionate about the town. She had the sort of ‘passion for place’ that I am often struck by here. and rarely encounter outside Sicily. Or perhaps it’s just that on this subject  Sicilians tend to be particularly eloquent!  As I was leaving the museum, she asked if I had already visited the small church next door, the church of S. Maria delle Grazie. When I said I hadn’t, she said I really must see it, and offered to accompany me. Had she not, I might never have heard the story of how a precious byzantine icon had been stolen during the 1960s and returned more than 25 years later. Read the rest of this entry »

Tucked away in an unprepossessing side street (via Colonna Rotta, or the street of the broken column) near Palermo’s famed Norman Palace, you will find the Pasticceria Cappello.  It may be one of the city’s lesser known jewels, but a jewel it is nonetheless.  In Sicily, where sweet-making is an art form and everyone a connoisseur, the Pasticceria Cappello has become something of a legend.      

 Not only will you find perfect examples of all the traditional Sicilian sweets behind its shiny glass counters: cassata (which is not an ice cream, but a baroque looking cake made of sponge cake and ricotta and decorated with brightly coloured candied fruits), cannoli (which should be well-known to anyone who has watched Godfather III lately) and sfinge (a sort of doughnut filled with ricotta), you will also discover some wonderful new creations including the famous seven layer chocolate cake.  Sicily’s sweet making tradition is rich, and closely linked with the island’s colourful past, but here at the Pasticceria Cappello, in the hands of Salvatore Cappello, one of Italy’s master pastry chefs, it is very much alive and continuing to develop.       Read the rest of this entry »