Arenella was once an isolated and picturesque little fishing village at the foot of Monte Pellegrino on Sicily’s dramatic north coast.  Now it is part of Palermo, just a short bus ride from the centre of town: still picturesque, still with fishing boats, but no longer isolated!  Even so, when I visited this week, I felt I was a million miles away.  At this time of year, it is a peaceful and beautiful little haven.  Like most things here, it has an interesting past.        

The tiny bay is dominated at one end by the remains of a tuna fishing establishment and an intriguing little neo-gothic style stone building – a tiny palace, with four small turrets.  At the other end of the bay, a little bar has been established by the water, looking out over the Gulf of Palermo and back towards the city.

I was there on a perfect Spring afternoon.   Across the water, the craggy mountains that encircle the city were various shades of blue, and the city, behind a slight white haze, a faint pink.  It looked beautiful.  Hard to believe it was the city I had left 20 minutes before!   Everything was quiet.  Just the occasional clank of a boat mast or the sound of a voice from the breakwater where small groups were chatting in the sun, and young boys coming and going  up and down the old stone steps to swim and then dry out in the sun.  Read the rest of this entry »

There was a rather curious article in this morning’s paper headed   ‘The squalor of a garden closed for 25 years – works started and not finished are to blame’.    The heading itself wasn’t so surprising – it’s not all that uncommon for buildings to be closed for twenty five years here – but having read the article, I was left with the sense that something was missing.  Or perhaps I was missing something.  Surely the works in question couldn’t have been started twenty five years ago?  What else had gone wrong?  

The garden is not in a poor part of town.  It’s in the centre of an otherwise attractive square, Piazza Principe di Camporeale, close to a desirable residential area.  I was curious to see it for myself, and decided to pay a visit.

I found that almost the entire garden was enclosed by a high green corrugated iron fence, which looked as though it had been there for a very long time.  The occasional small hole in the fence revealed a garden completely overgrown and abandoned. The small section that remained outside the fence was taken up by three or four large Ficus Macrophylla (Moreton Bay Fig) trees.  Under their spreading branches, a handsome white marble sculpture, surrounded by iron railings, had survived.  Rubbish of all sorts littered the ground; old clothes hung on the fence.  Behind the sculpture, someone, apparently asleep, was lying on the ground wrapped in a faded, patterned pink blanket. The article was right: it was a scene of total squalor. Read the rest of this entry »

Palermo has some impressive large public gardens, among them the famous botanical gardens, the Orto Botanico, and Villa Giulia, a formal 18th century garden that Goethe described, with perhaps excessive enthusiasm,  as  “the most wonderful spot on earth”.   But three tiny public gardens that have been established relatively recently are, in their own way,  just as worthy of attention.  Each one is evocative of the city’s exotic past and reflective of its somewhat troubled present.  And each has an interesting story to tell.    

Giardino Giusto Monaco   

I came upon this garden quite by chance while exploring one of Palermo’s large public gardens, the Giardino Inglese or English Garden – so called because when created in the 19th century, it was not designed in the formal Italian style, but in the more informal manner of English gardens. 

I noticed, at the back of the Giardino Inglese, a pink Liberty style villa, partly hidden by high walls and foliage, and on going to investigate ,  came upon the Giardino Giusto Monaco, a tiny garden facing via Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa and overlooked by the villa.  The garden looked  slightly neglected, but inviting: a little haven of green grass and dark leaved orange trees, full to overflowing with fruit.  Even the grass was covered in oranges.  I was already intrigued, when I noticed something else: dotted along the paths around the garden was a series of small metal plaques incised with quotations from various classical texts – Medea,    AgamemnonUlysses, the Aeneid and others, and one or two passages from Berthold Brecht.   “Where else”, I thought to myself, “would you be likely to stumble on something like this?” It seemed a perfect little garden for Palermo  – a little haven providing both shade from the harsh Sicilian sun and the chance to enjoy a garden while reading some carefully selected extracts from various classical texts.   I was curious to know how such a garden came to be created.  Read the rest of this entry »

One night in 1962, people living opposite the Villino Florio, a house that is often said to be one of the finest examples of Palermo’s famous Liberty architecture, were woken by the sound of crackling as flames tore through the building, destroying most of the interior and some of the external walls.  The fire had been deliberately lit. 

Over the next few years, many of the grand Liberty villas that lined Via Liberta’, the boulevard leading into the city from the north-west, were to meet a similar fate in what has come be known as the ‘sack of Palermo’.   Unlike them, and somewhat miraculously, Villino Florio has survived.  

Recently, nearly fifty years later and after a meticulous restoration, the house was opened to the public for the first time – but only for a limited period.  I managed to visit on the last day, and found both the building and the renovation so interesting that, as I left, I asked the attendant why the house wasn’t going to remain open.   He simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders in a typically Sicilian way that signifies “Who could possibly know?”.   The garden, however, will be open and it is well worth visiting to see the exterior of the house:  a fantasy of turrets, dormer windows and ashlar stonework.  Read the rest of this entry »

Indispensable and enjoyable as they are in many ways, travel guides, books and documentaries often deprive us of a sense of discovery.  The path is laid out for us – we may ultimately be surprised at what we find, but we know, more or less, what to expect. 

Nevertheless, twice recently, I have had a great sense of discovery – not due to any great enterprise on my part, but simply because the books I happened to be reading had been written 30 or 40 years ago.  The first of my  ‘discoveries’ was a 12th century Norman bridge;  the second, the remains of Palazzo Lampedusa, birthplace and home of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the  great 20th century Italian novel, The Leopard. 

Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.  On one of my visits to London I had picked up a copy of The Travellers’ Guide to Sicily in the Oxfam bookshop in Marylebone High Street.   Even though last revised in 1972, the book contained a lot of information that was still relevant and seemed to me well worth the asking price of £2.    Read the rest of this entry »