In Palermo stands a statue of an ancient king holding a snake. With its fangs bared, the snake suckles at the king’s breast.
This unusual image is called Genius of Palermo. (In this instance, genius means protective spirit.) At least six similar statues decorate the town. Even though the king-and-snake image is Palermo’s emblem, no one seems to agree on its meaning.
One of the statues may provide a clue. A Latin inscription at its base, paraphrased, says that Palermo feeds its visitors and eats its own.
Certainly, the city of Palermo and the island of Sicily have fed many foreigners.
Located two miles from the tip of Italy’s boot, Sicily was once at the center of the known universe.
Holding a strategic position between Europe, Asia, and Africa, the island became the crossroads of the emerging Mediterranean cultures—the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Iberian, Greek, Macedonian, Illyrian, Thracian, Levantine, Gallic, Roman, Albanian, Armenian, Arabic, Berber, Jewish, Slavic, and Turkish peoples. (I may have missed one or two, but you get the idea.)
The Greeks and Phoenicians colonized Sicily around 750 BCE. Later, the Romans dominated. After the fall of their empire in the late 400s CE, the island was ruled in turn by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Normans, Spanish, Hapsburgs, and Bourbons. Sicily joined Italy in 1860.
That’s a lot of turmoil for one little island the size of Massachusetts to endure.
Yet somehow, Sicily fused its founding cultures and religions. As one of my tour guides said, “Sicily is the least Italian of Italy’s regions.” Many of its place names and words are on loan from Greek, Catalan, French, Arabic, and Spanish.
The island’s population is over five million. Because Sicily’s different regions developed under separate influences, twenty different dialects are spoken. Not counting mainland Italian.
The island’s relationships with its many conquerors (its feeding of the fanged snake, so to speak) brought it cultural richness—and a price tag to match.
Zombies in the catacombs
Although I usually travel solo, I decided to join a group to tour Sicily. Nice to have someone else fret the transportation, lodging, and restaurant choices.
Our group of twenty-four Americans and Canadians met with Jamie, our tour guide, in Palermo in late March.
We circumnavigated the island counterclockwise by bus over nine days, ending in Catania.
Palermo is Sicily’s main commercial and industrial center, although it has continually struggled with organized crime. Its population is over 1.5 million. A natural port, the city is over 2,700 years old. On nearby Mount Pellegrino, a vast number of prehistoric cave engravings were found in the 1940s, following the Allies’ invasion. The petroglyphs date from 20,000 to 10,000 BCE.
Before the kickoff meeting, I meandered around the Old City on my own, visiting piazzas, churches, and fountains. A huge flea market was underway at Giardino Garibaldi. At the Fountain of Shame, a lively group of nude statues frolic in front of several churches.
I visited the steps of the grand Teatro Massimo (Supreme Theater), where the finale of The Godfather Part 3 was filmed. It is the third biggest theater in Europe. Enrico Caruso sang during its opening season in 1897.
Palermo’s Old Town architecture is both grand and deteriorating.
Though less graffitied than Naples, Palermo’s streets are strewn with garbage. The city was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II.
Public money intended for rebuilding was siphoned away by the mafia. Instead, poor-quality apartment blocks were erected by gang-controlled construction companies. Many historic buildings were destroyed.
Our tour’s first stop was Zisa Palace, a royal castle from the 1100s CE that blends Arab and Norman design. Zisa was built as a summer home for the Norman kings in an area outside of Palermo known for its hunting. The king, William I, was enamored with Middle Eastern design and so hired Arab craftsmen to do the work. Zisa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next, we traveled to nearby Monreale to visit its cathedral, a blend of Norman, Arab, Byzantine, and Romanesque art and architecture. The cathedral was a project of the next king, William II. Both Williams, father and son, are buried inside.
The church is known for its shiny glass mosaics, which completely cover the interior, floor to ceiling.
The apse features a huge head-and-shoulders figure of Christ, nearly twenty-five-feet high, portrayed in bright colors on a glittery gold ground. The mosaics in the nave relate scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.
Next door is the cloister, completed around 1200. Its columns are encircled with carvings of biblical scenes and bands of gold and vibrant colors. No two columns are alike.
Next, it was time for the most macabre experience I’ve ever had.
Back in Palermo, our group toured the Capuchin Catacombs. The term catacombs doesn’t do the place justice. Rather, it’s a grisly science experiment gone wrong and turned into a tourist attraction.
In 1559, Palermo’s Capuchin monks began mummifying their own dead and entombing them in the crypts beneath their monastery. They experimented with various methods of preserving the corpses—dehydrating, embalming, and so on. Their efforts were trial and error. Based upon what I saw, it was mostly error.
However, their practice appealed to wealthy locals who liked the idea of looking fab in the hereafter. During the following centuries it became a status symbol to be preserved in the catacombs.
The bodies were first embalmed, then posed in their own period clothing, some in glass cases, some on shelves, but most of them hanging upright in alcoves, like skeletons in a biology class.
In their wills, the well-to-do asked to be presented in particular outfits or even to have their clothes changed at regular intervals. Relatives often visited the bodies. The last burials occurred in the 1920s.
The halls are divided into sections for men, women, children, monks, and priests. Lots of babies. Some are set in poses; for example, two young children-skeletons sitting together in a rocking chair.
Imagine walking through a labyrinth of dim underground hallways, lined with two-thousand mummified bodies dressed in dusty decayed clothing from centuries past. Teeth missing, skin peeling, hair wisping. As if a graveyard were excavated and the corpses displayed, resembling the title characters of The Walking Dead.
All of them seem to gaze at passersby through empty eye sockets. I can’t imagine a scarier halloween house.
Beyond wreck-on-the-highway fascination, the reason for visiting was supposedly to understand a certain cultural perspective from the Middle Ages. Fortunately, photos are not allowed.
Gypsies at the palace
Above ground, we found Palazzo Federico on a narrow cobblestone street. Our guide rang the buzzer and giant wooden doors opened electronically. We stepped into a courtyard, where Contessa Federico emerged onto a balcony. Smiling, she invited us to climb the marble staircase and join her on the second floor.
The contessa is Austrian. Her Sicilian husband, the conte, is descended from Sicily’s king in the 1200s, Frederick II.
The lively contessa proceeded to lead us through every room in the palace, sharing family photos, decorations, and antiquities. I assume opening her home to tourists helps offset its expensive upkeep. Regardless, the contessa clearly enjoys the role of hostess.
On the ground floor is parked the conte’s most-prized possession, a 1935 Fiat Balilla 508s, a sports coupe he has raced with great success.
The palace is attached to Scrigno Tower, a medieval fortification we also explored. It is the last remaining tower of twenty-four that were once part of Palermo’s city wall. Featuring loopholes for firing arrows, the tower was constructed late in the 1100s.
However, the wall on which it sits was constructed between 700–400 BCE by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Sometime in the 1200s, the palace was built around the tower, thus preserving it over the centuries.
Below the tower, a ramshackle shantytown has materialized on the conte’s property. Squatters live in the camp along with horses used to pull tourists in carriage rides. They were grilling sausages, as we watched from above. The conte has tried numerous times to have them evicted, but the mafia-influenced city government only shrugs.
Jamie told a story about a couple who hired such a carriage to take them to see Monreale Cathedral. Later, they complained the cathedral wasn’t as impressive as they had anticipated. As it turned out, the cagey driver had duped them out of a fare by delivering them, not to the remote cathedral, but to a nearby church.
Cannoli in the City of Love
The symbol of Sicily is a trinacria, a word that means triangle and refers to the shape of the island. It features the head of Medusa (a monster-woman with snakes for hair), surrounded by three running legs.
After breakfast, our bus headed west along one side of Sicily’s triangle. Our first stop was Segesta, the partially excavated site of a remote hilltop city occupied by various ancient cultures.
The day was sunny and wildflowers of every color were in bloom. At the top of one hill the remains of a Greek theater overlook a long, wide valley with grassy slopes and farmland as far as we could see. Each summer, classical Greek dramas are performed at the theater.
We hiked down the hill and up another to a well-preserved Greek Doric temple, built around 400 BCE. Several clues suggest to archaeologists that the temple was never finished, although they don’t know why.
Upward the bus climbed, traversing extremely steep switchbacks near Erice on the way to the internationally known Maria Grammatico and her pasticceria.
In the 1950s, Maria and her sister were orphaned and sent to a convent to be raised by nuns. Maria worked long hours in the kitchen, rising before dawn to heat the ovens and living on a restricted diet.
Over the years she learned from the nuns to make exquisite pastries, which she sold to customers through the convent wall. At twenty-two years old, Maria left the orphanage with nothing but her baking skills. Today, she is the successful owner of her own pasticceria, a mecca for food lovers from around the world.
When we arrived, Maria and her staff greeted us from behind a long table laden with a buffet of Sicilian specialities, including artichoke frittata, caponata (an eggplant dish), vegetable couscous, arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with ragù, mozzarella and ham), fresh-made sheep ricotta, pecorino cheese, salami, stuffed peppers, caprese salad, broccoli fritters, eggplant parmigiana, Castelvetrano olives, sun-dried tomatoes, durum-wheat bread, oranges, and Marsala wine. All locally sourced.
Maria, a Sicilian, explained each dish through her young translator Helga, a Hungarian who speaks English. We stuffed ourselves.
After lunch, we donned aprons and entered the kitchen for a pastry-making lesson. Maria made cookie dough by mixing crushed almonds, egg yolks, and sugar in a large mixer, first demonstrating her old-fashioned way of crushing almonds with a rolling pin.
Then, after kneading the dough with her hands, she rolled and sliced it into lumps. A helper showed us how to roll each lump into a cone. We took turns until we had filled the trays. The cookies, sospiri (sighs) and désirs (desires), baked quickly at high heat. Meanwhile, Maria demonstrated how to stuff cannoli with fresh ricotta-based cream.
Although still full from lunch, I couldn’t resist warm cookies from the oven. Maria’s staff provided paper bags for packing a few extras for the road.
Stuffed, we hiked uphill through the quaint medieval hill town of Erice, believed by the Romans to be the home of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. It’s easy to see why.
The coastal views from Pepoli Turret, the Towers of Balio, and Venus Castle are breathtaking.
The souvenir shops tout Erice as the City of Love.
We rode gondolas down the mountainside from the City of Love to the City of Pesto. (In the seaside town of Trapani, pesto is made with almonds instead of pine nuts.)
Purple people in the salt ponds
Trapani is on the northwest angle of Sicily’s triangle. It was once part of a powerful trading network stretching from Carthage to Venice. (Carthage in Tunisia on the continent of Africa is less than one-hundred miles away.)
We boarded the bus and picked up a local guide, Elena. On the way to Mozio Island, she told us about the Phoenicians who colonized it in the 700s BCE.
Phoenicia was an ancient civilization from the coastline of modern Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Experts at shipbuilding and sailing, they prospered in the Mediterranean from 1500–300 BCE.
To the Greeks and Romans, they were “the purple people,” a moniker referring to the precious dye they made from murex snails. Roman royalty loved wearing purple.
They also developed an alphabet, from which almost all modern alphabets are derived.
At one time tiny one-hundred-acre Mozio Island was a powerful coastal city, populated by twenty-thousand Phoenicians. The island sits in a shallow lagoon, ideal for harvesting salt. The Phoenicians built windmills to pump water into salt ponds.
Once evaporated, the salt was scraped from the pond bottoms. The colony prospered for four-hundred years. During summer months, sea salt is still harvested and shipped around the world.
We boarded a small ferry for the short ride to the island. Upon arrival, a friendly dog met us at the dock. Elena said, “Look! We are being greeted by a local guide.”
Jamie added, “A Canaanite.” (Ancient Phoenicia was known as the land of Canaan. And dogs, of course, are canines. It took me most of the day to recognize the cleverness of this quip.)
Mozio is now owned by a private foundation. Ancient sites have been excavated throughout the island. We toured a museum of artifacts, featuring its showpiece, the Youth of Motya, a white-marble statue from 475–450 BCE. We then walked around the island to examine some of the sites, including various temple foundations.
Hundreds of kite surfers swarmed the lagoon as we returned to the mainland. Several of my fellow travelers bought packages of sea salt at the Salt Museum.
Back in Trapani, we visited the Church of Purgatory, built in 1688, to see the twenty life-size groups of figures made of wood and papier-mâché. Each portrays a scene of the Passion of Christ.
On Good Friday each group is carried by ten men through the streets non-stop for twenty-four hours.
To top off the busy day, we stopped at a bordello.
Calvino Pizze is housed in a former bordello. The layout was not changed. There is no lobby, just a long narrow hallway with numerous small rooms on either side. Each is set with a small table for dining. It was a raucous night.
Bordello-pizzeria jokes write themselves. I’ll leave it to you.