Palermo, Italy is Sicily’s capital city and resides on the north west of the island in its own beautiful, wide bay, overlooked by Mount Pellegrino, which was described by Goethe as “the most beautiful promontory in the world”. Although founded by Phoenicians, it was the ancient Greeks who gave the city its name, which means ‘port of all’. Palermo’s long succession of occupation by different cultures is testament to its desirability as a prized landmark.
From its Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish occupations, Palermo imbibed a rich cultural heritage. Following the Norman Conquests, it was crowned the capital of Mediterranean culture and became a great centre of learning and one of Europe’s greatest and wealthiest cities. Needless to say, this means Palermo has an abundance of interesting sights to offer the modern visitor.
Foremost of these must be the Palazzo dei Normanni, which dates back to the 9th century but underwent considerable extensions by the Normans in the 12th century. This became the seat of the Kings of Sicily and the palace contains beautiful mosaics and elegant marble walls and floors as well as an intricately fretted and painted wooden roof.
Other not-to-be-missed sights include Quattro Canti, a Baroque square also known as Piazza Vigliena. This is actually octagonal in shape and the four main Baroque buildings contain fountains with statues depicting the four seasons, the four Spanish kings and the four patronesses of Palermo. The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo also make fascinating, if somewhat macabre viewing. These contain some 800 mummified bodies of the city’s dignitaries. The nearby town of Monreale, to the south of Palermo houses a monastery and cathedral from the 12th century which is blend of Arabic, Byzantine and Norman architecture and whose well-preserved mosaics are some of the finest examples of their type to be found anywhere.
Needless to say, Palermo also boasts some of the finest beaches in Italy with fine white sandy stretches and limpid waters and with a variety of water sports to suit all tastes. There are ferry trips to the nearby volcanic island of Ustica, with grottoes and prehistoric ruins scattered around the island. Alternatively, a short drive up Mount Pellagrino for an afternoon picnic and the stunning panoramic views may offer a welcome respite from the bustle of the exciting city that is Palermo.