Sicily is a land of contrasts: Catholic churches and the Mafia, delicious smelling food and piles of garbage, peaceful natural beauty and honking, swirling cars and motorcycles, dilapidated neighborhoods and luxury villas. An ancient island with history dating back to prehistoric times, Sicily has been ruled over by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and Normans, to name but a few. Because of the richness of cultures which have passed through it, the island is also filled with beautiful art and architecture. Although we only had a brief stay in the northwestern part of the island, we were able to enjoy some of the best the region has to offer.
On our first full day in the capital city of Palermo we decided to visit the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Norman Palace. Wouldn’t you know it, we arrived at the ticket booth at the same time as a class of high school students, making the wait in the hot sun to buy tickets long and rather uncomfortable. Only the Cappella Palantina was available for viewing that day. Even waiting outside the chapel, there were mosaics depicting saints and Biblical scenes decorating the walls. Little did we know that inside we were to discover a real gem. Luckily for us, the young people in line were not too interested in the chapel and cleared out within minutes, leaving us practically alone to examine its extraordinary beauty. Many of the mosaics, especially on the right side as you face the altar, have been around since the chapel was created in 1132. Multicolored and shining with gold, mosaics cover the entire surface of the chapel walls. Old and New Testament stories are represented: the creation of Adam and Eve and Noah loading his ark with animals, as well as the four Evangelists, prophets, and Jesus surrounded by angels blessing the people. An Australian couple pointed out that even the decoration under each arch was unique. A carved twelfth-century marble column stands near the pulpit. The sculpted wooden ceiling dates from the Arab occupation of the city. Seeing the Cappella Palantina was definitely worth a long wait in the sun.
The following day we rented a car—quite an anxiety-producing venture for both of us, given the state of traffic in the city. A half-hour after leaving the hotel though, with GPS on board, we were safely out of Palermo, off to explore other parts. Another highlight of our trip to Sicily was a visit to Segesta. Located southwest of the capital near the port town of Trapani, this mountaintop spot was settled by the Trojans five centuries before the Common Era. Somehow the ancient theater and even older temple have survived through the ages. The well-preserved temple has thirty-six Doric columns and is really reminiscent of the Acropolis in Athens; it is believed that this temple was never completed due to wars of the period. Its setting allows for beautiful views of it from nearby areas. We missed the sign that mentions the possibility of buying a ticket for the bus ride from the parking lot to the theater and ended up trudging uphill for the better part of an hour in the sun. The backdrop for the theater is the sight of the Mediterranean in the distance. Really lovely as well, though I think riding the bus would have made it nicer!
More next time on Sicilian cuisine.