Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Duomo of Palermo, Sicily

There seem to be two types of tours you can take when visiting another country. You can go on the type that go all day and hop you from destination to destination or you can go on the type that has organized hours with free time for you to explore on your own. Go Ahead Tours is the latter which is my preference. As you saw with my last post about Palermo, we had plenty of free time to go where we wanted to go and see what we wanted to see. I'm going to start off with the organized tours that we took while in the area. We visited three different churches and each had it's own special charms and beauty and each is worthy of it's own blog entry for different reasons. Today I'm going to share the Duomo of Palermo.
The outside of the Cathedral is beautifully ornate. There is so much detail that it's easy to get lost in it. But there are many parts of this church and each one has it's own decoration. The carved boat in front was from the Feast of Seven Fishes and was on display almost a half year later for us to enjoy.
 The Cathedral was constructed in the 12th Century by Walter Ophamil but the construction didn't stop there. In fact, construction continued on the different sections of the duomo until the 19th Century. 
 Amazingly enough it all melds together beautifully. The different styles can be seen if you look closely but from a distance, where you can see the whole complex, you really can not tell that items, like this beautiful dome, were added much later.
 The arch connects the duomo on one side to the Archbishops Palace on the left. To me the bell towers help to make this look even more like a sand castle to me! See those statues to the right? I had to take a closer look...
 From a distance you think that they are just normal statues but when you get up close you can see they are a bit unusual. I did a double take when I realized that it was a cherub that was holding up the book for the priest. 
Because of the different styles of construction this Cathedral is my favorite from the outside. The influences from the Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Swabian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque are tucked here or there all over the complex. It's really fascinating.
 The square bell towers are due to the Norman Arab influence and are, in my opinion, the most striking part of the construction. 
 Every level of the bell towers are exquisitely ornate. To me they are what help to give this church it's wonderful sand castle appearance. 
Because of all the different influences in construction of this church it is considered to be the most eclectic and diverse Cathedral in the world.
 The ornate presentation continues around the side of the building and to the Archbishops entrance. Most people in our tour walked right past this entrance and didn't even seem to notice it. My problem was trying to get a good photo of it without standing in the middle of the street!
 The doorway is very ornate and each doorway is different, yet similar, in design. 
 But the door itself is another matter entirely. I can not begin to fathom just how heavy this metal door is. The pictorials on it are fascinating to study. (click on the small photo to bring up the larger image)
 The Cathedral was constructed on the site where a Mosque use to stand which, according to some historians, stood where an "infidel" church use to stand.  This archway is part of that remnant. There is even a plaque made out of this same material with a bit of the Koran inscribed upon it.
The marble is beautifully carved into ornate designs. This is at the front entrance of the Cathedral and where the style of this church completely changes.  
The inside of this church is rather austere compared to the incredibly ornate exterior! While it has many details to explore it's not nearly as fascinating as all of the different components that make up the exterior of the complex. This fact often leaves visitors to prefer Monreal Abby, which we'll explore next week on the blog, over the Palermo Cathedral. But I found it one of the more remarkable things about this church that makes me remember it so clearly!
Along with the saints that are depicted on the walls trailing down the whole Cathedral are signs of needed restoration work that continues each year. 
 Even inside the church you can see so many different styles of decoration. The Holy Water Font near the entrance is probably the most ornate I have ever seen. But from this vantage you can also see, to the left and right of the font, how different the floor, columns and arches are from each other.
 The domes, which you can see from outside of the church behind the main portico, are of Muslim influence and let the lovely natural light into the Cathedral making it feel lighter, in both color and spirit, to me.
 While most of the details are rather simple in comparison to the exterior, items like the water font and the gates to the Altar were anything but simple. 
 The main dome is flanked, as with most churches, by two naves that are decorated with frescos. These frescos are really the only items that connect the style of this church with the nearby Monreal Abby and Palatine Chapel. It adds a bit more detail and reminds you that you have to look a bit harder here to find these beautiful details.

As with all tours, you always feel like you could spend hours and hours exploring these wonderful places. That is the feeling that will bring you back again. The appetizer size taste we got of the Duomo of Palermo leaves me wanting more time to explore, to find out what is hiding in each section of it's construction and figure out how each influence left it's mark on this beautiful church.

Next week we'll head to Monreal Abby which, in my opinion, is the exact opposite of this Cathedral. To me it was much more beautiful inside than outside! See you then!

As always, if you want to see more of my work you can find it on Instagram or Facebook daily. And please, do, click on the smaller photos to see the larger images for an even better look at this amazing Cathedral.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Palermo, Sicily

We had heard a lot of negative things about Palermo, and Sicily in general, that were not very cheery while planning our trip. But we were going with a trusted tour group, Go Ahead Tours, so we knew we were in good hands. I have to say that some of it is true but most of the things we heard were not what we experienced. 

First of all, let's address the elephant in the room...the Mafia. While their presence is, obviously, still felt by the people, they are not tolerated any longer. Everywhere we traveled in Sicily we saw huge signs that said NO MAFIA. These are wonderful Sicilian people with a lovely heritage and there is a lot of really wonderful things to see. So be aware but no need to be fearful.
 So let's start of with the fun, and not so fun part, of eating in a city. We set out to get lunch our first day in Palermo and walked up the street from our hotel to a place we were told served great pizza. The doors were open, one of the tables had a couple sitting and eating but when we walked up the owner said "We're closed." We pointed out the posted hours, and we were within 30 minutes of break time, and that there were other customers. Nope. Closed. We guessed that the owner was resentful of tourist business for some reason. Confused we crossed the street and went into a lovely little cafeteria called Caffetteria Amani where we ordered from the counter and sat outside on the patio watching the foot and street traffic on Via Emerico Amani. For a few euro I got this sausage sandwich and drink. The sausage had been cooked inside the roll and there was a sort of spicy mustard-like sauce inside. It was very good and filling and the people there were simply wonderful. 
 But the real treat of this al fresco meal was dessert. I'd never had a cannoli before and was told that the best place to try them was in Sicily where they were born. So I ordered that and the fozen pistachio dessert. Pistachios are a big deal in Sicily, as are lemons, so you will see both nearly everywhere you go. This is the place to try anything pistachio or lemon based. This was a small cannoli, about 4 inches long by 1 inch wide and stuffed with marscapone cheese and chocolate chips. It was wonderful! The frozen pistachio was pretty yummy too but the cannoli was amazing. I'm a huge fan now!
 Shopping in Palermo is fun! There are lots of shops on every street that feature couture fashions and accessories. Being a cake designer I got a kick out of this window that had both fashion I loved and awesome looking cakes too! (In case you are wondering...the "cakes" are actually foam squares covered in fondant which is a sugar paste that, over time will turn rock hard. That's how they could make a window display out of them.)
 And, yes, there are little touristy shops. I collect magnets from my travels so we just had to stop in here. I picked up a cute little vespa magnet while my mom and friend shopped for other items inside. I got a big laugh out of the store front and, I have to admit, it is why we stopped here for our kitschy souvenirs.
 Just travelling around town is a really fun thing to do. There are plenty of little plaza's like the Piazza Castelnuovo which wasn't far from our hotel.
 Modern touches are everywhere to be seen as well.  Italy marries the old and new really well here in Palermo. On every block you will see the combination of both. This "bottle wall" was part of the art that is easily found all over the city.
 In fact, our hotel was very modern. Unfortunately they were not quite up to standards inside. With this tour company you will, normally, be treated to hotels that are 4-5 star places. Really lovely. At the last minute they had to change hotels and, while this one had just been renovated, it wasn't quite done renovating yet so I'd give it 2 stars at best. 
 The view from our room was the docks of Molo Piave which included this little lighthouse. Not as ornate as those I have seen but it was cool to watch after dark. Our view also let us see the cruise ships that port here from time to time. 
 Riding around on the bus is always fun. The drivers take us on the "scenic tour" each time we leave the hotel. The bonus of having a bus tour is that you don't have to navigate the roads and can have a glass or two of wine with lunch if you wish. And you get to see sights like this one of the City Gates of Palermo. The "Porto Nuovo" or New Gate is from 1583.
 Grand churches are to be found in every neighborhood so you may see as many as 10 crossing the city. As ornate as the churches have been, that we have seen, in Italy, these churches seemed to be even more ornate. As you can see, there is a new level of decor on each tier of this church.
 You will find horse and carriages available but be aware that they are very pricey and that, as with all transportation, you need to negotiate the ride in advance. The drivers are also very aggressive. I don't remember a single time we left our hotel that one of the drivers didn't approach us asking us if we wanted a ride. We never took them up on it but others did. One of the places they can take you is the lovely Opera House. If we ever return this would be something I'd like to see inside as well.
 Under renovation not far from our hotel was the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. Built in 1859 and it is considered an "every day" theater used for operettas, celebrations, holiday events and even equestrian shows! 
 Here is a good idea of how they marry the old and the new into this city. You can see block after block of modern streets and cars and buildings but every now and then you see an older building like this one with gorgeous ornate details. 
 And every day we  could we splurged on gelato! See the one on the left...yup...MINE all MINE. Yummy Pistachio Gelato! This is from our favorite little corner restaurant near the hotel called the Antica Pasticceria Bristol. That translates to Bristol Ancient Pastry. There was a cafe type restaurant and a walk up pastry/gelato bar as well as an espresso bar on the main, street level of the building and downstairs a much nicer restaurant. The food was good but the desserts and coffee were amazing!
The gorgeous Palermo Cathedral is downtown as well but we'll come back to that next week! Just a little something for you to look forward to exploring!


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Piazza Marina, Palermo, Sicily

On of the great things about Go Ahead Tours is that you are treated to wonderful tours, one of which I'll cover next week, but then you have lots of time to just enjoy the city or town you are in and explore on your own. With a half day at our fingertips we decided to venture out just a little bit past the area of hotel and go to the Piazza Marina. I had read that the little cafe's there served amazing seafood and it was not to be missed. 
 After reading the sidewalk menus we decided on lunch at Gulu. This charming cafe had a very romantic interior, perfect for a secluded lunch for two and a charming open air patio out front that seated about 30. We chose the open air so we could enjoy the view instead.
 Caponata, "Capunata", is a typical Sicilian dish. Made from chopped, fried eggplant, celery, olives, carrots and sweetened vinegar and roasted with capers. Served in Sicily with seafood dishes we were thrilled to get tempura vegetables and flatbread with our appetizer of this local treat.
 We did all order seafood and mine was prawns with wide noodles in a sauce that included pieces of fish and octopus. Up till this point I'd never had octopus in any form except calamari so it was definitely a new experience for me. But I had said I was going to try everything on this trip so I dove in...and was rewarded by some really amazing food. 
 The scenery was hardly a chore to look at while we ate. As with most of Italy the building details just take my breath away. Even something as small as a window box for flowers makes the difference. 
 The Piazza had a lovely fountain...or it looks lovely from a distance. If you click on this photo and see the larger version you will notice, as with many of the fountains we have seen in Europe, it's actually rather bizarre! A woman on the back of an eagle, or turtle, perched on demons, or gargoyles  which is perched on sea shells that are perched on fish...it really is bizarre!
 But there were many really lovely details on the buildings in the square as well. The three of us were very appreciative of the physiques of these "men" holding up their frames.
Even the "plain" buildings were completely gorgeous. I fell in love with the sculpted window treatments on this building.
 While most of the buildings in the square are carefully restored there is plenty of signs of age in these buildings. Even on these buildings you can see how the smallest of beautiful details, like the railings on the balconies, stand the test of time.
 And, speaking of beautiful details, there were spectacular doors on nearly every building. I have a "thing" about pretty windows and doors and Sicily is a buffet for someone who appreciates the workmanship and art that go into such a beautiful entry.
 In the Piazza is the Palazzo Chiaramonte. Originally the home of a Sicillian Lord, it is now a museum. Since we were walking around during the quite afternoon hours, when most Sicilians are on their own lunch break, the museum was closed so we simply enjoyed the details on the outside of the building.
 There is a very interesting story about the center of the Piazza. A small park area fills the center of the Piazza and is dedicated to a New York Policeman. The plaque says it's from the "Higher Institute for Defense of Traditions". "In this place on 12 March 1909 at 8:45 pm, by treacherous means, the mafia did end the life of Joe Petrosino, Lieutenant of the New York Police. The City remembers and honors the sacrifice of the Italian-American Investigator." Joe Petrosino was the head of the Mafia unit in New York which had made great strides in ending the crime sprees there. So successful that Palermo, dealing with their own infestation of Mafiosa, asked him to come over and work with them to clear up their problems. Unfortunately someone in the mayors office was so excited that this "celebrity" was coming over to see them that he spread the news all over Palermo about when and where Petrosino would be. Including the Mafia. In honor of his service and as a continuing reminder that the Mafia is not welcome in Palermo, they dedicated this section of town and this park where he died to him.
 Unfortunately this still isn't a great part of town and while the Banyan trees are huge and beautiful, this park is not somewhere you want be after 4 in the afternoon. There were few in the park when we visited in the middle of the day. As we were continuing around the square an older man approached us, asked us where we were from, and then let us know that, due to the rain moving in and the light getting dim, it was time for us to leave the area...not safe for us. We took the hint and continued the last corner of the square till we returned to the taxi stand where we started.

 This side of the Piazza is probably the prettiest. The wrought iron balconies remind me of New Orleans with the intricate designs on the brightly colored buildings. Even the lamp posts are works of art.
There were a few streets that headed off the Piazza and, honestly, if we had not been afraid of spending too much more time in the area, we would have loved to have explored even more.

On the corner, leading back to the marina is the Church of Santa Maria. The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Catena was closed for renovations but the outside just struck me as being so very different from the architecture of just one block away. This was something we noticed in many parts of Palermo. Not just the old and new side by side but the different eras of architecture just steps away from each other. 

At this point it began to rain and we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. A quick word about this. We ended up with a little scooter cab which, while it was a hoot, tons of fun and the two teen boys running it were a riot (seriously, a little comedy team that kept us laughing every second of our journey) it was also hugely expensive. If you decide to take a less common form of transport, and there are horse drawn carriages, busses and these little scooter cabs everywhere in Palermo, negotiate your rate FIRST.  We made this mistake and what cost us 10 euro to take a cab to the Piazza cost us much more than that to take the fun little scooter cab back to the hotel. In the end we didn't regret it. It was totally unique, a lot of fun, completely entertaining and we didn't have to wait or walk back in the rain. All in all worth the cost. But if you are on a budget don't take the chance, negotiate first.

Next week I'll take you out into the city so you can see more of what we toured while we were there!