There is a very important journey I owe this blog and I have been planning to write about for a long time. The fact that I had the opportunity to travel again in Poland made me to remember the times, when it was easier to seek an adventure, to have spontaneous ideas and decide to explore something in Europe anytime we wanted.
Since now the snowy winter days do not seem to disappear here, I’ve started looking for some vivid memories related to spring, summer, sunshine, walking on the streets and all the classical tourist vibes that one can experience. I have already had Italian stories in the past of staying in Venice and Veneto region, then of Campania and Calabria as well, but there was another notorious adventure that brought me closer to one of the most famous cultures of the Mediterraneum, and it was my trip to Palermo.
During my foreign internships and exchange programs I had the opportunity to meet a lot of amazing people, and I still wish to see many of them again someday. Due to one of this acquaintances I had a friend who was from Sicily, which is maybe the most popular destination of Italy, together with places such as Tuscany or Rome.
The romantic and magical atmosphere, the commercial movies, the music and everything connected to my huge interest for the country (from Puzo's novel Il Padrino to the Southern-Italian dance tarantella) encouraged me to grab this chance and visit this friend as soon as possible. So when I had finally bought my ticket, it was just an additional thing that it turned out that I had a couple of hours in Bergamo: this way I took the risk of missing my flight to visit this city too in order to satisfy my insane and endless curiosity.
To be honest, Bergamo is an exception on the list of the article. The city, which has recently become well-known due to the coronavirus crisis, is the second most important city of Lombardy besides its capital, Milan. Therefore, you can definitely find the similarities in its landscape, architecture and history compared to other Italian cities of the North: the city centre, which is called centro storico like almost everywhere in the country, summons the pure beauty of both the Renaissance and Baroque which is represented by many state and office buildings.
Some of them used to be administrative or financial centres even before, but some of them are turned to museums - nonetheless, it does not change the fact that constructions like Palazzo del Monte, the present-day building of Banco Popolare di Bergamo and Credito Bergamasco or Teatro Donizetti are all charming on their own.
We can also mention some modern works, for instance the clock tower of the local post office's building, while it is really miraculous to see how perfectly the shapes of past and present can coexist in these streets. If we want to catch most of these monuments, we should go to Piazza della Libertà or the square of the historical city gate, Porta Nuova, where we can find maybe the most iconic clerical building of Bergamo, Santa Maria delle Grazie. Other churches though, like Santo Bartolomeo e Stefano may also get our attention, since they all include the very special richness and respectable spiritual power that Catholic buildings usually possess all around Italy.
If we do not want to miss the vibes of a medieval old town, we should go and see Città Alta, the fortified upper city of Bergamo with its central square, Piazza Vecchia. On the top, one can feel the transcendent union with intact nature and the Alpine highlands give them the atmosphere of a historical drama, but this very heart of the city is not unforgettable just because of that...
Namely, the walls of the fortress provide you a real touching and characteristic view. It is said that Prague is the city of a hundred towers - however, if we have a look at the domes, towers, roofs and palaces of Bergamo, we will definitely think that this Lombardian city has something similar with its stretching buildings and eternal peace. Although I spent only a couple of hours there, I got the impression of the city that it is like a second, tiny Rome in the North, that is the main reason I still remember it after almost two years.
Now it is time to move forward to the original destination of the trip: Palermo, the worldwide famous capital of Sicily, which, apart from its huge cultural and historical heritage, is frequently mentioned in popular culture from team-building games to fantasy names of meals in the menu of Italian restaurants abroad.
The city has a very long, colorful, tough and sometimes even tragical history, starting with the prehistoric tribes of the Sicani people, then with Phoenicians (Carthaginians), Greeks and Romans, while in the early middle ages the Normann and the Arab invasion also reached the walls of Palermo.
Later the city was one of the royal centres besides Naples during the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Due Sicilie), therefore the Spanish and Bourbon rule also had an impact on the development of the city. Finally we should mention the episode of Garibaldi’s soldiers there during the War of Independence in the 19th, and the dominance of some mafia groups even until the 20th century.
The first picture one can have after arriving to the city is the fact that you can hear, smell and feel the sea all around the area, which is no wonder if we think about the nowadays still remarkable role of Palermo as a port city. The harmonic shades of blue in the sky and the roaring waves make everyone to stop at least for a moment by walking along the road by the coast, but the hidden beaches known mostly by locals; the extraordinary shapes of different rocks and stones and the gorgeousness of surrounding mountains from afar are also perfect monuments of the Creation.
It may be a good start to visit the Orto Botanico (Botanic Garden) in the beginning: it is not just a calm green belt in the middle of the city close to the shore, but the constructions of the park can be viewed as a sort of open air exhibition. Furthermore, due to the garden’s central position it is possible to observe the noisy city life and check the intact, pure and distant wonders of mother nature.
It is needed to mention the curves and silhouette of Monte Pellegrino at this point, which has not only an amazing panorama on the sea and the whole city, but its mysterious, mythical and ancient forests are also worth a visit. However, we should be really careful with some insects and snakes while hanging around because they might be very dangerous.
If we stay close to the peak, we can also find a very special sanctuary, Santa Rosalia, which is constructed among the rocks and leading inside the heart of the mountain through a cave that serves as a chapel as well. The spiritual environment and the celestial radiation floating all around in the air reminded me a little bit of the monostory of the minorities of San Francesco I had visited earlier in Paola, Calabria and also another one in Athens - even if one is not religious, it is difficult not to admire this place on a certain level.
Descending from Monte Pellegrino and heading back to the city centre we can continue with the same topic and discover some marvelous churches: one of them is the impressive facade, colors and ornaments of San Domenico, while if we have a walk in the market streets of the old town it does not take a long time to bump into the enormous and great cathedral of Palermo (Cattedrale di Palermo).
Do not miss the church of Sant’ Ignazio and the one of Santa Teresa alla Kalsa either: the second one is located in Piazza Kalsa, which name has an Arabic origin, like many others in the city. Those who need an area which is a little bit less crowded (well, at least apart from the evening), Piazza Sant 'Euno can be an ideally silent square with its ruins, chapels and churches like Chiesa della Santissima Trinità or Chiostro della Magione.
The secular architecture of Palermo is utterly worthy to the clerical buildings: there are such iconic pieces of art as Teatro Massimo and Politeama Garibaldi, that both provide the illusion of the Pantheon in Rome and an amphitheatre or arena like the ancient Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo). Among the dozens of castles and palaces the visitors can find in Palermo, Castello Utveggio, Castello della Zisa and Castello del Principe D’Aci all make the city look like a fortress by the sea.
However, the most important monument of this genre is Palazzo dei Normanni, with other words the Normann Palace, with a unique, bright shade of yellow and a light structure recalling the early medieval times, especially if one has a look at the elegant windows, curves and bastion-like decorative elements on the top, while at the same time we will not forget the fact either that the palace was also a part of a fortification system in spite of its charm.
Although Palermo is a dream destination for sure in the eyes of history and art lovers, it is quite different with its cultural diversity from anything we can notice in North-Italy, just like the inhabitants are. Let’s catch our breath and move on the next chapter, because the capital of Sicily is not only about walls and columns, but streets, corners and cobble stones: the real face and spirit of Palermo - like in the case of each city in the world - can be best known and observed only by meeting its people.
A great idea may be just walking by the sea or along Via Roma, getting lost somewhere in the small streets of the old town, exploring the market stands or shops and local bars (especially the outdoor ones), but we should always remember some basic rules, like watching out for the traffic (which is sometimes quite messy there) or minding our values due to the extremely crowded places.
Following these instructions, which can actually be applied in every city, the Sicilian specialities of the worldwide famous Italian cuisine are just waiting for us. One of them is called arancino (literally ‘little orange’) because of its round shape, but in fact, it is a sort of fried food with breaded rice and different stuffing inside.
Another street food is an interesting sandwich with sesame buns, the so-called pani ca meusa, which partly has a Jewish connection in its history. The basic ingredients of this dish apart from the cheese are different animal organs, especially the spleen, the liver and sometimes the lungs of the cattle, which makes the whole food something genuine that the tourists either love it or they are not a huge fans of it.
Some places offer healthy and tasty fresh juice prepared on the spot, while the ice cream, as all around Italy, is a big deal here as well; according to some locals the biggest balls of ice cream of the whole country are sold in Palermo. We should not forget about the popular fruit liqueurs, limoncello and meloncello either, made of lemon and melon, because they are well-known everywhere in the Mezzogiorno: the South of Italy. If you have an opportunity to be hosted by a family, you have a higher change here to try the spaghetti ai frutti di mare (seafood spaghetti) instead of other, more mainstream ones like pomodoro or bolognese.
Since the whole region of Palermo has always had a huge autonomy and independent development during the history, it has many national attributes being remarkable mostly in Sicily: one of them is the chariot with horses that you can also notice by some souvenirs like table covers or small figures.
Another characteristic is the regional flag itself: Medusa’s head in the middle reminds us to one of the oldest antic Greek myths so it might refer to the long tradition of the island, which, based on ancient writer Thucydides, was once inhabited by the Cyclopes. The other important symbol of the flag is the trinacria, the three feet representing the three capes of the triangle-shaped Sicily, which’s people speak their own dialect of Italian though, they also have a local Romanic language, the Sicilian (siciliano).
Palermo is far not the only precious city in the province: if we want to have a trip to the mountains, we can easily reach beautiful treasures like Monreale, a town on the top of the hills that provides a mesmerizing view on the whole legendary valley, Conca d’Oro ('golden basin') with many of its trees, fields, slopes, vineyards and the bluish and blurry shine of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the background.
The main square and the friendly streets of the place will be inviting the visitors from the very first moment, however, the most famous sight here is the gigantic cathedral back from the Normannic times. The building is among the most important churches in the medieval history of Italy: it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage program and has an incredibly spiritual atmosphere.
The building, embraced by the gloomy and strict rocks of the mountain, was influenced by almost everything which could reach the city. Thus, besides the Normann-Arabic ornaments, the Gothic spirit of the 12th century, and even motifs of the Byzanthine style can be recognized. The cluster garden, unlike usually, does not have a well in the middle, but palm trees (potential symbols of Christ according to the author of these lines), while there are different kinds of trees planted in the four corners of the park referring to the four seasons of the year, the circulation of nature and rebirth.
Even though it might be a great adventure to explore everything on your own, Sicily can mean both much more fun and discoveries if we know some locals, as I could experience it personally. Most of the people are open and give you great hospitality and guidance if there is a chance, and if you speak some Italian (more than the basics for tourists), they may be interested even more and one will be considered a little bit as one of them.
I am pretty sure that the rest of the island is just as attractive and impressive as the surroundings of Palermo, but wherever you travel, personal connections and generous treatment can create strong impressions and memories for a lifetime - that was my big Sicilian lesson.