For many years, Palermo was known for one thing—and it wasn’t good: being headquarters for the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. Situated on the northwest coast of Sicily, it was a place gripped with fear, where shootings, raw and brutal, were followed in turn by revenge killings by rivals. The nadir came in 1992, when two prominent judges were targeted. One of them, named Giovanni Falcone, had made it his mission to get the mafia under control. They responded with 300 kilos of TNT, blowing up his car on the freeway, leaving a massive crater and a total of five bodies behind.
The newspaper headline here in Sicily’s largest city the next day compared their situation to the war zone in Beirut. Italian military forces responded and took to the streets—some 1,500 of them—won battles, and turned the tide. Over time, Palermo was liberated. Today, it feels like a busy, prosperous place—one with a long, deep, fascinating history.
Coming in from the port on a guided tour, the only mention of the mafia came when we passed a tall, brown monument, rising some five stories. “This is dedicated to those lost to the mafia,” said the guide, without further explanation. The city acknowledges its connection to organized crime—with this monument to the fallen, as well as events like an art expo earlier this year which honored the 30th anniversary of Falcone’s death and urged people to stay vigilant.
Worlds Come Together
But Palermo has so much to offer than mob stories. It’s a city with more than a million people in its metro area, set by the sea. Founded by the Phoenicians in 734 B.C., rule here passed through many empires and kingdoms, all of them blown in by the trade winds—including Carthage, Greece, and, of course, Rome, which ruled here for more than a thousand years. “We feel that we are the navel, more Mediterranean than we are European,” said the guide, as we rolled along one of the city’s broad boulevards.
Outside the window, a living city unfolded. Tiny fruit markets, overflowing with fresh produce, colorful flower shops, small fish markets, and the day’s catch on display in front of single storefronts, shaded from the autumnal sun by spreading awnings. Today’s tour will have two stops.
First up: a tour through the heart of downtown, starting with Porta Nuova. Adorned with four towering Moorish figures, this grand gate celebrates the victory of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V over the Moors in Tunis, in 1535, and his trip here to the city afterward where he passed, triumphant, through this very spot.
Leading to the Cassaro, the oldest street in Palermo, the guide took us on a tour of the Palazzo dei Normanni. Also known as the Royal Palace, the Normans built its oldest parts in the 11th century. The guide pointed out an inscription in three languages—Latin, Greek, and Arabic. “In this part of the Mediterranean, we absorb parts of so many civilizations,” she said. “And these three, are always mingling.”
The Moors ruled here from 831 to 1072, establishing an Emirate and introducing crops whose ingredients still appear in Sicilian recipes (Greek, Italian, and Spanish influences also shape them). To this day, Arabic words are a part of the Sicilian language that’s spoken in the streets. The Normans besieged the city and took over, making Latin dominant. We spent most of our time in the Palatine Chapel of the palace, passing through its original bronze doors, taking in the mixture of Norman, North African, and Byzantine architectural styles. The acts of the Biblical apostles are depicted on the walls. From above, a mosaic of a young Christ peers down, his two fingers raised to signal a dual nature, both man and God.
We then rolled up to Monreale, passing through switchbacks to the top, which looks out over the sweeping Golden Valley, rich with agriculture and cradling the city; the vista stretches all the way to the sea. We parked the coach and proceeded on foot up a series of steps, where the little shops along the way mixed genuine items with the usual tourist schlock. Yes, keychains and t-shirts. But also ceramics, mosaics, and even hand-made puppets.
Huffing and puffing to the top, I reached the cathedral. Inside, it’s a wonder. “It was built in such a monumental way, to impress the pope in Rome,” explained the guide, gesturing to all the gold, all around. The man at the Vatican took notice. King William II of Sicily, a Norman, started construction in 1172, and Pope Alexander III issued a bull in 1174 to approve it. Soon after, Pope Lucius III created the archdiocese of Monreale and elevated this abbey to the status of metropolitan cathedral.
The church has an interesting origin story bordering on the mythical. The Norman king claimed that he dozed off under a carob tree during a hunting trip, and the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She showed him that a great treasure in gold coins sat below the tree, and he used that fortune to build the church.
The main thing you notice when you enter: so many mosaics. They cover some 65,000 square feet, depicting everything from Old and New Testament stories to recently (at the time of building) martyred saints. Again, so many cultures come together here: The cathedral includes both Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox architecture, Arab craftsmanship, Greek artwork, and work from Venetians and Tuscans, all funded and overseen by former Vikings.
A remarkable place. An abiding example of so many worlds coming together; all the finest results of cultural cross-pollination. The images swirled in my mind, and I scarcely noticed that tall brown monument. To me, Palermo wouldn’t be about the mafia—not at all. My memories will always be consumed by the magnificent results that occur when talented people from all over gather together to create such beautiful places.
If You Go:
Fly: Palermo’s Falcone Borsellino Airport is the second-largest in Sicily. It serves as a hub for low-cost carriers and receives nonstop flights from European capitals, including Paris, London, Stockholm, and others (many are seasonal).
Getting Around: If you’re simply staying in Palermo, public transit supplemented by taxis should be enough to get you around the city. If you’re thinking of wandering into the villages nestled into the rugged mountains beyond the city limits (and you definitely should), a rental car is essential.
Stay: Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa is a historic hotel in the heart of the city, with a cloistered courtyard and a verdant rooftop garden with views over the urban maze, out to the mountains. Get a room with a balcony, if possible.
Take Note: While Sicily is connected to the rest of Italy by train, the island isn’t serviced by any bridges. So when it arrives at the tip of the boot, the train is split in two and rolled onto the ferry for the relatively short journey across to Messina. Book your tickets here: Trenitalia.com
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.