When planning a trip to Sicily, what springs to mind is the island’s astounding heritage – the result of its eventful past – as well as the chance to see an active volcano like Mt Etna, taste its delicious, varied cuisine, have a bathe in its magnificent waters or simply let yourself be carried away by its decadent magic. And, why deny it, devotees of The Godfather who want to discover the cradle of the Sicilian Mafia have things cut out for them here. Who would have though that the largest island in the Mediterranean, coveted and invaded over the centuries by Greeks, Germanic tribes, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards and, finally, Italians would end up becoming a destination for tourists in search of experiences and souvenirs.
The capital, Palermo, is a must-visit city for any tourists worth their salt. What a delight it is to wander along the city’s labyrinthine streets and behold the sheer number and variety of monuments, a melange of the Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and Baroque. It is a pleasure for art lovers and sightseers alike.
Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins
However, those who hanker for something over and above myriad monuments in Palermo, or who simply wish to add a touch of mystery and morbid fascination to their stay in the city – and are prepared for the odd nightmare – should not hesitate to jot down on their wish list a visit to the Catacombs of the Capuchins. Situated in the Piazza Cappuccini, on the outskirts of Palermo, it offers what is certain to be one of the most unusual shows on the island as it houses the mummies of numerous Palermitani. We aren’t aware of whether they rest in peace, what with so many tourists milling about the rooms, but they do manage to stir up fear and inspiration for the odd horror movie.
The story goes that, from the 17th to the late-19th century, the friars in this community used to mummify and thus preserve for posterity the bodies of numerous Palermitani – specifically, those who requested and were able to afford it. To achieve this they resorted to a rather rudimentary technique which involved eliminating all moisture from the corpses inside a cave with a very dry atmosphere and then bathing them in vinegar, after which the bodies were left to dry in the sun, to complete the process of mummification. Quite shocking, isn’t it?
When filing through the catacombs, you get the feeling you are not alone, but accompanied by a bizarre retinue, some of whose members are lying down and others hanging vertically against the walls, dressed in all their finery and meticulously arranged by gender and social class. The headiest and severest moment on the tour is when you see the mummy of the little girl, Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 at the age of two and who seems to be more asleep than dead. It is almost impossible not to feel cold shivers when setting eyes on her.
The strangest thing about this story is that the reason for this practice is not known, while there is no other place on the island where corpses are preserved in this manner.
Pluck up the courage to visit this unusual spot, suitable only for dare-devils and lovers of the bizarre. Book your Vueling here.
Text by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
Images by Juan Antonio F. Segalmore info
Tasty Eating in Palermo’s Markets and Other Spots
Palermo strikes a curious balance between large shopping precincts and narrow streets exuding romantic decadence, between makeshift street grill-stalls throbbing with electronic music and leisurely faddish restaurants. The city is, at times, caught up in another era, but also in the present, while aspiring to a better future.
A city of contrasts, influences and cultural convergence, Palermo has a lot to say in gastronomic terms. Both pasta and pizza are a mainstay of local cuisine, as they are in the rest of Italy, although here they have been revamped, displaying surprising traits, and combined with other local dishes that draw heavily on the sea or trip and offal. And, it is immediately evident the moment you walk into any of its markets, a must-see attraction if you happen to journey here.
Vucciria, Il Capo and Ballaró
Palermo’s three markets. They open every day except Sunday, from early in the morning until nightfall. As the stall produce becomes depleted, they clear up and bolt the small garages that act as storerooms. The markets are best visited in the morning, if you want to enjoy them in full swing. There’ll be vegetables you have likely never seen before, as well as spices, cheeses, a wealth of different olives, peppers, huge swordfish heads…
You can try street specialities such as pane con la milza or pani ca’ meusa (a sandwich of spleen fried in lard, served up with caciocavallo or ricotta cheese and lemon), arancini (fried rice balls, usually stuffed with meat) and panelle (gram flour fritters).
You could also take a breather and enjoy a marsala (vintage wine) at such bars as the legendary Taverna Azzurra, in the Vucciria, a meeting point every weekend after nightfall, when the market streets have been taken over by the youth, birras, music, table football and grills stuffed with stigghiola (tripe seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon, with or without bread).
You can stroll through the markets, sip a marsala wine and eat stigghiola. But you can also trek across the whole city and take note of some of the eateries worth visiting.
Da Diego. Pizzas and more, on the Via della Libertá. Not a tourist in sight and filled to bursting. An assortment of thick-dough pizzas stuffed with ingredients. We go for the one with mozzarella, sausage, spinach and mushrooms, accompanied by some swordfish involtini (rolls) with aubergine sauce, and sfinzione (Sicilian pizza) stuffed with ricotta and pesto. This is a type of focaccia topped with a crust of tomato, caciocavallo cheese, anchovy, onion and aromatic herbs.
Trattoria Michele & Jolanda. Just like home. We expected home cooking and, boy, did we get it! There you’ll be welcomed by Michele in the dining-room and Jolanda in the kitchen, sitting down at the table as if she were a guest. We order caponata (aubergine and other vegetables in tomato sauce), caprese (tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil) and a cold pepper salad as antipasti. Then pasta alla norma (tomato, aubergine and other vegetables), accompanied by le sarde, a typical Palermo recipe based on fresh sardines and fennel. And, not to be disloyal to the traditional repertoire, we round it off with cannoli– crisp, rolled pastry wafers filled with ricotta cheese. If you’re looking for an entertaining, lively, tasty, homemade meal at a good price, don’t fail to come here. It’s on the Via Cappuccini 12.
Osteria Mangia e Bevi. Quaint and pleasant. Beyond the family milieu we come to a trendier restaurant, but without foregoing fresh, wholesome cuisine, of course. We can recommend this restaurant for its fresh pasta, its fried pasta and its agglassati – two traditional ways of using up leftovers from yesterday’s dishes. Ideal, too, for tasting local wines and a marvellous cannolo served in a glass.
When it comes to lodgings, we can recommend the Castelnuovo area, set in a shopping precinct and just a stone’s throw from the old town. We stayed at the Hotel Politeama, which is functional and provides wonderful, congenial service and a breakfast not lacking in sweet, savoury, fruit, jams with a host of flavours, different kinds of bread and even cannoli! The hotel looks onto a large piazza and the airport bus stops right outside the door, giving you a headstart if you want to move about without wasting time.
If you have the odd day left over, you are encouraged to get out of Palermo and discover a bit of Sicily. To accomplish this it is wise to get in touch with Ulisse, which organises regular, private outings from there. They really look after you – you won’t have any language difficulties and will be spared hassles when you need to use public transport and pick your way through the island’s chaotic traffic.
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Text and photos by Silvia Artaza (Gastronomistas)more info
A forty-minute by bus ride from Palermo takes you to the Cathedral of Monreale. This cathedral was constructed during the reign of William II of Normandy, between 1172 and 1190, and is a living example of the fusion of cultures and religions that existed in Sicily during that period. It boasts a syncretic style as it was built by combining Norman architecture with aspects of Moorish art. It consists of a main nave with two wings and an apse. The most surprising features are the interior walls, as they are covered with more than 6,000 m2 of Byzantine gold mosaics inspired by those in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The mosaics recount episodes from the Bible, from the creation to the passion of Christ in chronological order from left to right. An impressive Christ Pantocrator crowns the apse leaving visitors speechless.
Adjacent to the cathedral can be found the cloister and its 228 columns, each one supporting a different ornament, along with a number of Arab-inspired arches.
You can travel to Monreale by bus (number 389), which passes by the Piazza Independencia in Palermo. It costs nothing to get into the cathedral but you can hire an audio-guide for 5 euros. Entry to the cloister costs 6 euros.
By Isabel Romano from Diario de a bordo
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La meca de los golosos
The most characteristic cakes & sweets in Sicily
There are plenty of sweet reasons for the food lovers to plan a trip to Palermo, especially for those that love sweets. Some of the most famous sweets in Sicily, like cassata, cannoli or the best ice creams and chocolates, are available here. You can eat them on holidays or special occasions and is one of the most common culinary habits for the people in Sicily.
Before you get inside one of the well-known 'pasticcerias' in Palermo, you need to know a little bit more about this delicious desserts.
Cassata is the most typical cake in the area of Palermo. Generally speaking, it has a round shape and is made of layered cakes softened by liquor and fruit, plus layers of ricottacheese. Toppings are usually baroque, made of marzipan and all kinds of decorations, usually candied fruit from the area.
The famous cannolis are a dessert, very typical in Sicily, which you should try if you are in Palermo. It is made of a wafer cone pastry filled with sweet cottage cheese and usually toped with hazelnuts, pistachio or chocolate, depending on the area, sprinkling with powdered sugar.
The buccellato is a cake made of shortcut pastry filled with dried fruit like figs, raisins or almonds, aromatized with orange peel or other ingredients, depending on the area. The dessert is toped with cake icing and candied fruit.
The ice cream from Sicily is probably one of the best ice creams in Italy, due to the wide variety of fresh fruits in the area. In fact, the regular breakfast here is usually a roll filled by ice cream, generally of the classic flavours like pistachio, almond, chocolate or seasonal fruits.
The baduzziare pastries made of almond and cocoa powder. Another sweet made of almond are cardenales, made of candied fruit, pistachio, lemon zest and eggshell, the cucchiteddi from Sciacca are almonds paste filled by pumpkins and mostachones from Mesina are aromatized with cinnamon.
The chocolate from Módica is made in southern Sicily, with a traditional technique inspired by the Aztec, using only three ingredients: cocoa, sugar and spices.
Some of the best bakeries and confectioners in Palermo
Via Cesareo, 38
Via Colonna Rotta, 68
Via D’Annunzio, 15
Pasticceria La Cubana
Via G. Pitrè, 143
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