Palermo – a melting pot of European and Oriental cultures, Christinanity and Islam, Baroque, Norman, Art Nouveau. Its split personality of heroic courage and passive resignation are evident in its aromas, flavours, folklore, history, ancient glories, modern day problems, urban decay and renewal. Your first instinct is to get lost in Palermo‘s maze of old streets and this is the best way to get a feel for the city immediately. To give you an idea and so that you don’t miss some of the most important sites we suggest the following four walks around the old city quarters.The foreign travellers who came to Palermo on an eighteenth or nineteenth century Grand Tour usually took this area as their starting point or rather, to be more precise, the belltower of the Church of San Francesco Saverio. Anyone with an interest in art history will definitely enjoy the cornucopia of Baroque elements that make the church so emblematic of the style of the seventeenth century but don’t forget about Giannino La Barbera’s icecream shop just a little further on with the best sorbet of this part of Palermo either.
Take Via Majali and follow it to the end to Norman Porta Sant’Agata on the city’s old walls at their southern entrance. Just a little further on the seventeenth century Oratorio del Carminello and neighbouring Collegio di Maria di Castiglia with its adjoining church built at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Via Chiappara al Carmine are both worth visiting.“Al Carmine” means that you’re in front of the majestic Chiesa del Carmine with its beautiful decorated cupola and breathtaking Renaissance cloister. But it also means that you’re in Ballarò where the Segel-ballarath fair was held in the Arab era: and there’ll be no mistaking it, just head for its babble of voices – one of Palermo’s most famous markets is still held here.
Piazza Ballarò is at the end of the street and crowded with stalls, shops and delicacies so it would be easy to forget to look out for Vicolo del Conte di Cagliostro where legendary Count Giuseppe Balsamo, eighteenth century would-be magician, scientist, charlatan and self-promoter, was born. Though actually the street – with its falling down walls, ramshackle houses, rubbish and rats – is often closed. Tourists pass through, the local government declares war on the degradation, but it’s an uphill struggle.Turn back onto Via Nasi and you come to the medieval Church of San Nicolò all’Albergheria whose bell tower dominates Via dell’Albergheria which you need to turn onto now to get to Porta di Castro. Ask for Mastru Pippino La Targia one of the last of the traditional Sicilian cart decorators.
Restored Via Mongitore takes you to Piazza della Pinta. The seventeenth century church towering above you contains paintings and stucco work by one of the century’s most famous decorators, Giacomo Serpotta, but keep going to the end of Via dei Benedettini for the high point of the walk.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a now de-consecrated Norman church built on an old mosque which was in turn built on an early Christian basilica which was in turn built on… well, I think you’ve got the idea. Now take Porta Montalto, follow the old city walls and you’re back at your starting point in Piazza San Saverio.
Where to sleep: Casa Orioles