Exploring the City

Wednesday – April 26

The capital of Sicily and its largest city, Palermo, is steep in history. The city has slightly over 600,000 residents and is a major port on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The long and rich history of Palermo, and for that matter the entire island of Sicily, can be traced all the way to prehistoric times. Palermo, a large port in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, was a prized possession of many a conquering nation: the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandal and Ostrogoths, Byzantine Greeks, the Muslims, Normans, and the Spanish, to name just a few. In modern day, the island’s strategic importance in WWII was essential for the allied forces to obtain a major port. Once the island was occupied, the liberating armies were within striking distance of continental Europe. The history of Palermo is very rich and each group that inhabited Palermo has left a lasting mark on the island and the city that we know today.

The day began with a hardy breakfast spread that the Hotel Tonic had prepared. There were items we normally eat in the states like eggs, bacon, and yogurt. However, there were quite a lot of sweet treats to choose from that were extremely tasty. Pistachio cannoli, chocolate croissants, small fruit tarts, and the list goes on. Dessert for breakfast – Yes!

After breakfast, the posse met in front of the hotel to meet our tour guide for the day, Massimo. His knowledge of the city, the architecture, and the history was endless. Each of us had an ear bud so we could walk slowly to our destination while listening to his explanations. The city was just coming alive as vendors were setting up their tables and spreading out their merchandise for those who passed by.

Palermo has many street markets, but three major ones. We arrived at the street entrance to Capo market. By now the city was a buzz as people shopped. The merchants offered vegetables, fish, meat, sweets, and a sundry of items many of us had not seen.

The amount of fresh seafood was overwhelming. All of it had been taken from the waters surrounding Sicily.

Danilo could not resist putting on his chef’s hat on and explaining what one could do with this odd shape zucchini. We watched him become animated and excited about being surrounded by the fresh foods of his youth.

Our walk continued until we stood in front of the Cathedral of Palermo, which is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The blue sky was a beautiful backdrop to this massive edifice.

Instead of stopping, we pressed on to another important structure just a block or two away. The Royal Palace of Palermo and the Palatine Chapel would be our first tour of the day. Today the Royal Palace is the seat of government for Sicily and is not open to the public. Attached to the Palace is a small church built by King Roger II in 1140 that was dedicated to Saint Peter. The mosaics in and around the church are jaw dropping. The most beautiful of these works were created by highly skilled Byzantine artists. The fascinating thing about this church is the artwork and stories on the walls which touch multiple elements of religion.

The picture below is influenced by the Byzantine culture because if one looks closely the book in Christ’s hand is closed.

While in this mosaic of Christ on the throne, the book is open, which is how it is always depicted in the Latin Church.

Roger II was not only the King of Sicily, but he was also the King of Africa. The mosaics also depict North African influences throughout the church. Sicily is a melting pot of old-world cultures, and it can be seen today in many of the churches and monuments on this island. The quality and detail of these religious works of art are just over the top. Here is a closeup of one of the thousands of mosaics so you can see how marble and gold become one piece of art. There is no paint used to create these masterpieces.

The temperature had definitely risen since we entered the Palatine Chapel. Walking now would be more difficult in the heat.  Waiting for the posse in the parking lot was a surprised planned by Danilo. There was a line of vespa chariots that would zip us back to the Palermo Cathedral and beyond. Ladies and Gentlemen Start Your Engines! The men chose a blue vespa, while the ladies took red.

The ladies were in front but only momentarily as the red driver passed on the inside putting the guys in the lead.

Through the narrow alleys of Palermo, the procession of vespas sped down cobblestone streets to our next destination. What a ride!

We took a quick restroom and espresso stop at a street café near the Cathedral. The pause was an opportune time to enjoy a Pistacchi Verdi di Bronte Gelato. This green ice treat was rated the best yet by Tom. These special pistachio nuts are sometimes referred to as “Green Gold”. The growing of Pistachios in Bronte is under a D.O.P. umbrella just like wine.

The Palermo Cathedral has had many faces in its lifetime. Originally a Byzantine Basilica, then converted to mosque in the 6th century and later to a Roman Catholic Church by the Normans in 1185. The way things are around here, we are sure if you dug deep enough, the Cathedral probably sits on some Roman or Greek ruins. It seems every couple of centuries the church has been remodeled, the last major one in the 19th century.

From the outside, one can see many of the different architectural styles that have been used. Once inside the sanctuary, it almost appeared simple in contrast to what we had just seen in the Palatine Chapel. One feature of the cathedral is an ornate line that has the summer and winter solace marked, as well as the astrological symbols on the marble floor. A strategic hole in a small dome above allows light to be focused on the floor every day at noon. Where on the line the light strikes will tell an observer the astrological time (noon) as well as the time of the year.

Saint Agatha, also known as Agatha of Sicily, is one of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of the Catholic Church. If one Googles her story, it will totally freak you out. The details I will not put here because it is so intense. After listening to Massimo’s description and then doing a Google search… the altar that honors her is extremely humble. Saint Agatha is not only the patron saint of Sicily, but she is the patron saint of breast cancer, and those who suffer from fire, rape victims, and wet nurses.

The other special thing about the Palermo Cathedral is that it is the location of the marriage nuptials of Danilo, our host, and his bride Alona ten years ago. They only allow three weddings a year in the Cathedral, so it was quite an event! We talked Danilo into posing in front of the church with just "some" of our group members. 😉

Loaded back into the Vespa carts, our drivers whisked us away to the next historical site. Once again, a church, but this time it was extremely ornate and much different from those that we had seen previously.

The Church of the Gesù is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus. Santa Maria di Gesù was built by the Jesuits. It took almost fifty years to complete (1590-1636). Of course, like all churches, it has been though many renovations since its inception. The workmanship is impeccable, but it is so over the top it was almost gaudy to us.

Massimo took us through the timeline and the symbolism of the works in this elaborate house of worship. His knowledge of the past just seemed to grow as our day went on.

We exited Santa Maria di Gesù under the watchful eyes of Mary who is adorned in stained glass over the door.

There was one last church Massimo wanted us to experience, Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio. Here in the Eastern Orthodox church, it all comes together in one place. It has a belltower that looks Roman with a Baroque façade, and once inside, a Byzantine dome with Christ looking down from above. (Notice the book is closed – Byzantine Rite)

And once again, we were treated to a Byzantine Mosaic with beautiful workmanship.

Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio was our last church of the day. We then strolled around the corner to the Piazza Pretoria. The town hall of Palermo is located on this piazza, but more importantly, one will find the Fontana Pretoria, better known as the Fountain of Shame. Built in the 1550s, it is a beautiful work that rivals the fountains of Rome. However, it was built during the time of Spanish rule and the nudity was objectionable. Hence the name it most known by: Fountain of Shame.

The fountain’s water was off so we could not really grasp the full beauty of this work, but evidently it has not rained in Sicily in quite some time, so we are guessing that a little water conservation is ongoing. Danilo herded the cats and we were off in the vespas once again! To the gardens we go!

These little APE taxis were a blast! Zooming around the city through alleys allowed us to see so much more of the city. Not sure the people trying to have lunch thought the same. We parked by the marina and walked across the street to the Giardino Garibaldi. The gardens offered wonderful shade as we walked the paths enjoying an exotic collection of trees and plants. We posed in front of this 150-year-old tree, which is one of the largest of its types. What type do you ask? We do not remember. Oh well.

One last transit in our chariots took us to lunch. Palermo is known for its street food and Danilo had arranged for us to have lunch at the oldest street food restaurant in the city, Antica Focacceria San Francesco.

We began with a small plate that had panelle (fried chickpea), a piece of real Sicilian Pizza (light sauce and anchovies), an eggplant ragu with a sesame seed roll. The restaurant is known for their "pani ca' meusa" with the choice of schietta o maritata (plain or covered). We went with maritata and this was a huge leap of faith as we approached our courtesy taste of this sandwich whose origins can be traced back to the middle ages from the Jewish community of Palermo. Both Janet and I thought it was liver and both did a courtesy taste. Honestly it was alright… strong in flavor… but alright. Neither of us finished it and we were not sure we would have tried it if we knew it was spleen. Liver for us was a big jump… but spleen?

The group had flashbacks with our last dish! Anelletti a pasta in the shape of circles caused cries of Spaghetti O’s! Danilo was clueless, but I know when he returns home, he will give a courtesy taste to this American tradition of pasta in the can. No meal is complete (Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner) without a Cannolo! Yum Yum.

We slowly waddled back as a group to the hotel. We had to walk off our meal! Dinner was only a few hours away. Thank goodness dinner would not be until 9:00 tonight. A little down time was in order, but it was not long before it was Happy Hour. We all assembled once again at a nearby bar to chat about what we had seen and eaten today.

Most of us enjoyed a Negroni (1 ounce gin · 1 ounce Campari · 1 ounce sweet vermouth · Garnish: orange peel) which appears to be the national drink of Italy. However, the three at the end of the table were happy to have an Old Fashion, which Danilo assisted the bartender in making this classic American cocktail.

It was not long before it was dinner time. It is so nice to be able to walk to so many great restaurants and bars in Palermo. Dinner was at Gigimangia less than a five-minute walk from our watering hole. The owner and chef, Gigi, was quite a character. He welcomed us with stories and wine.

The food was amazing, but there were two major standouts for us. The Arancini was the first seafood version we had experienced. This rice filled ball had a shrimp tail peeking out the top and once opened it revealed the taste of the sea. Gigi’s told a story that went along with the shrimp Arancini had everyone laughing. The other dishes were great, but Tom was laughing so hard he forgot to take pictures. Until…

… it was time for dessert. The lemon tart embedded in white chocolate was to die for. It not only was visually appealing, but it was also delicious! What an ending to a great meal. All the wines paired well and there was never an empty glass. For those who may follow us on this culinary expedition with Danilo, we recommend that you bring good walking shoes, a big appetite, and a yearning to try all the foods of Sicily. Wow, What A Day!

Tomorrow we will board our bus and begin the journey around the island in search of wine and food.

Ciao and Good Night!

Late Breaking News....

As we reported in the first post, Janet takes copious notes on what to see and do before we depart. She is also very concerned about food! Upon consulting her notes upon our return, we found the following statement:

Ha Ha - Oh well we can say we tried it!


  1. Love the blog! I've heard of offal, but not pani câ meusa... thanks for the "heads up" on that. 😀

  2. Kathy,

    Our one recommendation to anyone who may follow us on this trip would be to bring their best courtesy taste manners. Janet and I both tried this classic street food offering thinking it was liver. Meat does not rate high on Janet’s list, especially dark meat. The taste is too strong for her. Janet’s comment was it was not bad, but just too strong. For me… I ate half the sandwich, and it did have a unique flavor, and like liver it is not a favorite. But it was a culinary experience I will never forget! If anyone ever asks have you tried pani ca' meusa? We can respond, Yep! 😊

    Thanks for following along!

  3. Replies
    1. the vespa ride was over the top and who would thunk we would it spleen!