All Things Italy April 2023 What Palermo Promises

April 8, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear Friends: 

Last month I promised more insights from my time in Sicily—specifically, Palermo and its surroundings. Then, last week I shared on social media a bit from Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel The Children. Specifically, I noted a scene which occurs at Monreale, just outside Palermo. This issue of All Things Italy follows up on those plans, beginning with the photo above, from Monreale’s cathedral cloisters. 

I’m skipping here anything of the weekend holiday—what Italians call Pasqua  and Pasquetta. (I wrote of Easter Sunday and the Monday after a couple of years ago). Maybe you have more reading time this weekend–if you’re not celebrating with family and friends or by preparing a big meal. Hope you enjoy something of this month’s focus. 

First, I return briefly to why I headed to Palermo, Sicily, and what I hoped to find there. What did Palermo promise me, during a week’s vacation with my husband? 

As I mentioned last month, my reasons for setting out from home are much what they were for nineteenth-century writer Margaret Fuller: to expand my knowledge of the world beyond myself, and to be changed—hopefully for the better—as a global citizen by what I learn. That makes the jet lag worth it. 

Since sharing those ideas, a similar message appeared in my inbox (from my husband’s cousin’s Greatest Generations blog). A grandfather, writing in 1940 to a son who was in Venezuela, quoted the controversial eighteenth-century Earl of Chesterfield:    

“Of journeyings, the benefits are many: the freshness it bringeth to the heart, the seeing and hearing of marvelous things, the delight of beholding new cities, the meeting of unknown friends, the learning of high manners.”

Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son

Lord Chesterfield continued with an even greater benefit of travel:   

“But those who observe and inquire into the situations, the strength, the weakness, the trade, the manufacturers, the government and constitution of every place they go to; . . . and attend to their several manners and characters; those alone travel with advantage; and as they set out wise, return wiser.”

Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son

In other words, just as Fuller wrote, the inquiry, reflection, and learning were more important than mere “freshness” and “delight.” 

Of course, most of us want more than wisdom when we travel. 

Hopes for Newness in the West

What I’d hoped from Palermo was the “freshness” and “delight” of Sicilian scenes new to me. These would tap into history—especially the Arabic and Spanish influences that were stronger in the west of the island than in the east. I had spent five months in the eastern port city of Catania in 2009. Since then, I’d read of Palermo in accounts like Edith Wharton’s fiction. With its power and wealth, Palermo was an important stop in the nineteenth-century Grand Tour. As such, it appears in non-fiction travel writing by American expats. Like some other port cities—Genoa, especially—it has been overshadowed by much-more-visited cities like Venice. 

Since I had limited time here with my husband, we crammed as much as we could into our three days. Our itinerary included walking, resting, and eating—all crucial to a good vacation! We were not disappointed—especially because the forecasted rain we dreaded held off for all but part of one day. 

Following in the path of prior expats, we selected mostly Palermo’s main attractions: 

the Palazzo Reale with its Palatine Chapel
the Cathedral
the Teatro Massimo
the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino
and the Cathedral & cloisters of Monreale

These did not disappoint.  

Apse view of Palermo Cathedral

All sent us back in time to the wealth and power of the city’s past. However, the Quattro Canti, the main square which divided the historic city into what were four quarters, bustled with contemporary life. It was our “go to” spot for the evening passeggiata, and we frequently crossed it during the day.  

We crossed during the day as we traveled on foot. From the moment of our arrival by rental car, the proprietor of our boutique art hotel, Porta di Castro parked our car and insisted that we let it be until we left the city. We adhered to his wise advice. Other than a couple of cab rides (once due to rain, once due to distance), we got our steps in.  

Hiking on Monte Pellegrino

Our first day, actually, was dedicated to hiking Monte Pellegrino, a spot we’d picked in advance. The weather forecast forced this decision. Rainy days are great for touring inside; sunny days for being out.  

In Italian, a pellegrino is a pilgrim. What’s made the mountain a pilgrimage is the Santuario di Santa Rosalia. This sanctuary is in a cavern near the peak. The history is that Santa Rosalia, one of Palermo’s four patron saints, lived in the cavern until her death in 1166. The rest of her story is that when plague racked the city in 1624, Rosalia spoke to a hunter, telling him to find her bones in the cavern and then carry them around the devastated city. He followed suit, and the plague passed. 

Many pilgrims now arrive on Monte Pellegrino by tourist bus or car. But once a year, on September 4, after Rosalia’s bones have been paraded around Palermo for three days, many climb the mountain to show their homage to Rosalia’s life.  And many climb it barefoot.

My husband and I made the climb in good shoes on the well-designated path. We made good time. (No three-day trek around the city for us!) It was only mid-morning after our visit to the shrine. We weren’t even ready for a coffee or snack at Il Ritrovo del Cicilista, the only eatery nearby.

In our off-season visit, we sought the sun, grateful that there were no crowds, although we longed for a bit more warmth. The racks of rental e-bikes assured us that before long the eatery would be busy with more visitors, including cyclists. 

We had planned to add extra steps, using maps of potential itineraries and drawing insights from the driver who had dropped us at our morning starting point. We also hoped for new vistas by taking a different way down. We peered down from the overlook with its monument to Santa Rosalia. But the paths were not marked as well as we thought, and satellite service wasn’t reliable.

By the time we found Trattoria il Fiaschetto for lunch, we had put in more than 10 miles and knew we had a couple more to return to our lodging. We enjoyed lots of carbs with dishes to replenish the calories we had lost. Bruchetta with sundried tomatoes and asciughe; pasta alle sarde (served with extra breadcrumbs rather than parmesan cheese; and fettucine with prawns). A local red wine mix, of nero d’avola and nerollo mascalese, complemented the flavorful and hearty meal. Although we’d seen beautiful produce at a nearby street vendor, we opted out of vegetables today.

As we returned to our lodging to rest, we popped into Palermo’s cathedral, where we found another shrine to Santa Rosalia. This one, a large, gated chapel within the stadium-sized cathedral.  

What to do When it Rains

During our rainiest moment (the next day), we visited the Villa Malfitano-Whitaker, a reminder of Edith Wharton and her circle of wealthy expats. The villa was home to the Joseph Whitaker family, an English-Sicilian one whose wealth depended upon marsala wine and banking. The connections to Wharton for me were that the wealthy family in her 1928 novel, The Children, are the Wheaters. (Say both Wheater and Whitaker aloud). And Wharton and the Whitakers were of the same era. For anyone who loves late-19th and early-20th century architecture and décor (as Wharton did), the villa is a must-see. The expansive gardens also would be lovely to visit—on a day that’s not pouring rain. 

After the rain we toured another nineteenth-century structure, the Teatro Massimo, completed after Italian unification in 1870. Said to be the third largest in Europe, the theater was designed especially for great visibility and acoustics from all seats. I only wished we’d planned a performance during our visit to Palermo. Next time!  We did indulge in afternoon tea in the theater’s cafe, which we learned serves meals and drinks even to those not seeing a show. I will also remember this lovely out-of-sight oasis when next in Palermo.

What I was not prepared for as we visited other sites on our “must-see” list were the sheer expansiveness of the structures AND the quantity and quality of the mosaics. In my opinion, the mosaics by far exceed those in Venice and in Ravenna. The mosaics in those two cities, many of you know, are amazing Byzantine displays of artistic talent and wealth.  

Pictures, of course, never do justice to the experience. I share many shots here nonetheless.  

First, we gazed in awe at the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel and King Ruggero’s room in the Palazzo Reale.  

Monreale’s Mosaics

Later, it was those at Monreale, which Wharton mentions in her novel. The Wheater children and an older bachelor narrator are on an excursion from their cruise ship, which has put in at Palermo’s port. The children picnic in a garden of the monastic cloisters before making their way into the cathedral to look at the mosaics.

The older man realizes as he stands in awe at the beauty of the stories the mosaics tell—biblical and historical and cultural stories—that the very young mother of these children has absolutely no grasp of them. As Wharton’s language explains,  

he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

Edith Wharton, The Children

Realizing her cultural illiteracy, he gives up. What he doesn’t realize is how he is equally ignorant of her knowledge in other areas of life.  

As I noted this character’s mansplaining, I also recognized how on point Wharton is with reactions to these mosaics. Onlookers must have very specific knowledge to make sense of the biblical history, the religious iconography, and even the multiple languages. Latin, Greek, and Arabic testify to the historic mix of cultures.

The color, figures, and letters can be overwhelming. But what a fantastic worship environment for those who appreciate external stimuli. How time might pass time for anyone (especially children) otherwise bored by blank walls? 

Palermo’s Promises

We had arrived at Monreale with our rental car, on our way out of Palermo. As we headed back east toward Catania and our flight home, I circled back to the question of what Palermo promised. Had it met or exceeded my expectations?  

Palermo offered me new insights to a single island’s varied cultures. It offered the beauty afforded by massive wealth. It opened doors of history even while it offered tastes of contemporary Sicilian culture.  

Was I wiser than before my arrival, as Lord Chesterfield suggested? At least I’m wise enough now to not walk 10 miles before lunchtime!  

As Fuller also suggested about travelers, I returned feeling more American. The moments in which locals communicated with each other so rapidly and so richly reminded me that this culture was not my own; that hospitality is both a gift and a learned tradition; that being a guest has its perks and its limits. I was also reminded that cultures of power rise and fall. 

Did I enjoy the experiences that brought me to these realizations? Absolutely. Do I advocate for others to visit Palermo?  Another yes, if time and opportunity permit.  

As I did last month, I’ve indulged in more of personal travel review than indepth advice or insights on American authors abroad. You can easily dig deeper with some quick searches online to find more about anything I’ve mentioned here.  Until then, and in the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or thoughts about the little tidbits I’ve shared.

And, of course, keep dreaming of All Things Italy! 


Etta Madden