The Sicilian capital next year will be marking its status as the Italian capital of culture. For a city boasting a rich cultural, architectural and gastronomical heritage such recognition comes as no surprise.
Palermo is currently going through a modern renaissance, with tourist arrivals by air soaring from one to six million in the last few years. This revival period followed the dark days of the mafia, which culminated in the killing of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.
For us in Malta, in those days Italian television stations were among the few sources of information from the outside world. Hence for people of a certain age, the dark days of Cosa Nostra are still vivid in their minds.
A quarter of a century later, however, reality on the ground seems to be much better. This was the feeling during a recent weekend stay in Palermo, organised by Air Malta to mark the launch of two weekly flights to this destination.
Located along the northern coast of Sicily, Palermo is surrounded by a mountainous region, most notably Mount Pellegrino, which is home to the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, its patron saint.
From the outside the city strikes you most for its contrasting architectural styles which are probably epitomised by the Arab-Norman cathedral at the heart of the historical centre.
Vulnerable to invasions by sea, the city has always been considered as a stepping stone to get a foothold into Italy. Consequently, it is one of the most conquered and occupied cities in the world.
The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and the Greek Byzantines ruled the city until the ninth century, when Palermo fell to the Arabs. Following the Norman conquest, Palermo became the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily (until 1830) and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. A period of political upheaval characterised the middle part of the 19th century, until in 1860, Palermo joined the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
It was during this period that the seeds of the notorious Sicilian mafia are believed to have been planted. Up to the recent past, Cosa Nostra, as it is known, overshadowed the city’s reputation.
Ironically, the killing of Falcone and Borsellino, two prominent members of the judiciary who campaigned fearlessly against this criminal organisation, proved to be the turning point. Since then, the mafia’s influence, though still present, has been reined in.
Walking along Via Maqueda, which has been recently pedestrianised, one can spend hours visiting major attractions like the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest opera house built at the end of the 19th century, and a raft of baroque buildings. The latter includes the Quattro Canti, which dominate the crossroad with Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
A stone’s throw away is Piazza Pretoria, known also as the square of shame due to the nude figures of the large central fountain which, centuries ago, had created scandal due to its close proximity to a community of cloistered nuns.
Palermo’s Arab-Norman influence is mostly visible in the Church of San Cataldo whose architectural style is quite unique. Just across the road, there is the church of Santa Caterina which is a prime example of Sicilian baroque, rococo and renaissance styles.
Apart from religious attractions, the city is also host to many noble families whose grandiose residences have been turned into a museum, such as Palazzo Mirto, which was still in use by a noble family up to the early 1980s.
In the summer time Palermo is also becoming a cultural hub with major events being the Tangofest, which is organised in July, in the ruins of the church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo.
In pure Italian tradition, visitors can enjoy exquisite food and wines at very affordable prices.
As for accommodation, apart from a number of hotels, there is a growing number of bed and breakfast apartments which make it possible to experience life at the city centre, just like I did at the Cialoma.
The city’s proximity to Trapani and Marsala, both sought after for agri-tourism, make this destination even more attractive.
Air Malta operates two weekly flights on Fridays and Mondays, meaning that a weekend break in Palermo is just 40 minutes away.
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