Palermo is a strange contrast – a fairly shabby, traffic-infested city with beautiful historical sites and buildings. It is well worth at least a day’s exploration before moving on.
As mentioned in my previous post, Getting There and Driving Around, having driven in to Palermo centre from the airport, I decided to leave my car in the hotel car park for two nights and see the city by foot – a good decision.
My leisurely six mile stroll over about six hours took me to most of the major city sites including: the Piazza Pretoria with its ornate fountain and sculptures; the San Cataldo Church with its strange red domes; the two theatres, the Politeama Garibaldi and the Massimo Palermo; and the Vucciria Street market. The latter is definitely better avoided after dark as are many of the smaller backstreets of Palermo.
However my highlights in Palermo were:
▪The Duomo (city cathedral) with its fascinating architecture, a mix of Norman, Arab, Gothic and 18th-century. I found the Meridien Line dating back to 1690 an intriguing feature; a beam of light from a hole in the ceiling falls at mid-day upon signs of the Zodiac giving the time of year.
▪The Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace) a complicated set of buildings where the regional assembly meets. The Palatine Chapel has exquisite Byzantine mosaics. During busy tourist times queues form to gain entry to the chapel, but when I visited there were only two or three other people. For those over 65 entry is free of charge to the all parts of the palace with only a €5 charge for the audio guide – a neat little iPod.
I stayed at the Mercure Palermo Centro, which as the name implies is very near the centre of Palermo, the Quattro Canti crossroads.
The hotel was booked through the Accorhotels website; although Accorhotels does not give Senior discounts, it does provide very good offers. In my case the two night stay had a 40% discount and included free bus tickets and maps.
Driving east from Palermo the coast is not particularly scenic until, after about 40 miles (50 minutes by motorway), you reach the small harbour city of Cefalù perched below a cliff, La Rocca. I found it much easier to park near the seafront then try to negotiate the narrow roads in the city centre.
It is very pleasant strolling along the quaint little streets with a wide range of shops and restaurants. My highlights in Cefalù were: the central square with its impressive Norman cathedral; the Lavatoio Medievale, a 6th-century wash-house built over a stream down a steep flight of steps; and the beach area with its small fishing boats.
After Cefalù the motorway follows east along the coast, with Mt Etna starting to dominate the scenery as you turn south towards Messina and the East Coast of Sicily, as described in my next post: Mt Etna and East Coast.