May 2020: A weekend in Palermo, Italy's most exotic city?

Friday, 15 May 2020

A weekend in Palermo, Italy's most exotic city?

A weekend in Palermo, Italy's most exotic city?

Damn COVID 19!  I should be in Sicily now... this is actually the first May in over twenty years that I haven't been in southern Italy.  Oh well, it's given me a chance to catch up with somethings including shorting the hundreds of photos I have stored a way on camera chips and computer drives.  It made me realise how lucky I have been over the years!  It has also made me rather nostalgic.  In the hope that we will be travelling again in the not too distant future, here are some of my favourite places in Palermo.

First impressions of Palermo can be negative: streets choked with cars, neglected building, graffiti, litter.  However, it is well-worth persisting, Palermo is one of the most exotic cities in Europe with some real hidden treasures.  Below are two of my favourite, less well-known, parts of this extraordinary city: La Kalsa and Mondello Beach.

La Kalsa, an oasis in the heart of the city:

La Kalsa, an oasis in the heart of the city:

La Kalsa is one of the oldest quarters of the historic centre of Palermo, stretching along the waterfront east from the harbour.  It was originally a walled city within the city, where the Arabic elite who ruled the island for over two hundred years between 826 and 1063 built their residences (the name of the district derives from the Arabic al-Halisah, the Elect).  Their Norman conquerors pulled down the walls of this gated-community and returned it to the city but it, despite the vicissitudes of the centuries, La Kalsa has retained distinctive, calm character, a haven in the bustle of the city.

Being close to the harbour and the commercial hub of the city, wealthy traders and landowners built their palaces here in the 1700s and the early 1800s.  When the city was cut in half by Via Roma and the port was moved further west, in the 1870s, La Kalsa lost its mojo and slipped into decline, which only got worse after the Allied bombings in WW II and ‘development’ by the Mafia in the 1950s and 1960s.  Much was lost but much also survived, including many of the great palaces.  Through a recent concerted program of urban regeneration, La Kalsa has recovered much of its former glory, becoming a something of a cultural Mecca, without losing the charm and grace its narrow lanes and squares.  It is great base from which to explore the centre of the city.  There is much to see in the district itself, but the real pleasure lies is exploring the district itself: its quiet streets peppered hidden bars, boutique shops and charming trattorias.

What to see:

A tour of La Kalsa should start at Piazza Marina, a stone’s throw from the old harbour, a large square with a stand of giant, hundred-year old Morton Bay fig trees in the middle.  The square is dominated physically and spiritually by the very large and gloomy Palazzo Chiaramonte, which was built by this powerful family in the Middle Ages.

In the 17th century it became to seat of the Inquisition and it is possible to visit some of the relics of this era: the Baronial Hall (with its stupendous 14th century timber ceiling) where the trails were held; the underground cells where the victims were held (scratching still visible last words into the walls); and the roof, from which the poor condemned were flung (the rich were dispatched with with more ceremony: burnt in the square below after being paraded in a cart through the city).  Today, the palazzo is the seat of the university of Palermo, where it is possible to see one of the symbols of modern Sicily: 'La Vucciria', an enormous, viabrant painting of Palermo’s most celebrated street market, which was left to the university by its creator: Renato Guttuso.

Next stop, a short walk down a narrow lane, is the Regional Gallery of Sicily in the 14th century Palazzo Abatellis.  The gallery was designed by the proto archi-star Carlo Scarpa and is worth a visit in its own right.  It holds some real treasures including: the extraordinary and enormous fresco 'The Triumph of Death' which is considered one of the most representative late-Gothic paintings in Italy; four paintings by the wonderful Antonello da Messina (a Sicilian artist greatly influenced by Flemish art, who is credited with the introduction of oil painting into Italy); as well as some marvellous sculptures by local Renaissance artists like Francesco Laurana and Antonello Gagini).

From here it is an easy walk through the lanes to the ruins of the church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo, a the remains of a towering Gothic church whose roof collapsed in the 17th century and was never repaired.  This impressive skeleton and its cloisters were restored in 1995 and converted into an exhibition, theatrical space.  Beyond this, at the eastern boundary of the district, are the Botanical Gardens founded in 1789, a lovely green space in the centre of the city.  The gardens are under the care of the University, and are one of the oldest in Europe.

Where to stay:

Hotel Porta Felice (Via Butera, 45).  A refined, boutique 4-star hotel in an historic building near Porta Felice, next to the old harbour.  It has a wellness centre and a covered terrace with views over the roofs of La Kalsa.  Doubles with breakfast from 140 euro.

Alla Loggia del Gattopardo (Vicolo della Rosa Bianca, 1).  La Kalsa was a literary centre in the 19th and early 20th century.  This very comfortable B&B was the home of Giuseppe Tommasi di Lampedusa, the author of ‘The Leopard’ one of the classics of the 20th century literature.  It is run by one of his descendants.  A real treat.  From 80 euro per night.

B&B Al Giardino dell’Alloro (Vicolo San Carlo, 8).  In the heart of La Kalsa, this B&B has a number of apartments with kitchens as well as a large communal patio.  From 70 euro per night.

Where to eat:

Ciccio in Pentola (Via dello Spasimo, 44).  In front of the church of Lo Spasimo, this elegant restaurant offers fish and Sicilian classic dishes, cooked with a modern twist.  From 40 euro per person.

Da Salvo (Via Torremuzza, 21).  A classic old-school Palermitan trattoria.  In the evening, the street in front restaurant fills of the wonderful aromas of roasted fish and tables crowded with happy diners.  From 25 euro per person.

Friggitoria Chiluzzo (Piazza della Kalsa, 10).  This simple ‘rosticceria’ and ‘friggitoria’ is a classic destination for roasted and fried Palermitan street food, such as panini filled with panelle (fried chick pea strips); fried eggplant and arancine (deep fried rice balls filled with meat sauce or melted cheese).  From 8 euros per person.

Mondello: la dolce vita at Palermo's favourite beach

Mondello: la dolce vita at Palermo's favourite beach

I love Mondello Beach, an arc of golden sand tucked under the rocky headland of Monte Pellegrino.  It has crystal clear water and is only a short bus ride from the centre of Palermo.  If I can’t stay there for a night or two, I always make sure that I get out there for a morning or afternoon swim and a stroll along the busy waterfront.

For most of its history, Mondello was a no-go area, a malarial swamp with a tiny fishing village between to stone lookout towers.  Finally, at the end of the 1800s, the Prince of Scalea bankrolled the bonification, pumping the ladn dry and getting rid of the mozzies (there is a bust to celebrate the prince at the back of the beach, the classic meeting point for young Palermitans).  A decade later, a Belgium consortium laid out streets, built holiday houses (in the prevailing arte nouveau style some of which still survive), built a tramway connecting the city centre to the beach, and built the Stabilimento Balneare, a giant fun parlour at the end of a pier jutting into the bay, and modern Mondello was born.

In the 1950s and 60s (despite its Mafia connections) Mondello became one of the chicest seaside resorts in Italy, so confident in itself that the restaurant in the Hotel Palace once turned away Aristotle Onassis because he wasn’t wearing a jacket.  It has lost some of that glamour but Mondello remains in the heart of Palermitans: ‘going down’ to Mondello for a pizza, a gelato and walk along the beach is a summer ritual.  Despite the invasion of visitors between May and September, it still retains its spirit and charm as a fishing village: fishermen still trawl off-shore in their timber boats and hang their nets for repairs off beachside benches and racks.

What to do:

There is plenty of public beach but, if you want the full Italian beach experience, you can hire deck-chairs, umbrellas and/or a private cabin from one of three private sections of the beach: Valdesi, Sirenetta or Stabilimento, with costs starting from  around 14 euro per person per day (https://mondello.marcomedia.it).

Mondello is fun anytime of the day, but unquestionably the best time of day to be there is early in the morning, not only for the peace and quiet and the swimming, but also because out of the bars and cafes that line the beach will be wafting the aroma of freshly baked croissants, ready to be dipped into a glass of granita, which, as any coastal Sicilian worth their salt will tell you, is the only breakfast to be had in summer.

As well as the joys of the beach, Mondello has other things to offer.  The northern headland and the surrounding waters are part of the Cape Gallo Marine Reserve.  You can hire diving gear from local service Orca Sub (www.orcasub.it) and hire a rubber dinghy from Boat Service Mondello (www.boatservicemondello.it) who also run diving trips and coastal cruises.  If you want to do a bit of exploring on dry land, you can hire a bike at Ciclotour (Via Principe Scalea).

Where to stay:

Hotel Villa Esperia (Viale Marhgerita di Savoia).  This classic three-star hotel is in one of the original grand arte nouveau palazzi along the waterfront.  It has twenty-two rooms.  Doubles start from 100 euro per night.

B&B Casacquarello (Viale Orfeo, 9).  This large private house has four large double rooms with en suite bathrooms.  It has private parking and a large garden and is in a quiet area a short walk from the beach.

Where to eat:

Bye-Bye Blues (Via del Garofalo, 23).  Despite it’s incongruous name, this welcoming restaurant is one of the historic eateries in Mondello.  It’s menu changes from day to day but some of the most popular dishes include a caciocavallo cheese flan, black risotto with a squid and cherry tomato salad, pasta with sardines and swordfish involtini.  From 40 euro per person.

Da Calogero (Via Torre, 22).  One of Mondello’s traditional trattorias, Da Calogero is a must for lovers of seafood.  Their classic dish is boiled octopus with oil and lemon juice.  From 30 to 35 euro per head.

Mida Valdesi (on the beach, accessed from Piazza Valdesi).  A wooden beach cabin on the sand with deck chairs and tables, this institution is open for the summer months from early morning to late at night.  A great place for a panino, aperitivo, a salad or a granita (with croissant of course).  From 8 euro.

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