Palermo: Churches, Theatre and Sea

Today, my first full day in Palermo, I visited a bunch of churches, a theatre, and the seaside.

That was not my original plan for the day. I planned to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. I changed my mind and decided to do that tomorrow, instead.

The smart alecks among you probably think, “That’s an incredibly stupid way to organize your time, Joel. It’d be much wiser to use the running commentary of the hop-on, hop-off tour to get your bearings, learn a little about Palermo, and maybe hear about some attractions you’ll want to visit that aren’t in your tour book. That way, you can better plan your day tomorrow.”

Oh, yeah? Well, it just so happens that I wanted to take the hop-on, hop-off tour primarily because the Monreale Cathedral, a highly recommended sight about 30 minutes outside of Palermo, is a stop on one of the routes. Getting there without a car is difficult otherwise. I learned this morning that they don’t run that route on a few days scattered throughout April. My mazel being what it is, today is one of those days. Not so smart after all, are you, alecks?

Piazza Bellini Church Cluster

Three churches cluster around Piazza Bellini, Church of Santa Catarina, Church of La Martorana and Church of San Caldo. I visited all three.

Church of Santa Catarina

Inside the Church of Santa Catarina
Inside the Church of Santa Catarina

The Church of Santa Catarina, the largest of the three churches in the cluster, is an ornate Baroque-style* church built in the 14th century, well before the Baroque period. However, it underwent an expansion and refurbishment in the 16th century. Hence, its Baroqueness.

(* Are “Baroque” and “ornate” synonyms? I imagine a particular regular reader can answer that question for me.)

The church’s ornateness includes myriad reliefs with marble inlays. Sumptuous paintings adorn the ceiling. And the altar is beautiful, with candle chandeliers hanging over it. Although, I imagine they use electric “candles” these days.

A monastery adjoins the church. It housed cloistered nuns who weren’t allowed to mix with the public. Hence, they never went into the church. Instead, rooms on an upper level between the monastery and the church overlook the sanctuary, but are separated from it by grills. The nuns watched from there.

Relief with marble inlay
Relief with marble inlay

The nuns didn’t abandon the monastery until the early 2000s. Today, visitors can walk through it. I didn’t.

The church offers a number of combination tickets. One adds admission to either the convent or some terraces on the roof. Another offered entry to all three—the church, the monastery, and the roofs.

I asked the ticket seller what the monastery contains. “You can see the rooms where the nuns were,” she replied.

My understanding cloistered nuns are supposed to live austere lives. How interesting could their rooms be? I’ll never know the answer to that. I bought the church and roof combination ticket, not the triple-play ticket.

A view from the rooftop terrace
A view from the rooftop terrace

The rooftop terrace provide spectacular views.

Sweetshop and Gardens

In their day, the nuns gained collective fame by making sweet pastries. A lazy Suzan rotates between the church and monastery. This allowed the nuns to pass their pastries to the public without interacting with them. They don’t use the lazy Susan anymore, but a pastry shop that’s now open to the public operates in the former convent.

A lovely little garden with a statued fountain sits beside the convent, near the pastry shop. You can access it without buying a convent ticket.

The garden
The garden

Church of La Martorana

Inside the Church of La Matorana
Inside the Church of La Matorana

The centre third of the Church of La Martorana was built in the twelfth century. Over the centuries, they added Baroque extensions to the front and back, greatly enlarging the church beyond its original size.

Being Baroque, it, like the Church of Santa Catarina, is quite ornate. In particular, paintings richly decorate the ceilings. The colour gold dominates the ceiling, especially in the middle, pre-Baroque section. But the paintings also include deep blue, pink and other colours.

Church of San Cataldo

The Church of San Cataldo is, by far, the oldest-looking and least adorned of the three churches. For the most part, the walls are unembellished grey stone brick.

Inside the Church of San Cataldo
Inside the Church of San Cataldo

The church contains very few decorations, just a some stain glass windows, small in number and size, and a crucifix on the ceiling.

The stone brick is pristine, so it must have been cleaned at some point, but there don’t appear to have been any other enhancements made to the church.

Despite or maybe because of its simplicity, the Church of San Cataldo impressed me. It didn’t stun me, but it did impress. Despite or, again, maybe because of its austerity, the church’s antiquity shines through.

(Yeah, okay, sticklers. I realize that “antiquity” usually refers to a far older period than 12th century when they built the Church of Cataldo. But that was the only word that came to mind without a lot of work. Give me a break here. I’m trying to enjoy my trip, not spend my time hunting for terms that aren’t coming readily to my mind.)

Palermo Cathedral (Again)

A view from the roof of the Palermo Cathedral
A view from the roof of the Palermo Cathedral

Yesterday, I wrote about visiting the Palermo Cathedral just before it closed and, therefore, seeing only the main sanctuary because the other sections had already closed. Today, I went back to see what I missed.

The other parts of the Cathedral require a fee to enter. I bought a combination ticket that allowed me access to the treasury, the crypts, the roof, and the Diocesan Museum of Palermo.

The treasury contains a number of religious artifacts. Many of them are made of silver or gold because, I suppose, God looks unfavorably upon cheap trinkets.

A sarcophagus in the crypts
A sarcophagus in the crypts

The crypts are downstairs, as church crypts typically are. The walls are made of raw stone bricks. The crypts house a number of sarcophagi of various styles and from a few different eras.

They let people up to the roof only in batches. They don’t let up a group up until all of the previous group leaves. The reason for that became apparent when they let up my batch.

For the majority of the few-floor climb there is only a single staircase. It isn’t wide enough for two-way traffic.

The portion of the roof on which visitors can walk is a narrow path with railings along the length of the otherwise peaked roof. That path dead-ends. So, at the end, you have to turn around and walk back. Fortunately, the path is wide enough for one person to pass another without much discomfort. But if it were bit narrower, that wouldn’t be true.

The roof provided spectacular views, but, to be honest, the views from either there or the Church of Santa Catarina suffice, to my mind. And Santa Catarina probably has the edge view-wise.

Diocesan Museum of Palermo

The Diocesan Museum of Palermo of Palermo isn’t in the cathedral. Instead, it’s in a building adjacent to the cathedral.

Murano glass chandelier
Murano glass chandelier

The building used to be The Archbishop’s Palace. Of course the archbishop had a palace. Vows of poverty are for suckers.

Today, the museum holds a number of artworks, mostly paintings.

To my eye, none of the works appear to have great artistic significance. That having been said, anyone who knows me knows that I am not an art historian and have no aesthetic sense. In fact, one art historian who reads this journal regularly probably read that and thought, “Not an art historian? No aesthetic sense? Wow, those are certainly understatements of the highest order.”

I mention this only to point out that when I say that, “To my eye, none of the works appear to have great artistic significance,” I don’t actually have a clue about that. For all I know, there may be some pieces that art historians rave about. Not that I’m suggesting that art historians tend to rave in a pejorative sense, you understand.

In addition to the artworks, the museum also holds some archeological finds, primarily pottery and pottery fragments.

Chandeliers made of Murano glass hang from the ceilings of a couple of the rooms. I’m not an expert, but I believe that hanging from the ceiling is far and away the best place for chandeliers to be, as opposed to, say, sitting on the floor. One of those chandeliers in particular is spectacular.

Teatro Massimo

Theatre Massimo exterior
Theatre Massimo exterior

The tour books rate the Teatro Massimo, an opera house, as a must-see. They suggest that readers should take one of the tours if you don’t go to a performance. (The tours run only when there aren’t performances. Because, duh.)

There were two shows today. I was led to believe that they usually sell out early. I didn’t check because I’m not an opera fan. In fact, I’d rather have a tooth extracted than sit through an opera. I still have all of my adult teeth, so I have a lot of excuses to avoid operas if I ever need them.

(Unfortunately, I sold all of my baby teeth to the Tooth Fairy. In hindsight, I should have held on to them so I could extract them from a jar as painless get-out-of-opera-free cards.)

I went on a tour instead. I’m glad I did. The Teatro Massimo is impressive. According to the tour guide, it’s the largest opera house in Italy and the third-largest in Europe.

Much of that size is in the stage and backstage areas. Those two sections combined are about twice as large as the horseshoe-shaped seating area. I know this because the tour guide said so, not from personal observation. The curtain was closed.

Theatre Massimo interior
Theatre Massimo interior

Within the seating area, on the second floor, there is an impressive Royal box. However the King of Sicily, when there was a King of Sicily, never went inside the theatre, let alone the Royal box. He looked at the theatre from the outside, but, according to the guide, he didn’t think Palermo deserved such a grand opera house, so he refused to go in. His queen, however, did use the box.

One salon behind the the seating area is notable for its acoustics. The guide told us that if you stand in the centre of the room, a spot marked by a circular tile, and speak, you’ll hear a loud echo of your voice.

A number of people, including me, tried it. In every case, when they spoke astounded expressions immediately broke out on their faces. For a speaker in that position, although not for the others in the room, even if you speak softly, the echo isn’t loud. It’s booming.

The Sea

Sicily is an island. A big island, it’s true. But an island. Consequently, a number of its cities and towns are by the sea. Palermo is one of them.

I enjoy seeing the sea and I was determined to do so here. That was more difficult than I imagined.

I headed to what Google Maps told me is the Port of Palermo. The Port of Palermo. It’s a port. It has to be by the sea (it is). And “Port of Palermo” is alliterative. How could I go wrong?

How I could go wrong is by access to the Port of Palermo being restricted to only port workers and cruise ship passengers. That’s how.

I walked a long distance along the road that runs parallel to the seafront, but it offered no access or even views of the sea. There were some streets cutting off it towards the sea, but they were decoys. They dead-ended at buildings or fences that obstructed sea views.

Castello del Mare

Finally, I found a street that led toward the sea that had a small sign pointing to “Castello del Mare.” I knew mare means sea, so I figured, surely this leads to the sea. It turns out Castello del Mare is an old Norman keep that’s actually set back a bit from the sea. A fence blocks the way and the view to the sea.

The castle looked closed and abandoned when I was there, although a subsequent web search told me that looks can be deceiving. Well, it didn’t actually tell me that in those terms. What it told me was that the Castello del Mare was open for about another half-hour after I got there. I guess I should have looked harder to see if it was open.

Apart from the road I walked along to it, fences appeared to block the way all around the Castello del Mare. Seeing this, I was about to abandon my quest to see the sea.

Then, I saw a couple of people walk through a gap in the fence. The gap wasn’t apparent to me because it was between two fences that overlapped a bit, with one set back a little more than a person-width from the other. Plus, there were two motorcycles parked in front of the gap, obscuring it.

The couple who went through the gap looked like they knew where they were going. So I followed them into the unknown. (Unknown to me, that is.)

Eureka, the Sea!

Palermo's seaside
Palermo’s seaside

A large marina in an inlet off the sea sat beyond the gap. I couldn’t see the open sea from there, but at least I could see water connected to the sea and boats floating on it.

But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to sea the open sea.

I walked farther for awhile, but still couldn’t get the view I wanted. Finally, I walked by a park with a playground. It was fenced off, with a small opening in the fence. I’m not sure if it was a private park—the signage was all in Italian—but I went in anyway. Eureka, the park edged up on the sea!

But, still I wasn’t satisfied. I thought, “This is it? Palermo is a seaside city. This can’t possibly be the extent of its publicly accessible seaside.”

I pressed on.

Beyond the park was a large seaside plot of land enclosed within corrugated metal walls. A few unintentional holes in the walls allowed me to see that the corrugated metal walls protected abandoned scrubland.

What the heck, Palermo? You’re a seaside city and this is what you do with your seaside? Do better.

I pressed on.

Beyond the corrugated metal, I came to a rather plain park, but one with a long walk along the seawall. Finally, I fulfilled my quest. I can call today a success.


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