World ? Europe ? Italy ? Palermo

Palermo: Introduction

Through all its vicissitudes, Palermo has continued to capture the imagination of world travelers. In 1768, the German romantic poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe had to see Palermo to add the city to his knowledge of classical culture.

In Goethe's travel diary, Italian Journey, he describes his arrival by sea and a magnificent setting at the foot of Monte Pellegrino, the "tops of trees swaying like vegetable glow-worms" and a haze tinting "all the shadows blue." So enraptured was Goethe with his first glimpse of Palermo that the captain had to urge him to disembark. Goethe had it right: The best way to appreciate Palermo for the first time is by an arrival by sea.

As a city, Palermo is both loathed and adored by visitors, praised and condemned. It's a mixture of panache and poverty, a place of beauty that is hideously ugly in places, and a great city in which to wear a money belt and keep an eye on your camera. There are a lot safer places to be in the world than Palermo after dark.

Palermo's Arabo-Norman buildings have no equal on the planet, and the entire city is a treasure trove of museums (often dusty, forgotten ones) and baroque oratories. Its outdoor markets, such as raucous Vucciria, evoke North Africa and are still dominated by the influence of the Arabs who departed centuries ago.

To feel the pulse of Palermo, visit one of these markets. We are eternally fascinated by the sea creatures sold. We sigh at the beauty of mounds of purple artichokes, piles of blood-red oranges, and pyramids of oyster-white eggplant.

Get used to the roar of traffic and the wail of police sirens. Watch out for those cars racing down the street. Noise and pollution hang over the city as you ricochet your way among old monuments: Arab cupolas, Byzantine street markets, and Norman and baroque architectural gems.

Its summers are oppressive -- "not fit for habitation," in the words of one visitor -- and its street scenes frenetic. Think Tangier or Algiers.

Palermo still bears the imprint of its former conquerors. What it's not is a typically European city, nor even an Italian one for that matter. As one of its 700,000 residents is quick to point out, "We're Sicilian -- not Italian."

Palermo is old, and in spite of certain "beauty marks," it looks it. The Phoenicians established a trading post here in the 8th century B.C. In time Palermo became the Carthaginian center of Sicily. When the Roman conquest came in 254 B.C., Palermo went into decline, as the new conquerors shifted their power and trading to Syracuse on the east coast.

As the centuries moved inexorably forward, Palermo played host to what seemed like never-ending armies of invaders. The Vandals came, then the Ostrogoths, and by 831 the city had fallen to the Arabs. Under the Arabs Palermo became one of the great emporiums of the Mediterranean, with splendid mosques and sumptuous palaces. It was the equal of Cairo in Egypt or CɃrdoba in Spain.

Even by the 11th century, with the Arabs in retreat, Palermo flourished. By 1072, it had fallen to Roger de Hauteville, marking the beginning of the Norman period. Under his son, King Roger, who ruled from 1130 to 1154, Palermo entered its golden age, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in harmony and prosperity.

Under King Frederick, who ascended to the throne of Sicily in 1208, Palermo became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The grand age of Hohenstaufen rule ended in 1266 when the French Angevins came to the throne, launching a despotic rule that ended in the Rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282.

In the aftermath, the Spanish Aragonese came into power and influence in Palermo. The Aragonese preferred Naples over Palermo as a capital, and in their departure the power vacuum was filled with feudal families and religious orders.

Palermo was never to regain the power and prestige it enjoyed in its long-ago heyday. The city's decay and decline stretched on for centuries. Then an even worse disaster descended on it in 1943, when the city was targeted for massive bombardments by Allied air forces stationed in North Africa.

In the aftermath of the war, Palermo was reconstructed haphazardly. In the postwar years, the city's very name became a synonym for corruption under the Mafia. And while the odious influence of this gang is on the wane, we suspect that there are still plenty of aging Godfather types hiding out behind all those closely guarded compounds.

A number of city officials will admit (off the record, of course) that many of the funds allocated in Rome or by the European Union to "rescue" Palermo have ended up in the pockets of the Mafia. But the unheard-of actually happened some 20 years ago: A series of informers, at risk for their lives, came forward to squeal on the Mafia.

Palermo headlines blared that "the tide was turning" against the Cosa Nostra. The fight continued under Leoluca Orlando, the city's mayor from 1993 to 2001. He refused to have the city do business with companies he suspected of having links with the Mafia. Even his own Christian Democrat Party disavowed him, but that didn't stop Orlando.

Along with the fight against crime, Palermo only belatedly came to realize the greatness of its architectural heritage. Interest in restoration has at long last arrived. The Teatro Massimo was restored and reopened in 1997, and old and historic quarters, such as Kalsa, are being restored and given a new lease on life with the opening of restaurants, galleries, and cafes. In Palermo, there is hope for the future.

An old-time resident, Giovanni Fatone, summed it up this way for us: "We have passion -- sometimes -- although it fades with age. We awake with energy but often lose strength in the scalding sun. We are warm and friendly but also rude and irksome when our mood changes quickly. We are a simple people but capable of great wisdom and sophistication when called upon. Palermo and its people are a controversial lot, and many bad things are said and written about us. But even our enemies agree on one point: We are the consumers of the pleasures of life."

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