You may have heard about the various cultures that have ruled Sicily over the centuries, right? When you look at the Palermo Cathedral, you can see the evidence of each one of them in the crazy assortment of architectural styles on the building.
The Palermo Cathedral (officially called Santa Maria Assunta, and sometimes known simply as the Duomo) dates from the late 12th century, built on the site of a temple dating from Ancient Rome. As later conquerors took over from the original Norman builders, they imprinted their own styles on the still-growing building. The exterior includes examples of Norman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural elements, and they seem to be slapped on top of one another rather than incorporated as parts of a whole. In other words, the cathedral has a somewhat strange patchwork appearance that makes it look like the designers couldn’t make up their minds.
Palermo’s beautiful opera house, the Teatro Massimo, is the largest opera house in the entire country. It’s an important landmark in the center of historic Palermo, and even if you don’t like opera you may be familiar with the theater’s imposing front staircase.
The Teatro Massimo was built in the late 1800s, opening in 1897 with a production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The original plan called for seating for 3,000 in the audience, but the theater seats 1,350 today. There are seven levels of theater boxes in a semi-circle around the seats on the floor, all pointed toward the stage - a design very typical of opera houses at the time. As mentioned, it’s the largest opera house in Italy - and it ranks third in size in Europe.
Palermo’s most famous piazza, the Piazza Pretoria, is just a few steps from the busy Quattro Canti - but a world away in terms of the kind of piazza experience it delivers.
The centerpiece of the Piazza Pretoria is the fountain, known as the Fontana Pretoria. It’s huge, designed in the 1550s by a sculptor from Florence named Camilliani. The fountain was originally commissioned for a private villa in Tuscany, but was gifted to the city of Palermo in 1574. City officials had razed several homes to make way for a grand fountain, meant to show off Palermo’s impressive city plumbing, but locals weren’t quite prepared for the fountain’s decorations when it was unveiled.
There are 16 figures on the Fontana Pretoria, all of which are entirely or partially nude, that circle the fountain. There is no side from which you can simply enjoy the water itself without seeing a nude statue - which many Palermitans in the late 16th century found scandalous.
The Sicilian town of Taormina has long been known as a popular beach resort destination, but it’s more than sparkling water and long stretches of sand that draw visitors. Taormina is also home to a spectacular ancient ruin - the Greek Theatre.
Despite its name, the Greek Theatre - or Teatro Greco in Italian - is actually an ancient Roman structure. The design is more akin to how the ancient Greeks designed their theaters, so it is believed the Roman theater was built over an existing Greek theater. The ruins you see today date primarily from the 2nd century A.D., although the theater was started in the 7th century B.C.E. Taormina’s Greek Theatre sits high above the town’s famous beaches, so visitors who climb uphill to see the ruin are rewarded with more than just an up close look at an ancient monument - the views can be fantastic. From the theater, you can see the town of Taormina, the beaches far below, and the Mt. Etna volcano. It’s one of the best views in Sicily.
Some Italian piazzas are picturesque squares where locals stroll in the evenings, or watch their children play, or gossip with the neighbors. And sometimes, as is the case with Palermo’s Quattro Canti, they’re busy intersections.
Despite the fact that the Quattro Canti - also known as the Piazza Vigilena - is an intersection that’s often full of cars, it’s still one of the attractions visitors seek out in the city. This is largely because of the four buildings that sit at the four corners of the intersection - “quattro canti” means “four corners” - which are Baroque buildings dating from the early 17th century. The four buildings are almost identical, save for a few details.
Each of the four buildings is slightly curved, giving the piazza a rounded footprint, and there are statues in niches that represent the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of Palermo. Each building is connected to a different Palermo neighborhood.
You don’t have to understand much Italian to guess that the Isola Bella attraction near Taormina in Sicily is a “pretty island” - but what you can’t guess from the name is that it’s not actually an island at all.
Isola Bella is a tiny, rocky outcropping just off the popular Lido Mazzarò beach in a small bay near Taormina. It looks like an island, but is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. It’s sometimes covered by the sea, so there are times when it looks like an island. This islet was given to the town of Taormina as a gift in 1806 by the then-king of the region, and later purchased by Lady Florence Trevelyan - a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s.
Lady Trevelyan built a house atop Isola Bella, which still stands today. Ownership of the islet changed hands several times over the years, until 1990 when Isola Bella went up for auction. It is now owned by Sicily and serves as a nature reserve.
Taormina’s Medieval Quarter is one of the prettiest sections of the city, and Corso Umberto I cuts right through its middle. The clock tower that marks the start of the Medieval Quarter is actually in an arched tower that spans the Corso Umberto I. The particularly picturesque Piazza Aprile IX sits along the famous street, and it’s one of the most popular places to pause and do some people-watching. The view from the piazza over the water is lovely, and the piazza itself is a beautiful backdrop to whatever is going on.
There are a few outdoor markets in Palermo that are worth exploring - for the atmosphere as much as any actual shopping you want to do - but the most famous is the Vucciria Market in the city’s historic center.
The Vucciria Market is located in the historic center in the streets around the Piazza San Domenico, and the stalls that line the streets are predominantly selling fish, meat, and produce. While these kinds of outdoor markets used to be where all the locals did their shopping, the rise of all-in-one grocery stores has meant that some of these markets no longer draw the crowds they used to. The Vucciria Market is as much a tourist attraction as it is working market these days, so it can be busy in the high season - although many of those people are tourists, not shoppers.
The Palatine Chapel was once the private royal chapel of the Sicilian kings, located inside their royal palace. Today, it is an absolute must-see attraction for any visitor to Palermo who likes Byzantine mosaics.
The original royal chapel inside the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Palermo was built in the late 11th century. The Palatine Chapel - Cappella Palatina in Italian - was built on top of it in the early part of the 12th century, making the old chapel a crypt. Mosaic art was at its peak when the chapel was constructed, and the chapel’s interior is covered in gorgeous mosaics. Many surfaces are predominantly gold, which makes the entire chapel appear to glow.
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel date from the 1140s, just after the chapel was built, through the 1170s. The older mosaics are the best examples of Byzantine art in the chapel, although you’ll see even more mosaics of this quality if you visit the Monreale Cathedral in the hills outside Palermo.
The church known most commonly as “La Martorana” is an architectural example of Sicily’s changing allegiances over the centuries. The facade alone features three different architectural styles.
The Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is the official name) dates back to 1141. You can no longer see the original Norman facade, but you can still see the typical Norman red dome from the exterior. Thankfully, once you’re inside the church, the original 12th century mosaics still shine in all their Byzantine glory. These mosaics are the highlight of a visit to La Martorana, and if you want to see them at their best, go first thing in the morning.
Back outside the church, you’ll notice that over the old Norman facade there is now a Baroque facade and a Romanesque bell tower. After the church was completed in the mid-12th century, it was later given to a Benedictine nun by the name of Eloisa Martorana.
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Italy’s public squares come in all shapes and sizes, and some are decidedly more beautiful than others. Taormina’s main square, Piazza IX Aprile, is both popular and gorgeous - which is why it features so prominently in many Taormina photographs.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Piazza IX Aprile is the paving - rather than a simple gray stone surface, the piazza looks a bit like a giant chessboard with its oversized alternating black and white marble squares. The impact is striking, especially on a sunny day.
The ornate Church of St. Joseph, built in the 17th century, overlooks the square, and its bright pink and white facade gleams against the black and white squares. Another building on the piazza is the 15th century St. Augustine, a former church that now serves as Taormina’s library. The passageway in the 12th century clock tower on one side of the piazza leads to the Borgo Medievale, one of Taormina’s oldest districts.
One of the most famous sights in Palermo - albeit an incredibly macabre one - is the extensive network of Catacombs under the Capuchin Monastery. These crypts hold thousands of mummified remains, some of which are spookily well-preserved.
The Capuchins began burying their own friars in the crypts underneath the monastery in the 16th century, and they soon discovered that the unique conditions in the catacombs - combined with their own burial traditions - preserved the bodies extremely well. It wasn’t long before Sicilians decided that being buried in the Capuchin Catacombs - and therefore being preserved after death - was a status symbol.
In total, there are more than 8,000 bodies interred in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, in varying states of preservation and from all walks of life. There are chambers dedicated to priests, monks, women, men, and children. Some are still encased in coffins, some are perched in standing positions on the walls.
The square in front of Taormina’s cathedral may have an obvious name - the Piazza del Duomo - but its primary decoration is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
The Duomo and the piazza are just off Taormina’s main street, the Corso Umberto I. The Duomo dates from the 13th century, although the main doorway was rebuilt in the 1630s. That’s also when the Baroque-style fountain was placed in the center of the Piazza del Duomo. The fountain was added to the square in 1635, and at the very top is a sculpture representing Taormina’s city symbol.
The symbol of Taormina is a centaur - half man, half horse - but for some reason the statue atop the fountain in the Piazza del Duomo isn’t a straightforward centaur. Not only is the figure female rather than male, it also only has two legs (the back two) rather than four. No one knows why the centaur isn’t quite “normal,” but the people of Taormina have adopted the statue as the town symbol.
La Zisa is yet another remnant of Moorish reign in Sicily. The Norman castle was built in the 12th century, and it’s worth a visit although the interior has long since been cleared of its original decoration.
The palace of La Zisa was originally designed as part of an extensive park that served as a royal summer retreat. The grounds were stocked with wild animals (and fenced), giving the royals something to hunt. The park, known as the Genoard, also included another Norman-era palace that still stands in Palermo, La Cuba.
There were architectural alterations made in the 14th century, and by the 16th century the building had fallen into disrepair - it was even being used to store items contaminated with the plague. In the 1970s, city officials in Palermo acquired and began to restore La Zisa, a project that took more than 20 years. Today, the palace houses a Museum of Islamic Art on the second floor.
The Palazzo Mirto in the historic Kalsa district of Palermo is one of the only aristocratic homes from the 17th century that is not only intact but also open to the public.
In the late 18th century, the Palazzo Mirto was built on what was once the foundation of a building dating from the 13th century. The palace was built for a wealthy family as their residence, which is exactly what it was until 1982. At that point, the family that lived there - the Lanza Filangieri family, princes of the nearby town of Mirto - gave the palace to the government of Sicily.
Today, the Palazzo Mirto is kept in the fashion of an 18th or 19th century aristocrat’s home. Many of the palace’s rooms are decorated with furniture and artwork that was originally owned by the Lanza Filangieri family, so in some cases these pieces have occupied the Palazzo Mirto for centuries.
One of the cultural traditions of Sicily is a type of puppet show in which marionettes are used to enact legendary tales of knights, pirates, and saints. This type of puppet show - or “Opera dei Pupi” - was even added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.
The tradition of Opera dei Pupi in Sicily became popular in the early 19th century, though some of the stories enacted by the marionettes date back to the 12th century. When these marionette shows were at their peak, there were traveling stages in Sicily that were built into donkey carts. There were often multiple backdrops of elaborately painted sets, and the marionettes themselves were all hand carved out of wood.
Today, there are still a few places you can see the Opera dei Pupi in Sicily, where they carry on the old marionette theater tradition, but the era of these theaters being family-run operations with the skills being passed from generation to generation are long gone.
While Taormina is best known as a famous beach resort, the town itself sits high above the water and the beaches. So it may not be surprising to learn that one of the main attractions in town turns out to be the cable car connecting the town with the beach - the “Funivia.”
“Funivia” sounds a bit like it’s the name of an Italian amusement park ride, but it’s simply the Italian word for “cable car.” The Taormina Funivia connects the town center with the beach at Mazzaro. It makes getting down to the beach or back to your hotel easy and quick, even if you get all the way to the beach and realize you’ve forgotten sunscreen or your book.
There are eight cable cars in the Taormina-Mazzaro Funivia system that are in near-constant rotation, depending on the season. During the busiest months, cable cars run every 15 minutes, and the trip from one end to the other takes less than five minutes.
Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily, is Europe’s tallest active volcano. Not only that, it’s one of the world’s most active volcanoes and, as of 2013, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a small wonder, then, that this mountain has shaped much of Sicily’s past and continues to impact life on the island today.
The volcano sits near the eastern coast of Sicily, not far from the major port city of Catania. Eruptions from Mount Etna have been responsible for serious damage to cities and towns lying close to it, including one in 1669 that destroyed the villages that had been built on the mountainside. People continue to inhabit the mountain, however, partly because the rich volcanic soil makes an excellent base for crops. You’ll find not only fruits and vegetables growing on and around Mount Etna, but also grapes - there are many wines that owe their prominence to the volcano.
You could be forgiven for getting a little bored of seeing one ancient Roman ruin after another in Italy - they’re everywhere, after all. But in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, you get to see something particularly interesting - some of the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins anywhere.
Like the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks got around - and for some time this part of Sicily (along with other coastal areas of southern Italy) was part of Magna Graecia. The town that is now Agrigento was once the Greek city of Akragas, and the Greeks built several impressive temples on a ridge just outside of the city. The remains of seven of those temples are still impressive enough to draw visitors to the site thousands of years later.
Should you grow tired of sunbathing all day on Taormina’s gorgeous beaches, there are great day trip options you can take, either with your own rental car or by signing up for a tour. One excellent excursion takes you to Villa Romana del Casale, with some of the best examples of ancient Roman mosaics anywhere.
Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale is a little less than two miles from the town of Piazza Armerina, in the southern part of the island. It’s roughly 92 miles from Taormina. The villa was originally built in the 4th century A.D., but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the remains were excavated - they had lived underground, under fields used for farming - and the mosaics discovered.A landslide in roughly the 12th century A.D. covered the villa, which was bad news for the inhabitants but good news for archaeologists - because it meant the mosaics survived in much better shape than they would have had they remained exposed.
The Aeolian Islands are a collection of eight islands off the northeastern coast of Sicily. The archipelago takes its name from the Greek god of wind, Aeolus, and the islands themselves are the result of volcanic activity hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The largest of the Aeolian Islands - collectively, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is Lipari, which is also the name of the main town on the island. There’s a year-round population on Lipari of more than 10,000. The next-largest is Salina, with three distinct towns, followed by Vulcano, with a population of less than 500 people. Many of the islands have active volcanoes on them, or, in some cases, are made up almost entirely of a volcano. Stromboli, for instance, is a conical island that consists almost completely of Mt. Stromboli, a still-active volcano.
The Aeolian Islands are incredibly popular during the summer months, when their beaches draw sun worshippers from Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
Messina is the 'door of Sicily'. A busy port town located on the narrow Strait of Messina, famous for its unruly waters and conflicting currents, it is the closest city to mainland Italy and often a first port of call for travelers from other parts of Europe.
The city has endured many tests over the centuries: revolt against the Spanish in 1678, which burnt the city to the ground; earthquakes in 1783 and 1908 (this one sank the shore half a meter and killed 80,000 people); and World War II bombing in 1943. Also, the famous volcano Mt Etna smokes and breathes daily in the hills behind the city. Despite all this, Messina thrives as a noisy, crowded port city.
The cruise port is right in the heart of downtown Messina and it is easy to walk straight off the ship and into the Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the old town area and the part you'll want to explore.
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