Category Archives: Towns

Sicilian Royalty Remembered

Here in Palermo I encounter local women of all ages who seem to consider themselves somewhat “worldly” because they’ve spent money on what look like overpriced clothes and have taken a group tour to someplace like Egypt or Thailand. Let’s not dwell on the fact that few can manage a complete sentence, let alone a conversation, in English. Right now, the number of women wearing fur coats in a city where it hardly ever snows is astounding.

Back in December 1994, when I first met Princess Urraca de Bourbon of the Two Sicilies, who in childhood had actually known Queen Maria Sophia (the queen, a sister of Empress Elizabeth ‘Sissi’ of Austria, died when Urraca was 12), I was struck by her simplicity. During the day, instead of fur she wore a simple goose down coat. There was no need to “impress” anybody with false attempts at sophistication. She was the real thing.

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Sicily’s 1st Department Store Opens

Today Palermo witnessed a historic event of sorts as Sicily’s first “real” department store opened. Now I know this may seem a little silly to most of you. Yes, Sicily already had a few bona fide shopping malls. And a few “foreign” brands have shops in Sicily; in Palermo’s Via Libert├á shopping district there’s Louis Vuiton, Hermes, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, Sephora and a few others. But the new Rinascente at the corner of Via Roma and Piazza San Domenico in central Palermo is the first actual department store of the type you’ll find in New York or London.

Not that department stores, in themselves, represent the epitome of civilised living. I’m not suggesting anything of the kind. But it’s nice to have choices. Convenience is not a bad thing, even if it’s fast food: Sicily’s first McDonald’s opened about ten years ago, and a Burger King opened this week at Palermo’s new shopping mall – the Forum in the infamous Brancaccio district. On a different level, the last few years have seen a number of sushi bars open in Palermo and Catania. The point is that until the late 1990s, when satellite television and the internet began to take off, Sicily was in many ways less than a friendly environment for most expatriates. Isolation would be a good description, and backward (though perhaps an unkind characterization) would not be entirely inappropriate. That has changed over the last decade.

The new store is a modern structure built onto part of a 19th century Baroque palazzo – bringing together Old and New Palermo.

Rinascente offers a number of “international” brands, including Burberry, Calvin Klein, Gant, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, which until now were not widely sold in Sicily. Of course, it’s good to sell local products too, and Rinascente has those as well as a terrace restaurant specializing in Sicilian cuisine – and the store itself is right next to the historic Vucciria street market. One of the benefits of such a store is that a visitor in need of a particular item can find it easily without having to search an entire unfamiliar city. Oh yes, Rinascente, in stark contrast to most shops in Sicily, will be open continuously throughout the entire business day, from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening – without the annoying afternoon closing from 1 until 4. Evolution.Posted byVincenzo Salernoat1:26 PM

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Private Palermo?

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In a recent New York Times article, Jim Lewis wrote about a visit to Palermo. In it he describes a city that some of us would barely recognise. While his observations are not actually inaccurate, they may be colored by certain preconceptions and a rather haphazard itinerary. What is most striking is that he fails to mention the extensive restorations of historic buildings in the older part of town, and it seems that he didn’t bother visiting the more important sights most people come to Palermo to see: Monreale Abbey, the Martorana Church, Saint John of the Hermits Monastery. Nothing in the piece suggests any awareness of the various sights around Palermo: Segesta, Erice, Cefal├╣.

 

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The Leopard

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Garibaldi’s landings in Sicily as part of the national unification movement – and nobody in Sicily seems to care. Fact is often stranger than fiction, and the historical novel that provoked serious reconsideration of the unification war and its aftermath remains the bestselling Sicilian work of fiction half a century after its initial publication.

is the story of an aristocratic family of Palermo beginning in 1860. Important themes abound within its pages, and it remains as fresh and readable today as it was over fifty years ago. It was published shortly after the death of its author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian nobleman.

What’s interesting is that this unique novel is still fairly popular. More than any other book, it has shaped the opinions of many Sicilians over the last five decades, challenging what – until the fall of the House of Savoy and the end of Fascism – was advocated by the Italian police state as the “official” view of Italian unification.Posted byVincenzo Salernoat7:31 AM

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Greenery at Villa Trabia

A few of us attended the Addio Pizzo fair at Palermo’s Villa Trabia on Sunday. Best of Sicily supports this anti-Mafia group, which has been a positive force in bringing organised crime under control. (Editorially, we don’t feel the need to go out of our way to draw readers’ attention to that at every opportunity, but it is mentioned on the page About Us. Recently, somebody on a travel forum mistakenly inferred that we might not have a position regarding the pizzo. We certainly do!)

The villa’s gardens used to be much larger. Parts of the land where the English Garden (Giardino Inglese) and the nearby Catholic school are located used to be part of the estate formerly owned by the Lanza family. Wandering around the grounds, I ended up in a lush corner I had never visited before. I couldn’t resist the temptation to photograph this delightful little piece of isolated greenery in the middle of a city having far too much concrete.

Posted byVincenzo Salernoat 12:21 AM

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Prison of the Inquisition at Palazzo Steri

For almost 200 years Sicily lived one of the darkest pages of history, as did many parts of Mediterranean Europe; an execrable “added value” of what was already an oppressive domination at the time: the Spanish Inquisition. Though it began officially in 1601 and ended in 1782 under the enlightened vision of Neopolitan viceroy Caracciolo it had, however, already existed on other parts of the island for many years prior as part of a free-for-all lynching against the Conversos and others found guilty of what was deemed stregonery and heretical.

In its quest to “keep the faith”, it inflicted the most gruesome forms of torture conceived by deranged human minds, and in Palermo, these were practiced in and around the Palazzo Steri in Piazza Marina, which became the Inquisition tribunal and seat. The palace itself, oddly enough, was already the theater of sanguinary transitions of power: built by and belonging to the powerful Chiaramonte family (so imposing was their fame and wealth throughout Sicily that the architectural style known as the Chiaramontano derives from their family) in the early 1300s, the last heir was decapitated by Spanish troops just outside the main entrance; subsequently, the exterior of the palace was rigged with cages that exposed the heads of nobility that rebelled against Charles V, used as deterrents to those who dared to do the same.
It was in this lugubrious environment therefore that the setting became almost natural for the inhumane sentences that were carried out. People of all races and creeds who spoke all the known vernaculars of the time and who still populated the island well beyond the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella were literally swept off the streets when accused of, or even merely suspected of committing, dubious crimes against the church. Packed into minuscule cells, they somehow found a way to express their fears, their anger, their despair – and, in some bizarre instances of Inquisition Stockholm Syndrome, expressions of unwavering faith to the church – through etchings and graffitis that “decorated” the detention cells.

All manner of materials were used, from blood to excrements to smuggled coal. Miraculously, as a testament to the gruesome ambiance that was the Steri Palace, many of these graffitis have remained intact, serving as vivd reminders of the horror and ignorance of the past and as proof of how the Inquisition made no distinction about whom it put on trail – the most exemplary of these graffitis can be considered the one that expresses the verses of the Apostles’ Creed, written in 17th century English.Posted byConchita Vecchioat3:18 PM

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