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Sicily Capitolo 1: Palermo

I spent eleven days enjoying la dolce vita in Sicily earlier this month, and as usual, took so many photos that I think it'll be best to split my favourite bits of the trip into several posts, photo diary style. Hopefully they'll be useful to those of you who might want to visit Sicily some day! Chapter one opens in Palermo. I hadn't done a huge amount of research before flying into the island's capital but it turned out to have a whole host of magnificent food and culture to offer...which suited me just fine.

We stayed in a fantastic AirBnB with plenty of Italian character: an airy modern apartment at the top of an old palazzo building with high ceilings and a mezzanine. It had excellent views - overlooking the harbour on one side and the buzzing Corso Vittorio Emanuele on the other. I'd wholeheartedly recommend it - the host, Valentina, was incredibly lovely and kindly allowed us to check in at 10AM! 

Palermo is well known for its markets and the biggest are Ballarò and La Vucciria. Both are worth a look but I personally think Ballarò is best for those who actually need or want to buy food. It seems more authentic and there's a lot more choice (plus the most amazing fritelle for lunch) whereas La Vucciria seems to have become more of a tourist institution and the prices are much steeper. At the markets we picked up sweet prawns, jam-like figs, giant tromboncino courgettes, squid that spurted ink everywhere and the creamiest, most amazingly addictive burrata from a delicatessen in La Vucciria. So good we had to buy it twice...

Around the corner from Ballarò is the incredibly bombastic Chiesa del Gesù - a Jesuit church filled to the brim with amazing inlaid marble columns, putto sculptures with benevolent smiles which emerge into relief from the smooth marble walls and ceiling frescoes, restored after the bombings of World War II, with a fairly psychedelic flavour. It costs a couple of euros to have a proper look around, but it's worth it to see the excavated crypts below the church and the altar stuffed with relics - Jesuit bones, fragments of the crown of thorns and True Cross - in the wooden sacristy. Italy's great for those of us with a slightly morbid cultural agenda, it must be said...

Palermo also provided me with an introduction to that Sicilian institution - the granita. There's nothing better than a sharp granita al limone to chase away the midday heat. 

At Buatta, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I also had my introduction to two other staples of Sicilian cuisine - pasta con le sarde and cannoli. I have to say though, the granite and cannoli seemed much better in the south east of the island!

A real contender for my favourite place in the city was the breathtaking Oratario del Rosario di Santa Cita, where the sculptor Giacomo Serpotta was given free reign to bring the white walls to life. in the early 18th century. Everything is made from stucco - although it looks like it's all crafted from icing sugar - and the dynamism of the sculpture's poses and their theatricality are a testament to Serpotta's skill at working the medium. They're a world away from some of the stiff statues I've seen in other churches. You can literally spend hours walking around the tiny oratory, marvelling at the little vignettes of Christ's life, and being enchanted by the charming putti who respond to the scenes below them, huffing and puffing, nodding off and batting at each other playfully. I took a shine to the old crone who represents Jewish law who smiles down magnanimously from her ledge, her age contrasting starkly with the nubility of the other allegorical ladies gracing the oratory.

Even grander was Serpotta's work in the ornate Oratario del Rosario di San Domenico, but I have to say that I preferred the airier, lighter space of Santa Cita, devoid of colour but utterly mesmeric.

After culture? Gelato, of course. We're in Italy. And what way to make gelato even more indulgent? Stick it in a brioche, of course. Heartstoppingly good...literally. I was a big fan of the pistachio and stracciatella gelato for breakfast in the Piazza San Domenico. 

There's a definite Moorish tinge to the architecture as seen at the Cathedral, and notably in the gilded jewel that is the Byzantine Capella Palatina, housed in the Palazzo Reale, former palace of the Norman kings who dominated the region during the 11th and 12th centuries.

Determined to find a good place to eat after a slightly disappointing experience a few nights before, I booked us dinner at La Galleria on Salita Ramirez (behind the Cathedral) on our last evening. The restaurant is next to a puppetry workshop which I found fascinating (though the sound of the carpenters' work, less so...) and the food is excellent, a huge step away from the standard tourist fare you'll find elsewhere in the historic centre. Though if you tend to get bitten by mosquitoes, best to brave the heat and sit inside - my legs were ruined for the rest of the trip!

The next morning we crammed ourselves into a hire car with a box of arancini and braved the hairpin bends all the way down to Noto, in the southeast, where we stayed for the following week. I'll show you what we got up to on days four and five in my next post, vi prometto

Palermo, you were a pleasure. Can I come back again soon please?

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