A Sicilian Start

​I have to confess to being rather ‘churched’ out from our tour of Europe. In every village, town and city, it is almost always the church or cathedral that is pointed out as being the ‘not to be missed’ building. They are all interesting in their own way, but generally a variation on a theme, and the theme in much of Portugal, Spain and Sardinia was baroque. Seventeenth century, highly decorated and ornate with statues of saints lining the aisles. So Jerry was quite surprised when I suggested visiting a Cathedral built in a small, hillside village about five miles out from the centre of Palermo, Sicily. Monreale cathedral had leaped out to me from a tourist office leaflet because it contained medieval mosaics, something we had not seen elsewhere. With limited enthusiasm, Jerry agreed to chum me along and we set off into sunshine and hail showers to catch our first Italian bus. About half an hour later, high above the city of Palermo, we climbed off the bus in another downpour and paddled our way up cobbled streets to the imposing limestone building, squeezed amongst the tight packed village houses and shops. The east side is most imposing with mosaic patterns created by interlacing lava with bright tufa rock.

Monreale Cathedral shows off its eastern side

Building on the cathedral began in 1172 by King William II, a Norman monarch, but a different one to the English king. Norman monarchs in Sicily? This was news to me. Apparently, they stopped in here on their way to and from crusades around Jerusalem and liked the place so much they decided to stay. Well, that’s the short version of the story.
Having circumnavigated the exterior, we opened the small wooden door and entered a wonderland of medieval art. The whole upper interior is decorated in intricate, detailed mosaics of bible stories and saints all in medieval clothes. There is gold leaf everywhere, reflecting the light from elevated windows down on the seats lining the nave.  High above the altar is a giant mosaic of Jesus, sitting above Mary, his mother. The lower walls are of white marble divided by colourful, small mosaic patterns, similar to those we’d seen in southern Spain.

Mosaics everywhere – and gold

The fusion of Norman, Arabic and Latin here demonstrates Sicily’s place at the crossroads of the Byzantine, Roman and Norman cultures. We were both enraptured. Everywhere we turned, there was something new to see.  We wandered around, sat and gazed, and drank in the atmosphere and glory. It’s a place I would whole heartedly recommend you visit.
We’ve been in Palermo for three days now, having arrived by overnight ferry from Cagliari, Sardinia. Our first impression was less than favourable with streets full of rubbish and dog shit. It’s taken a while to adapt to the Italian traffic and way to cross the road. Alarming at first, we have now learned to launch ourselves onto the pedestrian crossings and trust the drivers to slow down and avoid us. They are very reluctant to stop and just adjust their velocity. There’s nothing like watching the locals to see how it is all done.
With recommendations from the tourist office and a future Workaway host who lives on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna, we have explored the city on foot and seen a cornucopia of delights. There is more eclectic, Arab-Norman architecture consisting of palaces, churches and a bridge and we visited it all. In Palermo cathedral, we were fascinated by the Meridian line that stretched out diagonally across the nave with signs from the Zodiac along its length. It was created by astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, in the late eighteeth century. Before this period, the twenty four hour clock was set to begin at sunrise. This meant that every place had a different time, as sunrise varied so greatly by time of year and the geomorphology of the area. The sun rises later behind hills than across the sea. Piazzi drilled a small hole in one of the cathedral minor domes and marked the position of sun light shining through on the cathedral floor at the sun’s zenith each day. The twentyfour hour clock could now be calibrated from midday and time related to calibrations undertaken in other places such as Rome.

Meridian, Palermo Cathedral

The pinhole in Palermo Cathedral dome

Another particular joy in Palermo are the Orto Botanico, or botanic gardens. Thanks to Palermo’s reasonably mild climate, plants from around the globe are grown and studied here. We were particularly taken by the ferns, palms and agave, as well as a stand of tall stemmed plants with pompom heads of grass-like blades, all swaying in the breeze. The latter were papyrus, the plant used to create paper in ancient Egyptian times.

Pre-scroll Papyrus

So, with a bit of trepidation, we leave Palermo tomorrow to explore the western coast of Sicily. The weather is cool, with snow on the 500m hills around the city. We have been warned of the Italian drivers, stray dogs and flooded roads. The roads here in the city are certainly busy, and we’ve already learnt from Sardinia, that a lot of drivers pass very close to us at speed and are prone to unexpected changes of direction. We ride protectively and hope for the best.
We’re also a tad excited as this island has a long history and there is much to explore and discover including some amazing natural places.

A giant grapefuit – we’re getting closer to that lemon….


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