(Palermo, Cefalu & Monreale)
March 2019
More photos here


Saturday 9th
I’d had a serious yen to visit Sicily since the exhibition at the British Museum in 2016. My interest being most tweaked by the Normans and the mosaics, a Travel Editions trip called The Normans in Sicily seemed advisable. The flight this morning was an Easyjet at 6.45, so I stayed overnight at the Gatwick Hilton which is much more huge than the Heathrow one that I often stay at for early starts, with the consequent long queue for check-in, even at half past eight. But it turns out, as was politely pointed out by the desk clerk, that I could have skipped the line, thumbed my nose at the proles, and used their priority desk due to my Hilton Honors card. I look forward to some nose thumbing next time.

So an early and blurry start this morning. The hotel foyer was an echoing wasteland, but approaching the terminal things got more bustly. Boarding had already begun as I got through security, forty-five minutes before takeoff, which seemed oddly early, but what with the 'overhead bins are full, please check-in your bags' palaver and the long bus journey I was only safely seated ten minutes before take off. Ten minutes after we were due to take off the pilot came on to say that the delay was because we were waiting for a family held up 'through no fault their own' and a further fifteen minute wait was expected, and that he appreciated our understanding. So we all sat waiting in the a state of increasing understanding, and finally took off an hour and twenty minutes late. (We later learned that this was actually due to the people concerned having booked special assistance, but it not having been provided.) I still managed to breakfast on an in-flight orange juice, coffee and muffin combo well before 9.00, though, whilst the chap behind me made do with a breakfast gin and tonic.

Tour lecturer Gerald Deslandes met us at baggage reclaim - he had been on the flight but oddly Travel Editions had decided that he didn't need to meet us at the terminal in the London. Tour manager Tullio Scurria met us in the arrivals lounge and we swiftly coached it into Palermo and the Hotel Mercure Centro. I was a bit disappointed to find that my room was a pokey single, which rankles even more when you've paid the tour company the single-person-in-a-double-room supplement. (I complained when I fed back after the trip and was told that this is an on-going and frequent problem, which didn't really help me.) After a bit of settling in and unpacking we made for a mediocre lunch, with poor service (we were approached by four separate beggars before the waiter) at a local restaurant, but it was outdoors, sunny and warm, so what the heck! And then an unscheduled visit to the Archaeological Museum to look at Greek and Roman statues and the like. Not an area of knowledge for me, but the place is unarguably full of lovely stuff, some of which came to the aforementioned BM exhibition.

After a welcome prosecco, or two, with nibbles, we strolled out for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The veggie starter was some very good spaghetti in a tomato sauce and the main was a mozzarella and tomato salad, which was a bit backwards, but Italian in its logic. Desert was a delightfully lip-puckering lemon sorbet. Equally delightful was the early night, after an unusually long day.

Sunday 10th
Having failed to notice that my phone had not adjusted its clock I was shocked when I put on my watch to discover I was therefore an hour late. So by the time I'd breakfasted Gerald's morning lecture - The Normans in Sicily: Mosaics from the Martorana to Monreale - was nearly finished. Following some sarky comments from my fellow travellers on my waking-up skills, Laura the local guide lead us to the famous pair of churches built by two admirals of the Norman kings (see photo top right). The Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio) (the convent being famous for its marzipan, I find out later!) began the feast of mosaic walls and ceilings (see right), and equally gorgeous Cosmati pavements and wall panels (see photo far below). The original Greek cross shaped church has the marvellous 12th-century Byzantine mosaics, the later nave extension has uninteresting 18th-century frescoed ceilings. This church has the famous mosaic-panel portraits of its founder George of Antioch (the aforementioned admiral, looking a little like a tortoise due the loss of the bottom of the mosaic) (see right) and King Roger II. San Cataldo next door is much more austere, with lovely bare walls and domes.

 On our way to a place where our coach could pick us up (lots of the centre is pedestrianised now, due to UNESCO regulations - great for tourists, not so much for the residents) we pass Fontana Pretoria, a too-big and unloveable mannerist fountain, bought and installed as it's original Tuscan commissioner Luigi de Toledo (brother of the former Viceroy of Sicily García de Toledo) needed the money. The piazza is also known as the Piazza della Vergogna (Piazza of Shame), maybe because of the nude figures, which would've embarrassed the nearby nuns, or been used as advertising by the local prostitutes, depending on who you listen to, or because of the shame of the corrupt government buying it.

Our coach took us to the Palazzo dei Normanni, now the home of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, so we had to have our bags and persons scanned in a very airportly way. What's worth being scanned for is the wonderful Cappella Palatina where more wonderful 12th-century mosaics and Cosmati floors are topped by an amazing Islamic Muqarnas ceiling (see right).

We were then coached back into the centre to lunch at the same inept and mediocre restaurant as yesterday for more wrong food and forgotten drinks. Today's unscheduled trip was to two oratories. But on the way to the coach Gerald allowed, indeed encouraged, a gelato stop, at which I finally got to try the famed gelato in a brioche, which I can now heartily recommend. The two oratories contain the work of famed local baroque stucco-sculpture guy Giacomo Serpotta. The Oratory of the Rosary in Santa Cita (see photo below) is his overpowering masterpiece, truly and interior that makes you say 'blimey!' The second one The Oratory of the Rosary of San Domenico is much less OTT, with some soberer figures of the virtues. It also has a nice early Anthony van Dyck altarpiece of the Madonna of the Rosary with Saints Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Vincent Ferrer, Olivia, Nympha, Agatha, Christina and Rosalia. It was commissioned during a time of plague and has a foreground putto holding his nose over a skull wrapped in a rag.

After an evening lecture by Gerald, introducing the delights of the next couple of days, we dined at a restaurant of such localness we could've pottered over in our slippers, if not bathrobes. Everyone else had three courses of fish, mine were a nice crunchy plate of salad, then pasta with a tomato and aubergine sauce (flavoured with cinnamon!) followed by some cold roasted vegetables (including butternut squash) accompanied by roast potato cubes. Desert was a yummy slice of pistachio semifreddo embedded with crunchy amaretto biscuit bits.

Monday 11th
An early start, with us needing to be on the coach at 8.00. To Cefalu first, passing rush hour traffic and packs of feral dogs, before heading along the coast through many mountains. The Cefalu Duomo has a famous mosaic semi-dome of the Christ Pantocrator, but is generally a more sober pleasure than the glittering gems of yesterday. Although it does have some more sparkly Cosmatesque panels.

The rest of the day was characterised by long periods of coaching up seriously windey mountain roads, hooting at corners. Firstly to Caronia, where local lad Tullio had arranged a special visit to the Norman castle there which is now a private residence. Lots of bare brick interiors, including a Romanesque Chapel, and a pretty walled garden with fine views from said walls, into the garden and out towards the mountainous vistas.

Lunch was at the Agriturismo Margherita, and was solidly OK. My experience was more than somewhat soured by being given a plate of cheese and meat, despite having been identified as a veggie, and when I pointed this out being told to just eat the cheese then, and to ignore the slices of dead pig. Other courses involved cold ratatouille, cold roasted vegetables, an over-saltily-dressed green salad, and some perfectly pleasant funghi pasta. The semifreddo (hazelnut this time) at least ended my meal on a high. The espressos in disposable plastic cups was another low though.

Then on to the Abbey of San Filippo di Fragalà, famously founded in 1090 by Queen Adelaide, the wife of Roger I. Another pleasantly bricky and ramshackle experience exploring the monks’ living areas, but the bigged-up early semi-dome fresco in the chapel of the Pantocrator, of The Virgin and Saints, was so damaged as to be barely recognisable as such. A vague mandorla shape and a female face, maybe with a square halo, was all that could be made out.

The coach drive back was through the gathering dusk and tedious traffic jams. The big lunch and long day saw a group tendency to resist further gathering and eating. Myself I went for the battery-recharging, trip-reporting, case-packing and self-showering option.

Tuesday 12th
The last breakfast, the checking out, and the loading of the luggage onto the coach was followed by the short drive to Monreale. The Duomo here (see above and right), to quote from the trip documents, 'was built by William II the last of the Norman kings, and blazes with more than 6,500 square metres of spectacular mosaics. Among them is the earliest commemoration of St Thomas Beckett whose murder was at the behest of William’s father-in-law Henry II.' It's big, and gives great mosaics and Cosmati-type and Arabic decoration, with more decorated treats in the Benedictine cloister. You've probably seen photos of the tile-striped columns (see right for another one).

We then returned to Palermo for a visit to the Palermo Duomo which is spectacularly Arabic on the outside but baroque-boring inside. During the independent lunch Gerald took an interested trio for some real baroque nourishment over in Santa Caterina, a big church opposite the pair of churches that we visited on our first day. What's the point of baroque if it doesn't make you go 'wow'? (see photo below)

After some real nourishment we regrouped to coach it to the Galleria Regionale. The famous Antonella da Messina Virgin, which would have been my highlight, was sadly away at an exhibition in Milan. Other joys were the large Triumph of Death fresco and a sweet little Jan Gosseart triptych. Also lots of medieval panels and altarpieces of very variable quality, and mostly by anonymous masters, but still fascinating, mostly, and good to see up close in all their worn and bashed-about age.

The coach got us to Palermo airport in very good time. But the wait flew by in convivial company, despite the flight being delayed 35 minutes. As the flight attendants where providing my cheese salad sandwich, Pringles and orange juice Meal Deal I heard one of them say to the other 'Can you smell sick?' Which was winningly human, I thought. No more hold-ups, with my case the very first on the carousel, which doesn't happen often. I missed the 22.09 train but caught the 22.28, and was home within the hour. A sleepy Jane and a sleeping Oscar were waiting to welcome me home, but we were very soon all sleeping.

The Palatine Chapel and the Monreale Duomo are now two of my top Desert Island interiors, but I'll confess to not being as smitten by Sicily on this trip as I'd imagined I'd be. Maybe some settling-in of feelings and expectations is needed, and follow-up reading. And there's so much more of the island to see of course. Call me effete but the piles of rubbish bags, street-corner muck piles, and packs of feral dogs just plain put me off. Maybe I need to catch up on my sleep too.


Approaching Cefalu - the Duomo pokes up to the left.

Caronia Castle is above, the Abbey of San Filippo di Fragalà is below.


Trip reading

John Julius Norwich Sicily 2015
A late book in Viscount Norwich's oeuvre, but devoted to a place long-loved. He starts the story in prehistory, but back there begins to skip the more tedious decades (and centuries). This proves an easy and pacey read but after the Normans the repeated succession of ever-changing rulers, and their failures to engage with or change the entrenched, corrupt and lazy natives and barons, gets a bit monotonous. But the Napoleonic period brings Nelson and the Hamiltons to the court of King Ferdinand I and his tartar of a wife, and things get a lot sexier and much more history happens. Into the 20th century the Mafia, Mussolini and WWII pass in two swift chapters - the last two as they had relatively little impact on Sicily, and the first because there are hundreds of books already detailing what the author here sees as a natural development of long-term Sicilian tendencies to mistrust and bypass distant rulers. Which leads him to end on a note of optimism, that Sicily's unhappy history is all in its past. A book of engaging and anecdotal history, then, rather than comprehensiveness and depth, which was fine by me.


The Leopard by Giuseppi di Lampedusa is the obvious choice of novel for reading on the trip - it's stands out as a novel set in Sicily that is also one of the great European novels, but I've already read it, albeit 17 years ago! The Visconti film with Burt Lancaster is wonderful too.

Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano crime series has the high-profile popularity (and there are so many!) and the TV series too. But the crime novels of Leonardo Sciascia, including The Day of the Owls, To Each His Own, and Sicilian Uncles come with the reputation of being much more than just crime novels.

Midnight In Sicily
by Robb Peter does the art, culture, crime, and corruption thing so well that this book, it is said, is one of the best recent ones about the state of Italy, let alone just Sicily.

Guidebook corner

The Palatine Chapel
The Mirabilia Italiæ series is a new one on me, but boy am I going to be searching them out now. This is one wonderful guide - a nicely-sized paperback guide. It has clear maps and diagrams showing mosaic positions, excellent clear photos taken close and level from scaffolding, it looks like, and clear, intelligent and informative text, in Italian and English. The layout is modern but good and the paper is not-too-shiny.
Especially revelatory are the close photos of the ceiling.  It looks lovely enough from the ground, but the close-ups in this book almost make you think that someone's is having you on - how can these fascinating figures and scenes be so high and invisible? And all this for €10!


The Cathedral, the Mosaics,
the Cloister

This is a bigger, and casebound, book. It is more of a photobook, albeit comprehensive, with introductory essays, than the completer coverage of the images and stories in the book above. But you'll still learn and love much

Palermo and Monreale
Bought from a stall by the stairs up to San Cataldo, visible just left of the lamp-post in the photo at the top of this page this is a cheap, unpretentious and efficient survey of the major sights with a very traditional late-20th-century design. It does the job

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