"Palermo, past and present" Top 5 Page for this destination Palermo by TheWanderingCamel

Palermo Travel Guide: 471 reviews and 1,177 photos

The past

The period of Palermo's past represented in this photo was one of the most extraordinary times in the history of all Europe. The photo was taken in La Zisa, a palace built by King William I, 120 years into the Norman dynasty's rule, and yet, here in this one small building we can see the evidence of how, in this place, at that time, Catholic Normans, Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs lived together in a climate of respect and tolerance, encompassing western Catholic and eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, that was unique in its time and that still largely eludes our world today.

When William's grandfather conquered Sicily it had been under Arab rule for some 250 years. The Arabs had seized the island from the Byzantines who had held it for nearly three hundred years before that. Here, at La Zisa, built for a Norman king, we see Arab stone masonry in the stalactite ceiling, Byzantine-inspired mosaics on the walls and - around the door, the new Cosmati mosaic from Rome. The same ability to recognise the virtue in using the best workmen for the job in building his palace informed the organization of the Kingdom - Arab court officials, Greek admirals and Norman soldiers meant the skills and strengths of each section of the population were used to the greatest advantage and to the mutual benefit of all the king's subjects.

Within 30 years of La Zisa's completion, Palermo's golden age, which had begun with the Arab conquest, came to an end. As the influence of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope increased, the tolerance that had created this sophisticated, glittering world fell away. The city remained the island's capital, experiencing good times and bad times as a succession of rulers - some home-grown, some foreign - came and went. The good times brought wealth, culture, handsome buildings and beautiful parks to the city. The bad brought plague, poverty, revolt, riots and repression.

By the middle of the 20th century, Palermo was a crumbling mess. World War II bombing raids, earthquake damage, crime and poverty had turned a once-beautiful city into a crowded, decaying place to be avoided by the people who came to Sicily to relax in the sun

The present

Palermo today still gets something of a bad press. Reports (more than a little exaggerated) of crime, corruption, chaotic traffic and crowded, dirty streets are sufficient to keep many tourists from visiting the city even for a day.

The fabulous mosaics at the Palatine Chapel were the main drawcard for us and when we were told the chapel was closed for restoration we were somewhat disappointed to say the least. In the event, the chapel being closed was the catalyst for us seeing far more of the city than we might otherwise have done - and what we saw, we liked so much we know we want to return some day to see more, much more.

Yes, it is crowded, and parts of it are dirty and, no doubt , dangerous but it's also exciting, vibrant, full of history and interesting things to see and do. Centuries of being at the cross-roads of Mediterranean powerplays between North and South, East and West, have left a rich heritage of architecture (secular and ecclesiastical), culture and cuisine. Serious efforts are being made to repair the decay and restore the grandeur to the city that owes its style to Byzantines and Arabs, Romanesque Normans, Renaissance Italy and Baroque Spain.

Syracuse was charming, Taormina's picture-postcard perfect, Segesta and Selinunte both are serenely beautiful, but it's edgy, lively Palermo I want to go back to - though I shall wait until the Palatine Chapel's restoration work is done.


  • Last visit to Palermo: Jun 2008
  • Intro Updated Aug 16, 2008
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Reviews (22)

Comments (14)

  • WheninRome's Profile Photo
    Nov 27, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    Thank you for the Palermo page. Your tips are insightful and wondefully written. Very helpful!

  • Sambawalk's Profile Photo
    Nov 30, 2009 at 9:03 AM

    Good tips on Palermo. I will be there coming New year time.

  • Pawtuxet's Profile Photo
    Nov 15, 2009 at 8:59 AM

    My favorite tips are about wandering the alleys and byways to observe everyday culture and activities... along with those wonderful local markets in the streets.

  • craic's Profile Photo
    May 11, 2009 at 4:03 PM

    now i really want to go to palermo

  • kyoub's Profile Photo
    Dec 13, 2008 at 6:02 AM

    A delightful page. Palermo sounds like a wonderful place to wander around to enjoy the sights and food.

  • VeronicaG's Profile Photo
    Sep 4, 2008 at 6:59 AM

    Wandering Palermo's streets must have been a genuine delight! Thanks for the in-depth tips and colorful descriptions....

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Sep 2, 2008 at 12:40 AM

    Fantastic Leyle :-)) Difficult to get back into my reality now after having visited your Palermo :-) Your B&B is a real find and you encourage me to visit -) Oh Monrealse oh joy! But also La Zisa and the tombstone is wonderful! Thanks :-))

  • Kuznetsov_Sergey's Profile Photo
    Aug 29, 2008 at 9:28 AM

    Magnifico! Excellent page with very interesting historical background. Segesta's Doric temple reminded me my Greek trip. Thanks Leyle for sharing!

  • Bwana_Brown's Profile Photo
    Aug 27, 2008 at 5:11 PM

    That is an amazing story about Anna and those very enlightened times in Palermo! Quite different is the tale of the church of San Cataldo! Another amazing page Leyle - it seems there are too many wonders in the world to cover in one lifetime.

  • Aug 25, 2008 at 9:26 PM

    yep, anyone called called Anna is bound to be a good one! ;-) a lovely page leyle, i loved reading all the history and stories of palermo.

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