04.07.2017 - 08.07.2017
After a week's intermission in Perth we set off for round two of our world trip: our destination - Sicily. Joining us on this leg was our friend Emma. None of us had been to Sicily before. The view from the tarmac at Palermo airport is quite dramatic with a mountain of sheer cliffs forming a backdrop.
We had a booked an apartment in the old town. The building itself looked like it was a 1980s office building. Quite ugly. But the room was newly renovated. In fact there were renovations going on all around us.
We had to wait in the lobby for quite a while while electricians, fitters and plumbers maneuvered around us until someone came down to let us in. No one asked for ID or money and the whole things was very casual. Shelly and I shared a room facing the street while Emma took an adjoining room. Both rooms were stiflingly hot even and only became marginally more comfortable in our room after the air-conditioning had been one for a few hours. Emma's room had a completely ineffective air-conditioner. But we were in the heart of the city and had a balcony overlooking the street.
Sicily has been a crossroads at the heart of the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The Greeks settled in Sicily in the 6th century BC. In the 4th century BC, Sicily cost the Athenians their empire during the Peloponnesian War. In the 2nd century BC the Carthaginians, the Greeks and the Romans fought over possession of the island. Sicily was one of the breadbaskets of the Roman Empire until the Arabs conquered it in the 7th century. The Byzantines and the Arabs fought over her for centuries until it was finally reclaimed for Byzantium in the 11th century AD. The Byzantines held onto it for less than a century before it was seized by the Normans. The Normans were followed by the Germans, who were followed by the French, who were followed by the Spanish, and so on and so on, with each empire and people adding another layer over the top of the previous, creating a unique mosaic of culture and history.
Palermo was the capital of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. The late 11th century was the golden era of Norman expansion (if it can be called that). The Normans were the descendants of Viking raiders who had settled in north western France in the 8th century. They started as a mercenary Viking army hired by the French to protect France from invasion by other Vikings. For two centuries they settled down and became civilized - to a degree - until the mid-11th century they suddenly burst forth in their own wave of migration and conquest. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066AD. Other Normans headed south and east into Italy, serving first as mercenaries for the Byzantines before breaking out on their own. Robert 'the cunning' Guiscard drove the Byzantines from southern Italy in 1071 and then turned east and attempted to conquer Byzantium itself. That attempt ultimately failed but his sons became leading figures in the First Crusade and conquered kingdoms for themselves there.
Robert's brother, Roger, invaded Sicily in 1061 and completed the conquest of the island from the Byzantines and Arabs in 1090, and was crowned King Roger I. Palermo became Roger's capital as it was situated on the north side of the island with transport links to Norman Apulia and Calabria on the Italian mainland (contrasting with the Byzantine capital of Syracuse, which was on the south east with links to Greece and Constantinople and the Arabs, whose capital was on the southern side of the island linked with North Africa).
Scattered throughout old Palermo are Norman era churches and palaces, notable for their interesting merging of Arab, Byzantine and Norman-Romanesque architectural traditions. Even the churches have distinctly Islamic motifs and Arabic inscriptions (as more than half the people in Sicily spoke Arabic at the time).
At the little church of St John of the Hermits, we where offered helmets to climb the bell tower. We laughed at the time but found that they did come in quite handy as the stairs were very low and narrow.
The major tourist site in old Palermo is the Norman Palace. The apartments and chapel preserve stunning 12th century mosaics and decorations.
High above Palermo, is Montreal (the Royal Mountain) where William II built a magnificent church and palace complex. The interior of the church is a riot of Byzantine style religious narrative mosaics and Arab style abstract geometric design.
William II is depicted on either side of the high altar, not easily visible unless you view from the side.
Thanks to its turbulent history, Sicily has a distinct cuisine. Everywhere in Italy of course has gelato, but in Sicily it is served in a brioche and topped with whipped cream. It looks disgusting and sounds like a heart attack, but it is absolutely delicious!