From the Sacred to the Profane
Sicily’s remarkable cultural diversity is the result of twenty-five centuries of tumultuous history, and no other city in Europe has hosted such a variety of civilizations and waves of conquerors as Palermo. The most breathtaking window on this unique heritage is nearby Monreale’s 12th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria la Nuova.
Built of golden Sicilian stone by King William II on a mountaintop overlooking his sprawling capital, the cathedral combines Moorish and Norman styles and is famed for the matchless multicolored mosaics that glorify every centimeter of wall space. Most of the Old and New Testament stories you’re likely to have heard are depicted here, dramatically visualized with a host of human and animal figures.
A huge, majestic Christ the Pantocrator broods over it all in the central apse. From the incense-filled interior and its 6,000 square yards of dazzling mosaics, step into the blinding sunshine of the equally famous cloisters of the adjacent Benedictine abbey. None of its 216 slender pillars are alike, and the hush is broken only by the splash of a fountain reminiscent of ancient Araby.
Maintain the Middle Eastern illusion with a trip to La Vucciria, Sicily’s greatest market. Its crowded, souklike passageways are another reminder that from Sicily, just “one hop and you’re out of Europe,” as D. H. Lawrence wrote.
La Vucciria is not just about shopping—it is a vibrant spectacle, full of merchants screaming, yelling, shouting, arguing, and singing about their wares, vying for volume and ribaldry—if the local vernacular were not unintelligible (it’s like no other on earth), outsiders would catch comparisons of succulent pomegranates to parts of the female anatomy.
You can eat your way through (if you enjoy sandwiches stuffed with tripe, goat intestines, or sliced spleen) or just succumb to the heady smells, from briny octopus to anchovies and fresh mint, basil, saffron, capers, and oregano. This being an island, expect awesome displays of fish and unrecognizable sea creatures, and from the interior hills, the proudly displayed carcasses of goats, insides intact, attesting to their freshness. And who knew so many different kinds of olives existed?