The Mediterranean Jewel

Fernando Dameto. Deputy Director of Humanities. IE Humanities Center

3 June 2013

The beautiful island of Sicily is probably the place most worth visiting in the world, with its churches, amazing artistic heritage, and delicious decadence.

If there is a place on earth worth visiting, that place is Sicily. Monuments, such as the Cathedral of Monreale, Villa Romana Casale or Agrigento’s Concordia Temple are unique, probably the best preserved pieces of their respective civilization. For me the most impressive of the three was Monreale’s Cathedral. Perhaps because when I walked in I felt I had never been anywhere like it before. Some may say it is similar to Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, San Vitale in Ravenna, or Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but I stick by my words, I have never seen a place like that in my life. That said, if there is a place you really mustn’t miss on this beautiful Mediterranean island, it is its capital.

Palermo is a monumental and decadent city. It has an outstanding artistic heritage, with palaces and churches all over the place. The palaces make you feel as if you have been transported back to the times of Visconti’s Il Gattopardo. The churches are the legacy of fifteen centuries of diverse history. In Palermo you can appreciate a broad range of churches, such as former Arab mosques, Norman with byzantine interior design, baroque or even the hitherto unseen, a church that combines the baroque and the Norman-byzantine style. The number of churches is unbelievable. I can’t think of a city centre with more churches…Now don’t be like my travel mates - Rome doesn’t count.

If you have the chance to visit Palermo, it’s better to go during Easter. That way all the churches are open. At any other time it is not so easy to visit them. If you want to get a sense of Italian timing, watch Wilder’s film Avanti. You will also be able to see the processions along the streets, and how they mix with the car traffic. It’s a strange experience to get your car stopped by a policeman and see the Virgin Mary carried by people crossing just a few meters ahead. Also, you will be able to appreciate vigil processions into the churches, along with praying or singing.

Surprisingly, even though its cultural heritage is incredible, its state of preservation is fairly poor. It is hard to believe that such a monumental centre has been left out, and you start thinking of cities with much less historical relevance that are top tourist destinations. That said, this fact enables people to live the experience of being in one of those post-apocalyptic films that were so popular in the eighties. When you find yourself after midnight in the middle of a centrally located square, surrounded by empty, shored up buildings, partially covered by the smoke of people frying sardines, and with motorbikes crossing the square like it was the most natural thing in the world, while people dance enthusiastically  to 50’s music, you have the feeling of being on the set of one of John Carpenter’s films.

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