I had spent a winter in Caribbean and let me tell you - I know its a dream for many people, but once you see one tropical Island, you saw them all. It is magical escape from cold winter, however there is nothing really there except lots of gaudy tourist attractions, desperately poor natives selling trinkets, sand beaches and palm trees. No matter where you go, how far you go, its all copy & paste of the previous place. And since I sailed four months around Caribbean, I just couldn't wait until finally I step out in European ports where every day there is a new city waiting, new architecture, new food, different language, different people. And centuries of history behind every house.
It just happened that this year my ship is docked in Palermo for refurbishing - its officially called "dry dock" where for insurance reasons ship has to spend some time docked without passengers and all sorts of mechanics, carpenters, electricians and specialists are busy everywhere. Normally this is time for me and my team to do inventory but for the first time ever, lo and behold, we actually have time off to rest and do nothing. I just couldn't believe that I can go outside and have all the time in the world for myself without any obligations or time limits. I have been in Palermo hundreds of times but since I always have only few hours free, I could only explore parts close to the port and my impression was that this is a modern, dirty city full of skyscrapers, apartment blocks and garbage. If you ask me, I found Messina and Catania far more interesting and historical. The further I ever went was a square with a lovely theatre (Politeama theatre) and I always thought this is centre.
Imagine my surprise where now finally I discovered there is a whole beautiful and exciting city behind the area I knew. In fact, it turned out skyscrapers, apartment blocks and garbage were only parts of port neighborhood and all this time I was just stuck in ugly part of town. Because this time I had all the time in the world, I threw myself into labyrinth of countless ancient streets and completely excited, fearless and curious I dived into completely unknown areas. First I walked trough neighborhood that probably looks the same for centuries, same tiny, dirty, shadowy streets with clothing lines decorating the skyline - this is how it looked centuries ago and how Italian neighborhoods looked in new world. Than I decided to find famous Palazzo Abatellis which I did even though I couldn't remember the name nor I knew direction - to my biggest surprise, my Italian was sufficent and voilá, I actually found the place. I just pointed at famous picture of Virgin on postcards and people pointed at the directions.
Palazzo Abatellis is impressive, fortress-like building dating from 15. century and it holds some of the most famous Renaissance works of art. I was excited as a child with the fact that I was able to found it completely by myself and without a map (and not even remembering the name of the place) so I dived in the world of ancient art - unfortunately it was a bit too religious for me, as expected, because past centuries in Sicily were not particularly focused on secular, it was mostly variations on Biblical motives, lives of saints and countless Golgotha, Pieta, Christ and Virgin Mary, mostly very discolored with age and some in a very bad shape (too dark with age to actually see them properly, some of these paintings really need cleaning immediately). However there is a very, very beautiful and famous "Virgin Annunciate" that I absolutely loved - I knew her from before and wanted to see her in real life, true beauty. She is museum's most famous piece but there is also a statue/bust of noblewoman Eleonora D'Aragona who was absolutely lovely and surprisingly modern, done by famous Renaissance artist Francesco Laurana who was born in what was a distant province Dalmatia, which nowadays is part of Croatia! And an excellent fresco with "Triumph of Death" that was a famous theme of medieval times, with plague and all.
After this museum I roamed ancient streets some more and found breath-taking fountain at Piazza Pretoria (all naked mythological characters, called Fontana Pretoria) and nearby two truly ancient churches dating from 11 century, next to each other - tower "Chiesa della Martorana" and tiny chapel called San Cataldo's Church where I felt completely at home, it looks and feels totally medieval and I took a seat inside, completely convinced that this is not my first time here. I finished my walk on a square looking at famous Teatro Massimo where Enrico Caruso sang (Verdi bust in the front) and I bought some Italian music in local CD shop (among some truly beautiful shirts, Palermo is full of classy shops with men's clothing - more than anywhere else I have ever seen in the world). Returned back to the ship totally sunburn and tired of walking, but excited and satisfied that I have finally discovered much more of this city.
Visit to a famous Palermo's Royal Palace, also known as "Norman Palace" that towers very impressively over the entrance. It is a monumental building that was built on a place where previously Arabs had their own 9th century palace - trough later centuries various powerhouses added and built more and more until now we have amazing collection of towers, chapels, stairways and floors from different rulers and kings. There is a huge staircase leading to upper floors with royal apartments (empty of furniture but still visible wall and ceiling decorations) and "The Palatine Chapel" that was world-famous even centuries ago.
This beautiful chapel looks & feel very medieval (I would say Byzantine) and it has quite spectacular decorations everywhere from the mosaic floors all the way up to the gilded ceilings, it is also relatively small compared to some later Gothic churches in Northern Europe, so the atmosphere is not of public place but more of a private worship, which probably it was meant to be. Its just amazing how much love, devotion and care was invested in daily religious life centuries ago.
Next stop was something I heard of but wasn't sure that I want to see it, Palermo's famous Catacombe dei Cappuccini. It is a underground place where for several hundreds of years locals would carefully display their dead relatives on the walls around the tunnels. Fully dressed, arms locked and all. I still didn't completely get the point of this, since I am from different background and we burry our dead in graves that we tend, clean and visit but we never open those graves to peek in, it would be considered disrespectful. Well, for some reason here in Palermo it was apparently quite prestigious thing to do and people buried (stored?) here were without exception from upper classes - priests, nuns, aristocrats, children and so - perhaps the idea was to display them and visit them, who knows? On the other hand, you can also visit the grave without actually looking at corpses, after all. In any case, curiosity got better of me and I found the place - which was in quite depressing part of town, by the way, the moment you step out of the New Gate it feels truly desolate and apocalyptic suddenly, even the air feels differently - and walked down into tunnels where I spent some truly unforgettably creepy time walking on the tombstones and surrounded with corpses on both sides - death is not pretty or dignified, everybody sooner or later falls aside with mouth gaping and there were some unforgettable empty eyes staring, children's faces and all. Its not that I am scared of death - its a natural part of life - but it is something we tend to put in the back of our minds and this macabre exhibition of death was sudden reminder that this is how we all are going to end. It was absolutely fascinating but I am not sure how do I feel about displaying these people like a tourist attraction, with ticket admittance - maybe it should be closed for public, but than it would probably fall in disrepair, this way it at least have some visitors who bring the money in. Or should this be closed and simply used as a graveyard? It dates to 16 century so these corpses are very old indeed, I feel they deserve to be left in peace. Right after this, I needed a drink immediately.