Travel Notes: Palermo, Monreale, and San Cipirello

In May and June of 2011, I spent 5 weeks traveling around Europe. This post is one of a series chronicling the different places I visited on that trip.

After visiting Rome, my mom and I flew to Sicily to take a 9-day Rick Steves tour. Our first stop was Palermo, and we arrived about a day and a half early to get our bearings before the tour began.

I have to say that I found Palermo to be a challenging city. I think it was a matter of expectations: I had this notion of Sicily as this beautiful, quaint island paradise, and loud, bustling Palermo just did not mesh with that picture. Plus, it was raining when we arrived – and grey, dreary skies most definitely did not mesh with that picture!

On our first day, we didn’t do much – wandered around a bit, caught up on sleep, and had two fine but unremarkable meals. On day two, however, we rebounded and actually began exploring some of the city. It still rained throughout the day, but in our better frames of mind, it didn’t seem quite so tragic.

While generally depressing, the rain did make for perfect museum weather. We started out at Palermo’s archaeological museum. It may not be world famous, but I still found it worthwhile. I was most fascinated by the collections of tiny, everyday objects – jewelry, small statues, pairs of dice, bowls. I always marvel at the fact that these simple objects have endured for so long.

After the museum, we were ready for a snack, and we found a bakery with some delicious looking treats. However, in true Italian fashion, it was pure chaos. Actually, to the locals it might not have been – I got the sense that everybody else understood the “rules” of the bakery except us. We ordered at one counter, were ushered to another counter to pay, and then couldn’t figure out where we were actually supposed to pick up our food. It took several minutes, many streams of rapid Italian that I didn’t understand, and a few desperate looks, but we finally got our food. However – the cannoli in Sicily are so damn delicious that I think it might have all been worth it. Seriously, I don’t think I can ever eat cannoli in the US again without feeling wistful.

Feeling slightly disconcerted by our bakery misadventures (yet fortified by the tasty cannoli), we headed off to Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s opera house. We took a tour of the interior (no pictures allowed) and learned lots of interesting trivia, like the fact that the opera’s roof can open in the summer to let the air in. Also, we learned that this opera house was used in the Godfather 3 (Sofia Coppola’s character is shot on its stairs). It was truly a beautiful place.

After the theater, we headed to a nearby restaurant (Ristorante 59) for a late lunch. Our meal was solid, but what caught our eye was the platter of Sicilian cookies we saw on several tables. My mom in particular loves these type of cookies, and I’m pretty sure her eyes lit up when they finally brought the platter to our table.

In the evening, we met up with our tour group at the hotel, and our tour officially began. While I tend to enjoy the logistics of traveling – figuring out which sites to see, where to stay, and what to eat – I have to admit it’s kind of nice to have someone else figure that all out for you (and come up with a fantastic itinerary). I was in Europe for 5 weeks, and I planned out every detail of most of it – so I greatly enjoyed the 9 days on tour when I didn’t have to think about anything. Also, Rick Steves tours are excellent – this was my mom’s and my second one, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone.

That evening, we met the other folks we’d be traveling with, took care of some housekeeping/administrative stuff, and took an orientation walk (through the rain – it was relentless those first few days in Palermo).

Our third and final day in Palermo started out with a walking tour of the city, led by a local guide. We spent the entire morning exploring, so we saw tons of cool things. Some highlights of our walking tour:

We saw several churches on our walk. One of my favorites was Santa Caterina, which looked pretty unassuming from the outside but was magnificent on the inside – filled with gorgeous, ornate marble carvings:

We also visited the Cathedral of Palermo – a huge church with lots of impressive domes and towers. Inside, we saw the tombs of several Normans who had been kings of Sicily (one of them was also Holy Roman Emperor). Outside, there were plenty of lovely flowers, and as anyone who has ever traveled with me could tell you, I have yet to see a flower that I didn’t want to photograph.

Next we visited the workshop of a cart painter/puppet maker. I loved seeing all the brightly painted carts and puppets – they were delightful!

We ended our walking tour at one of Palermo’s open air markets. I absolutely love visiting outdoor markets – particularly when they’re this big, bustling, and full of colorful fruits and vegetables. I took many pictures of all the fresh, vibrant produce, but here are a few of my favorites:

After our walking tour, we were pretty tired and opted to spend most of the afternoon at a slower pace – we had a nice meal, walked around the neighborhood near our hotel a bit, and just relaxed. In the evening, we met up with our group for dinner at Vino e Pomodoro – our first in a series of truly spectacular meals on this trip.

Our tour guide explained that, while we’d be eating many traditional Sicilian meals throughout this trip, our first meal would be a more modern take on the island’s cuisine. In the photo collage above, going clockwise from the top left, we ate:

  • Antipasti: a plate of several different things – bruschetta, zucchini, artichokes, and fried triangles of bread (I loved it all except the artichokes)
  • Primi: two types of pasta, one that was more whole-grainy with fennel and fava beans, and one with olives, swordfish, and marinara sauce
  • Secondi: radicchio (very bitter) with stuffed fish and oranges. The fish was delicious!
  • Dolci: mint panna cotta and a glass of limoncello to finish the meal off.

It was simply delicious – man, do Sicilians know how to do food right.

We went to bed with full stomachs and woke up the next day to leave Palermo and begin our trip around the island. We stopped at two places nearby Palermo – Monreale and San Cipirello – before heading onto our next major stop, Cefalu.

Monreale is a hilltop town, known primarily for its cathedral. The exterior of the cathedral is alright, but it’s the interior that really shines (literally). The interior is covered in huge, gorgeous gold leaf mosaics – in fact, our guide told us that there’s something like 2 tons of gold leaf in the church.

While in Monreale, we also visited the cloisters, and spent some time exploring the beautiful courtyard. The columns surrounding the courtyard were fantastic as well – some decorated with colorful mosaic tiles; others with intricate carvings.

From Monreale, we headed to San Cipirello, where we visited the Calatrasi winery. We took a tour of the winery, learning about how the grapes are processed into wine. And, naturally, we had our own mini wine tasting. One thing I noticed throughout my time in Italy was how wine never gave me a headache (and, ahem, I drank my fair share of it). I’ve heard from various people that this is because Italian wines have less sulfites – I’m not sure if that’s true, but whatever the case, I’m glad of the fact.

We topped off our visit to the winery with a spectacular meal (6 appetizers plus bread, 2 pasta dishes, veal, lambchop, and several desserts – fruit and 2 pastry varieties). Needless to say, I slept slash went into a food coma on the bus ride to our next destination!

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