Odyssey 2018 - Palermo and Cefalù

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February 21st 2018
Published: February 22nd 2018
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Christ Pantocrator, Cefalù CathedralChrist Pantocrator, Cefalù CathedralChrist Pantocrator, Cefalù Cathedral

Pantocrator is a title of Christ represented as the ruler of the universe, especially in Byzantine church decoration.
Today we had arranged for guided tours of Palermo and Cefalù, cities that are the repositories of many Sicilian architectural and artistic treasures, including several of the most celebrated examples of Byzantine and Arab mosaics scattered throughout the island of Sicily. Both of these cities lie on the western side of the island, so the distances to be traveled from our base in Taormina required more than 6 hours in a tour bus; and a long, 13-hour-day from start to finish.

We made it to the pick-up point at the Taormina bus terminal by 7 AM, where our 12-seat-capacity tour bus, driver and guide met us in short order. After a couple of stops on the way out of town to pick-up a few more passengers, we drove south toward Catania via Sicily’s superhighway system, where the last members of the group boarded. Our group of eleven sojourners, all of whom were quite congenial, consisted of several other American couples, two Canadians, with the remainder being German. Given this mix, our multi-lingual guide provided his narrative in both English and German throughout the day.

From Catania we drove northwest through the central region of Sicily, covering the 200 km. distance to Palermo in about 2 hours. Brisk temperatures, in the 40s, and clear, blue skies made for ideal viewing conditions as we passed through the lush green landscapes, rolling hills, and rugged mountain ranges (up to 6,000 feet above sea level) that dot the interior of this island. Several of the pictures taken from the bus captured a sense of this impressive scenery on display.

Upon arrival in Palermo, the capital city of Sicily with a population of 700,000+ residents (more than 1 million in the greater metro area), we disembarked at the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the Palermo opera house located on the Piazza Verdi. Designed and built by a renowned family of architects and construction entrepreneurs from northern Italy, the building includes elements from ancient Greek/Roman architecture, as well as the Norman architectural style. Construction started in January 1874, but was stopped for eight years from 1882 until 1890. Finally, in May 1897, twenty-two years after the laying of the foundation stone, the third largest opera house in Europe (after the Palais Garnier in Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna) staged its opening performance. Although we did not visit the interior, our guide mentioned in passing that the magnificent staircase in front of the theater is where the final scenes of the film The Godfather Part III were filmed. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t50QSG-XKNA)

After a 10-minute walk along a pedestrian shopping street, we reached the famous Quattro Canti, officially known as Piazza Vigliena, a Baroque square that was laid out on the orders of the Spanish Viceroys between 1608-1620 at the crossing of the two principal streets in Palermo, the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The piazza is octagonal, four sides being the streets, with the sculptures on each of the four corners depicting a variety of themes, including the four seasons, four Spanish kings and the four patron saints of the old town areas. The building facades are curved, and rise to four floors; the fountains rise to the height of the second floor, the third and fourth floors contain the statues in niches. At the time the piazza was built, it was one of the first major examples of town planning in Europe.

Our next stop, a short distance from the Quattro Canti, was the Piazza Pretoria, the home not only to a splendid fountain but several other impressive buildings including the City Hall. The fountain, known for generations as the “Fountain of Shame”, has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1555 by a Florentine sculptor for a Tuscan villa owned by the Viceroy Pedro de Toledo. His son, on inheriting the villa in 1574, thought it a little too risqué for his tastes, so he sold it to the City of Palermo. The large central fountain is the focal point for sixteen nude statues of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs. If you can imagine this being erected during the Inquisition, it's not difficult to understand why it received its epithet, the “Fountain of Shame”.

Behind the City Hall, there is another square, Piazza Bellini, where the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (more commonly known as La Martorana) is located. La Martorana was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch, a famous Admiral (a word of Arabic origin) of the fleet of the Norman King Roger II. Initially the church was dedicated to the celebration of Greek Orthodox rites, but this changed in the 13th century when it became part of the Catholic Church. Several parts of the structure were changed during the 17th century and many of the original mosaics were discarded to make way for Baroque frescoes. However, the surviving mosaics are amongst the most impressive ever to have been created in Sicily. Many of the craftsmen and artisans who created these mosaics were brought from Byzantium by King Roger II; and the bell tower outside the church represents the best of Norman-Arab architecture. We spent about 15 minutes inside the church, admiring the intricate and stunning mosaics, along with the other decorative artwork that adorns the altar, domes, and walls.

While a light drizzle began to fall, we made a brief tour inside the cavernous Palermo Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Architecturally, it is characterized by the presence of different styles, due to a long history of additions, alterations and restorations, the last of which occurred in the 18th century. The church was erected in 1185 on the area of an earlier Byzantine basilica. This earlier church was founded by Pope Gregory I, and was later turned into a mosque by the Saracens after their conquest of the city in the 9th century. One of the many relics and objects of devotion we saw inside is the chapel of Saint Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, enclosed by a richly ornamental bronze gate.

After leaving the cathedral the rain became more of a nuisance, as the group made its way through a portion of Il Capo, the historic street market that runs the length of Via Sant'Agostino. The tour guide was rushing us at this point, so we had but a passing glance at the many vendors peddling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and household goods of every description.

We ate lunch with the group at a restaurant across from the opera house, then boarded the bus for the ride to the city of Cefalù, on the northern coast about 75 km. east of Palermo. Cefalù is a picturesque, maze-like old city with a magnificent cathedral that you can see from far away. Inside this cathedral is a remarkably well-preserved 12th-century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the central apse. The cathedral itself was erected in 1131 in the Norman architectural style, as the island of Sicily had been conquered by the Normans in 1091. The building has a fortress-like character and, seen from a distance, it dominates the skyline of the surrounding medieval town, thus making a powerful statement of the Norman presence. The Rocca of Cefalù, a cliff 268 meters high, sits directly behind the cathedral, which only adds to its already imposing image.

The dominant figure inside the church is, of course, the bust of the Christ Pantocrator, portrayed on the semi-dome of the apse with a hand raised in Benediction. In his left hand he carries the Gospel of John, in which is inscribed in both Greek and Latin: "I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in the darkness but will have the light of life" (John, 8:12). Also depicted is the Blessed Virgin Mary, her hands raised in prophecy, flanked by four archangels, and various apostles and evangelists. Despite the poor lighting conditions, it is easy to understand why this work is considered by many to be the finest Byzantine mosaic in Italy, and comparable to other fine Byzantine works from Constantinople.

After an almond wine and a coffee at a café below the cathedral, we boarded our bus for the long ride back to Taormina (via Messina), through countless tunnels drilled through the rocks and ridges that seem to cover the Sicilian terrain. We arrived at
Cefalù (as seen from a distance)Cefalù (as seen from a distance)Cefalù (as seen from a distance)

The giant rock formation is the Rocca of Cefalù.
the bus terminal by 7:30 PM, where our trusty taxi driver (Carmelo Valentino) was thankfully waiting for us. A very long day, but despite the rapid pace and "quick peeks" at everything, it was a great experience overall.

Dee's comments: The many magnificent churches, and "The Fountain of Shame" stand out most in my mind; so many historical sights to digest, one after another; up and down wandering streets; walking through a street market; Mitch drops tissues from his pocket in church , then curses with a nun standing within earshot; long, tiring drive home. We decide to take a break tomorrow in preparation for another 12-hour marathon on Friday!

Additional photos below
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22nd February 2018

Ciao Amici
What a wonderful journey...Forza!
23rd February 2018

What a long day but you saw a lot. Beautiful views. Did Mitch have to go to confession for cussing in church and no less a nun in his presence!! Hope your sniffles get better.
24th February 2018

The architecture is gorgeous, every detail done perfectly. Love the tour bus selfie! Dee, I love how you outed Mitch cursing in front of the nun while in church. Mitch I see you left out that part!

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