Sicily’s north-western region is rich in exciting and varied places to visit. There are countless wonders, but here’s my TOP TEN.
1. MONREALE CATHEDRAL
Monreale cathedral was commissioned by the Normans but mainly designed and built by the Africans, whom the Normans had just conquered. The Muslim-Arabic influence shows everywhere in this cathedral, which is indisputably Europe’s most beautiful. In the central courtyard (you have to pay a small entrance fee) there was a small version of an Arabic paradise garden.
You can see the rest of my photos here:
2. PALAZZO DEI NORMANNI
There is at least a week’s work of things to see in Palermo, but don’t miss the Palazzo dei Normanni. It is Europe’s oldest Royal palace, first build by the Carthaginians before the birth of Christ. (This part of the building is visible nowadays as the foundations.) The part above ground was initially started by the invaders from North Africa in the 9th century. Each successive group of rulers built an extension in their own style so, from the outside, the building looks like Frankenstein’s Palace.
Inside, it contains a magnificent expanse of regal chambers and halls. They scan so many historic periods and national styles that it functions essentially as a comprehensive museum of interior decor.
The highlight for me is the chapel, known as the Cappella Palatina, whose walls are covered from top to bottom with gold mosaics showing bible scenes and whose wooden ceiling is coated in little Arabic pictures of men hunting, women belly dancing, and all the other pleasures of secular life; bring binoculars or a zoom lens, otherwise you will not be able to see them.
About the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina
3. MARSALA SALT WORKS
There are various salt works in Trapani and Marsala, but the Saline of Ettore Infersa is the one I recommend most highly. This has to be the most unusual place I have ever visited.
The salt works were built by Carthaginians (from Tunis) centuries before Christ, and were updated with new technology by the Greek colonists when Archimedes invented his famous Archimedes screw. They built windmills and pumps to move the water between pools and grind the salt crystals.
The photo opportunities are spectacular and you can stay here in their overnight accommodation if you wish to take sunrise shots. You can also participate in salt crystal harvesting at the right time of year: details are on their website.
For more info:
4. PUPPET MUSEUM, PALERMO
There is a world puppet museum in Palermo which is fantastic. The Sicilian puppets are gorgeous but some of the puppets (e.g. African ones) made my son really panic (he does scare easily though). They perform traditional Sicilian puppet shows which are great fun for children.
There are some other places in Palermo that also do puppet shows – try to find one that does them in English for tourists, unless your family speaks good Sicilian. The Sicilian dialogue is always hilarious and they don’t quite manage the same in English, but it’s better to be able to follow the plot.
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Castelbuono is a lovely town to wander around and specialises in ice-cream and manna. Manna, which most people know only as some enigmatic food mentioned in the Bible, will probably be the most amazing souvenir you could ever take back to friends at home. It is the sap of the manna tree, which is now extinct almost everywhere except the Castelbuono area.
Castelbuono is the centre of the Sicilian Slow Food Movement which makes it a not-to-be-missed stop for foodies. You will be able to buy organic jams, wild honey, home-made salami and other unusual foods.
This is not a touristy town so you may have to go asking locals where to find these things – many Sicilians are not instinctively good at marketing themselves to tourists.
For more photos and info:
Caccamo is another exciting medieval town. The inside of the castle has armour, torture instruments and a real dungeon where the world’s most wicked baron used to throw people. He built an altar and tipped his victims into the dungeon, while they prayed, by opening a trap door in the floor using a secret lever!
Caccamo is also a very pleasant mountain town to walk around, with some spectacular panoramas and good restaurants.
This one is definitely fun for kids. It has a medieval festival in July with processions, jousting, falconry and other medieval festivities – look online for dates and details. Sicilians are very haphazard at publicising events and they often make last minute changes, so ask your hotel to double-check and confirm dates for you before embarking on a long car journey.
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Cefalù is very touristy, but has genuine cultural heritage as well. It is packed with gourmet restaurants, many of which have wonderful views out over the sea and are far cheaper than you would expect. The cathedral was built by the Normans but, like Sicily’s best cathedrals, has mosaics made by the Byzantine Greeks who had ruled Sicily a few centuries earlier; Sicilians knew how to make the most of all their ethnic minorities back then.
There is also a medieval laundry build by the Africans, which consists of a building with the river diverted through it and fed into multiple channels, creating a grid of pools where women could wash their clothes relatively comfortably. It was used by the women of Cefalù right up until the 1950’s!
For more photos and info:
If you are interested in ancient History, Segesta is the place to go. It has a Greek period temple in almost perfect condition except for the lack of a roof – which was never there because it was never quite finished or used.
This highly entertaining post on my blog was written by a British journalist:
I recommend Erice, but don’t go unless you have a totally cloud-free day with no wind. It sits on a rocky peak exactly at cloud level, so the views are unbelievable except, if there are any clouds, you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face!
10. PALAZZO STERI, PALERMO
Palazzo Steri has been used for many purposes over the centuries. When the Spanish ruled Sicily, they made it the seat of the Inquisition. You may not think visiting an old torture chamber is very exciting, but the walls are painted absolutely all over with pictures by the prisoners. There are Jewish depictions of hell, there are protestations by English protestants of their religious faith, and there are images of saints by Catholics begging to be believed and saved.
There is also an excavated ceramics workshop built by the Africans; the so called “chambers of the Sirocco” where food was stored underground to keep it cool and fresh; and there is Renato Guttuso’s vast and most famous painting, of Palermo’s famous Vucciria when it was still a flourishing street market.