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December 3, 2008


Filed under: Italy Rome-Sicily 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 1:27 am

Panorama of Palermo

Panorama of Palermo

Our day began with breakfast on the Abasciatori’s rooftop terrace. After the previous day’s rain, the skies had partially cleared. From the hotel’s deck the expanse of urban Palermo, tucked in between the hills and the img_7589sea, could be seen. The domes of numerous churches are spread out amongst the city’s jumble. Up on the hill in the distance, we could see Duomo Monreale, one of our destinations for the day.

When planning the trip, Palermo seemed like a daunting, dangerous, and uncomfortable place to visit. We had yet to spend much time there, but this attitude was quickly changing.

With only one day in Palermo, we had a lot to see. We headed up Via Roma to the open air Vucciria market. Tucked into a side street near Piazza San Domenico, the small market offers an amazing variety of food items. In the valley created by the gray, city-soot coated buildings that line the alleyway, the colors, sounds, and smells of the market filled the senses. The standard fruit and vegetable offerings that you would find throughout Europe were at hand. A wide variety of fresh fish, glistening, firm, clear-eyed, and smelling only of the sea, was in abundance. Meat markets spilled out on to the street from small shops that lined the bazaar. And, of course, cheeses, breads, pastas, olives, olive oil, capers, and pretty much any other ingredient you would use to prepare an Italian meal was available.

Snails in the open air market

Snails in the open air market

Most of the items in the bustling market were recognizable. Along with the familiar, were some unusual local specialties like snails, castrato, freshly boiled octopus, and Palermo’s ubiquitous pane ca’meusa (boiled spleen sandwiches). It was the first time we had seen many of these offerings.

We had to try something new. One vendor was serving small, freshly boiled octopus to a collection of tourists and locals that waited like chicks in the nest to be fed. The intensely purple colored octopus was pulled out of the boiling, salty water; the legs were sliced off with a knife and cut up into manageable pieces. The head of the octopus was quartered and all the pieces along with a slice of lemon were transferred to the customer’s plate. The food was then eaten by hand.

Boiled octopus being prepared for service

Boiled octopus being prepared for service

We watched this show for awhile, and then we wandered around the market checking out the stalls. Before we left, we decided to give the octopus a go. The octopus was excellent, slightly salty with a mild, fresh seafood flavor. The texture was somewhat rubbery and a little chewy. In its purest form, this was probably best octopus we have had. More adventurous was the head of the octopus, which had a crab and lobster innards like flavor, though milder. With healthy squeeze of lemon, I could definitely see the head as being an acquired, sought after taste. The jury on the head was still out for Becky, though. Nevertheless, both of us would make a point of having another octopus prepared this way, even if I got all the head.

Palermo's Cathedral

Palermo's Cathedral

From the market, we headed along Corso Vittorio Emanuelle to the terminus of the 389 bus line that would take us to Duomo Monreale. Walking the couple of kilometers to the bus stop seemed to be a practical matter, but there was such a high density of things to stop and see along the way it felt like we’d never make it to Monreale. Notable sights on our short walk included Fontana Pretoria (a fountain), San Giuseppe (a church), Piazza Vigliena (otherwise known as Quattro Canti), Palermo’s Cathedral, Porta Nuova, and Piazza Indipendenza (the location of the bus stop).

img_7737I liked the Quattro Canti and the Cathedral the best. Quattro Canti is the four-way intersection that is a central navigational landmark for this area of Palermo. Surrounded by three story buildings, the narrow two lane roads with slender sidewalks lead into the square. The vertical three story walls of the buildings and the small size of the square results in an unexpected chasm-like feel. The four concave baroque facades of the buildings on each corner of the square are ornately decorated with one sculpture per floor. With its steep, ornately decorated walls, walking into Quattro Canti feels a bit like walking inside a church.

Palermo’s Cathedral reflects its long history and varied owner’s remodeling. Starting as a Christian church, the building was later converted to a Muslim mosque. It was then reconfigured by the Normans and, in its present form, contains Gothic, Arabic, Baroque styles amongst other architectural elements. The hodge-podge of architectural styles of Palermo’s Cathedral reflects much of what is unique about Palermo.

The cloister at Monreale

The cloister at Monreale

Through the gate of Porta Nuova and over to the far side of Piazza Indipendenza, we found a kiosk selling tickets for the waiting 389 bus that would take us to Monreale. Soon after we climbed on the city bus, we were off and heading up the hill. The bus climbed gradually at first, adding passengers until it was sardine can full. Pumping out diesel fumes, the bus struggled up the last steep hillside to reach the town of Monreale and its Duomo. Overall, it took about 30 minutes until the 389 bus pulled into the piazza adjacent to the Arab-Norman Duomo and disgorged its passengers.



Monreale is a small town that sits on the edge of a hillside with a commanding view of the seaside expanse of Palermo. With the skies now threatening rain, we headed to the cloister where we entered for a small fee. A portico supported by 108 pairs of columns surrounded the garden of the square cloister. Each of the 216 columns are uniquely decorated, many using glass tile mosaics.

After a thorough inspection of the cloister, we headed out to visit the basilica. The exterior of Monreale’s Cathedral was interesting, but we were anxious to look inside. Unfortunately, despite nearly two weeks of being trained by Italian sightseeing, we still managed to reach an attraction just as it was closing. Fortunately for us, the closure was just in time for lunch, so we had beers and snacks at a cafe within stones throw of the Duomo. It was spritzing rain as we sat down outside under the restaurant’s umbrella. Soon the skies opened up with a heavy rain that caused the tourists milling around the piazza to scatter for shelter. We rode out the rain and wind storm at the restaurant and the basilica soon reopened so we could resume our tour.

Inside Monreale

Inside Monreale

Monreale’s Cathedral is known for its extensive golden, glass mosaics that coat its interior. When you step inside, it feels as if you have entered a gilded jewel box. The interior of the basilica was definitely worth the effort to see. We always like to peek inside cathedrals on our European travels. It feels like stepping into ornate time capsules left for us by people from the past. In this respect, Monreale’s Duomo ranks with the best we have seen.

Though it was free to enter the basilica, it cost one euro to turn the lights for two minutes in the various sections of the church. When someone paid the money and activated the lights, the crowd of visitors would shift like cattle to the feeding trough. When the lights were out, the gathered tourists would hang around waiting for someone else to get impatient and give in and put another coin in the slot. All too often, that person seemed to be me. I figured I spent 14 euros turning the lights on in Monreale, so the free entry to the cathedral wasn’t without cost. It was worth every cent, though. The interior of the Monreale’s Duomo was beyond doubt spectacular.


Inside Monreale (HDR)

Out of slots to fill and lights to turn on, it was time to head back to Palermo to find the stiffs. Stiffs are Becky’s department, so she led us back to the bus and we headed down to Palermo and the Capuchin Crypts.

Located in Piazza Cappuccini, a short walk from a bus stop on the 389 line, was the entrance to the catacombs, or more correctly, the crypt. Through the unassuming entrance, past a monk, and down the steps, we entered a basement. The Capuchin Order preserved the dead using a mummification process. In the crypt, the well-preserved corpses, dressed in clothes and organized by age, sex, and social position, were displayed hanging from the walls and lying on shelves and in coffins. The whole scene was macabre.

monreale-12If you were wondering about the name similarity, the Capuchin Order inadvertently has given its name to the popular coffee drink cappuccino. The visual similarity between the Cappuccini’s hoods that they wear with their brown habits and the milk foam cap on a café espresso inspired the beverage name.

After the visit to the crypts, we were a little hungry and were hours from dinnertime. We decided to try some of Palermo’s famous street food. First we located a rice ball or arrancini. Arrancini is a savory dish that consists of a thick rice based wrapping that surrounds a filling and is deep fried producing a sphere that is about the size and only slightly less dense than a pool ball. In our case, the mildly crispy, golden brown, spongy rice shell covered a core of mozzarella and prosciutto. This hearty, savory fare was both filling and comforting.

Teatro Massimo, Palermo's opera house

Teatro Massimo, Palermo's opera house (HDR)

With the rice ball, I didn’t really need to eat anything else but the curiosity about another Palermo specialty, pane ca’meusa or spleen sandwich, had gotten the best of me. I had to try one or I would be thinking about this for years afterwards.

The meat for the spleen sandwich is sliced and cooked in a salty broth in a low form cylindrical pot. With pointing fingers, I ordered the sandwich. Pane ca’meusa was simply prepared by dipping the halves of a sliced roll, French dip style, into the broth produced by the cooking spleen meat and loading the roll up with the grayish meat and garnishing with grated, local caciocavallo cheese. With the first taste, the strongly salty meat in the sandwich had the slightly off-putting taste of organ meat, similar to sweetbreads, and a texture approximating beef tongue. I wasn’t sure I was going to finish the sandwich, but I kept on eating and the strength of the organ meat flavor faded. I was definitely seeing how this would be an acquired taste. The briny spleen sandwich would be, without doubt, a great after bar food item. In the end, on a return trip to Palermo, a pane ca’meusa will be one of the first food items I seek out. I’m not sure whether I’m still curious about the sandwich or whether I really like it. I guess it will take a half dozen more sandwiches before I know for sure.

Back at the Ambasciatori, we had a beer in the lounge before we headed out to dinner. Pizza from a forno al legno (wood fired oven) was on the agenda, so, on the advice from the front desk, we headed over to Lo Sparviero on Via Sperlinga. Tired from being on our feet for most of the last two weeks, we took a taxi to the restaurant. There was a long line out the front of the Lo Sparviero when we arrived. Despite a call from our hotel, we’d wait awhile in front of the restaurant to get in. With some time to linger, we wandered up the narrow street to check out the other restaurants in the area. On this short stretch of Via Sperlinga there were four restaurants, all offering similar fare (pizzas and pastas) and all with long lines out the door.


Becky had a pizza Margherita, which was made with arugula replacing the basil used in Naples, and I had a pizza funghi, which was made with sautéed porcini mushrooms. With our pizzas, we had a nice bottle of Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s premier red wine. With thin, crispy crusts and the hint of smoke from the wood fired oven, both of our pizzas were good. It was a simple last meal to end our Italian visit, but it definitely hit the spot.

After dinner, we walked back past the Opera House. The streets and the numerous restaurants, bars, and gelaterias were full of people. It was Saturday night and locals were out in force.

It was with some sadness that we continued back to our hotel. This would be in the end our stay in Italy and in Palermo. It was particularly difficult to leave Palermo as we felt we were just getting started. There were so many more things to see, smell, hear, taste, and eat in Palermo. We are salivating at the thought of returning.


Capuchin info:


  1. But what would Octopus and Spleen taste like together, that’s the question that keeps me up at night:

    Comment by surlypeach — December 3, 2008 @ 6:45 am

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