Buildings, art reflect Sicily's 3,000-year history


In Sicily, I wondered if I wasn't the unwitting victim of some cosmic brand of "omerta" - Mafia lingo for an act of non-co-operation.

Nothing big. I didn't encounter a crime boss and no one asked me to accept a bribe. It was just that bad timing, poor directions, overwhelmed public transit and maybe a little silent non-co-operation, plagued my friend and me during a two-week visit. Worst of all, I couldn't seem to get into the one sight I would not miss - the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in the Palazzo Normanni in the city of Palermo.

Sicily's 3,000-year history reads like one long series of nightmares. Yet, a rare beam of light turns out to be the Norman king Roger II - widely viewed as one of Europe's most gifted and charismatic rulers.

OK, so Roger died in 1154, succeeded by his son "William the Bad." But he drew up Sicily's first code of law, welcomed the learned and the foreign, patronized the fine arts, and went on to rule long and successfully over all of southern Italy.

And with the help of friends like the great Islamic map-maker al-Idrisi, who lived at his court in Palermo, Roger left behind a private chapel entirely covered in Byzantine mosaics, said to be a perfect blend of Christian and Arabic art.

This Cappella Palatina, while perhaps, at one time, no finer than the more famous Hagia Sofia basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul, is infinitely better preserved. In fact, it's in pristine shape. Some scholars claim that it rivals the great Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. But getting into this chapel wasn't going to be easy. Indeed, from my arrival in Palermo, it took on the feel of a Grail-like quest.

Our Alitalia flight from London hit the Palermo runway with a thud and then screeched to a halt. We'd booked a budget hotel online and while the Casena dei Colli turned out to be a delightful garden retreat, it was two public bus rides from the city centre (one of which ceased operating mid-evening, leaving us stranded at a distant roundabout).

Weeks of uncollected garbage bags lay heaped in the lane behind the hotel. At the bus stop, a nice looking businessman I fell into chatting with said of his native town: "Unfortunately, Palermo is a very unlucky city." He didn't elaborate. (According to my 2008 edition of The Rough Guide to Sicily, 80 per cent of stores in the island's largest cities of Palermo and Catania currently pay protection money to the Mafia.)

In Palermo's medieval quarter, along narrow streets criss-crossed by undulating lanes - and populated by sidewalk merchants, illegal migrants, gypsies and others - I went in search of the baroque churches for which Sicily is renowned.


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