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Monday, July 29, 2013

PALERMO’S PALAZZOS & PUPPETS

Faded Splendors - 
Animated Alleyways...
My guests along with my partner had just been seated for dinner and about to sip our prosecco in the Strascinu restaurant on the outskirts of Palermo when the dining entertainment began with those iconic Sicilian puppets in vintage armour jousting in their miniature theatre in front of us. What great fun!  The owners of the large capacity dining room appeared to have established an immediate Sicilian atmosphere upon entering along with a veritable collection of native handicrafts and a central focal space for the traditional painted donkey carts adapted as groaning boards for artfully displayed tapas, antipasti, insalatas, risottos and side dishes. The menu included a wide selection of traditional entrees with meat dishes highlighted with stuffed meat rolls, lamb cutlets and chicory-flavoured rice along with fish on display for clients to choose. Prices for main courses ranged from 8 to 18 - open daily. Thus began our introduction to both the past and present life of Sicily and Palermo.

On the following day we walked to the intersection of Via Liberta and Via Principe where the Piazzas  Castelnuovo  and Ruggero Settimo are collectively called the Politeama square to denote the location of the imposing neo-classical Politeama Garibaldi Teatro with its hemispherical façade and triumphal entrance arch, but now closed except for occasional art exhibitions.

We continued on past the old palazzos on Via R Settimo to Piazza Verdi with the monumental Teatro Massimo Opera House (1895-1897) the third largest opera house in Europe after the Palais Garnier in Paris. The grand exterior set of steps leads up to a Corinthian colonnade and entrance to the theatre with its red interior and seven tiers of boxes accommodating up to 1350 patrons.  For those with an interest in movie locations the last scene of the ‘The Godfather’ part III was filmed here in 1990. We noted the current opera programme of King Candaules which we later attended and the inauguration programme of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle to be performed in 2013 for the first time in its history with prices comparable to international standards.  

We continued to the virtual heart of Palermo, the busy old part 'La Kalsa' at the junction of Vittorio Emmanuele and Via Maqueda. The four concave corners comprising of 17thC palaces decorated with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian details provide an architectural setting for fountains featuring the four seasons and statues of Spanish viceroys above them. Through the years they have succumbed to grime and pollution but remain an architectural crossroad of vehicular traffic, caliches for tourists and a popular animated meeting place.

Close by and in complete contrast to the opera houses is the food market of Vucciria where the vendors yell back and forth in their own form of street theatre among the fruits, vegetables and smell of the fish stalls against a backdrop of old and crumbling buildings. One would venture to say these old markets are the soul of the city.

Off Via Roma and south of the Corso Via Emanuele is the location of Piazza dei Vespri and the most sumptuous private residence in Sicily, the Palazzo Valguarnera Gangi owned by Prince Joseph Vanni San Vincinzo and Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna. In 1963 Luchino Visconti filmed the magnificent ballroom dance scene for Lampedusa's novel 'The Leopard' in the palazzo's Hall of Mirrors which is now available on DVD. Connected to the palazzo were the stables of the time but now converted into a premier restaurant  Osteria dei Vespri with its old world rustic charm on two levels with wooden beamed and vaulted stone ceilings complimented with cream slipcovered seating and table cloths. There is also the opportunity for wine tastings in English and Italian in their large tasting room of some 650 labels. Lunch from 65, dinner from 54 - 94, reservations required but closed on Sundays.

Not to be missed is the faded but magnificent Palazzo Mirto, the former home of the aristocratic Filangeri family and now a museum consisting of three floors of immense wealth - lavish ballrooms and sitting rooms, grand libraries and in a tiny room, a painted tromp  l'oeil curtain for children’s puppet shows!  The second floor reception rooms revolve around an exterior terrace furnished with a fountain in the rocaille style and a trompe l'oeil garden setting.

A recent addition to the cultural heritage in La Kalsa is the outstanding  Palazzo Torre, a gem of a private residence partially converted and restored into a museum of the Associazione  Culturale Stanze for the preservation and collection of some 2300 samples of majolica tiles from the 1400's - 1930’s, labels, toys, stationary, ink bottles and numerous other artifacts.

Another must see for parents and children is the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum of Palermo founded in 1975. From the main floor with its posters and paraphernalia, steps lead us to the second floor with its many rooms and some four thousand puppets, marionettes, glove-puppets, shadow figures and items of scenery. In 2001 this association proposed the Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage Museum protected by UNESCO.

At the end of the day an unscripted restaurant dining experience somewhere in the labyrinth of back street alleyways. Tables and chairs were set up outside a trattoria wherever space was available or beside the plated food choices from bruschetta , caponata, spaghetti, broccoli, ragu to meat balls. Families with children run helter skelter, others stroll past in animated conversation like puppets in performance while the inevitable vespas manoeuvered among the tables!


…..may we suggest for an appetizer try the Sicilian lifestyle, for an entrée enjoy alfresco dining and for dessert order their classic tiramisu and if available music by Mina the famous Italian pop singer!

For your next  Vacation to Naples, Call  1 877 411 6359 or Click here, and get ready for the vacation of a life time

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