Palermo is the capital, largest city, and chief port of Sicily. Located in the northwest of the island at the head of the Bay of Palermo and the foot of Monte Pellegrino, the city fronts the Conca d’Oro valley. Its strategic location has meant that it has been fought over for centuries.
Founded in the eighth century BC by the Phoenicians, Palermo became a Carthaginian base, and was subsequently seized by Rome in 254 BC. The Romans named it Panormus and the city suffered neglect under their rule. Its prosperity was restored in the sixth century when it became a part of the Byzantine Empire. From 831 to 1072 it was under the control of the Saracens. Palermo flourished under Arab rule, boosted by revenue from trade with North Africa. Much of the city’s present character and architecture date from this period. The Normans occupied Palermo in 1072. Their ruler, Roger II, pronounced himself King of Sicily in 1130. His reign was the golden age for Palermo, and it was regarded as one of the most magnificent and cultured cities of twelfth century Europe. The kingdom was remarkable for the peaceful co-existence of Normans, Jews and Arabs.
The monarchy passed to the Hohenstaufens in 1194. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II established a court in Palermo, which was a renowned centre of culture. After Frederick’s reign the city went into decline and was secured by the Angevin French in 1266. In 1282 French rule was overthrown by an uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers. By this stage Sicily’s power was eclipsed by Naples and Palermo began to decline in power and influence. The island was then subject to Aragonese rule and subsequently became a part of Spain until it was captured by Garibaldi in 1860, and incorporated into unified Italy. In the years between the two world wars, Sicily became known as the power centre of the Mafia. Since World War II (during which Palermo suffered heavy bombing by the Allies) great efforts have been made to curb the Mafia’s power and many trials have taken place of people accused of having dealings with the Mafia. Along with its political clean up, the city is tackling the restoration of its historic and architectural treasures.
Palermo is a major producer of citrus fruits, fish and cereals and its industries include textiles, processed food, chemicals and shipbuilding. There are services running from the Stazione Centrale to destinations within Sicily as well as Intercity trains to Reggio Calabria, Naples and Rome. International and long distance buses arrive and depart from the Intercity bus station at Via Paolo Balsamo. Ferries arrive at and depart from Molo Vittorio Veneto off Via Francesco Crispi. There are services to Cagliari (Sardinia), Naples, Livorno, Genoa, the Aeolian Islands, Ustica, Malta and Tunisia.
Places of Interest
The Palazzo dei Normanni, or Palazzo Reale, is the seat of Sicily’s regional government. The original ninth century Moorish fortress was extended by the Normans and restructured by the Hohenstaufens. The Chapel was built between 1130 and 1140 and is a superb example of Arab-Norman decoration and design. The Normans founded the Duomo, built in Sicilian-Norman style, at the end of the twelfth century. It houses the tombs of Emperor Frederick II and other rulers of Sicily from the houses of Hohenstaufen, Anjou and Aragon. Sicily has a lively tradition of puppet shows showcased in the Museo delle Marionette. The collection includes several puppets of Gaspare Canino—a celebrated nineteenth century puppet-maker as well as marionettes from all over the world. The Teatro Massimo theatre was constructed in the Neo-classical style between 1875 and 1897. It boasts the second largest indoor stage in Europe and the lavish interior has an opulent rotunda at its centre. The Regional Archaeological museum has one of best collections in the country of Etruscan artifacts.