Episode #036: Palermo – not what you expect!

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Listen to “Palermo: Sicily’s most vibrant city (and it’s not what you’re thinking!)” on Spreaker.




Welcome to Palermo! Sicily’s capital is unique, cosmopolitan and fun. Over many centuries the city has evolved and adapted the cultures of visitors and occupiers into a fascinating melting pot full of history, art and of course delicious food.

Come on a walk through its streets with Sicily travel expert Karen La Rosa who wants you to know that Palermo has shaken off its somewhat murky past and has many treasures to share.

Show notes
Over many centuries, Palermo has been shaped by its conquerors and visitors. This Italian city, closer to Tunis than Rome, has a fascinating Arab and Norman past. The melting pot of Sicily, it’s a place where Arabs, Greeks, Romans, French, Jews and Spaniards left their mark in the architecture, food and culture.

In more recent times, Palermo secured a less than savory reputation around the world thanks to organized crime and the poverty that came with it. Thankfully today the city is enjoying somewhat of a Renaissance fuelled by local artists, restoration projects and a growing interest in the cuisine that evolved out of so many blended cultures.

Palermo is a city of contrasts. Home to palaces, magnificent cathedrals and public buildings, you can immerse yourself in its history. And in a heartbeat discover the modern city brimming with art galleries and bustling markets. Try the street food and enjoy the banter among stall holders one minute. In the next, discuss the intricate designs of ceramic tiles.

Our guest, Karen La Rosa, has an infectious love of Palermo that will make you want to extend that one night stop over you had planned to 3 days or more.

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What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Highlights of the city of Palermo – what to see and do when you’re there
  2. What dishes to try at the famous markets (and maybe some to avoid if you’re squeamish)
  3. Where to find and the stories behind the famous Capuchin catacombs of Palermo
  4. All about where to find jaw dropping glittering mosaics
  5. The best views of the city
  6. Fascinating art museums exploring contemporary and modern art
  7. What to do at night in Palermo
  8. Where to stay in Palermo – Karen’s tips on the best hotels and accommodations

About our guest – Karen La Rosa

karen la rosa - la rosa works

Karen is a tour operator and owner of La Rosa Works that specializes in travel to Sicily. For more than 10 years, she has been promoting travel to the island, bringing small to medium sized groups to join her and designing and arranging itineraries and tours for independent travelers.

Sicily is Karen’s heritage and her passion. That love evolved into a highly respected boutique travel business. Karen shares the island’s beating heart with her clients – from authentic, historical and off the beaten path experiences, to the contemporary and entrepreneurial efforts that represent the new paths in present day Sicily.

Karen’s tours are immersive and fun with expert guides, wine and food always the protagonists. Karen’s website, her YouTube channel, and social media presence are all aimed at engaging people interested in exploring Sicily’s fascinating history, stunning beauty, warm hospitality and some say, the best food and wine in Italy. Her clients write reviews that are amazing and a true testament to her kindness, generosity and passion for Sicily.

Karen is an Italian Wine Specialist, speaks Italian and has visited the Sicily countless happy times.

You can also find Karen on these social media channels:

Places and services mentioned in the show

  • Widows Walk – walkway alongside elegant palazzi with cafes
  • Palazzo dei Normanni – former palace where you can visit the apartments of King Roger
  • Cappella Palatina – chapel of the royal Norman palace of Palermo covered in golden mosaics
  • Palermo Cathedral – magnificent church (formerly a Mosque) featuring interesting architectural styles
  • Quattro Canti – the historical center
  • Piazza Pretoria – famous for a magnificent fountain
  • Santa Caterina and Casa Professa – examples of Baroque architecture in the Sicilian style
  • Monreale Cathedral – beautiful church with Byzantine mosaics and cloister with views over Palermo
  • Catacombe dei Cappuccini – Capuchin catacombs famous for embalmed bodies and fascinating stories
  • Teatro Massimo – Palermo’s opera house – a city landmark and one of the largest in Europe
  • International Center of Photography – includes collection of photos by Letizia Battaglia
  • Francesco Pantaleone Contemporary Art Gallery
  • Museo delle Maioliche (aka Stanza al Genio) – ceramic tiles museum
  • Grand Hotel et des Palmes – historic 5 star hotel. Previous guests include Winston Churchill and Wagner
  • Villa Igiea – Rocco Forte’s luxe Palermo hotel in a former palazzo
  • Butera28 – one of Karen’s favorite hotels on the seafront

Food and dishes mentioned in the show

  • Sfincione – Sicilian pizza
  • Caponata – Sicilian condiment made with eggplant, onion, capers, raisins and pine nuts
  • Pasta alla Norma – pasta with eggplant and tomato famous in Sicily
  • Melanzane parmigiana – eggplant parmigiana
  • Arancini – fried rice balls stuffed with ragu or cheese or other interesting fillings
  • Frittula – tasty fried pieces of gristle (sometimes offal) found at the markets
  • Pane con la milza or pani c’a meusa – veal spleen sandwich that is apparently delicious!
  • Stigghiola – veal or lamb intestine on a skewer

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Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of our episode conversation. Unfortunately it does not pick up our lovely Australian and American accents however!

Intro (00:05):
Ciao and benvenuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips, and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes, and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show. Now let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.

[00:01:00.350] – Katy

Ciao, everyone Katy here, and today we’re going to Palermo, capital of the island of Sicily. What images and thoughts spring to mind when you think about Palermo? Are they full of cosmopolitan and vibrant street scenes, beautiful architecture and art? Probably not. Sadly, this city has not had the best public relations, shall we say. However, here’s the thing. I usually find that cities with that reputation are very, very interesting.

[00:01:27.890] – Katy

Naples is another example in Italy. What a wonderful city. So misunderstood. Anyway, I had planned to visit Palermo and Sicily earlier this year before our trip was rudely canceled by covid-19. So as I am not able to find out the truth about Palermo for a little while longer, I invited my friend Karen La Rosa, an expert on Sicily back onto the show to tell us why Palermo is worth visiting.

[00:01:53.090] – Katy

Karen joined us recently to share her insights on the amazing Val di Noto area in the southeast of Sicily. So I am excited to learn all of her ideas on how to make the most of your time in Palermo. So without further ado, let’s welcome her back onto the show. Ciao, Karen, and welcome back to the Untold Italy podcast.

[00:02:12.140] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, thank you. So good to be here.

[00:02:15.860] – Katy

Oh, it’s wonderful to have you. Karen, we had so much great feedback when you spoke to us last time about Sicily’s Val di Noto. And I’m thrilled to have you back to talk about Palermo. It’s a city that I’ve been wanting to visit, for it seems like forever. So I was really curious. When did you first visit Palermo and what were your first impressions when you got there?

[00:02:35.390] – Karen La Rosa

Probably 10, 11 years ago. I was there for the first time. When I first went to Sicily, I stayed more or less on the eastern part for day trips and things like that. Actually, it was longer than that. It was probably 2008 when I was in Palermo for the first time. And my first impressions. I’m a city person, so I saw this bustling place of chaotic and colorful and I was taken by it.

[00:03:08.990] – Karen La Rosa

But we weren’t there very long. So, you know, later on I went back and I’ve been back countless times now. But it couldn’t be more of an interesting place, but equally misunderstood. So I wanted to start our talk off by talking about that, because in over these last 10 years, when the word Palermo comes up, people usually have something to say and it’s often, is it safe? Should I just avoid going to Palermo?

[00:03:48.470] – Karen La Rosa

Why would I go to Palermo? Isn’t a day enough? I mean, I get these questions all the time. And and I it makes me smile in a way, because films, books, these, you know, the things the media picks up on that are sensational, totally misrepresent this place. So, yes, it’s had its problems over the years, but and it’s not a rich place, you know, that’s a given. Sicily has a high unemployment rate and tourism is so important to them, they don’t get a lot of funding from the government.

[00:04:27.890] – Karen La Rosa

But one thing Palermo has is a fabulous mayor and his his name is Leoluca Orlando. And he had been the mayor and then did something else. And then he was elected again to be mayor. And he’s a unique person. He is very dedicated and very, very much the voice of kind of the values of Sicily. So with this whole immigrant and migrant situation, he has said more than once, Sicily is the original melting pot. You know, no one is 100 percent Sicilian and we are all from other places.

[00:05:15.590] – Karen La Rosa

So he welcomes these people into the city and they have become part of the fabric, adding more color to this great mosaic. It’s wonderful. And it brings more layers of everything, food and things, and just what people bring when they come to a place they bring their heritage and their culture.

[00:05:46.720] – Katy

That’s fantastic. I guess, I think we’re similar in the fact that some of the cities that we love most in the world are where those cultures really collide. And how does…can you tell us a bit about how that manifests itself in Palermo? In terms of the architecture and the history?

[00:06:02.860] – Karen La Rosa

Well, that’s kind of a whole…. It’s really hard to know where to start when you’re talking about Palermo, so I will tell you about that. But just let me give you the brief on how and where Palermo is today. So we have this interesting melting pot and the mayor has taken on the mafia hard. So this is not really… As a tourist, you would never know any of that exists. We all have corruption in our governments and everything. They have it, too, but it’s a safe place.

[00:06:37.040] – Karen La Rosa

They have this anti mafia movement, private thing called Addiopizzo, so you can buy things that are made without payment to the Mafia. You can go to restaurants that have nothing to do with the Mafia. So it’s all growing away from that. There are now pedestrian only streets with lots of greenery and a lot of restoration that’s been done. The whole sea front that is in front of a line of Palazzi, it has all been restored.

[00:07:09.580] – Karen La Rosa

And every time you walk by there, you can see kids playing soccer and kites flying and families picnicking. It’s very, very beautiful. And you have the sea, of course, right in front of you. And then there is one of the places I always like to visit right next to one of the city gates right there, the Porta Felice, the which was not named for happiness, but for some Spanish Viceroys wife. There was, there’s a long walk called the widow’s walk. And this was between the Palazzi and the main street. There was this high, narrow walk where widows could go to walk outside because back in the eighteen hundreds, you didn’t show yourself if you were in black, in mourning, you needed to be by yourself. So this widow’s walk has now been restored.

[00:08:04.270] – Karen La Rosa

And of course, there’s a lovely restaurant and bar there in addition to a BnB. So there’s a lot of stuff happening that makes this city very vibrant and alive. Now, you talk about the history. You want to go back to, let’s talk about the markets, because that’s one of the main things people love to see in Palermo. And these markets have been operating since eight hundred like for twelve hundred thirteen hundred years every day. So when some people say to me, well, you know, it is a little bit dirty and it’s a little bit old looking.

[00:08:48.340] – Karen La Rosa

Well, how would you look if you were thirteen hundred years old, you know. Exactly. So you know, you go into these markets and they’re loud and colorful and people are walking all over the place, people of all different sorts, to buy their produce and their vegetables and fruits and meats and things, textiles, you name it. They sell it in the markets. So that is a fascinating place to see, you know, kind of the inner workings of Palermo, because people still do shop mostly in the markets for their goods. And it’s also a wonderful place to taste the foods. And, you know, I can answer your other question first and come back to the foods if you like.

[00:09:41.860] – Katy

Oh, no. Let’s just talk about the food.

[00:09:47.610] – Karen La Rosa

Well, what’s interesting. So here you have … I always start with the Arabs because Sicily now, I mean Palermo now, is recognized by UNESCO for its Arab Norman history. They, the Arabs, made Palermo their capital. So for the first time, even though Palermo existed way back, even with the Phoenicians, it became a capital and the Arabs turned it into this beautiful, luxurious city. It actually became kind of the showcase of Europe. It had gardens and mosques. And the Arabs were interesting because where the Greeks colonized, because they needed space, the Romans needed wood for building ships and to feed soldiers. So they came to take from Sicily. The Arabs saw it kind of like their paradise.

[00:10:52.210] – Karen La Rosa

So they came to this fertile land. They brought all kinds of plants and vegetables. And just turned the place into this lush paradise. And a lot of the food that we have today has its roots in the things that the Arabs brought over, things like lemons and oranges. In fact, the word limone is very close to the Arabic word for lemon. Limuni, I think it is. Sugarcane, rice, saffron, raisins, couscous, durum wheat, which was very important to the almighty eggplant and lots of spices and things.

[00:11:39.760] – Karen La Rosa

So here they had all of this these things growing and being used in the preparation of food. Well, you know, move forward a little bit, and those kinds of things never leave the the culture and the society. So then you have other invaders come and they add their cultures and traditions. So when you’re talking about the food from Sicily, it’s all a mishmash of what has been given to them from all of these different peoples that lived there. And, you know, it just it makes for fascinating eating and learning.

[00:12:27.800] – Katy

Tell me about the almighty eggplant. That’s my favorite vegetable.

[00:12:32.270] – Karen La Rosa

You and I have so much in common. Well, the eggplant is kind of ubiquitous in Sicily, in food, and they do everything with eggplant. One of the most famous dishes that they make is caponata. And people eat that as a side dish, a condiment kind of thing. I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes I have extra and I just throw it on pasta. You know, it is made differently no matter where you are. Everybody’s got their own recipe.

[00:13:05.930] – Karen La Rosa

And so they’re going to tell you theirs is just right and the best, but it contains eggplants and a little bit of tomato and pepper and capers and the key – raisins and pine nuts. Now, these things go back to the Arab way of cooking. They brought in this whole notion of sweet and sour. So the caponata kind of incorporates a lot of these different things. And as I said, almost every menu anywhere will have caponata on it. And if you go to somebody’s house, they’ll serve you caponata. It’s a little bit laborious to make it properly, but it’s just an exquisite, exquisite dish. And of course, there’s eggplant parmigiana, which is pretty much just an eggplant tomato sauce, layered dish, not like well, not like we have in the United States, which is sort of this gooey mess. But it’s a very delicious use of eggplant. Pasta alla norma is again on, even though it originated in Catania, it is on most menus and it’s basically rigatoni with sauteed eggplant, ricotta salata cheese, very simple and it’s fabulous. So they use eggplants in many different ways.

[00:14:46.700] – Karen La Rosa

But when you go through like…. Arancini and arancini is a rice ball. Well, we got the rice from the Arabs, right. But typically these rice balls that are used leftover rice and then they’re fried after they’re stuffed. But what are they stuffed with? Usually like a meat ragu. And they didn’t … The Arabs didn’t have that. That probably came from the French. So these things evolved over time in all over Sicily.

[00:15:22.500] – Katy

Oh, takes you back in a bite, doesn’t it?


[00:15:25.260] – Karen La Rosa

Gosh, it really does. And it’s like comfort food. So to have something like that for lunch is all you need.

[00:15:32.980] – Katy

Exactly. And can you pick those type of things up at the market too? Do they have street food stalls too in there?

[00:15:39.470] – Karen La Rosa

And one of my favorite things to do is to take people on a food tour, basically. So we go into the markets, which are very windy and narrow, and we stop at different places and try a lot of these typical foods. Mostly what they call street foods at these different stalls. So, yes, you will try arancini, you’ll also try something that is has an interesting history called pane con la milza or pani c’a meusa, which is a veal spleen’s sandwich.

[00:16:19.410] – Katy



[00:16:21.630] – Karen La Rosa

Well, think of the spleen as a little bit like… You know, you could think of a chicken liver consistency. So they slice it very thin. It goes into a copper pan with lard and they saute that around and then put it on a bun and you can have it that way. You can also have it with a little cheese on top. So the white of the cheese and the dark meat, they call it maritata, like married. And, you know, you have to try it. Maybe not to everybody’s liking. I have to say, I think it’s delicious. Three bites is probably what I can have. It’s so rich that I can’t handle more than that. But I really like the flavor of it. Guilty as it makes me feel for eating something that’s been sitting in lard for quite a while.

[00:17:15.010] – Katy

I know, but somehow, like, you know, and I think this is really true of any travel is that I think sometimes you get a bit concerned about some of this interesting food. But even if you’re not quite sure, it’s always good to try and you can just have a few bites and see what it’s like, because as you mentioned, this is part of the culture. And they use everything and, you know, they’re making something delicious out of, you know, something that we would throw away.

[00:17:41.830] – Karen La Rosa

Mm hmm. Oh, absolutely. And that all actually goes back to the Jewish heritage in Palermo. The there was quite a population, you know. Some say five. Some say 10 percent of the population was Jewish back then. And they used to barter for different things and they would sell what they didn’t use. So a lot of these kinds of organ meats came out of that history. So, again, you know, these things all evolved. There is they sell something called stigghiola, which is a veal or lamb intestine on a skewer, and then they grill that with onions and herbs. You see this all over. Frittula. The little fried parts of you don’t even want to know. You know, you get them in a cone and you just nibble on them. I have tried that. But, you know, that wasn’t my favorite.

[00:18:42.640] – Karen La Rosa

And sfincione. Sfincione is… It’s like a thick dough covered with tomato sauce, maybe a little cheese, maybe some anchovies. And the street vendors are all over the place selling, selling that. People nibble on that as a snack or for even for a lunch. And I think that, when in New York, anyway, when people refer to pizza, they say, “oh, I want a Sicilian pie”, which is the thick crust pizza. I think that’s how that evolved. It evolved from sfincione. It’s not pizza.. Regular pizza in Palermo or all of Sicily is like we know it, you know, the thin crust and the things on top. But sfincione, as I said, has a thick crust and it’s got these things on top. It’s not even really crust. It’s just dough. Yeah, but it’s delicious. It’s delicious. I mean, all kinds of things that you can eat when you go to the markets. And I always stock up on spices and things to bring home. You know, they sell chocolate, they sell everything.

[00:19:49.540] – Katy

And are they mainly street markets, Karen? Or are they covered markets? I’m trying to get a picture of how it works.

[00:19:56.080] – Karen La Rosa

Well, they’re street markets, but the streets are very narrow. So most of the vendors will have umbrellas. So in effect, you are covered. Most of the times you’re just between buildings on a narrow street and their umbrellas. So it’s… You’re not exposed to the elements, as it were.

[00:20:18.460] – Katy

I’m sure there’s a few characters and vendors at the markets, too.


[00:20:23.310] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, yeah. And one of the the traditions that goes, again, back to the Arab souk is that these vendors have chants. They sing to try and sell you their whatever it is they’re selling. And so you’ll hear these vendors, booming voices calling you to buy their fish today. Today we have babaluci. Today we have spigola. Buy my spigola! Buy my this! Good price for the spigola. And this goes on from all these different vendors. And then in the middle of all this someone’s coming through with a motorcycle. Or Scooter. It’s chaotic, but there’s something about it that’s charming at the same time. And of course, the food is exceptional, everything that you purchase there is fresh and going right home to be cooked. So it couldn’t be better.

[00:21:16.070] – Katy

Hmm. That sounds wonderful. Yeah, I think that I definitely picked up that the markets were a place to go and it’s part of that vibrant culture. So let’s just circle back now to the architecture. The Greeks, the Arabs, the Romans, everyone came in. Did they bring their own architectural styles as well?

[00:21:34.800] – Karen La Rosa

Absolutely. But you will notice in Sicily that the eastern part of the island definitely favors the influence from the Greeks. Whereas the Western part is more Arab. Arab and then Norman. And as I said, UNESCO recognized Palermo for its Arab Norman history because they left such a profound impact on the city. And as I said, Arabs, the Arabs are the ones who made it a capital. So they made it the city that it was. And then the Normans came after them.

[00:22:11.030] – Karen La Rosa

Interestingly, when the Normans came, the Arabs had created this such a fantastic place that they didn’t change a lot. In fact, King Roger ended up wearing Arab robes. They they started to build… The Normans were great builders. And so they built a lot of churches and they built castles. And in the churches in particular, some of the things that come under this UNESCO recognition, you will see the most amazing combination of Arab designs and craftsmanship, Byzantine mosaics. And you’ll see the writing sometimes in Greek, you will see sometimes Arab inscriptions and these are all in Christian churches.

[00:23:07.770] – Karen La Rosa

So it’s an interesting place to visit because on top of that, then you have the Spanish who people don’t talk about that often, but they were there for five hundred years and they built a lot of Palazzi. They were very much into showing their wealth, building beautiful palaces. So you have beautiful palaces. You have these churches. Monreale Cathedral is one of them. And the Palazzo dei Normanni, which had been the government seat, still is the government seat and has the private rooms of King Roger still in place.

[00:23:48.330] – Karen La Rosa

You can visit them if the government is not in session. But the main thing to see there is the Cappella Palatina, which was his private chapel. And this is the jaw dropper, of all jaw droppers. As you walk in there and you look.. You don’t know what to look at. First, it is glittering with gold from these mosaic tiles. There are the walls are lined with this Arab design. The Tree of Life is one of the most famous Arab designs all around the perimeter of the chapel. They use these circles and these geometric designs that were all Arabic, but they were incorporated into this church.

[00:24:35.380] – Karen La Rosa

Palermo became the most tolerant place in all of Europe. So they just accepted that these people were there and they said, fine. Now, it wasn’t like they were having dinner together. They, the Arabs, stayed where they stayed and the Jews stayed where they stayed. And whatever. Byzantines were still around. Everybody had their life. But he brought the best and the brightest into the court. And they all worked together to make this wonderful place. And it’s interesting. He set it up so that if you committed a crime, you were tried under the laws of your people and things were written in multiple languages. So they were written not only in Latin, they were written in Greek, they were written in Hebrew. So it’s really fascinating. You know, we had never seen this before. And to be honest, we I don’t think we’ve seen it since. But as you walk around, you will see in many different places, evidence of this really, really wonderful, fertile time.

[00:25:51.960] – Karen La Rosa

There’s not a lot left of the Arab occupation, whatever, the Arab life there. There are a couple of churches that still have the red domes that you would typically see on an Arab mosque. But many of the mosques, all of the mosques basically, were destroyed or what they did back then, which I think is fabulous, recycled buildings. They took this mosque and they said, OK, it’s not a mosque anymore and we’re going to make it into a church.

[00:26:23.790] – Karen La Rosa

But, you know, we’ll leave the domes, other things and just consider it a church now. So they added and they changed things. If you look at Palermo Cathedral, it’s a big mishmash of things. It Started off as one thing. Then the next people added something else and the next people added something else. And in fact, one of the one of the oddities is that as you’re going through the front entrance way of the cathedral, there is a column. And if you know where to look, there is an inscription, a Koranic inscription on the pillar. And people have wondered really how that ended up being there, if it was an intentionally put there or if perhaps like they did, they were recycling materials and they picked it up from, you know, another place that had been pulled down and they needed that column. So they put it there. And so these are interesting things and there are other places you can see things of this sort where the architecture is just like the food is a combination of many different peoples.

[00:27:40.910] – Katy

It’s really interesting, isn’t it? Because I think sometimes it’s worth getting at a map to see where these places are, because if you do, you can see that Palermo is closer to Tunis in the capital of Tunisia than it is to Rome. So it’s not surprising that you have this influence of culture in the end, really at all, is it?

[00:28:00.780] – Karen La Rosa

No, not at all. And in fact, most a lot of people refer to Sicily as the island north of Africa as opposed to being part of Italy, because it’s very different in many ways and its history is very different in many ways. And in fact, one of the people in King Roger’s Court was this man who was a cartographer, and he made the first map of Sicily and brought a geographical understanding of it. When you look at that map today, it’s… I want a scarf made out of it. It’s just so beautiful.

[00:28:42.380] – Karen La Rosa

But the city itself was divided into certain areas, all of which at this point meets up at the Quattro Canti. So the historical center. It’s certainly not Rome large. It’s large that you would need more than a day to see it. So to all those people who say, I just need a day, you don’t you could spend a week there and investigate all the different areas. Quattro Canti is the center of the city now, the historical center, and it divides the old Arab Quarter from the Albergheria and Capo area.

[00:29:24.230] – Karen La Rosa

So these four distinct areas come together at this octagonal intersection, which is very special because it’s got these four storey tall buildings, the sides of which are decorated with statues of the Spanish kings and statues of the patron saints of Palermo and statues of the Four Seasons. And there are fountains there. And it’s all in this great octagon with the spokes, the streets leading off of it. And it’s just a, you know, wonderful place that everyone tries to photograph. But really, unless you have a drone, it’s really hard to do.It’s incredible, actually.

[00:30:15.260] – Katy

Wow, that sounds really unique. When I was picturing Palermo, I could picture markets and the sea front, but I didn’t really picture anything of those big grand architectural monuments or designs at all.

[00:30:29.720] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, yeah, well, and right off near there, like half a block away is this Piazza Pretoria. And it’s famous because it’s got this huge circular fountain from the late 15 hundreds. It was actually built in the north and brought to Palermo piecemeal. And it contains in this whole circle of statues, mythological figures and nymphs and animals spouting water and a lot of nudes. And the interesting story about that is, it’s situated between a convent and a monastery. So it’s kind of an odd art choice for that that area, and especially during the Inquisition, to have all these naked bodies. So they started to say it was kind of shameful to have it there. But it also fronts the city’s political offices. And so, you know, as we mentioned, corruption is everywhere. So it was also called shameful for that. So it’s also known as the fountain of shame. But it’s gorgeous, just this gorgeous fountain with a big piazza around it.

[00:31:38.870] – Karen La Rosa

And you can climb up the stairs and walk inside to examine all the statues up close. And it’s quite beautiful. I mean, there are churches all over the place. Some are baroque, some are older, some are small. Some are large, and they have beautiful, beautiful artwork inside. Santa Catarina was just reopened last year. That’s a baroque one. Casa Professa is just like another jaw dropper of baroque architecture. And these are all over the city because, you know, there were many different types of religious orders. So they all had their own their own churches. So there is just this immense amount of. history. As I said in my last talk, I think you just always have to change your hat when you’re in Sicily because you have to you have to think, OK, I’m looking at Arab Norman, OK? I’m looking at Spanish, I’m looking at Baroque. And then you have all the local cultural things and the traditions in between that.. The puppets and the the food and the, you know, the carts that are parked on the side of the street. That part is just really, really fascinating.

[00:32:57.540] – Katy

So I think one thing that is quite famous about Palermo, and it’s something that actually doesn’t really interest me, but I know some people will find it interesting. The Capuchin Catacombs, are I would say gruesome, I would say. Have you been there?

[00:33:12.930] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, yeah. Numbers of times. And again, it’s an interesting place. My son loved it. And then I’ve had clients leave because they said I really I can’t. I can’t deal with this. But you need to think of the story. So the story is this.. Underneath the Capuchin monastery in the sixteen hundreds, they ran out of space upstairs in the cemetery. So they excavated at the bottom. And they had this wonderful brother die. So they wanted to keep him and have him still be part of them, you know, I’m editorialising here. No comment. So they dressed him up and they put him down there. Well. That became kind of a thing they figured out. Oh, OK, well, we know how to preserve these bodies. Let’s see. And what they ended up having is eight thousand corpses in this underground catacombs, each one dressed in their Sunday best. And they’re either hanging from the wall or lying in a niche arranged by class. So you had the military together, you had the clergy together. You had an area for virgins. And they’re all dressed in these clothes. And back then, of course, it cost a lot of money to do this. So these were all elite people. We would go to visit a loved one in a cemetery, someone would come here to visit and even change their clothes.

[00:34:50.700] – Karen La Rosa

So this was all back in the sixteen hundreds. But it took place all the way up until nineteen twenty. Well yeah the last one was in nineteen twenty and it happened to be a little girl, a two year old girl who died of pneumonia and of course her name was Rosalia. Rosalia is the patron saint and many girls have that name. So she dies of pneumonia and this scientist embalms her. And he did such a good job embalming her that even when you go to visit today, it looks like she’s just asleep. She’s beautiful. And she’s got her little party dress on and a bow in her hair. But, you know, she’s been dead now for a hundred years. You are forbidden from taking photos. But of course, if you look it up online, there are a million photos.

[00:35:49.560] – Katy

Why do people feel like breaking these rules?


[00:35:51.720] – Karen La Rosa

I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, the flash is no good for these bodies. But anyway, it’s just an interesting apart from the fact they are dead bodies and it is a place where you should be respectful and all. It’s just fascinating to see the different dress and how, you know, just think about what they were thinking to want to preserve these people for. For a long time, yes.

[00:36:21.630] – Katy

Yeah, it is a fascinating cultural thing. I guess I’m I’m a bit squeamish but I really appreciate you telling me that story because I probably wouldn’t have made the trip there, I don’t think. Yeah, so I feel like I probably would have missed out if I hadn’t have heard you tell that story. So thank you, Karen.

[00:36:39.690] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, you’re welcome. You have to take… It’s not you can walk there from the center of town, but it’s it’s a little bit distant. People often go on the way to Monreale Cathedral, which is as the crow flies, not far at all. But with traffic, it takes a little time. And that’s on the way. Monreale Cathedral is you know, just something you really can’t miss, though, because the cathedral itself is very much like the Capella Palatina in that it is jaw dropping in its grandeur and its beauty with the mosaics and the Arab ceilings and the wood. And it’s an exquisite place. But it also has the cloister, which is stunning too. It’s got mosaic fountains, the columns. Each of the columns that circle the cloister is completely different, all carved with a different allegorical story or a biblical story. And then you have gardens in between. So, you know, you go to Monreale, you need a half day at least to see that. But then there’s also lovely little shopping around and, you know, places to eat. And the view of Palermo from up there is quite stunning. So you go behind the cathedral and you have this expansive view to the sea, which is lovely.

[00:38:10.800] – Katy

It sounds amazing. Now, you were mentioning just before, you talked about the cathedral, about getting around. And I recall from our last chat that you attempted driving in Palermo and decided it wasn’t a great idea. So what’s the best way to get around the city?

[00:38:30.220] – Karen La Rosa

Well, being in a big city like that it is not, it’s never advisable to have a car. So if you’re not going to be walking, there are taxi stands around and that’s very, you know, doable. They’re not that expensive and probably the best way because they know exactly where they’re going. There is a bus system, but you would have to ask, you know, your hotel to explain to you which bus you would take and sometimes one connects to the other. So that gets a little more complicated. If you have the time, i would say that’s a fun way to see it, because you’re above ground and you’re going through the neighborhoods. But if you’re there for a short period of time and you want to get someplace, the taxi cab is a good way to go.

[00:39:20.010] – Karen La Rosa

There is… The Teatro Massimo is a big landmark in Palermo and it is the third largest opera house in Europe, although it also does ballet and symphony in that gorgeous place. You’ll remember it from Godfather three when Sofia Coppola gets shot and tumbles down the steps. That’s that’s the Teatro, Massimo.

[00:39:50.430] – Katy



[00:39:50.860] – Karen La Rosa

And yeah. And you can take tours there, which are very interesting, again, because you get the history. It was built in 1861 as a place to unify the people after, you know, Sicily was unified with Italy, but to bring people together who had been kind of at war with each other. And this was culture. You know, art is healing and art brings great things to people. So it has a real history. And taking a tour is interesting. Plus, it has a rooftop. My favorite! Palermo has a number of them. You can climb to the top of the cathedral. Great views. You can climb to the top of their only department store, Rinascente. And you look over the Piazza San Domenico and the opening to the old market, which was the oldest one. But now it’s very, very diminished. And you don’t really go there for the market anymore. You go there at night. The nightlife is wow. Lots of youth and music and street food and fun.

[00:40:58.660] – Katy

Is it a big student and university town as well?

[00:41:02.090] – Karen La Rosa

Yes, the Palermo University is there, the art school. And so there there is a fair number of students and young people around. One thing people don’t often speak about, the contemporary Sicily. Palermo is one of the best places to see that. Because there are galleries, and an old area near the Zisa, which was an Arab building, one of the few that survived that they’ve turned into a contemporary art zone.

[00:41:34.270] – Karen La Rosa

In fact, I was there a few years ago. They had a great exhibit by Ai Weiwei. And then in this complex of galleries, they have a bunch of different studios where you can visit the artists. And they opened up an International Center for Photography, which was almost done when I was there. It was it’s a beautiful space. They took us around and it houses the collection of photos by Letizia Battaglia. She is almost a legendary photojournalist because her job was to capture all the mob killings and attendant related images from back in the day in the 60s and when things were really a little bit rough in Palermo. And she wanted to keep her images in a place where she felt like they would be safe, like a private organization, so that they wouldn’t just suddenly disappear. So that’s a place where you can see those. And in fact, even online, there are a lot of the images. She’s got two wonderful books out. She’s in her 80s now. So that’s that.

[00:42:51.160] – Karen La Rosa

Then there’s Francesco Pantaleone is the premiere gallery, Contemporary Art Gallery in Palermo. And it’s a funny story because his family owns a store downstairs, which was for religious vestments. And you buy all those little votives that you bring to church, you know, made out of silver and to dedicate to the saint to pray for this and that. Well, he didn’t want to go into the business, the family business. He wanted to be in the art world. And upstairs from this very traditional old store is this amazing contemporary art gallery. And he’s been so successful. He also opened one in Milan. He took us around to a few of the places, one of which was one of these old Spanish palazzi. And we walk down the street past these doors that I’ve walked by so many times and I never really thought about what was inside of them. Well, we went inside and the Marchese still lives there. And the art collection was phenomenal. I mean, there were Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and things just all over the place in their living space. And she loved taking us around to to see it all. And then we had wine and chatted with her. It was just really special. And you would never you’d never know it was there. I think it’s so great.

[00:44:20.020] – Katy

I know a lot of people, myself included, go to Sicily and Italy to see the beautiful historic past and all of the beautiful buildings. But I think it’s really important to also acknowledge the modern cities because they’re not just living museums and people are living there. And, you know, they have really interesting lives and, you know, doing amazing things like preserving these art for the future as well, which is how these cities became so magnificent in the first place because people did care enough to preserve the artworks and of their time.

[00:44:53.930] – Karen La Rosa

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. It’s really, you know, very easy because Sicily history is so rich. It’s so easy to get caught kind of in the nostalgia and the historical mind frame of mind where you think about, oh, I want to go and see authentic Sicily. But I always believe that this is every bit as authentic. These are some of the artists that I’ve met, you know, fully tattooed and with orange hair and all of that. They are making art that at some point, you know, it will be part of the historical canon, but it’s part of today.

[00:45:38.050] – Karen La Rosa

And, you know, art always reflects life and art always reflects what’s going on. So every bit of that is a commentary and interesting to see in its own right. There’s a the modern art gallery, the in Palermo is another place. And again, if you’re not there for a week, you don’t have time to do these things. But I spent, I don’t know, four hours in there one day by myself.And these are all Sicilian artists. Now, if I asked you who is a Sicily an artist, would you be able to tell me?

[00:46:17.530] – Katy

No, no.


[00:46:18.670] – Karen La Rosa

Nor would most other people. I mean, I didn’t know ninety five percent of these people that were from the last three hundred years in this place and they were wonderful pieces of art, sculptures and statues and paintings and drawings. And I thought, oh, my gosh, you know, certain things just never make, you know, get to see the light of day. So but it’s all part of the story.

[00:46:50.730] – Katy

It really is. And so whereabouts would you stay to make the most of your time in Palermo? Because I think probably most people go there will maybe have hopefully two to three days. Where’s a good place to stay?

[00:47:04.420] – Karen La Rosa

Well, there there are numbers of places. Obviously, Palermo has many hotels, they could still use more, but I have a few favorites. The Grand Hotel et des Palmes is a large hotel and it’s historic in that it was around in the late eighteen hundreds. So many, many people have stayed there. Winston Churchill used to stay there and Wagner finished one of his operas there. And many, many other people. It is grand. It has sweeping staircases and palms in the courtyard and I really love it. It is closed now. It needed a renovation. It was supposed to open earlier this summer, but they think now by the end of the year and now it’s going to be a five star hotel. So that’s a very lovely option.

[00:48:05.720] – Karen La Rosa

The other five star hotel is Igeia, which is a historic palazzo of the Florio family. So that was already really grand. It’s not in the center of town. It’s on the water. But they have shuttles that take you in and out of town. And it was recently bought by Rocco Forte. So it was five star, but now it’s like uber five star

[00:48:30.460] – Katy

Probably eight star knowing them.


[00:48:33.100] – Karen La Rosa

Right. So that place is very special. On the more modest side there is my favorite place. It is called the , and it’s right in the center of town. It’s a four star hotel, but it’s very modest and has the old European elevator with the gates. And but the reason I love this place is the rooftop. So, again, I’m just a sucker for that. They have serve breakfast outside and you can have drinks and dinner out there. And it’s like the best view over Palermo. There are a couple of new places that have opened up, smaller places. Most of the places that are opening are not these big giant hotels. They’re mostly smaller properties. One is across from the Teatro Massimo. And it’s very, very lovely. Another one is right by where that widow’s walk I mentioned to you is. And that’s beautiful because you get the view of the seafront park and the water and it’s just lovely.

[00:49:41.290] – Karen La Rosa

But another one of my favorite places, and this is not really a secret because it’s very much present online, is at a place called Butera 28, which is the old palazzo that the last place that Lampedusa lived, the guy, the man who wrote The Leopard. And his adopted son still lives there with the duchess. And they have apartments that they rent. I love them because they are bright and airy and just overlook the street and there’s nothing really fussy about them. But I just love being there. And again, the tiles and the bright light, and you hear the church bells on the corner. It’s just a lovely place to stay. And Nicoletta, the duchess, she gives cooking classes. And if you’re nice, she’ll give you a tour of the palazzo.

[00:50:34.490] – Katy

Oh, be nice to Nicoletta!

[00:50:38.080] – Karen La Rosa

She’s lovely. She’s she’s lovely. I’ve stayed there a number of times and visited. S she’s great. So there are all these places and as I said, the smaller place, the small hotels are really lovely too. If you’re going and you’re just with your, you know, your spouse or another couple or something, choose this one or the smaller ones. And they can be very reasonably priced. So it’s kind of all over the map. And I’m really pleased that they are opening additional smaller properties because there have been times in the last couple of years when I had a hard time getting a room in Palermo, the tourism has been so great. You know, apart from this year, we’re not talking about that. But last year was just incredible. So you had to plan in advance

[00:51:29.500] – Katy

You definitely do. I always say at least six months if you can, because otherwise you’re going to miss out on the best spots.

[00:51:36.790] – Karen La Rosa

Yeah, absolutely.And there’s so much to choose from. So, you know, whatever you want, whatever your style of traveling is, there’s something for everyone in Palermo.

[00:51:49.350] – Katy

Sounds like it. Now, Karen, I do have one last question for you. And it is, is there one place in Palermo that really captures the soul of the city for you?

[00:52:00.010] – Karen La Rosa

Actually, one of my favorite nights is going to the opera and in the Teatro Massimo. I love doing that. But there’s also this other place that I have come to know and just adore. And it’s a private collection, you have to make an appointment to see it and it’s called the Stanze al Genio – the rooms of the genius. This man started collecting ceramic tiles when he was 11 years old and he is now probably around 60. He has this huge apartment in this old palazzo covered in these ceramic tiles, all either Sicilian or part of from southern Italy, Naples in particular. And you can go in there and get a tour, just learn about history through these ceramic tiles. They’re all stunning. I mean, one’s more beautiful than the next. And I love taking people there because it is beautiful. They are a private collection. They’re not supported by the government at all. And you just get this window into the stories they tell you about where these tiles had been placed in Palazzi and private homes in the different methods of making them over the years. I’m a ceramics person, so this is, you know, someplace and I love going there. I love taking people there. So that would be something I would say is a do not miss.

[00:53:34.000] – Katy

Wonderful. So grazie Karen. We really appreciate you coming back to talk to us about Palermo and sharing your amazing insider tips. And like you, I can’t wait to get to Palermo finally, as soon as possible. Grazie!

[00:53:47.560] – Karen La Rosa

Well you will really love it. And I mean, there’s still so much I could even say. It’s just one of those places that people underestimate and they get there and they say, gosh, I wish I had more time. So plan for that. Have the time. And there’s so many different sites to see and things to taste. I didn’t even talk about the wine bars or the, you know, or the different individual sites. So there’s a lot. So just plan for it and leave yourself the time.

[00:54:16.770] – Katy

Thank you, Karen.

[00:54:18.140] – Karen La Rosa

Oh, you’re so welcome. And I really I just enjoy talking about it so much. Again, it’s just such a fascinating place. So I hope a lot of people put that on their bucket list and go and have a wonderful time. I’ll see you in the market.

[00:54:32.930] – Katy

I’ll see you on the rooftop.

[00:54:34.790] – Karen La Rosa

Yes, I’ll be there, too.

[00:54:37.340] – Katy

Well, there’s no doubt about it. Palermo is definitely calling my name. How about you? I hope you learnt something new about this fascinating city that continues to evolve and change just as it has throughout the centuries. From vibrant markets to a golden, glittering Mosaic Chapel, and intriguing modern art. This city on the sea is a place you want to savor and not rush. A big thanks to Karen for generously sharing her expertise and love of Palermo. We both feel like there’s so much more to explore in this city and we’ll come back soon with an episode all about eating, drinking and day trips from Palermo. So stay tuned.

[00:55:15.340] – Katy

Karen’s company, La Rosa Works runs tours in Sicily that are sold out very quickly. I know she has some tentative dates planned for 2021, including a walking tour from Palermo to Agrigento, which sounds amazing. You can find all her details on our website at untolditaly.com/36. Her website, Social Media Channels and fun YouTube channel are on there too. If you enjoyed our show today, we would love it if you could take the time to give us a rating or review. Also, we have several suggestions for show topics. I would love to hear yours too. You can send them to ciao@untolditaly.com. That’s all for Untold Italy this week. Grazie, thank you for joining us.

[00:56:06.350] – Katy

And don’t forget to subscribe to Untold Italy on iTunes or your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode. Ciao for now.


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