One sunny island, two azure seas. Sicily is a tempting tourist destination all-year long – no wonder some have dubbed it a paradise on Earth, an island of singing waves, where history speaks volumes.
Palermo and Catania are truly amazing with their rich and diverse history. Dare to visit these two sunny cities on the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas to explore the multifaceted history of the region spanning millennia and let your imagination run wild as Sicily offers a stunning amalgamation of cultures and styles. The island, which has enjoyed partial autonomy since 1945, has been inhabited by numerous nations since the dawn of history, and to this day, visitors can see the traces of their dominion over the land.
A kaleidoscope of nations
The magic of Panormos
The city of Panormos, or Palermo as we call it these days, can be found on the northern shore of the island, towering over the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its multicultural history has left a lasting mark on the city and has shaped its unique image – if you are a fan of historical monuments, and you love to see them well taken care of, Palermo is a paradise unlike any other on the island.
Visitors going to Palermo should make the time to see the Norman Palace – the Palazzo dei Normanni, former seat of the Emir of Palermo, built in the 9th century in the age of the Arab conquest. In the 12th century, the Normans decided to rebuild it and turn it into the residence of the rulers. Although the palace itself is hardly a pearl of architecture in Sicily, it is accompanied by the unique Palatine Chapel, the construction of which was sponsored and ordered by King Roger II in 1132. In the process, the ruler employed the best Muslim artists who skilfully combined oriental elements with Byzantine techniques. As a result, the Capella Palatina is one of the most outstanding examples of the perfect coexistence of Arabic, Byzantine and Norman styles. This remarkable, richly decorated basilica was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
The Palatina is just as old and precious as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was under construction for a total of 120 years before it was completed in 1185. The Cattedrale di Palermo impresses visitors with its grandeur and variety of styles – since the monumental edifice was expanded upon until the 19th century, a keen observer will easily spot Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance influences. What is more, visitors can tour not only the interior of the cathedral but also the crypt and the treasury, and even… the roof! While in the treasury, do not forget to take a look at its largest attraction – the crown-like ornate headdress of Constance of Aragon, the first wife of Friedrich II of Hohenstauf – Empress of Rome. The Cattedrale di Palermo is yet another example of a Latin building with Moorish influences that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the Cathedral and the Norman Palace, this renowned list also features five other exceptional monuments located in this extraordinary city – the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, as well as Zisa Castle and Ponte dell’Ammiraglio – a 12th-century stone bridge over the Oreto River.
This is not the end of the extensive list of monuments there. One of the more unique ones, although intended mostly for adult visitors, is the Capuchin Catacombs. In the period spanning from the 16th century to the 1920s, a total of nearly 8,000 mummified bodies were buried on this site. These days, you can walk among the corpses – as long as you are respectful of the dead. Most tourists find it a harrowing experience, allowing them to reflect on the fragility of human life.
In the shadow of a volcano
Catania is Sicily’s second largest city. It is located on the east coast, on the Ionian Sea, at the foot of the infamous Etna. Despite being founded by Ionians, few traces remain of its Greek heritage, as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions often turned the city into rubble. Nevertheless, all hope is not lost for those who are vying to touch ancient history – all thanks to Roman monuments.
In Piazza Stesicoro, one can admire one of Catania’s oldest monuments – a Roman amphitheatre dating back to the 2nd century AD. Despite only a part of the building surviving to this day, experts estimate that it could have accommodated 15,000 spectators. It is said to have been second only to the famous Colosseum in size, although some scholars rank it fifth on the list of the largest arenas.
The amphitheatre was abandoned in the 4th century – since then, it was used solely as a source of construction materials, only to be buried by an earthquake in 1693. The first attempts to unearth this remarkable monument were not made until the mid-18th century. Interestingly enough, the historic city centre also features a similar venue, albeit slightly older. The Roman theatre with an odeon, erected in the 1st century AD on the foundations of a similar Greek structure built in 4th century BC, was active for hundreds of years. We are not certain when it was abandoned, though most probably in the 6th century.
Catania is also home to several ancient baths, including the Terme Achilliane, which dates back to the 4th-5th century – these days, it is home to an archaeological museum, which exhibits the uncovered ruins of a Roman thermal bath complex, located in the Piazza del Duomo by the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata. Some of the other Roman baths surviving to this day include Terme della Rotonda, Terme dell’Indirizzo and Terme dell Acropoli.
If you think that the era of Antiquity is all Catania has to offer, you are sorely mistaken! The city also lures visitors with the medieval Ursino Castle, built for Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the mid-13th century. Built upon a square plan, the fortress boasts four 30-metre tall round towers at each corner and four lower, semi-circular towers on the sides.
On 11 March 1669, the people of Catania witnessed the true strength and resilience of its construction. During the most powerful eruption of Etna in history, the flowing lava reached the castle walls, filled the moat and surrounded the entire structure, then pushed the nearby coastline several hundred metres into the sea. Despite this close encounter with hot magma, the fortress remained unscathed. It remained this way until 1993, when an earthquake managed to damage its walls. These days, the fortress is a thriving municipal museum, showcasing a wide range of exhibits from the city’s rich and diverse history.
Sicilian Baroque is the most common style seen all across Catania; however, on the island, it is characterised by unprecedented dynamism that cannot be seen anywhere else in Europe. The list of some of the most important monuments from this period include as many as 12 churches and 11 palaces.
The most prominent and outstanding example of this style is the Basilica Collegiata di Maria Santissima dell’Elemosina, which was completed in 1794, with a stunning façade designed by Stefan Ittar, an architect of Polish origin. This prolific artist, born in 1724 in Ovruch (now in Ukraine), also played a role in designing other landmarks of Catania – the Porta Garibaldi triumphal arch, as well as the churches San Nicolò l’Arena and San Placido. It is safe to say that Sicilian Baroque on the eastern shore of the island has Polish roots.
While following the trail of the most beautiful churches, one should pay particular attention to the two churches dedicated to St Agatha, a Christian martyr from Catania, who is said to protect the inhabitants from the wrath of Etna. These are the Badia di Sant’Agata and the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata – two edifices characterised by their outstandingly sophisticated form, designed by the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini and which are considered model works of Sicilian Baroque.
The magic of history
Palermo and Catania are cities where one may encounter history at every step, and the above list is but a small selection of what this extraordinary island has to offer. The colourful eclecticism of architectural styles, as well as culinary traditions and customs, all showcase its diverse history. If you can, you should visit and immerse yourself in the multicultural history of sunny Sicily.