Red Domes and Golden Walls

Detail of mosaics in Monreale Cathedral

This was a day that began with a hangover. A beer hangover so nothing serious but still quite drastic. Hangovers in hostels are more stressful than other hangovers because you don’t have any of your home comforts and the toilet is much much further away than usual.

Anyway, I got over it. What can I say, I’m a trooper. I was out by 10ish to investigate a cluster of churches I’d spotted at the bottom of my map. It was a 15 minutes walk away and getting out made me feel a little less… well… puke-y.

Once I was there, however, my otherwise excellent guidebook let me down just a bit. This section seemed to be written by someone with a less-than-ordered mind. It had a list of churches, numbered to reference the map, but they weren’t in any kind of sensible order, You couldn’t go to church 1 and then church 2; more like, you start at the end of the road at church 17, then pop in to 4 before rounding the corner to find 21. And then there’s the thing that every church is called Santa Dominica and my guidebook is saying ‘Santa Dominica 13 is free and you should check out the Pergioli painting on the east apse but Santa Dominica 9 costs €2 or €4 if you get a ticket for Santa Dominica 11 at the same time’… Or maybe that’s just the hangover speaking.


Church 1: pretty cool. One of those where you walk in and everything in whitewash and plastic seats and then you poke around in the chapels and find a whole room dense with Rococco marble and you’re the only person there and you just think, ‘what is this place? who made this?’ One of those special moments when you see something just so unexpected that you wish you could turn to the person next to you and be like ‘wtf?’ but then you’re glad there’s no one next to you because it was totally spoil the moment. Arguably this was the church where the cherubs were modelled on Sicilian babies but who knows.


Church 2: a disappointment. For background, I usually never pay to go into anything while I’m on holiday. That’s probably why I spend so much time in cathedrals. In Sicily, I’d decided to splash out and go in to things since the exchange rate was good and I sometimes feel I miss out on a lot of stuff by never seeing the inside. So my mindset was, ‘pay to go in to the church, don’t be cheap’. My guidebook said this was one of the ‘€5 by itself, €8 with another church’ churches, so I went to talk to the lady with my €10 note and a certain authority. Then there was a confusion, it seemed to be a lot more than €8, it was annoying: in conclusion, I left. I kind of regret it because I don’t know what I missed: I still can’t make head nor tails of my guidebook.

Church 3: a revelation. All of my grumpy was swept away by this lovely chapel. Still marble in the style of Church 1 but more and better and with this great fresco on the ceiling. Check it out:


Looking at this picture with hindsight it looks a little run down but everything in Sicily looks like this. I like it. I think it adds to the experience and makes it feel more less touristy.

Next were some more pay per view churches which I was kind of over and, since this hadn’t taken me as long as I thought, I figured I could squeeze in both of my potential afternoon activities.

Activity 1: the Norman Palace

Or rather, Palazzo dei Normanni. Built in the 12th century AD, it is actually where the Sicilian government sit. However, they only sit Tuesday-Friday and they let tourists have a poke around over the weekend. Some areas are off limits at all times and I saw quite a few black suit/dark glasses Italian politicians wandering around.

The main reason for going here is the Cappella Palatina and, I mean, just wow. It’s small (but not pokey) and wall to ceiling golden mosaics. I repeat, golden mosaics. The whole room glows. I took loads of photos but they’re really awful because the light was quite dim: partly for protection, I suppose, but mostly for atmosphere. They were playing this plainsong quite quietly, just loud enough to transport you back 800 years. At this time, Sicily was a major player in the world of Mediterranean politics. This chapel is about the power Sicily had. It is also about cultural inclusion. It’s overtly Christian, but the patterns on the ceiling and lower walls are very Islamic. In fact, Northern African craftspeople were employed alongside the Christian Sicilians to build it. It’s about beauty and art and worship over geographical or cultural differences.


My only slight, minor, tiny, baby complaint is that they had employed an officious lady to shush people. I mean, people needed to be shushed but officiousness counteracts historical submersion.

The rest of the palace is also great. Lots of beautiful rooms and painting. One room was the ‘royal chamber’ of a king called Roger (I don’t know what one does in a royal chamber but there we go). On the walls was lots of Islamic imagery, like cheetahs and stags and peacocks. This causes historians to claim that Roger was in fact a Muslim! Shock horror.

Interlude: Eden of my own

After the palace I needed a bit of chill out before Activity 2. There were quite a few German tour groups in the palace which can be overwhelming. It was also very hot (maybe 2pm so fully heat-of-the-day) so I headed to an old monastery. It was just around the corner from the palace and promised ruined cloisters and foliage.

I wasn’t disappointed: the garden was maybe the highlight of my day. There were butterflies and wood pigeons and orange trees (although, see Day 1 re. un-delicious fruits) and nobody else there. I phoned my mum and took off my shoes, read my book and had a poke around an abandoned church. I eventually left because this couple showed up and started taking photos and I figured they didn’t need me lurking around in the back of their nice holiday snaps.

Monastery Collage

Activity 2: Monreale

After the quite seclusion of the cloisters, heading back out into the real world was quite a shock. The plan was to get a bus to a village in the hills outside Palermo. In this village I was promised the most exceptional Norman cathedral on the island.

Getting local buses in foreign countries is always stressful. You end up waiting a long time. You get the ticket wrong. The bus drivers are helpful but not empathetic and they never speak English. The ticket machine is broken. You don’t know where your stop is.

All of these things happened on the bus to Monreale with an exciting variation: at one point myself and two (German?) tourists were politely evicted from the bus. It turned out to be ticket related. Kindly, bus driver waited while we had small arguments with the ticket seller man in the ticket selling hut.

I knew we had arrived because I’d just got a seat after standing up on a jolting, jerking bus for around 25 minutes. The bus dropped us on the outside of town and we had to walk up a hill to get to anything exciting. However, Monreale is on a hill and the view even from the bus stop was breathtaking. I asked some passers by to take my photo with the view. This turned out to be a slight mistake.


I walked up the hill through these lovely narrow streets with black iron balconies and graffitied garage doors until I found a large square with a fountain and a huge cathedral.  I sat on a bench and was shortly joined by the people who I’d asked to take my photo. Fortunately they didn’t speak English and so we sat in contented silence.

The cathedral (which was free, don’t queue up, that’s for guided tours, they’ve even got someone to stand by the queue and say, specifically, over and over again, ‘this queue is for guided tours’ but that didn’t stop me and everyone else from queuing up anyway) is like the chapel on steroids. It was built around the same time and so the style of the mosaics is pretty much identical. However, it’s maybe three times taller, six times longer, and easily twice as wide. They also let you sit down. I spent a good while just soaking in the extent of the labour that went into creating this experience.


I also spent quite a long time trying to decipher the Bible stories that adorn the walls. I can do Creation and Adam/Eve, Cain/Abel, and Noah, but after that it all got a bit confusing. Apparently there’s an app or a pdf or something that explains the different scenes and also points out the fun details. That would have been really helpful, but then again you wouldn’t want to turn the experience into a game of ‘spot the prophet’. It’s nice to just enjoy the pictures.

The Germans at the hostel had said, quite emphatically, that I had to go to the roof. I did. It was awesome. Not only was the view incredible, on the way up you kind of walk around the top/inside of the cathedral. You look through these little windows and can see the mosaics close up, or you can stumble along basically the roof and look down on the cloisters and the town. Even up there, where no one should be able to see, are ceramic and masonry details that no modern architect would bother putting in.

You can’t go all the way to the top at the moment due to building works but its still lovely. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood you should check it out. I also re-met my photo friends on the roof, which was nice.


Going home time

This was, in fact, more complicated than it should have been. The bus to Monreale is apparently the only bus in the whole of Sicily, nay, Italy, that runs on time. I got to the bus stop like 5 minutes late and it was already gone. Of course, there wasn’t another bus for 1 hour 20 minutes. The taxi driver by the bus stop was very sure that I should just get his taxi but I’d bought a return ticket, dammit!

I sat by the bus stop and watched the sun set and read my book. It was nice but I was glad when the bus arrived since I was very tired. The journey back felt very music-video, in the twilight in a strange city. Everyone else on the bus was just going about their day and I felt like a true outsider. This is one of the glories of travelling alone, the stillness and solitude.

I didn’t even check my map on the way back to the hostel even though I took a new route. I am very proud of this. Palermo is a very easy city to navigate and this is coming from someone who is always lost. When I got back to the hostel the hostel owner made dinner (pasta with sausage and tomato sauce). There were maybe 10 of us and we sat at a long table with napkins. It was a truly lovely evening and I now understand why you put vodka in tomato sauce.

The next day I woke up very very early to get the train to Catania. I’m sure I’ll tell you about it some time but for my next post I want to write about travelling in the Himalayas in India.

Until then, over and out x


PS there was an exhibition in the basement of the Norman palace. I can’t remember the name of the artist but I bought a postcard of a snarling tiger.



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