Two Gems of Palermo
Technically the gems are the Cattedrale de Santa Maria La Nuova in Monreale and La Vucciria (a market), but for the purposes of this entry I'm saying the second gem is the Cattedrale di Palermo. The two cathedrals basically were built to rival one another with Norman ruler William II installing his own archbishop in the new cathedral he commissioned. Sicilian Norman rulers (along with the Hungarians) were given the power to appoint their own clergy without approval from the Pope and the Church's Council to help defend the Catholic countries that bordered the Muslim world. The archbishop of Palermo was trying to wrest away the power of ruling church and state from the young king and this was William IIs way to solidify his divine right of rule. Because of its political expediency the entire cathedral was built quickly (between 1172 - 1176).
Monreale Cathedral is famous for its over 6000 yards of mosaics that cover every centimeter of wall space (telling most Old and New Testament stories)
and Christ the Pantocrator presides over the central apse.
The eyes follow you everywhere.
Unfortunately the King's political win didn't last very long. He died soon after the cathedral was completed (and is interred there), and power reverted to Palermo. However, because Monreale became something of a backwater the Cathedral was almost totally preserved while the church Baroque-a-fied (a real word, I promise) everything else in sight.
The two cathedrals are mirror images in that Monreale is not much to look at from the outside and spectacular inside while Palermo is gorgeous outside, but had several renovations on the interior destroying all its initial historical significance.
There is a restoration project happening at the Palermo Cathedral (story of my entire time in Europe), so part of the exterior was draped.
Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo. A devoutly religious descendant of a Norman noble family that claimed descent from Charlemagne. She lived in a cave on Mount Pellegrino were she died alone in 1166. In 1624 a plague was devastating Palermo when Saint Rosalia appeared first to a sick woman and then to a hunter to whom she told the location of her remains, and asked him to carry her bones in a procession through the city. He climbed Mount Pellegrino and found her bones in the cave, and completed his assignment. After the procession the plague ceased and Santa Rosalia was venerated as their patron saint. Every year the procession is reenacted with the statue of Santa Rosalia being paraded through the streets in a special wagon decorated specifically for that year. The festival is in mid-July and then in September/October there is a pilgrimage up to the cave where her bones were recovered. I was there just after the pilgrimage so the wagon was still on display in the Cathedral courtyard.
The interior has undergone numerous restorations, but one cool thing inside is a dome with a skylight that acts as a calendar.
It shines down and hits a golden line embedded in the cathedral floor. The line continues across the building and as the year passes the light (at a specific time of day - I don't remember exactly, but I think it was 3:00) hits the zodiac sign associated with that month.
After the guided part of the tour was over the group was returned to the ship. Palermo seems like a really cool, really manageable city (except I would never, NEVER drive there - there were zero lane lines painted on the street and at least 4 - 5 lanes of traffic; the only rule I could discern was "there are no rules") our guide told us that all aboard was at 1:30. I, along with the others in the group, thought it was later in the day ... 4:30/5:00 so when we got back to the ship I asked someone with the Holland America crew. He told me all aboard was 2:30. Since it was already about 1:30 I decided I didn't have time to run back into town to see the theater/opera house up close - Palermo has a couple of really cool theaters. (One is big enough that they have used live elephants in productions.) Instead, I walked just across the port into town to get a cannoli.
It was delicious. As it turns out both the guide and the HAL crew member were wrong about the time. All aboard wasn't until 5:00 and I wish I'd known that so I could spend the afternoon seeing other things in the city. I do know that there are a few more Sicilian things on the list so chances are... I'll be back!