Sleep with the Greek gods at Sicily’s boutique Hotel Villa Athena…
Sleep with the Greek gods at Sicily’s boutique Hotel Villa Athena…
Get ready Palermo is about to have its moment…
Long passed over as a tourist destination, this dusty capital city is about to regain its grand status. Palermo is a stage, an opera stage. Decorative buildings, noisy and a bit parched, but stately just the same. Centuries of influences from countries all over the Mediterranean make Palermo a cosmopolitan blend of many cultures. A city dense with stunning attractions, yet scuffed by years of mafia fears which have driven tourists away. But that is all about to change as Palermo has taken steps to clean up its city and its image in hopes to attract visitors once again to this dynamic historical destination.
Getting ready for my first trip to Palermo I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had both excitement and apprehension as my travel date approached. While I had been to Sicily before, I had never been to Palermo and it felt a bit overwhelming given its unfortunate mafia history, and I was a woman traveling alone in a very old world and traditional part of Italy. I would come to find quite rapidly that this was not something to be overly concerned about, the city is vibrant and quite modern. More importantly I was about to discover just how inviting a city it was.
From the start the city was quite welcoming, pleasant and much prettier than I expected. The grandeur of the city, and the Palermitani are very proud of it. Sicilians can be a bit reserved before you get to know them, and here in Palermo it is no different yet people were helpful and eager to show off their hometown. Taking photographs can be met with a bit of apprehension but if you ask first the people are usually very willing and jovial. It is important that you are always polite when traveling but here especially where old customs remain part of daily life. Always say hello or “buongiorno” when entering a shop as these places are usually family run and it is considered an extension of their homes. All that said, travel freely and explore. Palermo is full of expressive winding streets and a soft dilapidated patina. The everyday feels very much like any small village in Sicily just with more people. The bread gets made and delivered, people linger over coffee and walk together in the piazzas. Prepared to be wowed and won over…
The travel basics, a general overview:
Hotels: It was difficult to find a hotel I really liked. Unlike most major cities the luxury travel market is sadly lacking in such a choice destination. Many major hotel brands have yet to settle on properties here and the hotel selections are are limited. I chose to stay at the Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its central location and for its historical prestige. It was quite shabby and in need of a serious refurbishment but did capture the essence of a bygone era. (Read my review here Sicily:The tale of two Grand Hotels) But generally speaking this was probably the best I was going to find and it would behoove the city to entice reputable hotel businesses to open new properties in the city.
Taxis: The other tricky situation to maneuver is the taxi situation. There are taxis available but not always where you need them to be. What you mainly find are car services which while safe overall are really interested in giving you a tour of the city or taking you on an excursion to Monreale, the must see church about half an hour out of town. Trying to get them to just take you from point A to point B comes with a discussion (and pressure) of them trying to set up a bigger job with you. Thankfully from my hotel I was able to walk to a great deal, but I did find at the end of a long day of walking the need to jump in a cab and go back to the hotel which is when I was stuck having to take one of these cars. And these cars were the same ‘private car’ the hotel reserved for me on the day I wanted to go to Monreale. And while the driver was charming and got me to my destination I found him insisting on ‘just stopping for a moment’ to show me this or that, never mind that I had made it clear that all I wanted was to go to Monreale and back. I had to finally put my foot down or this would have gone on all day. Alternatively, public buses offer good service and can be fairly reliable.
That established this dramatic city is ripe to be explored with some truly stunning sights to see. Palermo is a stage of delights…
A quick view of the highlights: Start in the heart of Palermo, at the Quatro Canti which is like being in the center of a music box. Thus named because of the four street corners, each representing one of the four seasons and always one corner exposed to the sun. Not far from there is the striking Piazza della Pretoria, with a tiered renaissance fountain in the middle originally made for the city of Florence. While the pride of Palermo is their massive cathedral, the real jewel not to be missed is the Palatine Chapel, a jaw dropping beauty of mosaic work from the floors to the ceiling, this small chapel shines. The walk between the cathedral to the chapel takes you under a massive arch, the former old gate of the city and look at the two whimsical faces carved on the sides. And for die hard Godfather fans the famed opera house is right in the middle of the city. For something truly Sicilian, a visit to the Museo dei Pupi, is a museum dedicated to the craft of wooden puppets, a tradition in Palermo. If there is a puppet show on definitely stay and see it!
The Markets: Like all great Italian towns, food markets are a must and in Sicily they are particularly spirited. Palermo’s oldest and most famous is the Vuceria, a popular street market selling anything from faux antiques, old photographs and of course fruit and veg. Street food and other food shops also abound. The Ballarò offers the best in produce and is a lot more of a true food market. If you have time visit both.
Monreale: If there is one place you must visit it is the glorious church of Monreale just outside of the city. A bus ride or a short cab ride takes you 25 minutes out of the city to the charming town, which is also worth a look, and the famed church. The church itself is breathtaking. Both inside and out the care and workmanship extends from the intricate designs, to the the mosaic floor and ceilings and the painted woodwork. It is perfection. After seeing the inside do not miss the cloisters and gardens.
Cafes and Restaurants: While I didn’t spend a lot of time there, I did eat at the well regarded Osteria dei Vespri offering an innovative take on traditional Sicilian dishes and flavours. Wonderful place with attentive service and a cozy atmosphere. Antico Caffe Spinnato is Palermo’s Grand Caffe and is great anytime of day for a light bite, coffee, or aperitivo.
Palermo is buzzing… It has been chosen as the Italian City of Culture for 2018 making it a center for Italian tourism. And equally if not more prestigious, the famed Sicilian fashion designers Dolce&Gabbana based in Milan have finally open a boutique in Palermo and to celebrate launched multiple fashion shows around the city of Palermo. Historical sites such as the Piazza della Pretoria and the Cattedrale were the red carpet runways for the latest collection, heralding that Palermo is open for business and an extremely fashionable destination.
A peak at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show showcased around Palermo
Vespa parked on one of Ortigia’s picturesque streets…
Pizzeria with pizazz…
Colourful days on land and sea…
Sicily has many exceptional hotels but what about those Sicilian destinations with less selection to offer. Here’s a look at two. The tale of two old world hotels…
Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo
Palermo is on the cusp of a Renaissance. It has been chosen as Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018 and its popularity as a travel destination is growing. But what Palermo is missing is a solid selection of luxury accommodation. It is nearly non existent and it was very difficult to find a well recommended hotel in this capital city. So I settled on the historical Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its excellent location. Like many old European hotels, this clearly was once a sparkling hotel in the grand tradition. Sumptuous gilding, marble and mirrors but unfortunately a bit dusty and worn from wear. Much of it’s beauty ignored.
I wanted to like the hotel as it has it’s charm and some of the people that worked there were genuinely friendly with an ease to smile if albeit a bit lackadaisical. But unfortunately it wasn’t enough to cover the fading splendor, the rickety lift, the stained carpets and the peeling paint. This was especially apparent in my room which had scuff marks all over the walls, the chandelier was hanging a bit precariously, and the room was stuffy and dark. This was because the wooden window shutters so popular in Italy were almost all the way down. Upon further inspection the cord to lift it up and down was not working properly and so the only position it would stay in was nearly all the way down. Meaning, no view, no air circulation, and no natural light. The bathroom was basic and here some creative touch ups were used to cover some of the blemishes like painting the toilet seat to make it look ‘new.’ The room was clean though just in need of major remodeling.
The same goes for the public spaces which were shabby and its such a shame as you can really see this hotel was a grande dame at one time. The lobby doubled as a bar area which is fine though there wasn’t a lot of seating when the aperitivo hour came round and there were a few rowdy coach tours staying and constantly lingering in the lobby. I don’t understand why they don’t use a neglected formal room down the corridor as for a hotel bar it would be quite a place. The bartenders doubled by working in the restaurant and so they weren’t always immediately available, or there was one to serve 30 people which meant drinks took forever. The nicest area was the restaurant/breakfast room which appears to have been a formal dining space at some point, with chandelier and lavish details which served up a daily breakfast buffet.
The service was decent, polite, rooms were clean, but not exceptional. Faux antique wooden details and brass. There was no evening turn down service, and the room’s heating/air conditioning did nothing for the temperature of the room. The concierge desk was friendly but here too it could have been better. Their restaurant recommendations were restaurants aimed at tourists and fairly predictable choices. And when I asked for a nice place close by for a cocktail I was sent to an area of tourist restaurants instead of the more elegant pedestrian street with cafes and bars, literally around the corner from the hotel which I discovered on my own a day later. And while not the hotel’s fault, it was quite noisy one evening with a car or store alarm going off all night long. It was hard to sleep and it was still going in the morning. Needless to say it wasn’t a comfortable stay.
Would I stay here again, perhaps as the location is very central. But I hope by the time Palermo becomes the Capital of Culture the hotel gets a make over as it would really shine, and the city adds exciting new hotels to signal that Palermo is open for visitors.
Grand Hotel et des Palmes via Roma 398 90139 Palermo – Italy
Grand Hotel Ortigia, Syracuse
The neighbourhood of Ortigia, in Syracuse is a lovely little peninsula separate from the city and full of charm and history. Baroque streets filled with cute cafes and a palatial central piazza as smooth as an ice rink make it not only a wonderful historical town to linger in but also a central point to go and visit near by towns in the Noto Valley.
But here too it was hard to find a great hotel selection. A couple of boutique hotels were already booked months in advance and not much else to choose from except the larger, tried and true Grand Hotel Ortigia overlooking the marina and with a great location. From the outside it does look like many European hotels with its continental facade, but inside the decor is… well a bit of a mess. They describe it as “Liberty” style in reference to the British arts and crafts movement of the late 19th Century but really it looked like a bit of an old Gothic house meets a bit of hippy psychedelic.
My room was very simple though almost dorm like. Very clean and comfortable, light pale green and light wood, and while not the most stylish place I’ve been to, it had some nice touches you don’t get in many hotels. For one since most people only stop through here for a day or two and really don’t unpack they have conveniently put up wall hooks above the area where the suitcase rack is placed so that you can conveniently hang things right there over your bag. They also put up a plastic back splash to protect the wall from the scuffing that comes from people’s suitcase, something the Grand Hotel des Palmes might want to consider. Also I loved the rare to find electrical outlet right over the bedside table to allow for easy night time phone charging. But the real surprises were in the bathroom. While small and only with a tiny shower I had to really squeeze into, the shower head was not only a rainfall shower but it also had a series of shower heads down the wall like a mini spa. And for a real treat they had cult brand Culti bath products which they replenished very generously. I have to say I was very impressed.
The public spaces included a restaurant/breakfast room which also doubled as a bar on the top floor offering splendid views over the water and parts of the city. The decor fails to impress, something a coach tour would have lunch in, but the views go a long way. The problem is, here again I encountered a tour group and they all convened in this limited public space to have a bit of a party and it meant noise and lack of seating for the rest of the hotel guests. And on a rainy day when no one wants to be out on the terrace there is even less room. Other than that, it was a pleasant area and offered a nice breakfast buffet in the mornings.
Everyone I encountered working at the hotel was friendly and helpful. My room was always made up before my return, there was a turn down service in the evening complete with a Sicilian almond biscotti on the bedside table. The concierge team at the front desk was knowledgeable and available to help set anything up from local restaurants to day trip excursions.
Would I stay here again, yes. I can’t say it was the coziest or prettiest place I have been to, but I felt looked after and cared about.
Grand Hotel Ortigia Viale Mazzini 12 – 96100 Siracusa
The Grand Hotel des Palmes would do well to learn a thing or two from the Grand Hotel Ortigia. While both are aging hotels, the Grand Hotel Ortigia went the extra mile with staff effort, room comfort and extra details. But as both cities grow in popularity as tourist destination the cities would do well to not only get more accommodation options in town but for these hotels reviewed here to do some serious updating with fresh design. Because with the history and location, both hotels have the potential to be attractive places to stay.
The whimsical bar in Taormina serves the best granita…