Palermo, the largest city, revolves around the intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the so-called Quattro Canti which delineates four rival quarters. Artistic rivalries abound as well, as exemplified in the massive Palazzo dei Normanni, Roger IIs palace. Look for the Christian haloes King Ferdinand II had placed over the heads of the original Moorish figures. Greek rites are still the norm at the Church of the Martorana, with its exquisite belfry. San Giorgio dei Genovesi is a rare example of Sicilian Renaissance. Sicilys kings and queens are buried in the breathtaking cathedral; on a smaller but no less extravagant scale are the stuccos in the Oratorio di San Domenico, whose altarpiece is by Van Dyck. The Oratorio di San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian roccoco, contrasted starkly by Caravaggios "Nativity," his next to last work.
Just outside Palermo are the chinoiserie-decorated La Favorita; La Zisa, the most important Norman building in Sicily; La Cuba, a 12th-century royal pavilion buried within a modern barracks (half the fun is the military tour guide/escort you will be provided), and the Capuchin Convent, with its macabre catacombs holding the mummified bones of 8000 Palermitans.
The cathedral of Monreale is at the top of any list, with its dazzling mosaics and Benedictine cloisters. The unfinished temples of Segesta, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, the 6th-century city of Heraclea Minoa all rival any ancient site in Greece today. Erice is perched high atop a hill, its 5th-century BC walls and great medieval castle overlooking the valleys and, on a very clear day, the shadows of nearby Africa. A few miles south is Marsala, home of great wines both sweet and dry, and of long sandy beaches. Sciacca, a small town with a festive evening atmosphere, is the best place to stay to visit Selinunte, the other ancient Greek town. Noto is as heady a baroque extravaganza as any youll ever find. In Gela, stand atop the monumental ramparts, built less than a hundred years after Aeschylus died here in 456 BC.
And then there is Siracusa. On the mainland, inside the dense archeological zone, Aeschylus may have seen one of his own plays performed at the Linear Theatre (so-called because its seats form straight rows, unlike the semicircular ones found in most ancient theatres). On Ortygia Island are Santa Maria delle Colonne, a church that combines a 5th-century Greek temple, Norman battlements and a baroque faÁade; and San Pietro, one of the oldest churches in all of Italy; just a few miles north of town is the Eurylus Castle, built in 100 BC.
Make sure you get to the cathedral of Messina at noon to see the worlds largest astronomical clock perform; like its neighbor Catania, Messina was devastated in the 1908 earthquake, then heavily bombed in World War II; both have extensive new quarters and small baroque neighborhoods that have miraculously survived.
Piazza Armerina is not a piazza but a town, a spectacular one with a breathtaking hilltop view and a hunting lodge whose mosaics date from the 4th century BC. Trožna and Randazzo are lovely little medieval towns; the 11th-century church of San Pietro in Itala Marina is one of the few remaining structures built by Count Roger.
Taormina is also medieval, though its fame derives from its ancient Greek theatre (and from its view, probably the most spectacular of any theatre built by the Greeks, who certainly loved their views). A few miles away in the country, the church at San Francesco di Paola, a most important Norman building, is lost at the far end of a rustic valley: the trek there is indeed as unique as the goal (ask a local to open the door if its closed!).
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