I have to check to see that the Fiat is still there, still intact, out in plain sight in the Sicilian night. I fret, okay? The Palazzo dei Normanni lies at the opposite end of Via Vittorio Emanuele at the highest point of the old city. It served as the royal palace during the brief Norman rule. The Normans conquered Sicily in 1072, just six years after dealing decisively with the English. One hundred years later, they were gone. Palermo’s crown jewel, and perhaps of all Sicily’s, is the Palatine Chapel, built by Roger II (William II’s granddad) in a fantastic amalgam of Arab, Norman, and Byzantine styles.
Along the way, we must pay homage to the Fountain of Shame, because it is so grand and so silly. A couple hundred yards further on, a great square opens in front of the Palermo’s Cathedral, commenced in 1185 by that pain-in-the-ass Walter of the Mill, the guy who prompted the construction of glorious Monreale. It combines elements of many stylistic influences of its time with additions of later eras, but is primarily remarkable for being huge. Kings are buried there, but as we know so well – dead people is free from pain. Alice and I sit and catch our breath.
Further on, the imposing Porto Nuova straddles Via Vittorio Emanuele, built to celebrate a victory over Tunis in the 16th century. We tiptoe through. The Palazzo dei Normanni is to the right, and typically seems to have no front door. When Ali and I do find the entrance, we’re informed that the Cappella Palatina will be closed until 12:30. Tickets are bought nevertheless, because we’re here and because so what. In minutes we discover the reason: a bride. All is well. In the meantime, we can examine the Royal Apartments, which turn out to be a series of stiff ceremonial rooms. The Sicilian legislative assembly meets there.
Killing time is never efficient. The bookstore holds no charm, so joining the hubbub on the grand staircase becomes our default. Sometime after 12:30, wedding guests begin to depart, and finally, the bride looking transcendent and clutching in one hand what looks like a bunch of asparagus and, in the other, her groom in full military dress with sword. Smiling that on-another-planet newlywed smile, they make their way through the crowd. Spontaneous joyful applause!
Now if you goin’ to the chapel and you’re gonna get meh-eh-arried, the Cappella Palatina would be the one to go to. It is a claustrophobically fabulous, golden chamber, apsed and domed, with biblical vignettes and saints galore, also griffins and lions and peacocks and palms. But it’s a chapel and the milling multitude drains any magic away. A wedding ceremony must have been too too fine.
Our mission in Palermo has been accomplished and the Fiat’s still there, so it’s on to Cefalu. We round a curve to confront the chamber of commerce picture of the town. The twin-spired Norman Cattedral lording over red tiled neighborhoods, while a tremendous headland called La Rocca lords over all. To our amazement and delight a low-arcing rainbow covers the town, from La Rocca over the Duomo, dipping finally into the sea. It is a swath of joy and unphotographable.
Let the games begin. Our designated hotel has off-site parking. Cefalu’s a no-auto zone. We find the parking lot to be gated and are mystified, so maybe if we locate the hotel all will resolve itself. Hotel La Plumeria whizzes (at 3 km/hr) by. I am driving in zona negativo. I barely squeeze by some walls, miraculous turns get made, I plunge down one-way vias the wrong way, fifteen-point turns are accomplished. I’m going to scrap the door or peel off one of the side-view mirrors; I know I am. Finally, back at the parking lot, we call the hotel. Brilliant, fucking brilliant. If you want to know, the access code is 3146 enter. It swings open like the Pearly Fucking Gates will never do. We are shuttled to La Plumeria. Stability becomes a possibility. Take a shower. The sights and sites of Cefalu stay open until seven o’clock.
The Duomo, the Cathedral of Cefalu is mere paces away. Above the apse, a magnificent mosaic depiction of Christ Pantocrator spreads beneficence. This is a common Greek image of Christ the Righteous Judge and the Lover of Mankind, his left hand holds the open Gospel and his right gesturing in a blessing. The nave has recently been shorn of its baroque accretions, which allows the image to fill the great room. I’m an atheist but I can respond to an act of faith as well as anybody. The less said about the attached cloister, the better. And, of course, there was another bride. Before we entered the cathedral Alice and I bore witness to her grand descent to the piazza below. I picked up off the stones a small white mesh bag with the remnants of green and white rice.
Down a narrow street off the cathedral’s piazza we search for Museo Mandralisca, home to one 19th century polymath’s remarkable ‘cabinet of objects.’ Among the various things, the Museo houses one great masterpiece, early Renaissance Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man. Also in the collection is the funniest piece of Greek painting I’ve ever seen, a redware krater depicting a tuna-monger and an animated fish buyer.