Sicily’s heritage of art, architecture and archaeological remains is exceptionally rich and varied, and Palermo is by far the most interesting of the island’s cities. Staying here for all six days, the tour also has excursions to some of the best of the area’s patrimony just outside the city.
In the ninth century AD, when Byzantine rule was supplanted by that of Muslim Arabs, Palermo became the leading city on the island and famous throughout Europe for the beauty of its hillside position, its tradition of craftsmanship and its enlightened administration. In the eleventh century Arab rule was swept aside by conquering Normans. By succumbing to the luxuriant sophistication of their predecessors they distanced themselves as far as is imaginable from their rugged northern roots. From a Palermo-based cosmopolitan court they ruled an affluent and cultured nation with efficiency and tolerance.
The unique artistic blend of this golden age survives in Romanesque churches with details of Norman, Saracenic, Levantine and classical origin. Byzantine mosaicists were extensively employed, and more wall and vault mosaics survive here than in all of Byzantium. The tour includes not only the Norman buildings in Palermo but also the cathedral at Monreale.
The prosperity and power of Sicily began to wane from the later Middle Ages, but pockets of wealth and creativity remained, as Gothic and Renaissance creations demonstrate. Artistically, however, a final flourish was reached in the Age of Baroque when churches and palaces were erected in Palermo and throughout the island which are as splendid and exuberant as anywhere in Europe. Always a seething, vibrant city, enlightened local government has made Palermo cleaner, safer, and altogether more enjoyable in recent years.
Fly at c. 9.00am from London City via Milan or Rome to Palermo (Alitalia). Overnight Palermo where all five nights are spent.
Palermo. A morning walk through the old centre includes a visit to several oratories. Visit the Chiesa del Gesù, an extraordinary example of Palermitan Baroque with a profusion of marble inlay, stucco and sculpture. The afternoon is spent at the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Palazzo Abatellis), which has an excellent collection of 15th-century pictures, and at La Martorana and S. Cataldo, two outstanding Norman buildings. Dinner at a private palazzo.
Monreale, Palermo. Monreale dominates a verdant valley southwest of Palermo, and its cathedral is one of the finest Norman churches with the largest scheme of mosaic direction to survive from the Middle Ages. Free afternoon before a private evening visit to the Palatine Chapel.
Palermo. Spend most of the day with the Duchess of Palma in an 18th-century palazzo facing the Bay of Palermo. The palace is the former residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, now the home of his adoptive son. Visit the city’s best market with the Duchess herself to select fresh seasonal produce, before returning to the palazzo for a cooking class, lunch in the grand dining room and a tour with the Duke and Duchess.
Palermo. Visit the 12th-century Palace of the Normans, containing the Hall of King Roger which has outstanding mosaics (sometimes subject to last-minute closure). S. Giovanni degli Eremiti is a Norman church with five cupolas and a charming garden. The cathedral, a building of many periods, has grand royal and imperial tombs. Free afternoon. In the evening, there is a visit and reception by special arrangement to an otherwise inaccessible palazzo, with astonishing Rococo interiors and many original furnishings (used as a set in Visconti’s film of The Leopard).
Palermo. Visit the Castello della Zisa, an Arab-Norman palace. Fly from Palermo via Milan or Rome to London City, arriving c. 7.15pm.
Dr Philippa Joseph
Author, lecturer and researcher. For 20 years she published journals and books on behalf of societies including the Association of Art Historians, The Historical Association, and Society for Renaissance Studies. She is now an independent lecturer and researcher, reviews editor for History Today, and sits on the publishing board of the Institute of Historical Research, London. Her PhD concentrated on architectural and cultural exchange between Seville and Renaissance Italy, but her current research looks more broadly at late mediaeval and early modern societies in Andalucía and Sicily where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures flourished, each building on a Classical past.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,230 or £2,030 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,470 or £2,270 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with Alitalia (Airbus 319, Embraer 90); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch & 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; a cooking class with the Duchess of Palma; a drinks reception at a private palace; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, Palermo: a centrally located 4-star hotel housed in an assortment of historical buildings. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
We opt to travel to and from Sicily with Alitalia in February because the only direct flights to the island in this period are with low-cost airlines, with whom it is not currently viable for us to make a group booking. British Airways only flies directly from London Heathrow to Palermo from late March to October.
There is a lot of walking on this tour, and it would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking or stair-climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 24 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Meticulous attention to detail, a carefully devised itinerary, and very special private visits.'