Palermo retains the urban planning of medieval times; the three outdoor markets that date back hundreds of years still define the boundaries of the area, and the four historical districts, or mandamenti, still retain the feel of long ago -- each had its own patron saint. Back then neighborhoods were rigidly confined (not unlike caste systems), but today that practice is long gone. Still, the maze-like, narrow streets that defined each neighborhood remain.
In the quadrilateral of Via Lincoln, Via Roma, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the Foro Italico, the Arabs made this their headquarters, locating all the government headquarters here. In fact, Kalsa derives from the old Arabic "Khalisa," which means pure, elected; the second meaning seems to have more feasibility. Distinctly the most Arab in feel, this was a highly insalubrious area in which to wander up until 10 years ago. But now, thanks to investors refurbishing and restoring the old, bombed-out palazzi, it has attracted young, hip, urbane residents and is home to city hotspots such as the Mikalsa and the Kursaal Kalhesa (www.kursaalkalhesa.it). It still houses fine noble dwellings such as the Palazzo Mirto and Palazzo Ajutamicristo (www.palazzo-ajutamicristo.com), the latter having been a palace of Charles V. One of the finest art museums in Sicily, the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in the Palazzo Abbatellis, is on Via Alloro, while in Piazza Marina you'll find the imposing, austere Palazzo Steri (www.palazzosteri.it).
Enclosed within the Castellammare emendameto and accessible from Via Roma, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the Cala, this centuries-old market was once the pulse and beating heart of Palermo, with people flocking from everywhere to buy the foodstuffs displayed on spectacular stands with which to prepare the day's meals. Today only a smattering of its vibrancy lives on, but the feeling of what once was still remains, with butcher shops still called carnizzerie, fishmongers scaring shoppers with large heads of swordfish, precarious houses that look as though they might crumble any time, and tiny, hole-in-the-wall eateries that may seem shady and improvised, but are the best in town.
Another of Palermo's historical markets, this is enclosed within the Albergeria mandamento. Starting from the buildings behind Piazza Bologni and extending as far as Corso Tukory, it is also crammed with shoppers and visitors alike buying the food from the art-like stalls and snacking out on the occasional pane e panelle sandwich. It's become a multicultural area reminiscent of Palermo's golden age, where many immigrants have decided to set up their shops as well. The crowning glories of this neighborhood are the Chiesa del Carmine and the Casa Professa.
This is both a mandamento and a market, the largest and the most bazaar-like in ambience, enclosed within an area that includes Via Papireto, Via Volturno, Via Maqueda, and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Filled with tiny, winding streets and alleyways that draw you like a magnet, the Teatro Massimo seems to dominate over it all. Two splendid churches -- the very baroque Chiesa dell'Immacolata Concezione, in Via Porta Carini, and the medieval Chiesa di Sant'Agostino are worth stopping in as you wander around the market. The Capo was also the headquarters of the secret society of the Beati Paoli, the legendary sect that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
This is the oldest of the four mandamenti; it is also known as the mandamento Palazzo Reale because the Phoenicians first laid the foundations of what would become the royal place on the highest part of the city. Like the Kalsa, it is filled with tiny, dimly lit alleyways barely wide enough for a person and with decaying buildings in dire need of repair. It is also unsavory in some patches of the neighborhood, despite the fact that cafes and eateries are popping up everywhere. These were the streets roamed by the soothsayer and charlatan Cagliostro, its native son. There are, however, some very exquisite corners -- the splendid Piazza Bologni, with is noble palaces and statue of Charles V, and the facade of the Palazzo Sclafani, which once housed the Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death) which is now at the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia.
Owing its name to the castle that once overlooked the sea -- now open again to the public -- it is an area bordered by Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Cavour, Via Roma, and Via Crispi. Also heavily bombed during 1943, it nonetheless houses some spectacular palazzi and churches, such as the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita and the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, San Giorgio dei Genovesi, and the Catalan Gothic Santa Maria La Nova. Encompassing the Vucciria as well, the Pantheon of Palermo, San Domenico is also here. Author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa had his ancestral palazzo here, but it was bombed during World War II and is now being rebuilt.
As you head north from Via Maqueda, the streets grow broader but also more nondescript. The monumental Teatro Massimo, at Piazza Verdi, roughly marks the division between the Old City and the New City. Where Via Maqueda cuts through the medieval district, it becomes Via Ruggero Séttimo as it heads north through the modern town. This street explodes into the massive double squares at Piazza Politeama, site of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. North of the square is Palermo's swankiest street, Viale della Libertà, running up toward Giardino Inglese. This is the area where the Art Nouveau movement triumphed in the city, as is still visible in the kiosks at Piazza Castelnuovo and in Piazza Verdi, but many of these priceless edifices were torn down by unscrupulous builders with the blessing of the then-mayors in the 1960s, to make way for the ugly cement behemoths that do not blend with the elegance of the neighborhood.
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