nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Monday, April 30, 2018

palermo...sicily's golden child and the birthplace of cosa nostra

Perched on the northwest corner of what looks like the giant rock Italy's boot is trying to kick away Palermo is the Island of Sicily's beautiful capital.

I didn't know much, or anything for that matter, about Sicily before I visited recently, but its rich blend of Arabic, Spanish, French and, of course, Italian influences became very clear to me as we walked towards Piazza Castelnuovo on our way to the Ballarò Market. I'm a lover of all things market related and reading about this one was shamefully the extent of my research.

But, long before we arrived at the Ballarò we encountered a host of wonderful sights and sounds as this fascinating and somewhat mysterious city opened itself (only partially) to greet us.

Aspects of Palermo reminded me of the grand, somewhat neglected mainland cities of Spain, such as Cadiz on the Atlantic coast (also one of my favourite historic centres). The streets of Palermo reek of story. There is a sense of daunting, a mix of beauty and foreboding, which could in all fairness have something to do with realisation that this is the birthplace of the mafia. The horse head in the bed. The Don. The Pizza Connection.

Of course Palermo is much more than its 200-year-old mafia story. It is one of the oldest cities I've been fortunate enough to visit, and its confluence of architectural styles, dating back to 734 BC, impressed me enough that I quickly realized I missed most of the important details as a result of my market obsession (thus I have borrowed some photos from someone who knew better).

Palermo Cathedral

Honestly, Palermo's history is confusing and so I won't begin to try and explain the numerous sources of design and cultural significance, except to say that if you were a church builder back in the 12th century then you would've had a boom in business to rival most other centuries. The youngest of four of the most incredible churches built in Palermo between 1132 and 1185 is the Palermo Cathedral, which is impressive enough just from the outside.

Quatto Canti

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the three churches I want to focus on, let me just say that if you make it to Palermo you must take five minutes and see Quattro Canti - the most impressive four corners of an intersection you will ever see. The piazza splits two main streets with four Baroque buildings, almost identical, taking over each of the corners. 

The four fountains at ground level represent the four seasons, then come each of the four Spanish kings of Sicily, topped off by Christina, Olivia, Agata and Ninfa, Palermo's four patronesses. I stood as close to the centre of the intersection as I dared in order not to get run over by a fiat or vespa, and began slowly rotating, taking few photos but many deep breaths, trying to absorb the 4 most beautiful corners of two streets I had ever seen.

Cappella Palatina

The Cappella Palatina is a highlight on any Palermo tour, and the panormiti (as the locals are known) would surely echo this statement. It's a fairly small chapel with much gold, built by the Norman kings as part of the palace grounds, but incorporating a mixture of fascinating styles. A Byzantine dome, Arabic arches, Norman architecture, Christian artwork and Greek inscriptions create a true 'east meets west' creation. 

The chapel is a mosaic masterpiece, with such intricate detail on every surface that one can really spend an inordinate amount of time in this humbly-sized church. But, if you look up you will also experience something remarkable. An Islamic style of design which is sometimes called a 'honeycomb vault', used in ceilings throughout Persian architecture and called 'Muqarnas', the Palatine Chapel showcases this feature beautifully. The vaulting is solely ornamental but unique in adorning special interiors throughout arab-influenced areas, such as Morocco, Spain, Iraq and Egypt.

Scenes of Christ's life, along with prophets and saints adorn the dome's ceiling in glorious visions of embellished gold.

We made our way through narrow lanes to the Ballarò, one of Palermo's bright markets, which wasn't as easy to find as I thought. There wasn't a trail of tourists filing in and out of the side streets making their way to this 'attraction' which was, of course, in the end a great thing.

Under the tarp and awning-covered stands we found mostly locals buying colourful vegetables, fruit and much fish, like Sicilian favourites, swordfish or octopus.

The narrow streets are almost as colourful as the oranges, tomatoes and artichokes in the Ballarò. Laundry (which I love) hangs cavalierly over balconies and on washing lines from most apartments, alongside potted plants and neglected window shutters. Scan downwards towards street level and more colour greets you with bold graffiti adorning most surfaces.

That there is a host of activity taking place away from the naive eyes of tourists, akin to a seedy underbelly of the normal day-to-day life here in Sicily, is not difficult to imagine.

Located also in the heart of Palermo, just around the corner from the Quattro Canti, in Piazza Bellini lies the Church of San Cataldo. Also built in the 1100's under Norman rule, San Cataldo is a bit different than your typical European churches.

Church of San Cataldo
It is a pure homage to Norman-Arab architecture, without many of the opulent trimmings used to embellish places of worship at the time.

The San Cataldo invites you in and holds you once inside, with its naked walls, high arches and bulging domes. One can focus on the minutiae of life's circumstance (if one chooses to do so) without getting sidetracked by lavish gold altars or traumatic frescoes. Spending time in here feels like you've walked into a more primitive, feudal era...much more dangerous than just the Sicilian mafia.

Onwards to one of the oldest and most interesting of Palermo's churches, due to its host of various influences over the centuries, the Martorana.

Where the San Cataldo was naked, the Martorana is draped in gold and dressed in a wonderful blend of 12th century Byzantine mosaics and 18th century Baroque frescoes. Across the piazza from the San Cataldo (why each city needs so many churches is beyond me!) and built about 20 years earlier, the Martorana will steal a good bit of your time if you pay it a visit.

Between the 14th and 16 centuries, the Martorana was run by Benedictine nuns who took great care in modifying and enhancing large portions of the interiour. Rumours say that the church was then abandoned for a couple of hundred years, reopened and then adorned with sweeping pastel frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans.

The Greek cross design of the church highlights the Byzantine mozaics, along the likes of  Jesus bestowing the crown of Sicily upon the head of King Roger II or George of Antioch lying at the feet of the Virgin Mary.

While the later frescoes are said to have little artistic value, the Islamic influences on the culture of Norman Sicily, are impressively noticeable from the Martorana's early years. One such imposing element is the Christ Pantokrator, a traditional Greek image, which holds court in the Martorana's dome ceiling. Make sure to look up.

While meandering through the narrow side streets and across the palm-tree-lined piazzas, we stopped often to snap pics of dramatic doorways and fountains; harkening back to a time when a different type of godfather ruled Sicily, when the capo di tutti capi was named Roger or George, not Toto or Salvatore, but where allegiance was every bit as important. A lot has happened on these streets.

Palermo's fascinating history, its interesting blend of architectural influences, its many world heritage sites honouring the cultural impact these ruling factions had on Sicily, and its abundant culinary offerings, ensure that I will be back again. A road trip across this island is on my (now very long) list of things to do. I hope it's on yours won't disappoint, capiche?


Saturday, March 31, 2018

copenhagen...experiencing a hygge kind of life

Spending a few days in Copenhagen, I was struck by an intense feeling of comfort, something akin to a sense of home. I'm not Scandinavian, and my roots do not trace back to this part of the world, as far as I know, at all. But I was intrigued by how Danish people live; where was their focus, what do they value, how do they spend their time? So, I looked into the culture of the Danes, and that is when I came across the word 'hygge' for the very first time.

The most common words used to describe 'hygge' are cosiness, kinship, togetherness, conviviality, simplicity, contentedness...but from what I've read and experienced, I would hesitate to limit the idea to a few words. Hygge is a lifestyle, a way of thinking...which increases calm and enhances sociability in order to recognise the many blessings that surround us in people, nature, food and comforts.

Hygge is candlelight. Hygge is standing at the window for a moment and welcoming the morning sun. Hygge is a set table surrounded by love and laughter. Hygge is getting back to basics. Hygge is about being kind to ourselves and each other.

Fellowship...being together

"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." - Simone Weil

Copenhagen's Nyhavn district, translating into 'new harbour' even though the canal was dug in 1670, is full of opportunities to walk, eat and just be together. Not just tourists walk among the heritage sailing vessels and old schooners, or sit in the outdoor cafés sipping the beloved Danish coffee.

The idea of kinship and being sociable means being open to each other. You don't need to be superficially friendly to everyone and their dog, but be generous with time and energy, if you can spare it. The concept of hygge is to spend quality time with others, whether taking a walk or sharing a meal or a coffee...starting with family. Life is complicated, which we all know, but giving others time goes a long way to building relationship and thereby community.

At the end of Nyhavn, across a foot bridge is Paper Island, which is currently undergoing a complete renovation. It was a converted paper storage facility housing over 200 street food stalls, with so much easy-going energy that all you could do was enjoy laying out on a lawn chair or sitting on long beer tables, munching on delicious, simple food and loving life. But trust the Danes to have a great plan for this special will surely become a community of good times again soon.

Papiroen - Paper Island
Copenhagen's answer to New York's cool meatpacking district (was there a question?) is Kodbyen, literally 'meat town' in Danish. Here the vibe is a bit different than Nyhavn...more grit and fewer selfies. There are less tourists and more locals, imbibing together in spacious, converted industrial halls. cool, just make sure you go when it's open ;)
Breweries, organic restaurants, art galleries, performance art and event spaces make this place feel a bit more old SOHO to me, than meatpacking, but hey what do I know. There's a huge bull on one of the meat, it is.

Nature...being active

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom, 
and a little flower to love." - Hans Christian Anderson

A major component of hygge is to be active, no matter what the weather, and as much as you are physically able, to get outside during all seasons, inhaling fresh air and earning the rewards that will come later in the form of food and firelight and glögg.

Hiking, biking, kayaking, and just plain old playing are favourite activities of the Scandanavian people. Signe Johansen, author of, "How to Hygge" writes that it's not about looking good but about feeling great all year round. They don't let snow or rain or cold get in the way of a some good clean natural fun. Of course, as a Canadian girl from the Rockies, I know, as do the Danes, that you have to be smart, heed the elements and be prepared.

all-time best name for a club
What struck me about the concept of hygge is that it really isn't about show. It's not about buying the best sportswear, or workout equipment, or trying to look like Helena Christensen or Nina Agdal. It's about being healthy in mind and body, enjoying the many gifts nature gives us, and just getting outside and doing something.

Bringing nature into your home, in the form of plants and flowers goes along with that. Keep things simple, you don't have to break the bank, but soaking up the energy that plant life gives is rejuvenating and well, life-giving.

Come on, you can't tell me that seeing a bouquet of flowers like this, which you've treated yourself to in lieu of taking a few Starbucks runs, wouldn't help start your days with an extra boost of goodness.

Food...being hospitable

"Cooking is caring for others." - Olafur Eliasson

The Scandanavians are known for world-class cuisine, a love of pastries, and excellent home-cooked meals. Eating together and cooking for each other is a treasured and beloved routine, but from everything I've seen, it's not showy or boasty or touted. It's just done...and always has been.

In Copenhagen, coffee is more of a verb than a noun. I heard about a small café, called Mormors, that from the moment I walked in I never wanted to leave. I went each day I was in Copenhagen and each time I tried something new.

Aside from great coffee (of course) and delicious homemade treats and sandwiches, its whimsy had me hooked. Dolls hang from the ceiling (okay, sure, it's a little creepy), photos of the Queen (the Danish one of course) or Prince Charles or a clown fill what limited space there is on the walls.

Vintage tin boxes hold fresh cookies and muffins, ceramic margarine pots nestle barbie dolls from the 50's, and every sort of knick knack you can imagine line shelves and counters. It is fun fun.

But, Copenhagen can also 'do' finer dining. On this particular evening, I hopped aboard the night ferry to Oslo and enjoyed what my mood and wallet allowed...a bit of caprese, bruschetta and wine.

Simplicity...being thankful

"Beautiful is that which is practical, useful, informed by its purpose, and 
expressive of the soul of its user or creator." - Ellen Kay

Walking and getting lost in Mälmo (Sweden), Oslo (Norway) and also in Copenhagen on this trip, I was struck by how most of the small stores and boutiques looked and sounded local. All of us know and own Scandanavian furniture in some form, but the fashion and design industry, including lighting and architecture, are shaped by the underlining principle of simplicity and function.

Again, hygge is not about show or pricetag, but about getting back to the basics, lighting a fire or a candle, and not cluttering our minds or homes with unneccesary 'stuff'...making room for creativity, energy and a little light.

"In acceptance of the limitations that life imposes on us and in knowing that we can choose our attitude in any given circumstance and make the best of our situation, 
we throw open the window to hygge." - Louisa Thomsen Brits

This really is a special part of the world, and not for nothing do the Scandanavian countries top the 'best places to live', 'best quality of life', and 'happiest countries' lists year after year. If you get a chance go and visit, or better yet, incorporate hygge into your daily routine and bring a bit of Scandanavia to you. That's what I'm going to do! Skal!

If you go:

- consider a tour (as short or long as you want) with Authentic Scandanavia. They were really pleasant to plan with, helpful with recommendations and options, and my 5-day tour was perfect for what I wanted to do and what I could afford

- pop into's a wonderful treat (Bredgade 45, Copenhagen)

- read Signe Johansen's "How to Hygge"...better yet read it if you can't go and bring hygge to you!
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