Less than 200km from Tunis, Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe. Defying the mafia in a maze of crumbling grandeur, it is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Every neighbouring power has occupied Sicily at some time, which has created a sizzling mix of Arabic food, Spanish streets, Norman towers and Italian neglect.
The old town is full of baroque palaces, their facades rich with statues, above alleys strewn with litter. Families live on their doorsteps like a scene from a 1950s film. Some streets are still being rebuilt after being bombed by the allies in the second world war. This is Italy in the raw.
And among all this, the traditional evening promenade, the passeggiata, is still very much alive here. There are aristocrats struggling to maintain historic palaces, and vibrant street life on every rococo corner. So this is a very old Italy, too. The closest parallel is probably Havana, another decaying former Spanish colony filled with ghosts and stories and heroes. Catch this one before it changes – and with being warm long into autumn, it’s not too late to visit this year.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
The Norman conquest
The unmissable sites in this city are the astonishing buildings of the Norman kings who conquered Sicily in 1072. For a century they ran Europe’s most sophisticated royal court, a centre for science, art and commerce based on tolerance of all faiths and nationalities. They left behind a fabulous blend of Romanesque architecture, Byzantine mosaics and Arabic domes.
First stop is the royal palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni on Piazza Indipendenza, whose highlight is the Palatine Chapel, covered in golden mosaics of scenes from the Bible. If it sounds dull, it feels bling. More intimate is the church of La Martorana in Piazza Bellini, with mosaic figures across its Romanesque arches. But the top sightseeing spot is out of town: the cathedral at Monreale, five miles south of Palermo, has gorgeous ceilings and walls decorated by master mosaicists who were brought here all the way from Byzantium. They offer a real sense of the power and mystery of medieval faith.
The centre of Palermo feels like a stage set – its streets all baroque facades run to ruin, its people open to communal living. There are outdoor dances in old squares and crowds at the sunset passeggiata. Street markets – boisterous affairs with the energy and edge of an African bazaar – are held on weekday mornings in Piazza Ballarò, Via Sant’Agostino and Piazza San Domenico.
Cook with a duchess
The delightful Duchess of Lampedusa, Nicoletta Polo, holds food-shopping and cookery days, starting in the noisy street market of Capo and ending with a five-course Sicilian meal in her elegant palace. She is the daughter-in-law of the author of Italy’s bestselling novel ever, The Leopard, which told the story of Sicilian aristocrats facing change. Her palace was owned by the real-life central character of the novel, Fabrizio, and is where the author died. For a taste of history, as well as local food, it doesn’t get more real than this.
It’s spirit that turns table wine into port, spi-rit-that-turns crisis into creativity and spirit that allows dignity to flourish among Porto’s glamorous dereliction. Here the Douro river pushes into the cold Atlantic and the city sits on one steep riverbank, with its thrusting towers and opulent city hall, its people defiant of austerity. The past defines much of Porto’s look, but her people have found a way to get on and look forward with hope and panache.
Stunning blue-tiled 14th-century churches and 19th-century palaces lie all but abandoned. There are Meccano bridges designed by Gustave Eiffel. Grand art deco theatres sail like pale liners over the city’s cobbled hills, and great modern buildings rise like phoenixes. There are green parks and shady silent squares, seaside and riverbank, wealth and poverty and all in a walkable city.
The Baixa district is postcard Porto, rising from the riverbank all pitched terracotta roofs and stucco painted in shades of mustard, Elastoplast and estuarine grey. At night it glows like honeycomb. Across the river is Vila Nova de Gaia, where 1950s signs on port lodges proclaim old English names Cockburn’s, Graham’s and Croft.
And there’s the seaside. Empty surf beaches lie a few minutes from the city centre. South of Gaia, the fishing villages are salty and sweary; on the Porto side of the river, Foz do Douro is a posh suburb where the river meets the ocean and, further north, Matosinhos offers rock-cut swimming pools, sunsets and superb fish dinners.
Porto’s life and soul is on her hilly streets, in the many hipster bars and smoky cafes, in portions of tasty food and drinks that are huge and silly-cheap, in a pace of life where a gentle stroll is full speed ahead and a commitment to slow food makes meals lingering and rhythmic.
Getting around the city is a cinch: you stroll, or buy an Andante ticket (€15 for 3 days, stcp.pt) and jump on any bus, metro or train.
What to see
The Casa da Música concert hall (auditorium and backstage visits from €6, performance tickets around €15) is perhaps Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ best building. It’s four stops from Metro Trinidade station, a five-star stunner.
The 15th-century Igreja (church) de Santa Clara, on Largo 1 de Dezembro, is impressively ornate. Igreja de São Francisco on Rua Infante Don Henrique is gothic outside and Liberace-baroque within. And if so much ecclesiastical culture (and gilt!) is quite enough for one morning, chill out at Horto das Virtudes, the peaceful park below São António hospital.
Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (€8.50) is Portugal’s most important modern art museum. The building, filled with light and shade, was designed by local architecture god Siza Vieira (he’s 82 and still working). As well as exhibitions, there’s a cinema, a performance space and a huge, elegant park.
Casa Museu Fernando de Castro (€5, €2.50 concessions, free first Sunday of every month) is a house on a quiet residential street, filled with the wild jackdaw finds of collector, poet and cartoonist Fernando de Castro, from jokey ceramics to 17th-century church panelling.
The Military Museum (€3.50) is where dictator António Salazar’s goons tortured anti-fascists. Five steps away, a disused shopping mall, Centro Comercial Stop(enter at the Gala sign), has been appropriated by Porto’s rock and jazz musicians: each shop is now a rehearsal studio or tiny concert space.
Get a feel for the real Porto on a half-day walking tour from The Worst Tours(“free”, donations welcome). They’re run by three brilliantly provocative activist architects. There’s 70km of cycle track along the river and in town – Porto Rent a Bike has electrics and tandems, too.
Italy offers so much to holidaymakers: food-and-wine, art and architecture, high peaks and bosomy Tuscan hills, but relatively few Brits come here for sun and sand. To UK tastes, Italy simply doesn’t do seaside very well: beaches are often given over to hotel and bar concessions, with rows of sunbeds differentiated only by the colour of their umbrellas and the trashiness of their euro pop. Only a corner at the-least-attractive end will be spiaggia-libera for people who just want to rock up and lie on a towel.
Sardinia isn’t like that: lists of the island’s best beaches run into the hundreds, and there are many more unnamed coves and wedges of white, silver or golden sand around its 1,000km plus of coastline, peninsulas and islands. Some popular beaches are concessionised though even these tend to be so spacious that plenty of spiaggia libera remains. There are wild beaches for those prepared to tote their own supplies, but most have a shack selling drinks, ice creams and snacks.
And if you think Sardinia is expensive, think again. Its image is skewed by the Costa Smeralda, an undeniably beautiful area in the north-east around the town of Porto Cervo, developed by the Aga Khan in the 1960s. Its rash of yachting, golfing, millionaire-style development has spread as far as Palau in the north and south towards Olbia. But elsewhere, from the Catalan flavoured north west to the south’s white dunes, from the rocky east to sometimes surfable west, Sardinia’s coast offers space, surprisingly low prices (though accommodation costs jump in August) and a friendly welcome particularly in these euro critical times, when fewer Italians can afford a trip. Add budget flights to Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, ancient villages, nuraghe (neolithic remains) for history buffs, and all the pizza, artisanal gelato and great value wine you’d expect, and Sardinia is the perfect holiday island. Here are a few coastal favourites, with places to sleep and eat.
East of the island’s capital, Cagliari, beaches suffer from proximity to the city and the SP71 coast road. But an hour’s drive west and south blue sea on your left, flamingo dotted lagoons on your right is ridiculously fortunate Chia. For a little resort to have not one perfect crescent of pale sand but five can only be called greedy. Even better, the beaches are backed by a strip of protected dunes, so there’s barely a building visible from the shore; most holiday homes and hotels cluster on a hillside a mile away.
The central beach, Campana, slopes gently into clear water and has several bars (with sunbeds) plus windsurf and kayak hire, but the most impressive is huge Su Giudeu to the west, on a spit between lagoon and sea, its couple of bar concessions lost in the wide soft sands. My favourite is eastern Su Portu, under the stone watchtower. One end is slightly stony at the water’s edge, but its intimate size and almost circular shape make up for that.
Another hour round the coast, linked by causeway to the “mainland”, is the laid-back island of Sant’Antioco. From the harbour, steep streets lead to the old town and one of Europe’s oldest churches, fifth-century Sant’Antioco. It’s worth paying €5 to tour the Roman, Punic and early Christian catacombs, complete with frescoes, and at a pleasant year-round 18C. Young guide Marco told us how there are catacombs under the whole old town, and one elderly resident uses those below her house as cool summer sleeping quarters – cheaper than aircon.
South of the causeway, Maladroxia beach is justly popular, if narrow by Sardinian standards, but the town of Calasetta, on Sant’Antioco’s northern tip, is almost as well-favoured as Chia, with three white-sand bays in increasing sizes. The one nearest Calasetta, Sottotorre, is a pretty, perfect locals’ beach, with clear water and no concessions – but it’s worth driving a few kilometres to Le Saline andSpiaggia Grande, with their wide sweeps of sand, barely a building in sight, and free parking.