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.
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.