Pleasures of PALERMO; Direct Flights Have Opened Up Sicily's Most Fascinating City - and These Days, Says MATTHEW KNEALE, You're Unlikely to Bump into the Mafia .
Byline: MATTHEW KNEALE
THERE are a handful of buildings around the world that steal your breath clean away. The Taj Mahal, Durham Cathedral and the Pantheon in Rome would all be on my list.
And here's another I'd add, though it's less famous than it should be: the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.
Hidden away on the second floor of a dull-looking palace above a noisy square, you'd never guess it's there. But step through the doorway and you'll feel as if you are standing in a jewellery box - the walls are covered with glowing 850-year-old gold mosaics.
The painted wooden ceiling, built by Arab craftsmen, seems exotic and mysterious. And yet something feels familiar.
So it should. It was built by the Normans. Yes, the ones who came to England a-conquering in 1066 and all that.
Forget the Mafia - one of the most fascinating things about Sicily is that its history and ours are closely related.
When William the Conqueror was bashing heads at the battle of Hastings, some of his compatriots headed south. Who can blame them? The weather's better, as is the food and then, of course, there's the wine.
And what a kingdom they built.
The Sicily they conquered was a mixed-up place, with Arabs, Muslims, Greeks and Christians living side by side. The smallest minority - if the toughest - were the Normans.
Wisely, the Norman king, Roger II, decided to treat everyone with respect.
There was freedom of religion and every group was given roles in the government and army.
That would be impressive now.
It was unheard of 850 years ago.
After all, this was the age of the Crusaders, who were not known for their multiculturalism. It worked. Roger II lived in luxury that was the envy of other kings.
Palermo became one of the greatest cities in Europe.
The city is enjoying a renaissance these days, despite the fact that bomb damage from 1944 is only now being tidied up. The main streets are lined with swanky shops selling all the latest Italian fashions.
The Mafia hasn't gone away but it seems to have taken a back seat. An able mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has fought to bring the city up to date. Palermo is looking better than it has since - well, probably since the Normans were there.
It's safer these days, too, though it's still not a place to flash expensive jewellery or cameras. And watch out for grabbing hands from Vespa scooters.
It takes a bit of work to explore because the old part of town, which has all the interesting things to see, is cut across by narrow streets that roar with traffic.
But it's well worth persevering, as in among the din are gems to be discovered.
Palermo isn't a very green town, but there are several tiny parks with exotic, southern Mediterranean trees. There's the Norman cathedral, with its strange mix of Christian and Muslim styles. I found Norman churches that look like mosques - and sometimes they had been just that - with tiny red domes on the roofs.
I went to a show at one of the city's tiny puppet theatres, where the effects were very clever, sometimes with two puppets of the same character: a tiny version for far away and a big one for close-ups. …