Palermo is the vibrant capital of Sicily, nestled into the coast by the surrounding mountain range. Full of history, culture and diversity; it’s a place that holds much wonderment. With the infamous Mafia Wars behind it, Palermo is pivoting on becoming the pearl of Sicily once more.
The Drive to Palermo
We had left Enna and were headed towards the capital of Sicily, Palermo. Our ‘Good to Know’ section at the end of the post details our route and where we stayed.
Unfortunately, our drive into Palermo wasn’t all smooth sailing. The road system here was slightly different and our ‘Tom Tom’ navigator didn’t like it one bit.
Let me elaborate as best I can. The main road had break off roads from it at each intersection. Then, that break off-road ran parallel to the main road, allowing traffic on that road to either re-join the main road or turn off completely onto another side street. Our GPS Navigator was taking us from one to the other, so we were doing constant mindless ‘S’ driving configurations. Finally, we caught onto this, ignored the GPS and just kept going straight.
Unfortunately, our campsite happened to be located at the opposite end of Palermo. It took us a 45-minute drive through the city to arrive there. With our ‘S bend’ exploits and navigating city traffic in the van, we chose to stay put and to tackle Palermo by public transport the following day.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily
Founded in the 8th century, the city of Palermo has had many rulers, including the Greeks, Romans and Arabs. However, the most recent ‘power’ to lose its hold over Palermo, was the infamous Mafiosa.
In 1992, the Mafia Wars came to a head, when two of the top judges were blown up and killed. Since then, little by little, Palermo has regenerated and reclaimed its heritage. Community and cultural spaces now dominate the once no-go, derelict areas of the city.
It is now an enthralling city to stroll around, rich with history and cultural heritage. It was named the Italian Culture Capital 2018 and Unesco recommended Palermo’s historical centre be declared a world heritage site.
Palermo is pivoting on becoming the pearl of Sicily once more.
It is worth a visit simply to walk the stone corridors of the catacombs and look upon the thousands of slowly decaying corpses that still cling on to their existence in this world.
Our first stop, the Convent of the Capuchin Friars, known as the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, is a marvel in its own right.
The catacombs contain about 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies. The first internment dates back to 1599AD. The bodies line the walls and halls. Some are posed, many propped in individual stone cubicles and some lie in glass casks.
As you enter the narrow hallways, there is a coolness to the air and a sense that you are looking through a sepia filter. The colours have faded, along with the lives of those we now look upon. Some of the corpses still appear so very life-like. On some, their hair remains intact. Their eyes are closed and their skin is somewhat coloured from the preservation chemicals.
The corpses were sorted according to their profession, gender and social status. Mummification, in the 17th and 18th centuries, became fashionable and was a way to maintain status and dignity. Therefore, priests rest here adorned in their clerical regalia and wealthy merchants in rich attire. Even in death, their status has meaning.
The Sleeping Beauty of Palermo
Not all the bodies in the catacombs are those of adults. One section of the catacombs, the ‘Chapel of Children’, displays the tiny bodies of lives never to be fulfilled.
One of the last catacomb burials occurred in the 1920s and was of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, often called the ‘Sleeping Beauty of Palermo’. She came from a noble family and her father asked the taxidermist to make her ‘live forever’.
As such, her tiny body is enshrined here in a glass cabinet. She is in such a remarkably intact state that it looks like she is simply sleeping. Because she is so perfectly preserved, she is considered the world’s most beautiful mummy.
Old Town Palermo
Stepping out of the catacombs and back into the land of the living, we walked to the street of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. This is the main road that runs through the old part of Palermo.
The street led us to the impressive Porta Nuova, the entryway to the old part of the city. It was originally built in the 15th century but rebuilt in 1669 in a much grander fashion. It has a majestic archway and four figures representing the defeat of the Moors.
Walking further east along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, it is impossible not to miss the spectacular Palermo Cathedral. Built in 1185, its attributes feature different architecture and styling due to the renovations completed over many centuries.
Square Of Shame
Walking a little further you will arrive at the Praetorian Fountain in the heart of the historic centre. It was originally built in Florence but transferred to Palermo in 1574AD. Here, twelve ancient Olympians, mythical animals and the rivers of Palermo adorn the ornate fountain.
Between the 18th and 19th century, the fountain was considered a depiction of the corrupt municipality of Palermo. For this reason and because of the nudity of the statues, the square became known as ‘Piazza della Vergogna”‘ (or Square of Shame).
Also, close by, were the eye-catching Churches of Santa Maria Dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, with its three characteristic Arabic styled red domes.
The Four Seasons
Next, we came to the octagonal Piazza Vigliena of Quattro Canti. Here, four streets lead into the piazza, separated by four Baroque buildings. Each of these buildings has a near-identical façade, including a fountain on each, with a statue representing one of the four seasons.
Feels Like Home
A short walk away, heading east from the Piazza, we found the Giardino Garibaldi Park. Not only was this the place where the first police murder by the mafia took place but it is also home to Palermo’s oldest tree, a venerable 25m high, 150-year-old Moreton Bay Fig tree. The Moreton Bay Fig, or otherwise known as the Australian Banyan, is native to the east coast of Australia. Therefore we felt right at home standing beside this beauty.
La Cala, Palermo’s Yacht Harbour and Marina
Finally, we came to Palermo’s award-winning regeneration scheme, La Cala, Palermo’s yacht harbour and marina. It’s difficult to believe that before 2005 this was a dangerous derelict area. However, due to the city’s regeneration program, today luxurious yachts rock and sway in the sparkling turquoise waters.
Palermo certainly surprised us with its beautiful structures and diverse scenery. We’d love to know your favourite places here and let us know whether there were any gems that we missed. That way we’ll have to plan to go back 😉
Good to Know
From Enna, we drove west on the A19 road to Palermo
We stayed at Area Freesbee Parking, – Cost €18 including electricity.
The friendly campsite attendant gave us plenty of local transport information and a detailed map of Palermo.
You can buy an all-day bus ticket here – €3 per person
The bus stop is right outside the campsite.
The bus trip from the campsite to the centre took 20 minutes.
ROLCruise interviewed us about our visit to the Capuchin Catacombs, for their article: Where to go for a Supernatural Getaway.
Save Pin for Later
Being an Australian boy brought up in the country, I learnt at an early age to enjoy the freedom and beauty of nature. Leaving Australia at the age of 20, although I didn’t know it then, would be the beginning of a life of adventure. So join me here on our travels and see the world through my eyes.