Palermo is the vibrant capital of Sicily and is nestled into the coast by the surrounding mountain range. Full of history, culture and diversity; it’s a place that holds much wonderment. A must-see destination on your Italy travels.
Driving west on the A19 road took us into Palermo. This city was founded in 734BC and has fallen under both Greek and Arab rule. It is also the capital city of Sicily.
There is a different road system here that we hadn’t seen before. Let me elaborate; a major road can have a road break off from it at an intersection. This road then runs parallel allowing traffic on that road to either re-join the major road or turn off completely onto a side street. Our GPS Navigator was taking us from one to the other so we were doing small mindless ‘S’ driving configurations. It wasn’t long before we caught onto this trick, ignored the GPS and just kept going straight.
Our campsite, Area Freesbee Parking, was located at the far end of Palermo – it took us a 45-minute drive through the city to arrive there. Once we arrived, we chose to stay put and to tackle Palermo the following day.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. Walking out of the campsite, the friendly campsite attendant gave us plenty of local transport information and a detailed map of Palermo. Additionally, he sold us a couple of all day travel bus tickets at 3 Euro per person which made life easy. Grabbing the bus right outside the campsite, we were in downtown Palermo centre in 20 minutes flat. From there, another bus took us a couple of kilometres north to stop close by our first stop of the day – the Capuchin Catacombs (Catacombe dei Cappuccini).
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 that line the walls and halls, with the first internment dating back to 1599AD. Some of the corpses are posed, many propped in individual stone cubicles and some lie in glass casks.
The mummies were very life-like, some with hair intact, their eyes closed and skin somewhat coloured from the preservation chemicals. You could almost sense that the eyes wanted to open. The mummies were arranged according to 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 were in adorned in their clerical regalia and wealthy merchants in rich attire.
Not all the bodies in the catacombs were those of adults. A section of the catacombs, called the ‘Chapel of Children’, displayed 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’. Her tiny body is enshrined in a glass cabinet and is in such a remarkably intact state that it looks like she is simply sleeping . 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 impressive Porta Nuova is the entryway to the old part of the city, originally built in the 15th century but rebuilt in 1669 in a grander fashion. It has a majestic archway and four figures representing the defeat of the Moors.
Walking further east along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, it was impossible to miss the spectacular Palermo Cathedral. Built in 1185, it attributes its different architecture and styling to the renovations completed over the many centuries.
We then arrived at the Praetorian Fountain in the heart of the historic centre; 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 century 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).
Close by were the eye-catching Churches of Santa Maria Dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, with its three characteristic Arabic styled red domes.
Next, we came to the octagonal Piazza Vigliena of Quattro Canti. It has four streets that 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.
And There’s More!
A short walk away, heading east from the piazza, we spied 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.
Finally, with the marina just across the way, we walked over to see the many boats crammed into the crowded space. It sure was tight parking! You could practically feel them awaiting their next adventure.
Palermo surprised us with its beautiful structures and diverse scenery. It definitely ranks as a must-see destination on your Italy visit. Ciao Palermo! Gracias.
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.