Category Archives: Religion

Santa Rosalia and the Black Madonna

dscf6885It’s not an auspicious start to my pilgrimage up Monte Pellegrino, a large rocky promontory to the west of Palermo. I’ve decided to catch the bus up the mountain but I’m standing on the wrong side of the road. Luckily, the driver has seen enough wayward tourists to realise my intended destination and stops to beckon me over. There’s only one other passenger and he seems intent on explaining the best spot for the views. This seems to be up front, next to the driver who is swinging wildly round hairpin bends with one hand. In the other is a cigarette. He honks his horn loudly at each blind bend to warn oncoming traffic of his intent (not to stop) and narrowly overtakes the masochistic cyclists who are practising to be ‘King of the Mountains’.

dscf6863We reach the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia in one piece and I give an offering in thanks for my safe arrival. Rosalia was probably the daughter of the Duke of Sinibaldo who decided to reject her wealthy life and live as a hermit in one of the caves on the mountain and ultimately died there in 1166. Her bones were miraculously rediscovered in 1624, just in time to save the city of Palermo from the plague, and since then she has been honoured as the patron saint of the city.

dscf6869Her cave is now hidden behind the Baroque façade of a church, but inside it is still just a cave. The ‘miraculous’ water dripping down the walls is captured by metal plates artistically arranged to direct it into a stone basin.






dscf6868Rosalia is everywhere – a statue in a glass coffin with one of her bones in a reliquary, another smaller statue on top with a tooth embedded in its heart, a bust half hidden in a cavity above, another statue at the end and a fresco on the wall. In the entrance are traditional silver votive offerings as well as less traditional ones which mostly seem to be children’s clothes or toys, though I do spy the odd football scarf.


dscf6879I return to Palermo on foot using a very scenic cobbled pilgrim’s path which passes through the pine forest and then zig-zags down a gorge where it finally emerges into frantic downtown traffic. I pass a few more masochistic cyclists who for some reason are straining up the cobbled path instead of the smooth tarmac road. Perhaps it is their form of penance.


dscf6806100 kms to the east I’m driving to another rocky promontory (there are quite a few along the north coast of Sicily) to visit another religious sanctuary. This one is dedicated to a Byzantine Black Madonna which arrived from Constantinople in the 9th century and has been known to perform miracles, such as producing a soft cushion of sand to break the fall of a child who fell from the cliffs above. 

I arrive at the large lower car park and find it completely empty with no sign of the promised shuttle bus, so I continue up the road and park in the higher disabled parking area which is also completely empty. After several months of observing the driving rules (or rather lack of them) in Greece and Italy, I’ve finally gone native.

dscf6810The sanctuary was built in the 1960’s to replace a much smaller chapel but it’s not over-the-top like many others I have visited, In fact it’s quite tasteful with paintings of the life and death of Jesus lining the walls, colourful stained-glass window of saints and a large apse where the Black Madonna is enthroned, looking down upon those who have come to pray for her help.


dscf6826Beyond the sanctuary is the archaeological site of Tyndaris. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m keen to clamber around some more Roman remains but I’m to be disappointed for this is one of the poorest maintained sites that I have visited in Sicily. There are no information boards, even in Italian, and no marked pathways. The paths that do exist are completely overgrown, and very wet after a night of showers, and high wire fences stop me from reaching any decent viewpoints.

dscf6838I’m a little placated when I finally find the partially restored Basilica and a Roman house which has some interesting mosaic floors, though these would be even better if someone bothered to sweep and clean them occasionally. I’m tempted to ask for my money back but the staff at the reception desk made it quite clear that they didn’t understand any English and my Italian is certainly not good enough to argue my case.


dscf6850dscf6856As I leave I spot a police car that has driven up to the viewpoint. It’s unclear whether it is patrolling or if the occupants just want a nice view for their coffee break. It makes me wonder if Trixie might have been penalised for her poor choice of parking spot but when I get back to the car park there is no ticket, no clamp and not even any other cars. Perhaps I’m being protected by the Black Madonna or, more likely I’m just benefitting from the laissez-faire attitude of the Italian police.




The Cappuccini Catacombs – I See Dead People!

catacombs-3In a northern district of Palermo, surrounded by ugly concrete apartment blocks, hides the church of Santa Maria della Pace where, in tunnels beneath the church the Capuchin monks have been storing the preserved bodies of the dead for nearly 500 years. It all began in 1534 and it was initially only the bodies of the monks who were left in the colatoio (preserving room) to dry out. Later, local prominent families bought their dearly beloved here for storage.

catacombs-1I’m alone for my visit and it is quite creepy down below. The corridors are literally lined with bodies, some mere skeletons clothed in their Sunday best, others with leathery skin and hair. They are segregated into sections: Clergy, soldiers, professionals, virgins and babies. Indeed, it is the children who are most scary, still wearing their best bonnets. In the furthest corner I find one of the last to be interred in the catacombs and one of the best preserved. 2 year old Rosalia looks like she is asleep in her glass-topped coffin. Doctor Alfredo Salafia had trialled a new process in 1920 which seems to have preserved her features perfectly. Luckily he died before he could work his magic on more cadavers or the catacombs would have ended up looking like a wax museum.


catacombs-5Out of respect for the dead there are signs asking for no photos to be taken, so those illustrating this blog post are taken from the internet.

capuchin-monks-2You may be asking yourself if the Capuchin Monks had anything to do with the delicious cappuccino coffee that has become very popular all over the world. Well there is a connection but the exact truth is hard to decipher.

Some people believe it is because the colour of the coffee matched the colour of the monks’ robes. The word ‘cappuccino’ comes from Latin caputium and the Italian form means ‘hood’ or something that covers the head, and it is the hooded robes worn by monks and nuns of the capuchin order that it is named after.



Others think that a monk invented the drink in the 17th century and named it after his order. Legend says that in 1683, following a victory over the Ottomans in the Battle of Vienna, soldiers fighting for Marco d’Aviano, a monk from the Capuchin order, found a hoard of coffee. They found the coffee alone too strong and so they diluted it with cream and honey creating a new version of coffee drink.


The Churches of Palermo and Monreale

dscf6348As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a religious person but I do find it hard to pass a church without popping inside. I’m drawn by the amazing architecture and interior decoration that I usually find within, as well as the opportunity for a moment of peace in what is sometimes a busy town or city.

Most people who visit Palermo will find themselves at the Cathedral. The exterior is a beautiful mish-mash of styles; Norman arches, Gothic turrets and Baroque capitals. However, the interior is a disappointment. The Royal Tombs are screened off and inaccessible without paying a fee and the chapels are rather plain.


dscf6200Luckily, there are plenty of other churches in the city and, although they may not be as grand in scale, they are actually a lot more interesting and beautiful. The first church I find near to La Cala, in an area that was mostly destroyed by WWII bombing. Santa Maria della Pieta has a very theatrical feel – red curtains, and gold wooden boxes topped with organ pipes.





I only have 5 minutes to see the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi as the guardian is about to lock up but he patiently waits while I wander and examine the exquisitely carved marble apse and a marble tomb by Domenico Gagini that seems so lifelike that I half expect the occupant to wake up and wander off.


dscf6381Probably one of the most visited churches in Palermo is also one of the smallest. The 12th century San Cataldo was built by Maione di Bari using Arab labour, hence the Arabic influenced décor in the windows and the domes on the roof. There is also a lovely mosaic floor and it is a very peaceful place. Bizarrely, during the 18th century it was deconsecrated and used as a post office.


dscf6383Next door is the 12th century La Martorana, so called because Eloisa della Martorana, who founded the nearby convent, used to decorate the church with marzipan fruits which are still a local Palermo treat. The ceilings are covered with a mixture of golden mosaics and Baroque frescos but somehow the two complement each other and it is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever visited, and I’ve seen quite a lot.






dscf6365I want to visit the church of San Nicolo which is advertised as having a 13th century watchtower offering some of the best views of the city. Even though I am not far from the Cathedral, I find myself in the Albergheria, the oldest and now the poorest area of Palermo. The streets are full of graffiti, dripping laundry, abandoned broken toys and immigrant youths. Changing direction, I duck into the 17th century Il Gesu, also known as Casa Professa. Founded by the Jesuits, it took more than 100 years to complete and was later badly damaged in WWII. However, the church was lovingly restored to its former Baroque splendour and even featured in the 1963 film Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), based on the book by Tomasi di Lampedusa.


dscf6371dscf6448San Salvatore church, on the main thoroughfare of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is an unusual shape, almost completely circular. The original church was founded in 1071 by Robert Guiscard as a convent for Basilian nuns. In 1682 the nuns decided that they needed a new structure and the present elliptical design was proposed by architect Paolo Amato. Like many other buildings in Palermo, the church suffered severe damage during WWII causing the collapse of the dome but it was restored and found a new use as a concert hall.


dscf6432I decide against visiting the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo Normani due to the extortionate entrance fee but, just around the corner, I stumble upon the church of San Giorgio di Kemonia which is frustratingly closed. However, for €2 I can climb the tower for a proposed view of the city. I’m given a hard hat to wear before I set off and, at first as I climb the interior stairs, I wonder why, but when I reach the spiral metal staircase which is loosely fixed within the tower, all becomes clear, as does the vista. The tower is not that high but it does offer a great view across to the Palazzo Normanni, the Cathedral and Monte Pellegrino in the distance. I can also see down to the red domed roof of the 12th century church of San Gregorio degli Ermiti and the charming little cloister in the garden.


8kms from Palermo, in the foothills to the south, is the town of Monreale (Royal Mountain). The cathedral and adjoining monastery were endowed by King William II in 1174 and he employed some of the best craftsmen to build and decorate them.


dscf6155Having already seen the marvellous mosaics of the churches in Ravenna, I have a good idea of what to expect from the Duomo of Monreale. However, what I really find distinctive about the mosaics in this cathedral is their ability to tell a story. The bible has literally been lifted from the page onto the walls and ceilings. It’s easy to appreciate God creating the earth, then Adam and Eve, Cain killing his brother Abel, Abraham about to sacrifice his son and Noah leading the animals onto and then off of the ark. The New Testament is also featured and Christ stands proudly in the central Apse, arms outstretched in a welcoming posture.


dscf6128In a side chapel I find the tombs of William I and William II, and beyond are the cloisters, accessed through and external doorway off the piazza. More than 200 columns with intricately carved capitals surround the open courtyard. Again, they tell biblical stories, illustrate battles and depict other historical events, such as William II giving the church to the Virgin Mary. Some feature tradesmen, others depict animals, both real and mythical, and a few are rather sexual in nature. I’ve seen several beautiful cloisters in my travels but this is one of the best and I spent almost an hour in the tranquil space examining the capitals, amazed at the artistic skill of the men who produced them more than 800 years ago.


Being Threatened, Followed and Propositioned in Western Sicily

I’ve been having a wonderful time in Sicily despite the recent inclement weather. The sites are interesting and the people are very friendly, especially in the smaller towns and villages. There have also been plenty of Italian motorhomers around to make me feel safe. However, the far west of Sicily is proving to be a bit more malevolent, or maybe I’ve just been unlucky.

dscf5712I pull into the large port parking of Mazara del Vallo where two Italian motorhomes are already established and I set myself up facing into the strong wind. While I’m organising myself outside the motorhome, two young Italian men approach, one flashes an ID card and claims to be the guardian of the car park. I had read about these parking scams and so reply that I think it is municipal parking. ‘Si’, he responds and then tells me it is free but he is security. I feign ignorance and say that I don’t understand. ‘I’m English. Tourist.’ In the end they just walk off, never having even asked for any money. I know the weather will be awful so I can’t imagine anyone attempting anything and the encounter is so relaxed and casual, I’m not worried.

dscf5716The next day, I explore Mazara del Vallo, once an Arabic capital for the region. The narrow backstreets certainly give it a North African feel. I stumble across the Civic Museum in the old Jesuit College where I find displays of shipwreck treasure and piles of barnacle-encrusted amphorae. Next to it are the remains of the Chiesa Madre, open to the elements and continuing to collapse. Luckily, the cathedral is in a better condition with a richly decorated Baroque interior and ornately carved tombs.


dscf5736dscf5706I move on to Marsala, determined to try some of the famous local product which shares the name of the town. The reason marsala wine exists is thanks to an Englishman. John Woodhouse visited the town in 1770 and, already having some knowledge of port, recognised the commercial opportunities in exporting this local fortified wine. The coast road is lined with large warehouses, some empty but some still operational. I find another English connection in the Chiesa Madre which is dedicated to the patron saint of Marsala, Thomas a Becket. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced into French exile in 1164 he was welcomed into the court of King William II of Sicily and, after his murder in 1170, King William II refused to marry the daughter of English King Henry II in protest. Only 7 years later and after the canonisation of Saint Thomas a Becket did the marriage finally take place.

dscf5748Like the rest of Italy, everything closes for a long lunch so I don’t venture out until 5pm and it is already getting dark. I’m on a marsala mission and, just beyond the Garibaldi Gate, I find Enoteca La Sirena Ubriaca. The bartender, Sonja, explains the different marsala products with the help of a chart painted on the wall behind the bar.

dscf5749She then offers me samples of the dry and the sweet versions of the wine. I much prefer the 7 year old sweet marsala and order a glass to sip while I chat to two charming young pilots who are also in town to taste the wine. Sonja treats us to a steady stream of spreads and pastes artistically applied to small pieces of bread and very useful in soaking up the alcohol. I’m quite taken with the spicy onion marmalade but find the almond and pistachio pastes too sweet and sickly, very similar to Nutella.

dscf5702The €30 bottle of marsala is out of my budget so, after saying goodbye to Sonja, I stop by another wine shop along the street where I locate a cheaper but equally nice wine. It’s at this point that I notice a man, who I had already seen outside the first enoteca, is now taking a keen interest in me. As I pass, he says something and then begins to follow me down the street, at a reasonable distance. I wonder if I am letting my imagination run away with me but I stop at the busy intersection by the Garibaldi Gate to confirm my suspicions. He is clearly stalking me and I have no idea why. Feeling like I’m in some Hollywood spy movie, I change direction a few times and dodge down some small side streets, eventually losing him but not the uncomfortable feeling that the incident has created.

dscf5829Moving on to Trapani, I spend the first day hiding out in MacDonald’s and the motorhome as the weather is appalling. Heavy rain and hail showers occur with little warning due to the strong winds which are carrying them across the Mediterranean. Luckily the next day is better and even the sun makes an appearance, so I get the chance to explore this gritty port town.

dscf5780The streets are lined with crumbling palaces and churches giving Trapani old town an air of decay. As I walk by the gardens of Villa Margherita, I notice a good-looking, young man is following me. I stop and feign interest in a shop window filled with local football kit which forces him to make his move. All I catch is the word ‘bellissima’, which means beautiful, but when I reply that I don’t speak Italian, he scarpers. I guess I should feel flattered but actually the whole encounter seemed a bit seedy.

dscf5812Luckily, there are a few shining lights in the old town to take my mind off it, such as the 17th century Town Hall with twin clocks, and the Jesuit College Church, a feast of Baroque marble and stucco, where the staff make me feel like one of their flock and send me on my way with a little prayer card and some hope.


dscf5815My walk along the breezy but deserted Lungomare (seafront promenade) is uneventful and my faith in Sicily’s friendliness is further restored when I pass through the fishing quarter and find a local fisherman mending his nets. I watch him for a while, then ask if I can take a photo, and he’s happy for me to do so. In my poor Italian, I ask about the black and white photos on the shelf behind him. His father and his brothers were also fishermen but he admits that the younger generation are not interested in the hard life of fishing. It seems to me that they are too busy scamming or propositioning the tourists!



Selinunte and the Abandoned Quarry

dscf5497I’m amazed at how many Greek temples and Roman cities Sicily has. I’ve already visited Taormina with its glorious Greek Theatre and Agrigento with its Valley of the Temples. Now I find myself lost in the huge site of Selinunte having attempted a short cut that turns out to be not that short.

The Acropolis of Selinunte was built on a raised site, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded in the 7th century BC and was once a very powerful city on the southern coast of Sicily. Sadly it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 BC and what remained was later toppled by the earthquakes which are quite commonplace on the island.

dscf5517I eventually get back on track and cross the Modione River to reach the furthest section of the site, the Sanctuary of Malophoros. Not the most impressive area with only a small, partially restored Temple of Hera Matronale (the goddess of fertility), whose image is surprisingly similar to the Virgin and Child of the Christian world, but I love being able to roam among the stones and touch the altar, which looks like it is stained with blood from the sacrifices made there.











I had started my visit with the impressive Temple E (They have a very unimaginative way of labelling the temples), dedicated to Hera and looking almost complete after extensive restoration in the 1960s. Neighbouring temples F and G are still just piles of column drums and oblong stone blocks but it is fun to scramble around and see just how huge the carved columns were.


dscf5459dscf5481I get a much better appreciation of the scale and beauty of the temples when I visit the small museum. Inside I find several cork models created by Paolo Lipari who had a passion for this type of work. When he died, his family donated them to the state and now we can all enjoy them. The museum guardian is keen to give me a guided tour in Italian and I’m surprised by how much I understand.


My not-so-short shortcut takes me high above the Acropolis to the ancient Agora. It looks like it was excavated in the past but now nature is reclaiming it and preserving what hasn’t already been removed for future generations.



dscf5597Much of the Acropolis is also covered by soil and vegetation, including the wild celery from which Selinunte gets its name. However, walking down the long, cobbled street it is easy to imagine the shops which lined it, evidenced by the carved stone containers just outside the door lintels.


The Acropolis temples (A, B, C, D and O) are mostly ruined, the huge columns felled like pine trees in a forest. I find another piece with a distinctive U-shaped carving and wonder again about the engineering involved in producing such immense places of worship.


dscf5609The next day I drive 15 kms west to the quarry of Cava Di Cusa where much of the material for the temples originated. I’m surprised to find the museum guardian there and he greets me like an old friend and insists on giving me another guided tour. Here I can clearly see the process in forming the giant column pieces as some are still in place, having been abandoned before completion. Others lie scattered amongst the olive groves, perhaps left because they were imperfect or unusable.

dscf5603I manage to lose my eager companion when I suggest a longer stroll along the 2 km length of the quarry. Finally, alone with the rock, I can imagine the stonemasons carving away to create a circular crevice around the emerging column. I come across the smooth curved sides of stone, all that remains once the column piece was removed, and piles of smaller stone fragments, presumably discarded from the rock removed.



Ragusa – A Tale of Two Cities

dscf4995The earthquake of 1693 destroyed the town of Ragusa and, much like its neighbours Noto and Modica, it was decided to rebuild it in a grid plan on the higher slope, featuring Baroque architecture which was popular at the time. However, the inhabitants of Ragusa had other idea and proceeded to rebuild the old town on the rocky hill below. This led to a rivalry between the new Ragusa Superiore and the old Ragusa Ibla which lasted until 1926 when the two towns were eventually reunited.

dscf4927I arrive in a flurry of snow and base myself in a small parking area between the two halves of town. It is bitterly cold, due to an unusual weather system which is even depositing snow on the Greek Islands further south, but I don my gloves and hat then set out to explore Ragusa Ibla. Passing the church of Purgatory, I walk along narrow alleys and streets where the houses are neglected and abandoned. Another small church is on the verge of collapse and sealed off behind metal fencing and orange plastic netting. I’m beginning to wonder if anyone lives here anymore.



Luckily I emerge onto the main drag which is lined with shops, cafes and more churches. I follow it down to the edge of town where I find the public gardens lined with palms and planted with blood red cyclamens. There are even more churches in the grounds. One is being used for an exhibition about the Italian suffragette movement, another has a lovely painted wooden ceiling and is playing Christmas carols, and the third, attached to a convent now converted into a 5 star hotel, features a beautiful wooden altar.


dscf4968On the way back through town, I pop into a shop selling local products and resist the temptation to buy lots of cheese. I then arrive at the Duomo just as a service is finishing and the final hymn is being sung. It’s a magical moment. The Cathedral of Ragusa Ibla is dedicated to St George and his image can be found in every corner. All that remains of the original church of St George, near to the public gardens, is an impressive, though worn, portal.










After warming up with some hot soup back in the motorhome, I climb the endless steps up to Ragusa Superiore. Even when the steps end, the road continues to plough upwards to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Luckily it’s open and worth the climb.



The new town of Ragusa straddles a deep gorge and I cross two of the three bridges in order to see it. Then I head back down to the car park, via the Church of Santa Maria delle Scale. ‘Scale’ means stairs and there are 340 steps to descend. At least it keeps me warm.


Women of Syracuse – Arethusa, Saint Lucy and the Weeping Madonna

dscf4560In order to help her escape from the river god Alpheus, the goddess Artemis changed the nymph Arethusa into a fresh water spring. She swam to Sicily from the Peloponnese and arose at the island of Ortigia in Syracuse. Legend says that when animal sacrifices took place at the Sanctuary of Olympia, the blood would flow from the Peloponnese and emerge at the spring in Ortigia,

Today, the freshwater spring of Fonte Aretusa emerges into a pond filled with Papyrus and fish. The area is full of bars and restaurants overlooking the water and both locals and visitors are enjoying a New Year’s Day drink in the sun.

dscf4553As well as the Fonte Aretusa, I visit the Cathedral, which was built on the site of a Greek Temple dedicated to Athena. The 5th century Doric columns still support the building though they’re a bit crooked since the devastating earthquake of 1693. In the large piazza outside, two policemen are parading in very elegant dress uniform.


dscf4617Also in the Piazza del Duomo is the 17th century church of Santa Lucia alla Badia which is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and features a painting of her burial by Caravaggio. Whilst in the newer part of town, is the Basilica di Santa Lucia, marking the spot where she was martyred in 304 AD. An octagonal chapel next to the church used to hold her remains until they were taken to Constantinople in 1038 and then stolen by the Venetians in 1204. She now lies in St Geremia Church in Venice.

dscf4725The city of Syracuse may have lost their patron saint but they now pour their faith into the Madonna delle Lacrime (Madonna of the tears). On the 29th of August 1953, in a small house near to the port, a statue of the Madonna hanging in the bedroom began to cry. She continued to weep for 5 days and crowds flocked to see her. Scientists even tested the liquid and identified it as human tears. The house is now a small chapel where a replica presides over the altar.


dscf4608The original statue is now located in a much grander place. The conical sanctuary can be seen for miles and was supposedly designed to look like a giant teardrop. The locals have given it the nickname ‘lemon squeezer’ and when I visit, to me it seems to look and feel like a concert hall. The cavernous interior echoes with each footstep as people approach the statue to pray for assistance.


dscf4607Evidence of the miracles performed by the Madonna delle Lacrime can be found in the equally huge crypt, located below the main church and looking rather unfinished. Here I find a small museum with photos from 1953 and the slide and pipette used by the scientists to confirm the miracle. There are also hundreds of items of gold jewellery given in thanks to the Madonna and the robes worn by Pope John Paul II when he inaugurated the sanctuary in 1994. Another room houses ex votos, including many sets of crutches and half a dozen wedding dresses.