Tag Archives: black madonna

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.




My Own Montserrat

“Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace”



I first visited Montserrat over 20 years ago, on a day trip from the coast. It was summer and our coach accompanied many others winding their way up the mountain to the revered pilgrimage site where the Virgin of Montserrat resides. According to the information office, Montserrat received 2 million visitors last year and in the summer months that can be up to 5000 in one day.

DSCF1296Luckily, January is a much quieter time to visit and, on this bright winter’s day, I am joined by only a few Asian tours groups, an American school party and some individuals. First, I pay my respects to the Virgin by following the corridor of side chapels and up the marble staircase to where she sits enthroned, looking down upon the congregation of the basilica through an arched window. Then I pick up a leaflet from the information office and read about the many walks in the area.

DSCF1319Although the monastery site is in the shadow of the mountain, I can see the sun is shining high above, so I take the funicular up to the Tarantulas Plain with a large number of loud, American teenagers and a terrified Spanish grandmother.

DSCF1354At one point, there were 300 hermitages dotted around the mountains and a path from the upper funicular station takes me to the site of two of them, St Joan and St Onofre, which were originally built around natural caves. I find a secluded spot in the sun with a spectacular view and enjoy a picnic lunch, until the teenagers catch up with me and so I decide it is time to move on. Retracing my steps to the funicular, I then follow a long, but easy, downhill route back to the monastery, via the chapel of Sant Miquel.


“What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours.”

Stanley Adams / Dinah Washington

DSCF1409The next day I can no longer see the valley below due to low lying cloud, or the peaks of the mountain, which are also shrouded. However, I can see the destination of my morning walk – the chapel of Santa Cova, built on the site of the cave where the Virgin was first discovered in 880. Legend says that some shepherd boys saw a bright light on the mountain, and when this was investigated with the local priest, they found the cave and the image of the Virgin inside. However, when they tried to remove her to the town of Manresa, they got no further than the site of the present monastery, where she became too heavy to move and so a shrine was built around her. It was also said that she was carved by St Luke and bought to Spain by St Peter in 50AD, though as the Virgin has been dated to the 12th century this cannot possibly be true.

DSCF1450As I climb back up to the monastery complex, it starts to rain, so I treat myself to a hot cup of coffee in the self-service cafeteria. It could easily seat several hundred people, and there’s another, even larger restaurant next to the coach park, though it is currently closed. The cafeteria is linked to a long shopping area, so I don’t have to go back out into the rain. Postcards, books, CDs and many religious souvenirs are on offer but I prefer to spend my money on entrance to the Audio-visual Centre where I can learn more about the mountain, the monastery and the history of this fascinating place. A short introductory video is followed by a display of key historical dates for both the monastery and the world. Then further videos inform me about the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage site and the modern day monastic life of the monks who live there. The final section is about the Escolania, the music and choral school for young boys, who perform daily in the basilica for a brief, though magical moment. The Audio-visual tour concludes with an enthralling music video, using three separate screens to show the two opera singers, the choir and the magnificent mountain scenery of Montserrat.

For me, Montserrat is not the spiritual sanctuary, or the myth of the Madonna, but it is the majestic mountains and the memorable music.