My favorite cruise port on the Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise was to Palermo, Sicily. My daughters and I did not book an excursion and wanted to explore Sicily the cheapest way possible. After stepping off the cruise ship, we realized things were very spread apart, so we hired a non-English speaking taxi driver who agreed to give us a private tour for $40. Our tour ended up lasting 4 hours and here are the top 5 highlights.
1. Quattro Canti– In the heart of the old city center (where two main streets, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele intersect into four parts) lies an area known as “mandamenti”. In English, this translates to the four corners. The architecture is stunning and the statues are incredibly intricate and photogenic. You will notice tourists standing in the middle of the street trying to capture all four sides in one frame. Each section contains one of the allegories from the season, one of the four Spanish Hapsburg kings, and on top, a patron saint.
2. Saint Catherine’s Church– St. Catherine’s (of Alexandria) Church was built in 1596 and is all about attention to details. The ceilings and frescoes are brilliantly painted and I found this church to be one of the most fascinating churches of all the ones we visited during our Mediterranean cruise through France and Italy. The Chapels inside include: Conception, Rosary, St. Domenico, the Seven pains, and Crucifix. One of the altars is made of precious stone materials and is stunning.
3. Fountain of Pretoria– Located outside St. Catherine’s Church is the Fountain of Pretoria, my favorite of the many highly ornate fountains in Palermo. The impressive statues featuring nude nymphs, goddesses, and satyrs that were considered majorly risqué for their time. It is amazing to think that someone thought up these clever statues which were modified over the years to become a bit more modest.
4. The Catacombs of the Capuchins– The best part of our day was a haunting tour of the 16th century catacombs, which was eerie but amazing all the same. For those who are not familiar with catacombs, it is a place that naturally mummifies dead bodies housed there. At this time, my children young and were creeped out by how close the mummified corpses were to our walkway. We descended stairs into a cold cinderblock like chamber where no photography was allowed. Bodies were hanging on the walls and some behind bars, sorted into rooms by classifications such as priests, children, and nobility, all including some of the deads material possessions. I found it amazing that the clothing was still very intact on almost all of the bodies. This place houses thousands of mummified monks.
5. The Sanctuary of Saint Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino– The Baroque facade of the St. Rosalia church is amazing; built right into the mountain, the sanctuary is a cave, with water dripping from the ceilings both inside and out. Legend has it that St. Rosalia cured the plague in this area and there is an opportunity to burn a candle or leave an offering for thanks in the foyer flanked with her statue. A gorgeous gold statue of St. Rosalia, designed by Van Dyck, is made entirely of gold and marble and shows her reclining in a protective case. The jagged rock walls, rock floors, and sophisticated religious decorations make this an unforgettable experience. My recommendation for the do-not-miss spot in Palermo would be this wondrous and stunning circa 1625 church in the midst of the Pellegrino mountains in a vehicle that has working brakes. The church is literally up the hillside and the ride down is quite frightening.
History: Palermo dates back to the 8th and 6th century B.C. The city became part of the Byzantine Empire for some time, then was taken over by the Arabs. During this time, the arts and economies thrived due to their advanced culture. Palermo increased its prestige by building mosques, exquisite palaces, and eye popping gardens. It changed hands many more times, but in 1870 Palermo became annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. The capital of Sicily is Palermo and it is located in northwestern Sicily, next to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Tip: Be sure to see the Piazza Pretoria, where you will find the “Fountain of Shame”. Originally built in 1555 by Francesco Camiliani, this risqué fountain will shock you with some of its statues and scenes.
Trivia: Sicily is the fifth largest city in Italy.
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