I am sure you have heard of the Italian water, San Pellegrino. Initially, my association with the name “Pellegrino” was said sparkling water. Yet now I think of the mountain near Palermo which I had the privilege of hiking with my dad. In contrast to expectations, the view from the top of the mountain is not spectacular but the journey is. Further, there is a fascinating surprise awaiting at the end of the hike.
Sicily is an incredible destination; situated between the toe of Italy’s “boot” and Tunisia, it has been at the intersection of many grand civilizations (Greeks and Normans to name a few; another post shall certainly be dedicated to Norman King Roger II). It is thus not surprising that the island is full of history! My dad and I visited the island for about a week in December 2017 as a gift for my university graduation. Although we slept in the Sicilian capital during our stay, we ventured around the island easily, visiting the incredible Greek ruins in Agrigento, for example.
So what about Mount Pellegrino?
The day after visiting beautiful, quaint Cefalù, my dad and I decided to climb one of the mountains on the edge of Palermo, Mount Pellegrino. As aforementioned, it was December when we visited but the weather was pleasantly warm. My dad and I worked up a sweat in no time. Other than take a bus, we walked the full distance from central Palermo to the foot of the mountain; although the walk was nice and allowed us to experience a different part of the city, you will appreciate taking the bus given the exertion of the hike.
The mountain’s name is not a coincidence: Pellegrino means pilgrim in Italian (if you don’t believe me, click here). The patron saint of Palermo is Saint Rosalia. She was born to a wealthy family in the city during the 1100’s, when the legendary Norman King Roger II ruled. However, she soon dedicated her life to God and became a religious hermit. First she lived on Mount Quisquana, then she moved to Mount Pellegrino, according to the fabulous Sicilian godmother blog. Rosalia’s story does not end here though; one does not simply become a saint. In 1624, Palermo was devastated by the plague. A man was on the mountain, perhaps to hunt, when he had a vision; the vision showed him the location of Rosalia’s bones. He found them on July 15 and the bones were given a proper funeral after some tension, and the plague subsided. No wonder many residents of Palermo make pilgrimages to see the location of her bones!
My father and I stumbled across this information when searching for a convenient hike in the area. Knowing this information only heightened the mountain’s appeal.
The hike itself is stunning. The initial incline is quite steep but there is a zig-zagging cobblestone walkway that leads you up the mountain. As a result, at the end of the walkway, we naively thought that the rest of the way would be flat and relatively easy.
We were, not surprisingly, wrong. On the way up, I could not help but feel like I was on a Roman road, given the arches and the stones. As we climbed, a man rode past on a bike. The route up certainly seemed unfavorable given the strenuous nature of the incline. However, his zoom down looked quite fun.
My dad and I were unfortunately wrong in our inference–after climbing the steepest part, we still had a long way to go. On the way, we caught glimpses of the sea, not only from the direction which we came but also ahead. The summits of nearby mountains were visible too, including a castle-like building (we later found out that it is a research center and both of us remarked how nice it would be to do research there). The landscape changed too. It was incredible to observe the various kinds of flora, cacti included! Coming from snowy Berlin, the higher temperatures and greenery were refreshing.
The best part of this second half of the hike, however, was the sheep that we saw. They were fluffy and grazed peacefully on the side of the mountain. The bells around their necks clicked and harmonized with their “baaas.” A shepherd kept watch nearby. It was so serene a scene and the views so beautiful that we nearly forgot our hunger, having missed lunch and exerted much energy.
We rejoiced once we rounded the corner at the hike’s end, where St. Rosalia’s cave-church is located. Entry to the complex is free (and the bus route is inexpensive, too). The only people around seemed to be the vendors at the souvenir stands just below the pilgrimage site. My dad used the time to call home so I ventured inside alone. On the way in, a sign auf Deutsch alerted me of a famous visitor who had come before us: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the highly esteemed German master. I was excited, having just spent a semester in Berlin, speaking German constantly.
Then I was alone in a sacred cave. Upon entering, I spotted a beautiful statue, presumably of Rosalia, with a golden crown on and halo around her head, lit from behind by purple lighting. I walked towards the statue, past the few pews and underneath the craggy stone ceiling. It was a cave alright. Then, I turned to my left and there was an elaborate glass structure, containing a statue of a dying Rosalia. The statue was made in 1625 by Gregorio Tedeschi only a year after the miracle for which she is known occurred. The statue is, admittedly, beautiful. She lies in a golden gown like royalty, with her eyes pointed above, perhaps awaiting the meeting with the God she had long loved.
I stayed inside the cave in the quiet for a bit. What must it have been like to leave all that you knew for a solitary life in a cave? To cut off all human interaction? To live with God as your only friend? To fend for yourself and live off of your own wits? It is difficult to imagine. My photographs of the cave do not do it justice. Although there are some online, I highly recommend waiting until you are there to experience it. When I first saw the statues and felt the cave’s sacred aura, my breath was taken away. It truly is a special place.
As for the way down? My dad and I took the bus.
If you are interested at all in Sicily’s exhilarating history, I highly recommend reading Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History by John Julius Norwich, a skilled author and admirer of the island. Before departure, I began to read it and knowing so much about the island’s complex yet intriguing past certainly enriched my travels. Reading to my dad about King Roger II then visiting the incredible places of worship he was involved with was one of my favorite memories from the trip. You can purchase the book here.
I already linked to this blog, but it is very well done, so I shall do it again! It chronicles the musings and life of an English woman living in Sicily.