5th May 2015
My alarm rings scandalously early as my flight is due to depart Gatwick at 5.50.
My third solo trip is longer and more complicated than Athens and Rome put together. A whole fortnight in Sicily, backpacking around the island in order to see as much as possible. I’ve spent the previous couple of days quadruple checking my itinerary and printing out every single train/bus schedule I can get my hands on, each individual journey organised with military precision. This will be my first experience of backpacking, I’m a little nervous.
Subsequently I feel a little nauseous in the wee small hours of the morning whilst I make my final luggage checks. By the time I get to Gatwick I’m feeling even worse and nearly faint in the luggage drop-off queue. One energy drink later and I’m safely on board the uneventful flight to Palermo. Mercifully for my nerves the arrivals department at Palermo airport is efficient to the point of ridiculousness and within half an hour I am on board a train to the city. As with my Roman holiday I make a mistake almost immediately and forget to validate my train ticket before boarding the train, naively thinking that having a ticket in my hand is sufficient. Thank Heaven for a sympathetic train guard, I won’t make the same mistake again!
My hotel (the first out of seven) turns out to be a tiny, squalid building on a backstreet. The plug has exposed wires and the lights flicker ominously. Mercifully I’m only here for a single night. I’ve booked two weeks of hotels for a grand total of £317 (thanks you, Booking.com!) but nevertheless my heart does sink a little, as I sink onto the bed for a lunchtime nap.
Budget travel in Sicily is apparently a rather different beast than in Rome or even Athens. On the other hand, Palermo herself is the type of city that the term ‘shabby chic’ was apparently coined for. More often than not, just shabby. Architectural jewels lie dilapidated, snuggled between ugly apartment buildings, thrown up after the devastation of World War II. My grandfather served as a medic in Palermo during the Allied invasion, I wonder if he realised that Palermo would bear the scars so prominently after all the years that have passed. Trash litters the streets, paint and plaster flake away in huge chunks, metal railings rust away unimpeded by paint. Still, treasures are to be found in Palermo, echoes of former glory, and I intend to find them.
Rome in Oct ’14 was a raving success, so hoping to encourage lightning to strike twice I begin my Sicilian trip in exactly the same way, heading to the Capuchin crypts. I’d watched this handy little documentary a few days before I travelled:
The human remains are so startlingly different to the Capuchin crypts in Rome. Instead of elaborate designs created with bones, fully articulated bodies are arranged in dizzying numbers along corridors for the visitor to wander amongst. Nearly all are clothed, many still with desiccated skin clinging to their skin and some with hair clinging to their scalps. Some lie in open coffins, others are suspended upright, gazing down at the living from empty sockets. Jaws gape open as if the dead are silently screaming, particularly one woman whose position gives her the unfortunate appearance of clutching her abdomen in excruciating pain.
The crypts are a religious site and so I am not surprised to see the signs forbidding photography. On the whole, the visitors are wandering in rapt, respectful silence and photography would ruin the atmosphere anyway. Funnily enough, the only people snapping away (with bloody selfie sticks!) and raising their voices are Italian. Hmm. Still, there are some excellent professional photos on the official website here.
The corridors are arranged by their occupants. There is a long aisle where only women are displayed, the fading dresses a catalogue of changing Italian fashion over the centuries. There is a separate chapel reserved for virgins. Another stretch of catacomb is reserved for men of the cloth, still resplendent in vestments, and educated men such as surgeons and lawyers lie in the Corridor of the Professionals. A few soldiers lie in their dress uniforms.
Most poignant is the Chapel of the Children, where the perfectly preserved body of tiny Rosalia Lombardo lies in her specially sealed coffin with glass lid. Despite having died in 1920, the beautiful little two year old girl looks as if she is taking a nap. She is known as the Sleeping Beauty and it is admittedly a strange experience to gaze upon her remarkably preserved face.
Once above ground it was time to head to the Regional Archeological Museum, next to the church of Saint Ignatius.
I’m a few minutes early for afternoon opening, so I decide to hang around. Unbeknownst to me the entire museum is closed for renovation. I’m annoyed at my oversight and, moreover, that I’m tantalisingly close to a wealth of antiquities with no way in. For the next week at least I shall see sign upon sign saying that treasures from wherever I happen to be are housed in this museum, adding to my frustration.
Annoyed, I head back and decide to de-stress in the Cathedral.
The exterior, like a couple of buildings in the surrounding area, are covered in scaffolding for restoration work. Far from disappointed, I’m pleased to see some Palermitan buildings receiving some TLC.
The exterior glowed in the late afternoon sun and the interior was soothingly cool.
I was surprised to learn that I’d travelled all the way to Sicily to find a church founded by an Englishman by the name of Walter of the Mill. The church was founded in 1185. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place to spend half an hour or so.
After a supper of the first of the many, many arancini I would consume this trip, it’s time for an early night in my depressing hotel, I have an early start in the morning…