Mysterious and creepy Palermo

Something you should know if you’re considering booking a trip on Costa Cruise lines is that the vast majority of your shipmates will be European, and mostly Italian at that. On my cruise on the Costa Serena last month I learned that I was one of just 25 Americans on board – on a ship holding about 3,800 passengers and 1,100 crew. Mamma mia! More about that another time.

I bring this up today to explain why – inadvertently – we went on the creepiest shore excursion imaginable. I mean, seriously weird and scary and extremely timely, considering Halloween was just a couple weeks away.

We had signed up for an excursion to Cefalù, a quaint fishing village on the Italian island of Sicily. However, as the ship headed toward Palermo, we learned that there were not enough English-speaking passengers signed up for that excursion for Costa to justify hiring an English-speaking guide. As an alternative, we could go to Cefalù with a group speaking Italian or French, but there was no guarantee that anyone would actually have the time or inclination to translate any information into English for the two of us. Or, we could change to the only English-speaking tour available at this port, called “Mysterious Palermo.” Afraid that we’d be wandering off in Cefalù, totally clueless as to what was coming up next or when or where to get back to the bus to return to the ship, we decided we were game for the mystery tour.

View from harbor, Palermo, Sicily

Now, Palermo is kind of creepy, anyway, I think. It’s very old and looks pretty poor and dirty. It’s famous for Mafiosi blowing up, shooting or garroting anyone opposed to whatever shenanigans the Mafia is up to in Sicily. First our tour bus meandered around the city a bit so the guide could point out some of the city’s more impressive monuments and boulevards. One of the monuments near the harbor memorialized all the people who have died at the hands of the Mafia, by the way. I’m betting there are more bodies wearing cement shoes in the Bay of Palermo than you can shake a cannoli at.

Soon we pulled in to our first stop, the Catacombs of the Cappuccini. Yes, there is a connection between the Capuchin monks and our favorite, frothy cappuccino drink from Starbucks – but I forget what it is.

Anyway, I had read an article about the catacombs in National Geographic Traveler not that long ago, so was mildly – if cautiously – interested in seeing it firsthand. The story goes that when Palermo’s Capuchin Monastery ran out of room in its original cemetery in the 16th century, the monks decided to excavate beneath the building to create their own crypt, or catacombs. They tested out their mummifying skills on Brother Silvestro and he became the first occupant in 1599.

I won’t go into the dehydrating and embalming techniques they tinkered with over the years, but apparently people were enchanted by the friars’ success. Palermo’s socialites decided they wanted to be preserved with the monks. It became a status symbol to put yourself on display in the catacombs, rather than moldering away below the ground.

After a while, the monks stopped putting their own in the catacombs, possibly wanting to save the valuable real estate for rich folks willing to pay for the privilege. Plus, the modestly robed holy men couldn’t hold a candle to the rows of well-dressed corpses lining the walls – some of whom even made arrangements to have their outfits changed periodically, either as a fashion statement or at least to postpone the ultimate disintegration of their fine frocks and waistcoats.

Visiting the catacombs on a hot, sunny day in October, it was a pleasant descent into the cool, dark catacombs below the monastery to see how the inhabitants had fared by 2012. First of all, let me tell you – it’s definitely a full house. I’m not sure how high the walls were, but as you’ll see in this picture (a postcard; visitors are not allowed to use cameras inside), there were bodies suspended from the walls in a standing position, often two or three layers high. Others were lying on shelves. Boxes that looked like moldy old trunks (those changes of clothing?!) lined the floor.

Creepy corpses in Palermo

There were areas for monks, sections for men and for women only. There was an area just for children and (they say) one for virgins. Skeletons of all sizes are dressed in faded street clothes or uniforms, often sporting jaunty hats or ruffled bonnets. In some cases a jaw might have fallen askew, or shreds of desiccated tissue and hair can be spotted, lingering on a skull. Seriously creepy.

Fortunately, Palermo is hot and fairly dry. The crypt was dusty and dim, and except for one disturbingly dark and smelly hallway, mostly odorless. The numbers of bodies alone made it almost a numbing experience, as you walk on and on through the rows and rows of the dead. I believe I read that there are about 8,000 bodies in the catacombs.

The piece de resistance, if you will, is the glass-covered coffin of Rosalia Lombardo at the end of the tour. Two-year-old Rosalia died suddenly sometime in the 1920s when her father was out of town. The heart-broken family begged the monks and Professor Alfredo Salafia to preserve her body so her daddy could see her one last time as soon as he could get back to Palermo. The embalming procedure was a mystery for decades, only recently rediscovered. It kept the tiny girl intact for her father’s return, and today she still looks like a tender little child, asleep in her small, dark bed. Her skin is very tanned and odd-looking, but there’s no question that she was a beautiful toddler.

There’s just one other corpse hanging from a wall who appears to be more or less intact – more like a mummy than a skeleton. Apparently his wife poisoned him and the poison acted as a preservative. I don’t know if they figured that out in time to punish the spouse, or if the monks got curious over the years when his resistance to decomposition started raising questions.

Cathedral of Palermo

The rest of Palermo, honestly, was nice enough but not especially mysterious, as far as I could see. We visited the Castle of Zisa, which was built by Arabic architects for the Normans who ruled Sicily, I think in the 1100’s. They say today’s blue-eyed Sicilians can thank their Norman ancestors for their eyes and fair skin. Then we went to the Cathedral of Palermo, which is an impressive pile of carved stone with a strikingly ornate side altar encased in gleaming silver . . . and a nice little bar serving decent gelato across the street.

I’ve been wanting to visit Sicily for years and would love to return. I can’t exactly claim that four hours in Palermo seeing skeletons and eating a cup of lemon gelato while gazing at the cathedral  actually counts as a visit to Sicily. And while I can’t say I’m a fan of large cruise ships, I will admit it’s a great way to get a little taste of a place. In my case, certainly whetting my appetite for further exploration one day.

As for the mysteries of Palermo, I do wonder if I might have seen a Mafioso and didn’t know it.  That could happen, right? And if I did, that would be yet another mysterious and creepy thing that happened in Palermo. I’m thinking it probably did happen . . . .

About katemahar

Freelance writer and event planner by trade . . . mother/daughter/sister/friend . . . passionate traveler . . . compulsive reader
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