Following the ancient pilgrims' paths on foot up Monte Pellegrino can be a bit strenuous, but the view on the way up and from the highest point is well worth it! Paying a visit to Saint Rosalia on the way and then gazing at the sea in her shadow fills visitors' souls with a special peace.
by: Adriana Cuffaro | 21 May 2021
Monte Pellegrino, the "pilgrim's mountain", lies just four kilometres outside Palermo to the north. You can hike up the mountain on signposted paths out of the city.
The pilgrimage route is called "Acchianata" by the locals and covers 7.8 km, 11,000 steps and has an altitude difference of about 450 metres. It is generally rated as difficult. However, those who shy away from this walk can also comfortably drive to the highest point in their own car, by taxi or by bus. The bus ride is often described as a special experience, as the drivers tackle the sometimes serpentine roads with panache.
The Pilgrims' Hill consists largely of limestone and measures a proud 606 metres. This makes it a Sicilian highlight and an imposing landmark towering over the city..
In 1996, the area around Monte Pellegrino was declared a nature reserve with the resounding name „Riserva Naturale Monte Pellegrino”.
Monte Pellegrino, with its fragrant pine forests, is a popular destination for both Palermo residents and visitors to the city. The mountain is particularly popular at weekends, with many cars making their way along Via Bonanno Pietro towards the summit. Countless families come to picnic in the woods, hikers climb the mountain, believers make a pilgrimage to the chapel of Saint Rosalia.
Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mentioned Monte Pellegrino in his travelogue "Italian Journey" at the beginning of the 18th century and raved about "the most beautiful promontory in the world". Make up your own mind as you follow the path uphill on foot, not infrequently eyed by goats roaming freely.
If you look from Palermo towards Monte Pellegrino, an imposing pink building catches your eye. It is the Castello Utveggio, a palace in neo-Gothic style, which is enthroned on the promontory of Monte Pellegrino. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit it because the buildings are not in use. At 350 m above sea level, you would probably have a wonderful, unobstructed view of the whole of Palermo.
Built as a luxury hotel at the beginning of the 19th century, the Castello Utveggio unfortunately never really enjoyed its heyday. Due to fierce competition, the hotel business was already slow before the Second World War, and the establishment of a casino was also not very popular later on. After being used as a research and management study centre, the complex is currently empty. Rumour has it that a new training centre for the regional administration is planned.
After a good two-thirds of the way to the summit, you come across the chapel of Saint Rosalia. Once in Palermo, you can't help but pay attention to the city's patron saint. Rosalia is said to have lived in the 12th century and spent much of it in a cave on Monte Pellegrino, where she is said to have been devout and prayed for the souls of Palermo's inhabitants.
A few centuries later, in 1624, a ship brings the plague to Palermo. Thousands of people die, there is no prospect of an end to the epidemic. During this time, a devout sick woman climbs Monte Pellegrino and drinks water that seeps through a rock in a cave. This water suddenly cures her illness and a vision of Rosalia appears to her, pointing her to a spot on the cave floor.
The woman returns the next day with a troop of men and they dig in the cave at the named spot. They discover the mortal remains of Rosalia under a marble slab. The bones are checked for authenticity by the archbishop and finally carried solemnly through the streets of Palermo in a long procession. Almost immediately, the sick recover and the plague disappears from the city.
In gratitude and out of reverence, Rosalia was named the patron saint of the city as Saint Rosalia and has held her protective hand over Palermo ever since. On the night of 3 to 4 September, the anniversary of the patron saint's death, an annual pilgrimage to the mountain takes place in her honour, the Acchianata Santa Rosalia.
The chapel of Saint Rosalia, the sanctuary where the reliquary is kept, was half hewn out of the rock, creating a special atmosphere during the visit. If the forecourt is still a little busy with souvenir stands and various culinary offerings, an immediate sense of calm envelops the visitor after entering the cave through the baroque chapel. This can be enjoyed especially in the morning hours before the coaches arrive.
Inside the chapel, rainwater incessantly seeps through the rocks of the ceiling and is channelled in some places so that visitors can take it out to drink. The dripping of the water is a continuous gentle tinkling that resounds in the silence of the sacred cave.
In a glass shrine, a reclining statue of Saint Rosalia can be seen, which is supposed to show her at the hour of her death. The artist Gregorio Tedeschi created this statue in 1625 for the construction of the chapel. The shrine contains some gifts from the Senate of Palermo and a Spanish king from the 16th and 17th centuries.
If you do not follow the path from the chapel towards the summit, but turn slightly left onto Via Monte Ercta, you will reach the paradise-like Laghetto Gorgo di Santa Rosalia after a few minutes' walk. This small, hidden pond is a botanical oasis among native and exotic tree species, such as the eucalyptus.
Many biologists and naturalists have studied the special features of the Laghetto Gorgo di Santa Rosalia over the past decades, as a unique biodiversity exists there. For example, insect species live peacefully together here that would fight each other anywhere else.
And if you're really lucky, you might spot one of the rare emerald turtles that are only found in Sicily.
Back on the path to the summit, you soon reach the highest and also most beautiful point, the Belvedere di Monte Pellegrino. At this vantage point, a bronze statue of Saint Rosalia watches over the city. In its shade, you have a wonderful view of the city and the sea at several points and can relax and reflect on the climb.
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