Overlooking the hazy coastal town of Palermo in Sicily is a small light yellow façade carved into the mountains. The façade, simple at first glance, is actually something much more: the entrance to the 17th century Santuario di Santa Rosalia.
A short bus ride up Monte Pellegrino takes you to the Santuario, one of the most intriguing religious constructions in Italy. The Santuario di Santa Rosalia was built in 1625 and is actually a church and a convent extending 25 meters into the cave.
While the iron front gate and rocky interior makes the Santuario seem intimidating and rough at first, the church is actually very beautiful. The cave has been maintained to an extent, although marble pillars stand inside the church along with busts of the Santa Rosalia of Palermo. In fact, the Santuario serves as the burial place and shrine to Santa Rosalia, who died in the cave in the 12th century, only to appear a few centuries later to residents of Palermo.
Although the church is obviously an attraction to tourists fascinated by the connection between religion and nature, the Santuario is still very much in use. Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo and is revered there.
The contrast between the jagged rock walls and the beautiful religious decorations is as striking as the difference between the tourists snapping photos and those who came to pray. These contrasts make an excursion into the hills above Palermo a fascinating and beautiful, if not always spiritual, experience.
The trip up the mountain is surreal as well. From Palermo, deep in the coastal valley, a short bus ride takes visitors 430 meters above sea level, providing stunning views of the city and the surrounding landscape on the way to the Santuario. For hiking enthusiasts, a trail exists from the top of Monte Pellegrino to the city streets. Every year on September 4, pious followers of Santa Rosalia walk the same trail barefoot to the shrine at the top of Monte Pellegrino to show their respect.
While buses run throughout the day, the nearly four-hour hike from the summit to the street is a wondrous journey through arid vegetation, caves and stunning views, and is more than worth the time. Even if visitors wear shoes, the experience is one they will certainly not forget easily.
Know Before You Go
Buses are available from Piazza Sturzo in Palermo.