Thursday, September 29, 2016


My first full day in Palermo was a Sunday, which kind of hampered my planning for two reasons: one, because many of the sites I wanted to see on my trip, such as churches, were open only limited hours, and two, because there was an F1 race on in the middle of the afternoon which I wanted to see, which pretty much ruled out my 'trip to the beach' idea.

So, after scouring through a bewildering array of options, I decided to tick off one of my must-see destinations first thing in the morning, and set off on a 20-minute walk to the Capuchin Catacombs. I visited some of the catacombs in Rome on my 2009 trip and was, to be honest, a bit disappointed at the lack of dead bodies. So the Palermo catacombs, the "largest collection of mummies in the world" had been on my travel bucket list for a while.

This probably makes me sound quite macabre. I don't know, really. I'm not especially interested in death or creepy things, and thoroughly sceptical about ghosts and goblins. But I do love a wander about in an old cemetery, and I've enjoyed other human remains-themed destinations such as the bone church in Kutna Hora, near Prague, and the Kievo-Pecherska Larva in Ukraine. I'd like to think it's a way of connecting in a very immediate way with people from the past, but I don't know, maybe it is just morbidness.

I just dodged a tour group coming out as I was coming in, so luckily enough I was able to walk around the catacombs virtually all by myself, with just the occasional other visitor passing in the distance. They had that sort of intense underground silence to them, a silence so profound it rings in your ears. For me, despite the title, it wasn't really a creepy place, mostly it was just interesting seeing the different clothing and facial features of those who did still have faces. Which does sound very creepy now that I write it, ha ha.

The catacombs were originally intended as a normal cemetery for members of the Capuchin friars who passed away. However, they eventually ran out of room and decided to exhume the bodies and move them into a larger space, whereupon they discovered 45 of them had been naturally mummified. Seeing this as a miracle, they decided to put them on display, and over the years, they both refined the mummification techniques (most bodies there are still naturally mummified, but they started deliberately helping the process along by removing organs and draining fluids and stuffing the body with straw) and started accepting laypeople into the catacombs. There was quite a range of states of decomposition, with some basically completely skeletalised, some with just odd bits of hair and flesh hanging on, and some looking like what you probably imagine a mummy to look like. I can't quite imagine wanting to gaze upon half the face of a mummified loved one, but apparently it was quite an honour and status symbol for wealthy families to be interred there.

There was a strict no photos rule, which I didn't want to sneakily breach, plus I don't know if people want to see any of these sorts of things. But if you're interested, there is the (I suppose) official website, surprisingly thorough and in English, and here is a blog with a lot of good images.

Narrow streets on the walk to the catacombs

I liked the sort of fading glamour of this place

And then on to something completely different. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped in at the Church of the Gesu, which is quite plain from the outside but a riot of Baroque detail on the inside. The strangest thing on arriving there was that it was absolutely packed with Indian families dressed in their Sunday best and blaring Indian music over loudspeakers. It's true there were three or four Indian restaurants in the immediate area of my B&B, which was just a few hundred metres from the church, but I would not have imagined there was such a large Indian community in Palermo, let alone that they would be Catholic. (Fun semi-relevant fact: I have been reading a book about the Portuguese exploration/colonisation of the Indian Ocean and one of the more bizarre tidbits is that the Portuguese had no idea that Hinduism existed and had it fixed in their minds that the Indians they met were Christians 'of a deviant sect'. There are even first-person descriptions of them seeing illustrations of Hindu gods with horns and extra arms and just assuming they were weird drawings of saints. Another story was that they were met by people chanting "Christ! Christ!" which the author speculates may have actually been "Krishna! Krishna!" They figured it out eventually, but it definitely seems to fit the ass out of u and me rule.)

I found an article online which, although written in the context of a Hindu celebration, explains that there are around 8,000 Tamil people in Palermo, mostly refugees from Sri Lanka. So you learn something every day. It was quite beautiful seeing all the brightly-coloured saris against the intricate backdrop of the baroque church. The ceremony (it seemed to be a First Communion or Confirmation, since there were a number of kids lined up at the front of the church) was just finishing as I got there, so I tried to take some action shots of people as they socialised and milled about the place, but I'm not such a great portraitist, so I had to filter out a lot of blurry shorts of people, unfortunately.


  1. Another interesting post. Fab pics inside the church, too. X

  2. They thought the gods were saints with extra arms! That's so funny.

    1. I know, if it wasn't for all the colonialism, it would be quite adorably naive.


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