Read CHAPTER XV of Fair Italy‚ the Riviera and Monte Carlo, free online book, by W. Cope Devereux, on

Palermo--Oriental aspects--Historical facts--Royal Palace--Count Roger --The Piazzi Planet--The Palatine Chapel--Walk to Monreale--Beauty of the Peasantry--Prickly pears--The Golden Shell--Monreale Cathedral--Abbey and Cloisters--English church--Palermo Cathedral--Churches--Catacombs of the Capuchins--Gardens--Palermo aristocracy--The Bersaglieri--Sicilian life and characteristics--Climate and general features.

Palermo, formerly Panomus or All Port, and originally a Greek settlement, is situated in a beautiful fertile valley, and presents much the appearance of a magnificent garden. The approach from the sea is splendid, as a full view is then had of its beautiful bay, spacious harbour, bold headlands, high cliffs, and the great mountain ranges in the distance, which form so grand a background.

There is a very fine sea-wall, with a drive extending some two or three miles along the coast, and from this the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele extends right through the city, crossed about the centre by another fine road, the Via Macqueda, and these, the two principal streets, divide the city into four equal parts. The most frequented promenade is the Marina, opposite the sea, where the Hotel de France is situated. Here I found very comfortable quarters overlooking the semi-tropical public gardens. The houses and buildings generally resemble those at Naples, and the churches are second only to those of Rome in their magnificence. One might almost fancy one’s self in the far East, there are so many surroundings of a Moorish and Saracenic character, and many of the names are quite oriental. The cactus, palm, and citron trees, tropical flowers and sunny skies, carry out the impression. There is no matter for wonder in this, however, as the Saracens made Palermo the capital of their Sicilian territories for more than two centuries, when the Normans in their turn took possession. From 1806 to 1815, it was the residence of the court of Naples; and in 1860, was captured by the troops of the brave liberator of Italy, Garibaldi. In the same year, the university, founded in 1806, was freed from the direction of the Jesuits. Altogether Palermo has seen a variety of governments, and many changes and scenes of historic interest. It has always been a rich commercial port, and well advanced in the refinements of civilization. I think the inhabitants are far more agreeable than at Naples; more hospitable to strangers, and less inclined to “spoil” them as Egyptians. They are especially courteous to the English, probably in recognition of the substantial sympathy England so freely showed them in the time of their struggle for freedom.

The Royal Palace is situated on the site of the Saracen Al Kasr, and within a short tramway drive of the Hotel de France. It is an unpretentious, castellated building, well worth a visit, not so much for the beauty of its interior decoration, its paintings and frescoes, in which it only resembles other palaces in Italy, but for its interesting history; for it was here the good Count Roger Guiscard (Roger II.), the first Norman King of Sicily, resided, and did so much to encourage art, science and the industry and prosperity generally of the island. Our own lion-hearted Richard landed here on his way to Palestine in 1170; and it was here, in the observatory of the palace, that Joseph Piazzi discovered, in 1801, the planet to which he gave the name of Sicily’s mystic goddess Ceres, and subsequently many other minor planets some 230 in number. Attached to this palace, and under it, is a small but unique Palatine Chapel in the Gothic style, built by King Roger in 1129. It is a perfect gem in its way, the walls and ceiling covered with beautiful mosaics, fine porphyry, and marbles, but it is too dark to be seen to advantage. The only way to obtain any idea of the real beauty of the mosaics is to go into the darkest corner, and so accustom your eyes to the deep gloom, when it becomes radiant with its beautiful scriptural mosaic pictures.

After viewing the Palace and Chapel, I had a most delightful and invigorating walk up the road which led directly to the beautiful country and suburbs beyond the city. The tramway ran up to the base of the hills in the distance, but I preferred to walk, for it was a lovely summer’s day, though very early in February. The road led up to the ancient town of Monreale, about four miles distant to the south-west from Palermo, standing upon a fine commanding height overlooking a most lovely and fruitful valley, between the two mountain ranges that rise behind the city. It was through this valley that Garibaldi marched with his troops, thus avoiding the fire from the forts on the heights around. As I ascended the hill, I passed the remains of many ancient mementoes of the past. I was struck by the grace and beauty of the peasantry the men, active, swarthy, and handsome, with finely cut features; the women tall, beautifully shaped, and with long dark hair and magnificent eyes. Their picturesque dress and the character of their occupations added to the effect of their appearance.

By-and-by I reached the large Benedictine Convent of St. Martino, where I stopped to take breath and look round. It was a very hot day, and, feeling thirsty, I was glad to see a Sicilian peasant selling prickly pears, a most delicious tropical fruit. The man soon cut a few open for me, and I found them truly refreshing. To any one who has not yet tasted a prickly pear, there is yet an epicurean luxury in store. The fruit grows plentifully in the East, where you will frequently see an uncouth, impenetrable, cactus-like plant growing by the wayside hedge in a dry, rocky soil, its great succulent leaves bristling with long, formidably sharp thorns, and around the edges and upon these thick leaves are attached most delicately an oval reddish-yellow fruit, which is also covered with myriads of minute prickles. The camel munches the immense thorn-clad leaves with impunity, deriving a great deal of nourishment from them. It is necessary to handle the prickly pear with extreme care, lest the infinitesimal prickles should get into the hand, the saliva of the camel being almost the only thing that will effectually remove them from the flesh. The fruit is dislodged from the plant by means of a knife or cloven stick; then, when a deep gash is made from top to bottom, and another across, the luscious, ice-cold, crimson fruit is ready to be extracted. The taste is a pleasant sweet acid.

Having thus refreshed myself with a few deliciously cool mouthfuls, I proceeded on my way. Right ahead of me, perched upon the rocky heights and facing a fine range of mountains, was the ancient Cathedral of Monreale. It overlooked a broad and fruitful valley literally covered with orange, lemon, and olive plantations, their tints contrasting bright and sombre, and their wealth of fragrant blossoms filling the air with perfume; far away to the left, and parallel to the road by which I had come, stretched the rich, verdant vegetation, through the bluff headlands to the blue sea beyond, where Palermo glittered in the sun, like a queen in her splendour. No wonder she was named of poets, “Concho d’Oro,” the Golden Shell! I lingered for some time, perfectly fascinated by the beauty of the scene.

Passing through the crowded little town of Monreale probably a city in the times of the Greeks and Romans I gained the piazza where the beautiful Cathedral, with Benedictine Abbey attached, was situated. I had expected a Cathedral here as a matter of course, for no Italian town, however small, is without one, but I was scarcely prepared to find it so large and so beautiful. It was founded in 1174, by William II., surnamed the Good; the front is enriched by two bronze doors by Bounanno of Pisa, and is further ornamented with mosaics and arabesques.

On entering, I was filled with admiration. The magnificent edifice, which is some 315 feet in length, is divided into three aisles by pillars of granite and different-coloured marbles; the pavement of tessellated marble; and the whole of the ceilings and walls, down to the very capitals of the Corinthian columns, a grand series of beautiful mosaics representing Scriptural subjects, separated by, and intermixed with gold and parti-coloured arabesques. Over the altar, a colossal figure of Christ in blue and gold mosaic. When the sunlight streamed through the windows, these beautiful arabesques looked like the finest silk tapestries, and presented a form of decoration only equalled by that of St. Mark at Venice; there are also some very fine and interesting monuments.

I next visited the Abbey, and some of the most beautiful cloisters I think I ever beheld. Hundreds of delicate columns of white marble, filagreed and inlaid with gold and mosaics, and with exquisite capitals, rose before me on all sides, which, with the fine tracery of the Gothic windows, formed a vista of perfect classic loveliness.

Afterwards, by the kind invitation of one of the monks, I visited the Convent refectory above. There were some good oil-paintings here; and I was pleased to see, by the number of schools within the building, that good work was being done by this wealthy Convent now probably under the supervision of the Italian Government.

On returning, I had magnificent panoramic views of the valley and Palermo constantly before me. I was much amused, on my way back, to see the peasant women plaiting their daughters’ hair outside their houses, on the high-road, and doing their best to beautify it by unblushingly introducing long artificial tresses! This was rather disappointing to my day-dreams, as I had so much admired Nature’s rich dark clustering head-dress on the heads of the handsome Italian peasant women.

There is a nice little English church at Palermo, near the Street of Palms, and I quite enjoyed the service, everything was so bright and peaceful. There was a goodly gathering of English folk assembled within its walls.

Near the Royal Palace, in the Via Toledo, is the Cathedral, a fine Gothic pile of very striking appearance, standing well back in the piazza, its rather quaint Campanile separated from it by a narrow street arched over. The principal porch is in the form of a very beautiful arch; the interior in the Corinthian style, and chiefly interesting for the beauty and richness of the high altar. In one of the chapels are the tombs of Roger II. and the Emperor Frederic, and those of their respective families.

There are several other churches in Palermo well worth a visit. St Domenico, which is built in the Doric style, is one of these; but perhaps the most interesting of all is the ruined church of St. Giovanni, erected by King Roger in 1132, and which was evidently in the style of a Byzantine Mosque, with its numerous arches, low roof, and domes. On leaving this building, and thanking the keeper for explaining its antiquities to me, I found he belonged to one of the most ancient Eastern orders of the Masonic craft a gratifying proof to me of the wonderful ramifications of this powerful charitable fraternity. The Church of Martorana is in a semi-Gothic and Saracenic style of architecture, and was built by one of King Roger’s admirals in 1113-1139; it has some very beautiful mosaics. Some of the palaces of the nobility are open to visitors, and contain much of an interesting description.

Within an easy walk, towards the Monreale road, are the catacombs of the Capuchin monastery, which is situated a little off from the high-road, and looks an unpretentious kind of building. A monk guided me through the clean, well-lighted subterranean passages, and it was not without some feeling of dread that I saw on each side of me tiers of the decaying skeletons of monks, suspended against the walls, and looking down upon me with their poor hideous mouldering visages. I almost feared the ropes round these skeleton bodies would give way, and that the bones would come tumbling down upon me. The Capuchin, with a somewhat humorous smile on his worn, kindly face, reassured me, and said that when at last they fell to pieces, the remains were carefully collected and religiously locked away within an iron door in one of the walls. There were several lively cats jumping about from coffin to coffin, and these were looked upon with a most compassionate and friendly air by my good monk, as assisting him to preserve the bones of his comrades from moth and mouse whether the old Sicilian superstition with regard to the sacredness of the feline species had also anything to do with it, I cannot say. There is a saddening sort of feeling in entering these homes of the dead

“To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral state;
Pitying each form that hungry Death had marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul.”

After going through some hundred yards of this vast tomb, I felt glad to return to the sunlight and pure air of the living world.

On the road to Monreale there is an interesting botanical garden, where I saw some very fine specimens of plants entirely new to me camphor, coffee, castor oil, and others. There are many beautiful gardens in Palermo, besides the delightful public one known as the “Flora,” which afforded such a charming and refreshing outlook from the Hotel de France, where I was staying.

The great cross-roads afford one of the principal drives of the elite of the town, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon these thoroughfares are crowded with the carriages of the Palermian aristocracy. The circus, where the two roads meet and intersect each other, forms a large open space called the “Ottangolo,” from its octagonal shape; each of the eight sides is formed by a beautiful building or fountain. This place is a favourite lounge for soldiers and idlers generally, who come here simply to enjoy their cigarettes in the open, sunlit air, and in the hope, like the ancient Athenians, of hearing “some new thing.”

The Bersaglieri regiment, in their shining black hats, with flowing cocks’ plumes, cut a great dash. I often wondered where all these feathers came from, as the cock seemed quite a rara avis at Palermo. Perhaps, after all, one fact explained the other, and I had been mixing up cause and effect. The military were evidently proud of themselves and their past exploits with Garibaldi; they had certainly proved that there was plenty of sturdy pluck about them. They are in general a small, swarthy, handsome set of men, but with rather too much of a swagger for soldiers who had seen service. The ladies are graceful and dignified; a trifle too pale, I thought, but I have since learnt that this pallor is studiously acquired I suppose, to give more sentiment to the expression: in other countries, ladies seem inclined to go in for a little more colour. The nocturnal-like existence of the Sicilian ladies, however, should be quite sufficient to produce the desired pallor, without any artificial aid. Their evening commences at 10.30, when tea is served, and you are lucky if you can contrive to get away by 2 a.m. As a matter of course, they are invisible during the morning, and are seldom seen before three o’clock in the afternoon, when they drive out to gain fresh vigour for their nocturnal existence.

From January to May, I believe Palermo is considered a very healthy place for invalids. It is not subject to changes of climate, and being on an island is perhaps the cause of its advantage over other places on the Italian coast, and especially those situated more inland, and on a river, such as Rome, Pisa, and Florence; for these rivers are generally the receptacles of the city sewage dirty, muddy, and polluted streams, and most unhealthy during the warm season. Yet, strange to say, these river-sides are frequently selected as chosen places of residence, as witness the Lung Arno of Pisa and Florence.

One of the features of Palermo is the number of reservoirs, which are generally situated at the corners of streets, and every house in the city accordingly has an abundant supply of water. This must also be a great source of cleanliness and healthfulness.

For a tour of a few weeks, I can fancy no place more interesting than this fair island. The enchanting Straits of Messina, Catania, Mount Etna, and lovely Aci Reale; the ancient Girgenti and Syracuse with their Greek and Roman ruins; Marsala and Palermo. It is also close to the interesting island of Malta, and is the highway for steamers to all parts. The place is healthy, and, finally, the living is good and moderate in price. Travelling, too, is convenient and cheap: the tramways run quite round Palermo, and the carriages are better and cheaper than in any other city in Europe.

Although travelling in Italy has its drawbacks, I have found more pleasure in moving amongst the Italians than the French. There is an evident respect and grateful sympathy felt by the former towards England, while the French take no pains to disguise their antipathy. Yet we were blindly intent on making the Channel Tunnel, foolishly supposing it would convert our sullen neighbour into a sincere friend and commercial ally.

I could not but notice in Palermo, the vigorous efforts of the Italian Government to suppress brigandage. I constantly saw some of the plumed Bersaglieri posted in the most out-of-the-way places, commanding the various passes, in order to surprise any attempt that might be made.

Before leaving Sicily, I cannot refrain from recalling that perfect avalanche of stirring incidents that took place in 1860 incidents that far eclipse all other events recorded in the momentous history of this lovely island; and, as the death of the patriotic Garibaldi is still of somewhat recent date, and the subject is one of universal interest, I shall, in the following chapter, briefly sketch these thrilling events, with certain particulars of the part taken therein by the English which have not been publicly known before.