Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo

The Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino. An extract from Blue Guide Sicily by Ellen Grady.

Interior of the sanctuary

The most direct approach to Mt Pellegrino from Palermo is from Piazza Generale Cascino, near the fair and exhibition ground (Fiera del Mediterraneo). From here Via Pietro Bonanno ascends to the sanctuary of St Rosalia, crossing and recrossing the shorter footpath used by pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage on 3–4 September (often barefoot or on their knees). A flight of steps zig-zags up the Scala Vecchia (17th century) between the Primo Pizzo (344m; left) and the Pizzo Grattarola (276m). The terrace of the rosy-pink Castello Utveggio (built as a hotel in 1932, now used as a congress venue), provides the best view of Palermo.

A small group of buildings marks the Santuario di Santa Rosalia, at 428m, a cavern converted into a chapel in 1625 (open summer 7.30–8, winter 7.30–6, T: 091 540326). It contains a statue of the saint by Gregorio Tedeschi, and a bas-relief of her coronation, by Nunzio La Mattina. The water trickling down the walls is held to be miraculous and is carefully captured by Futuristic-looking metal conduits. The outer part of the cave is filled with an extraordinary variety of ex-votos.

Rosalia, daughter of Duke Sinibald and niece of William II, lived here as a hermit until her death in 1166. She is supposed to have appeared to a hunter on Mt Pellegrino in 1624 to show him the cave where her remains were, since she had never received a Christian burial. When found, her relics were carried in procession through Palermo and a terrible plague, then raging in the town, miraculously ceased. She was declared patron saint of Palermo and the annual procession in her honour (14–15 July), with a tall and elaborate float drawn through the streets by oxen, became a famous spectacle.

A steep road on the farther side of the adjoining convent climbs up to the summit, from which there is a wonderful panorama extending from Ustica and the Aeolian Islands to Etna. Another road from the sanctuary leads to a colossal 19th-century statue of St Rosalia by Benedetto de Lisi, high on the cliff edge.