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Friday, 30 March 2007

Palermo's sacred cave

Set on top of a magical promontory just above the ancient port of Palermo, is a unique place that holds a special place in my heart. A little temple entirely hewn out in the rocks, although you only make out the fa├žade: here is the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, set up in the cave where a Saint lived and died as a hermit. This extraordinary place provides the backdrop of the story of a young woman known as Rosalia, born in 1130 from a Norman noble family, descended from Charlemagne. According to a leggend, Rosalia refused to partake in her arranged marriage and ran away to live as a recluse in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. In 1166, she died in this cave on this mountain. Nobody knew anything about her demise.

In 1624 a terrible plague descended upon Palermo, and it was during this dark and evil time that the spirit of Rosalia appeared to a hunter to which she indicated the location of her remains. She requested him to bring her bones to Palermo and have them carried in procession through the city. If he fulfilled this quest, the city of Palermo would be saved. The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave just as she had described. He did what she had asked in the apparition, and after the procession the plague incredibly ceased.

The whole place is slightly surreal - natural rock contrasting with baroque glittering furniture.

You can enter the sanctuary through a little chapel constructed over a cave in the hillside, where the bones of Rosalia were found in 1624. You can also light up your own candle near the beautiful marble statue of the young saint, clad in stiff golden robe and crowned with roses and ask for your wish.

A little Museum full of magnificent gold and silver votive offerings testifies to the devotion of pilgrims who believe they have been healed here in the presence of their Saint. I look at those icons representing human body parts (supposedly affected by a illness) and I keep thinking of all these people, all these hopes, tears, faith. It brings tears in my eyes.

Inside the cave a network of metal pipes hanging from the ceiling designed to channel the rain water seeping from the ceiling into a container. The liquid is supposedly miraculous and holy, and is highly prized by devout followers of the Saint.

Although I’m not religious, I can’t help myself from getting emotional each time I climb the steps of this tiny, humble shrine; as have the multitude of friends and family who I have taken with me to visit the Sanctuary. It is the atmosphere that you breathe and feel in the cave that makes it unique in its own way.

The Sanctuary on Google Maps

Cave visiting hours: weekdays 7,00 am - 12,30 pm and 2,30 pm - 8,00 pm, Sunday 7,00 am - 8,00 pm
How to get there: bus number 812 from Piazza Don Sturzo, (behind the Politeama Theatre)

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