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Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Secret Tunnels Under Palermo

From Robin Hood to the Illuminati, to the Knight Templars : Conspiracy theories are always fascinating.

The black-hooded, Robin Hood-like, Beati Paoli waged a secret yet revolutionary struggle against the power of both the Catholic Church and the reactionary authorities. Located in Palermo and named after "Beato Paola," Saint Francis of Paolo, the Beati Paoli are a group of hooded "avengers" who (supposedly) defend the common people against the Inquisition, its spies, and the government.
In 1071 feudalism was introduced in Sicily by the conquering Norman lord, Roger II de Hauteville [2]. As the nobles exploited their feudal rights in the centuries to come, so to did the Church, as it enforced its authority on the people via the tool of terror known as the Inquisition. Any action by the commoners that could be interpreted by the State or the Church as acts of treason or heresy was punishable by death. Such actions could be unauthorised assemblies or the formation of societies with goals that were divergent to those of the state/church regime at the time. In this environment, several secret orders and sects came to existence. One of the most famous, The Beati Paoli, was allegedly conceived to oppose both the church and the state, defending the commoners from the infringement of basic human rights by a tyrannical regime.
The Beati Paoli were a fraternity of secret knights head-quartered in the Capo district of Palermo; they use a vast array of tunnels, sewers and hidden passageways to secretly navigate the city. Due to the sensitive and dangerous nature of their work, they protected their identities by wearing black hooded cloaks and operated only at night. When they caught a suspect, they would bring him back to their underground refuge beneath the city of Palermo, where they would conduct a trial and execute their sentence.
History records that the Beati Paoli eventually faded from power as they failed to achieve their goals. But this is not so. The truth is that the Beati Paoli were but one manifestation of an ongoing struggle between conspirators in Sicily and the government, one which spanned not decades but centuries.
Since they were a secret society by definition, the Beati Paoli would not have sought publicity or left documentary proof of their existence.
In 1909 the writer Luigi Natoli gathered all the oral legends and the informations , and created a famous novel I Beati Paoli.
It is very difficult to establish the historical truth of this sect, but the setting is real: the old Palermo; mainly the area of "il Capo" market and its underground tunnels.

The famous "Grotta dei Beati Paoli" is an underground cave near the church of Santa Maria di Gesù, called S. Maruzza, where, as the story goes, the sect of the black hoods established its court. It was linked to several other underground tunnels being part of the compound of early Christian catacombs, still existing near the ancient Porta D'Ossuna. Do not attempt to find these places, it will be impossible to make your way through the labyrinths of Il Capo, besides, it is not the safest place to wander around without an experienced guide.

Whether or not the Beati Paoli really existed, we do know one thing as fact. That is, the existence of various underground tunnels and mysterious places, as large as the entire city of Palermo, have been built in the form of a huge qanat system constructed during the Arab period (827-1072). Many of the qanats are now mapped and some can be even visited today!

A walking tour of the Beati Paoli secret places is available each Sunday at 9:45am starting from Palermo's Cattedral. I am not sure if this tour is available in English, but considering the minimum cost of 6 euros, it might be worth checking it out! Booking is essential. Call Cooperativa Cagliostro tel.091 583218 - 091 334277

Underground Palermo - The Cooperativa Solidarietà, in collaboration with the local section of Club Alpino Italiano, organises guided visits to the qanats, or underground water channels of Palermo. The Qanat is an ancient piping system used for the draining and the transport of drinking water. It is an engineering technique introduced into Europe by the Arabs. You can tour both the Qanat Gesuitico alto (Fondo Micciulla) and the Qanat Gesuitico basso (Vignicella). Both offer amazing, recently discovered, paths though channels and underground tunnels. They can be contacted on +39 0916520067 or +39 091580433 or here. A walking tour of the Beati Paoli places is also available.

For those who feel inspired by our story, why not to indulge your palate at Ristorante Beati Paoli. Although not part of the alleged Beati Paoli underground tunnels, this restaurant is entirely inspired by this mysterious brotherhood. Inside, the dark stone walls create a faintly rustic atmosphere, but outdoor seating is also available most of the year.

A good article on the Beati Paoli can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Review: Spaghetteria Andrea e Marianna - Sferracavallo, Palermo

Spaghetteria Andrea e Marianna - Sferracavallo, Palermo
Piazza A. Beccadelli - Sferracavallo (PA)
+39 329 002 7030 / +39 392 560 0285

2 out of 3 Stars
Dinner: 3 course meal,
typical Sicilian ; 20 euro per person including wine

Near the foreshore of the Palermo beach-side suburb of Sferracavallo, there exists what appears to be some makeshift buildings, half covered in a tarpaulin. They invoke the image of the temporary structures of a street festival or fare, with each serving their own specialities that are usually only found locally at that place.

The difference at Sferracavallo is that these buildings, while having the look of being temporary, are actually permanent dwellings containing permanent restaurants serving exactly the type of delicious fare you would expect in a festival. Except, this is no festival. These restaurants are open - day in day out.

The cute thing at these selection of five or so restaurants is that each has a spruiker out the front grabbing your attention and imploring you to come inside to try their wares. This again adds to the carnival atmosphere and provides a kind of oriental feel to it. Each restaurant specialises in something peculiarly Sicilian or Palermitan, like typically Palermitan street food (such as Jamie Oliver's favourite, Pane e Panelle) served as a restaurant dish, or freshly caught seafood like octopus, boiled or grilled, with copious amounts of lemon and herbs added.

One of the restaurants, Spaghetteria Andrea e Marianna, is in one of these structures and it's speciality is freshly caught sea-food. The catch of the day usually consists of fresh octopus, squid, mussels and sea urchin (ricci). Adding to the oriental feel again is the fact that the menus have photos so the diner can see how the dish will look when ordered.

While the quality is high, the prices are not. A whole octopus will set you back no more than 6 euro while a pasta dish, such as spaghetti con i ricci, is no more than 4 euro.

Sorry but these are ridiculously cheap prices and are typical of the traditional restaurants that are to be found in Sicily, where the food is always of the freshest and highest quality.

Well recommended.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Tindari and the Story of the Black Madonna and Medusa

In mediaeval times the legend of the Black Madonna was augmented in France by some especially "esoteric" popular religious sects, common amongst them were the Knights Templars and Cathars. One of the central excuses the French monarchy issued in the persecution and destruction of the Knights Templars was the fact that they had adopted the Maure and had several "Baphomets" in their monasteries. The Templars had brought back with them the devotion to the Black Madonna from the Crusades.
The snake-haired Gorgon triplet Medusa is also a female Maure : And the only country with Medusa's Head on its flag is Sicily. The oldest surviving design of a Medusan Trinicria is in the mosaic in Tindari depicting the head of Medusa, in a geometrically circular black face.

Tindari is a cape that sits 10 kilometres east of the city of Patti on the northern coast of Sicily. Not on your usual tour itinerary, but Tindari, one of the many Greek / Roman sites in Sicily, spectacularly positioned on the island's North coast, is in yet another beautiful high altitude setting. Inside the huge purpose built 1950s Basilica located here, is the much revered Black Madonna - a larger than life iconic figure "from the East" dating back to the second half of the first millenium.

The mystery of the Sicilian Black Madonna , an image, a countenance which like the sunlight came as a gift to this land, via pathways still fraught with mystery from the Christian East sometime during the 7th Century. For hundreds of years it has patiently withstood raids by Saracens and pirates, conquerors and raiders, old and new, exhibiting the elegant sign of a continuity which recent restoration work has revealed in all its dignified beauty.

The Black Madonnas are associated with the earth, with darkness, mystery, and most importantly, with miracles. Many have theorised that these images and statues hearken back to the worship of the ancient Goddesses Isis and Demeter; indeed, some of the statues themselves are believed to be pre-Christian.

Many writers seeking to interpret the Black Madonnas suggest some combination of the following elements:

  • Black Madonnas have grown out of a pre-Christian Earth Goddess tradition. Their dark skin may be associated with ancient images of these goddesses, and with the colour of fertile earth (such as around the volcanic Etna).
  • Black Madonnas derive from the Egyptian goddess Isis. The dark skin may echo an African archetypal mother figure.
  • Black Madonnas portrayed the original skin tone of the Virgin Mary, thus placing the figures in apt historical contexts, as Jesus' family was more likely than not to have Semitic colours and features.
Another beautiful legend arising from Tindari is the story of the Lagoon of Tindari. The story tells how a woman pilgrim refused to pray to the Madonna because she was black. The woman accidentally dropped her baby in the sea but the Black Madonna raised the sand in order to save the baby and demonstrate her compassion. The shape of the sands of the lagoon now show an image representing the profile of the Madonna (see photo).

If all of this intrigues you, why not consider a stop over in Patti, only a short stroll from Tindari. You can sleep at the picturesque farm-stay accommodation,
Villa Rica surrounded by centuries old olive trees, lemon groves, fruit orchards and the particular Mediterranean vegetation.