Our adoring fans at MagoGuide know me as editor, photographer, and code developer, but perhaps you didn’t realize that I have a love of travel writing as well? I always keep a journal while on our adventures and thought that it might be fun to share some of those stories with you. We’ll begin with a memorable hike up Monte Pellegrino on a visit to Palermo.
Send me comments and let me know what you think or share a memory of Palermo!
As we came screaming down the side of Monte Pellegrino late in the afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder how I came risk my life on this bus.
“Santa Rosalia save us,” I prayed, hoping I wouldn’t be struck down for blasphemy. It had been 20 years since I had last uttered a prayer and my ex-Catholic conscience was smarting a bit.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what it’s like to be riding along the streets of Palermo – wall-to-wall traffic, tired horses, and my particular favorite, a baby carried on someone’s lap on a motor bike while he’s stopped in traffic and talking on his cell phone. Well, at least he had a helmet even if neither of his passengers did.
Back to the story. Cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, our bus driver careened down the narrow, winding road with a stone wall on one side and a steep drop off on the other. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any scarier, we met another bus. Horns blared and voices yelled. These were neither the first raised voices we had heard that day nor the first prayer I had mumbled. We were in Palermo and I knew from long experience anything could happen.
It all started innocently enough. We had been living near Palermo for several months, but had never made our way up to the iconic Monte Pellegrino, a large headland that sticks out in front of Palermo’s harbor like a sentinel. We couldn’t just take a bus to the top like everyone else, though. Oh no, we were way too grand for that. We had to walk up.
We had some vague instructions about such a walk from a book by an author named “Gillian”, but in truth we didn’t have a clue about what we were doing. This was obvious from the start when we weren’t even able to buy tickets at the train station in Santa Flavia, the small town outside Palermo where we were living.
“What do you mean that the ticket machine is broken?” I asked.
“Well,” Morgan replied with patience while he banged on the side of the contraption, “the machine let’s me select tickets, but won’t take any money or a credit card.”
“How about the guy at the ticket counter?” I realized I was now in the land of ask-the-obvious.
“Nobody at the counter. I think that this sign says pick up tickets at the bar across the street.”
And so we did, although we need not have bothered. Once you buy a ticket, you have to get it stamped by another machine proving that you’ve used that ticket for that day. And, of course, none of the machines that did the validation thingy was working. Believe me, we tried them all while the locals looked on and smirked. The only thing working at the Santa Flavia station that day was a little old lady sweeping up butts and candy wrappers.
We made it to Palermo, though, without getting kicked off the train or having to pay a heavy fine for non-stamped tickets and began walking in the direction of Monte Pellegrino. We could see it right there in the distance… how could we possibly get lost?
Gillian said… “Start your breathtaking hike up the scenic side of Monte Pellegrino at the Casa Natura.”
Many miles on dusty roads with no sidewalks and cars screaming by brought us to what we took to be our starting point, a scruffy building with broken signs and cast off furniture… Casa Natura? We were almost certain it was the right place… almost.
Gillian then wrote… “To the left, follow the track, and watch out for the abandoned house. Note the unexpectedly lush vegetation.”
Looking at the weeds, used condoms, and broken bottles Morgan remarked, “Maybe they’re having a drought.”
How far away was this abandoned house supposed to be anyway? Some distance measures would have been nice, Gillian. Even with that, we were making it all fit pretty well until the track entirely disappeared near an abandoned car. That’s when we noticed that we were being followed by a pack of snarling wild dogs. We picked up wholly inadequate sticks and rocks, then Morgan placed me between him and the dogs. OK, Morgan’s a little afraid of dogs. Give him a break. We slowly backed out to the road again and reassessed the situation. Well perhaps, we hadn’t gone far enough along the road and that had NOT been Casa Natura.
After a few more miles of trekking, we noticed a crowd along the side of the road.
“Look at those folks lined up on the sidewalk, Morgan. Maybe that’s the entrance to Casa Natura,” I innocently opined.
Morgan, being wiser in the ways of the world than I, understood immediately what that line meant and placed himself between me and the crowd. It was Nigerian hookers trying to tempt the local road workers into taking a rest. Although afraid of dogs, Morgan was apparently not afraid of prostitutes.
But wait, maybe this road across from the hookers led somewhere? Yes, indeed, at long last we had found the real Casa Natura. We knew we were at the right place because its name was on the side of the very smart, clean, well maintained building housing historical exhibits.
This was the starting point for the climb up Monte Pellegrino, and I’ll have to admit that we did see some unexpectedly lush vegetation in the Valle of the Porco (Valley of the Pig).
We came upon the “abandoned house” without much incident. There was a nice shrine to our virgin complete with candles, ornaments, and graffiti from November of 1956.
“Climb up the left side of the abandoned house,” said Gillian.
I eyed the steep climb filled with a thicket of thorns and brambles to the left of the house. After 10 minutes of discussion and 100 years of self doubt, we decided that this must be the wrong abandoned house (what are the chances that there would be two?) and continued up the right side where there was an obvious path. Our faith in Gillian was severely shaken by this point. Why in the hell wasn’t THIS abandoned house even mentioned in her stupid book?
And then… we continue to make our way for almost another hour up the side of this really, really steep hill complete with boulders and tricky thatch. I began to chant “I hate Gillian, I hate Gillian” about 30 minutes in.
We finally found the abandoned house, the correct abandoned house, at the top of the mountain, miles away from the start of the walk. After this, Gillian led us through trails on the top for another hour (really very beautiful with breathtaking views) until we arrived at the shrine of the local saint, Rosalia.
The mountain has a long history and Rosalia’s story was typical for a female Italian saint. Contracted to marry someone she didn’t want, she wandered onto the mountain and became a hermit (or would that be a hermitress?). During some time of crisis a hundred years later or so, she reappeared on Monte Pellegrino which counted towards her miracles.
“I’m tired,” I whined. “I don’t want to walk back down the mountain.”
“Not a problem, my sweetness,” said Morgan. “Here’s the bus stop. We’ll just wait and catch a ride back to town from here.”
Five minutes later, two of the shop owners came out and began a knock-down fight. They were literally throwing things, making rude hand gestures, and vigorously cursing each other in Sicilian (note, not Italian). It was better than TV. When the very full bus finally arrived, we reluctantly left the street entertainment and climbed aboard.
And that’s how we ended up on the bus ride from hell, calling on Santa Rosalia, and swearing that we were going to get the lady who wrote that book. Morgan did appease me with gelato on our return to Palermo then cooked me a wonderful dinner of veal pizzaiola (veal with red sauce). He knew how to make a poor, tired hiker happy.