Sunday, August 19, 2007

Another Day, Another Palazzo!

Today I came face to face with the painter Velasquez. Quite literally!

[Eeeeyieeew!!!!! warning here]

His is one of around 2000 mummified bodies on display in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. I already knew about the Cappuchin monks’ penchant for putting the bones of their dead brothers to use in their interior décor, having visited their church in Rome almost 20 years ago. There you can see wall after wall of knuckles, femurs, skulls etc artfully arranged into patterns.

I had wondered whether the thoughts of the living monks ever turned, in idle moments, to coveting the body parts of another.

Can you imagine it…. “Hmmmm, Brother Bernardo has such slender fingers, just what I need for the sun’s rays to finish off my latest mural. I wonder if he’s feeling a little peaky……”

Anyway, feeling a little cathedral-ed out on this final day in Palermo, I thought I’d take myself off to see something completely different. And was this different!!!

This mummification business all started with the Cappuchin priests themselves around 400 years ago, but soon their benefactors wanted the treatment too. Eventually it seems that anyone in Palermo who could afford it was queueing up to be preserved on the walls of the Cappuchins’ cellars where, apparently, their family would visit on Sundays and enjoy a thermos of tea.

The mummification was done by placing the body in a hermetically sealed room for 8 months, after which it was taken out, washed in arsenic, dressed in the finery of the day, and hung on the wall or laid on a shelf in the appropriate corridor.

Emaciated and brown, they are grouped – professionals, priests, men, children, women, and a special place for virgins.

The priests stopped the practice in the late 1800’s but one last body was placed there in 1920, that of little Rosalia Lombardo, a 2 year old whose mummification was undertaken by a local doctor (using his own secret recipe) so skilfully that today, 87 years later, she looks as if she is simply asleep, such is her colour and state of preservation. Apparently when she died her father was away in America. Heartbroken, he expressed a desire to see his little girl one last time, but since the journey home would have taken at least three weeks in those days, the doctor came up with this solution.

By now, a long cool drink sounded good to me, at the final place on my “Must See” list – the glamorous Villa Igea.

Now part of the Sheraton hotel chain, it’s a place where the super-rich stay, and was built in the exotic Arab/Norman style we’ve seen everywhere in Western Sicily, with gorgeous friezes of majolica tiles running along the façade.

The gardens are lush, colourful, and have green grass! It is situated on a cliff overlooking a marina where luxury yachts bob in the turquoise water.

Apart from a few staff, the main building seemed almost deserted so, unable to locate a bar or snack area, I wandered out to where a dozen or so uber-cool but bored-looking hotel guests were stretched out by the pool.

Not much life here either, I thought.

Someone with more spunk than I have would have fronted the pool bar, ordered an icy cold glass of prosecco, and sipped it slowly, while adopting a suitably aloof and bored expression, under an umbrella overlooking the Mediterranean. But not this little black duck.

I bought a cold bottle of water in a little shop and caught a bus back to the hotel.

After all, I had a palazzo to go to!

The Sicilians pride themselves on their hospitality, the success of which seems to be measured by the amount of food they can get you to consume. For the past two weeks we’ve been fed morning, noon and night by our conference hosts.

The staple diet in Sicily is seafood, in every imaginable (and unimaginable!) form. Swordfish, calamari, octopus, squid, shrimps, mussels – and various other suspiciously unidentifiable sea creatures that they manage to secrete into an otherwise perfectly respectable risotto whenever they can.

Now, I’m not averse to a little fish from time to time, even a few prawns, but after a couple of days a sizeable number of us were requesting the “non pesce” option whenever another fishy-smelling platter was brought around.

The other Sicilian specialty is their dolce (desserts) – sweet pastries with custard and fruit fillings in every imaginable colour, the more garish the better.

I suspect the world sugar market would collapse if the Sicilians stopped making their dolce. Again, after a few days of these delectable morsels we were begging for “frutta” instead.

There’s no such thing as a light snack. Every meal consists of at least two courses, and tonight, at our final dinner at the Palazzo Asmundo, there were seven!!!! We were delivered back to our hotel around 1am. Delicious though they were, the courses became successively more difficult to tackle, and empty plates remained upturned all over the room as the signal to a waiter to pass on by.

It’s been wonderful to have been on the receiving end of such generous and warm hospitality. However it will be a relief to return to our normal pattern of eating next week. We fly to Rome tomorrow afternoon, pick up a rental car, and drive north to Angela’s villa in Manciano (Tuscany). A week of rest after all the excitement of the last two weeks will be very welcome.

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