Palermo, Sicily: Things to do in Monte Pellegrino, 'the most beautiful promontory in the world'

Towering over the western side of the bay of Palermo, isolated from all the other mountains that surround the city, is Monte Pellegrino, Sicily's answer to the Rock of Gibraltar.

Rising to 606 metres, it's nearly 200 metres taller than its counterpart on Spain's south coast and was described by Goethe, on his 18th century travels, as "the most beautiful promontory in the world".

As we climb the narrow, precipitous, zig-zagging road up Monte Pellegrino on our tour bus, we gaze over the Sicilian capital, which sprawls between the craggy Palermo Mountains and the shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea. The fertile plain on which Palermo emerged was once known as the Conca d'Oro (golden shell), because of the citrus groves that flourished here. These days, it's more of a concrete jungle.

As well as the container ships, cranes, yachts and cruise liners at the port, the most striking sight is the glut of high-rise blocks that fan out from the city's historic core.

Largely built by Mafia-allied contractors, they started mushrooming in the 1950s and 1960s, replacing green space and handsome old buildings that were razed to the ground in a move critics dubbed "the sack of Palermo". World War II also took its toll here, as Allied bombs rained down on Nazi-held Sicily.

After navigating another hairpin bend on Monte Pellegrino, we see Castello Utveggio. Perched on a cliff edge, this peach-hued palace opened in the 1930s as a luxury hotel and was occupied by forces during the war. Now occasionally used for conferences and conventions, it hosted Pope John Paul II on his visit to Palermo in 1995.

More than 800 years earlier, another pious Catholic ascended Monte Pellegrino. Born into a Norman noble family that claimed descent from King Charlemagne, this young woman, Rosalia, rejected her aristocratic roots to live as a teenage hermit in one of the caves that riddle this limestone mountain. When a plague struck Palermo in the early 17th century, she's said to have re-appeared, first to a sick woman, then to a hunter, whom she told where her remains could be found. He was tasked with bringing her bones to Palermo and carrying them in a procession through the city. The plague came to an end following this and Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo.

She's honoured each July with a huge celebration that includes a fireworks display and parade where her relics and statue are carried in a chariot, with the city's majestic cathedral providing a photogenic backdrop.

On September 4, the day it's believed she died, pilgrims continue the tradition of walking barefoot up Monte Pellegrino to pay homage at Rosalia's cave. Some devotees even drop to their knees to climb the 80 or so steps that lead up to the Baroque-style sanctuary that frames the cave. After paying our respects inside this dimly-lit chamber, which has several busts of Rosalia, we complete our scenic mountain drive.

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Not to be confused with San Pellegrino, the mineral water hotspot near Milan, this peak is also a nature reserve with hiking trails skirting past pine trees, agave plants, vantage points and other caves and grottoes. Inside some, ancient rock art and prehistoric footprints and fragments have been discovered. Birdlife thrives up here, including falcons, kestrels and buzzards.

We descend into Mondello, an old fishing village that morphed into one of Palermo's most desirable seaside resorts. It's dotted with Belle Epoque-era houses and villas with gardens and pools, built for affluent Palermitan families and passed through the generations.

Near the tiny harbour, where fishing boats bob, is an 11th century defence tower and stalls selling trinkets. It's late October and there's an-end-of-season lethargy to Mondello, but our group isn't complaining. For starters, there's no queue at Bar Antico Chiosco, which apparently gets overrun in summer.

Clutching cones stacked with lickable gelato, we stroll along Mondello's tree-shaded promenade, which curves by a fine sandy beach lapped by a bluey-green sea. Tanned joggers and cuddling couples catch the eye, but as we walk my attention is mainly drawn to one thing: Monte Pellegrino, a magnetic looming presence at the other side of the bay.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

visitsicily.info

FLY

Etihad fly to Palermo from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi and Rome. See etihad.com

TOUR

Monte Pellegrino and Mondello is an optional excursion on Collette's nine-day Splendid Sicilia tour, which includes destinations such as Palermo, Siracusa and Taormina. Prices from $2749. See collette.com

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.

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