22 June, Sicily – ‘All Over The Place – Europe’
Palermo wasn’t a city I’d heard of before, but if you ever find yourself in Sicily I’d recommend you get yourself down there. It’s bonkers. As we negotiated the cramped and winding streets in our chunky minibus I looked out on all the chaotic traffic, shouting residents and stained and decaying buildings and thought I’d never felt more abroad in Europe. We were visiting the catacombs under the monastery in the centre of town, which I think have to rank as one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. In the late 16th century the monks decided that when one of their number died they would be embalmed and hung up on the wall beneath the chapel. Rich and famous people began to hear of this and would pay big money to be interned in a similar fashion, and by the time the practice ended around the time of the First World War there were over 8,000 bodies pickled and preserved, in their best clothes and hair neatly combed.
The only dead bodies I’ve come face to face with have been mummies in Egypt or the British Museum, so seeing corridor after corridor of bodies in various states of decay was a bit of a shock to the system to begin with. We had to approach the whole thing with a less cheeky approach than we would normally, but I think Victoria and I hit the balance about right. I do feel that death has become too much of a taboo in our society, and kids are always fascinated by mummies.
Ironically, considering the mummy connection, the city that Palermo most reminds me of is Cairo. A local resident agreed with me when I mentioned this, having lived in Cairo himself, so I’m feeling very well travelled and worldly wise.