There are many travel blogs listing the best eleven or fifteen or who knows how many things to do in Palermo. I’m focusing on just one today. Not because it’s the very best activity in Sicily’s capital, but because it’s the one that touched me the most during this time of grief in my life.
My husband and I visited Palermo in 2019 when we just started our lives as digital nomads. We saw all the major chapels then, but somehow we missed the church and monastery of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Fortunately, we took the time to visit this wonderful place when we returned to Sicily in October 2021.
The Church of Santa Caterina
The church, dating from 1566, is a rich and beautiful mix of renaissance, baroque, and rococo features. A narrow staircase allows you to climb to the top and view the church’s vaulted roof and outdoor terraces. The view over Palermo is magnificent, but what’s even more special is the look you can cast down into the church from the chapel’s dome windows.
The Monastery of Santa Caterina
From 1311 to 2014 the Monastery of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria was the home of dominican nuns. Nowadays, the place is a museum that gives visitors an idea of what living there must have been like. Each nun had a baby Jesus in her room, and—very important!— a little writing desk.
The nuns kept themselves separate from the rest of society. They never even stepped into the main nave of the church. They only entered the church from elevates areas where they sat praying and singing behind metal gratings, obscured from view. Communion they took from a window in the church’s wall that opened onto their living quarters.
The Dolceria of Santa Caterina
The monastery also contains a bakery / cookie shop on the top floor that sells dolci made with the old recipes from the nuns. You can enter it free of charge during the museum’s opening hours and enjoy your pastries in the garden among the citrus trees.
My husband, not gluten-intolerant like me, got a delicious ricotta cannola and an assortment of sesame cookies. I fell for their marzipan figs. The taste brought me right back to my childhood, reminding me of the almond-paste fruits my parents used to buy me during the celebration of Saint Nicolas in December. I missed my parents, of course, while I savored my marzipan, yet the sweet flavor also brought me a strange solace, as though the nuns had stirred something spiritual into the mix to which my heart responded.
I can’t guarantee a visit to the Monastery of Santa Caterina will be a comfort to everyone in times of grief, but I promise it’s a place worth seeing.
For more information: https://en.monasterosantacaterina.com