Palermo, the underground city – by Raffaella Saba

Curiosity is the discovery’s engine. And what a surprise to discover that Palermo has so much to offer even underground! A flyer saying “Palermo upside-down” caught my attention while walking down the streets.

“Tale’” I tell myself, a form of protest about the way this city has been kept.. (‘Tale’ is a typical Palermo expression used to indicate different feelings, from surprise to disdain, according to the tone of the voice). Instead, it is local cooperative advertising Qanat field trips.

Qanat? Cchi sunnu? (Palermo dialect meaning “ what are they?”)

Well, it is a water channel built on the island by the Arabs between the IX and XI century, a whole of tunnels about thirty/forty feet underground. The known parts are just a fraction of what used to be an extended and complex net of channels, going from the city all the way to the countryside. The Qanat are accessible at Gesuitico Alto and Gesuitico basso, so called because the Jesuits once owned the land where they are located. The presence of these water ducts was the main reason for the blooming of fish farms, fountains, bathing establishments and luxurious gardens during the Arabic and Normans domination (now we can only dream about these things!) I’m also fascinated by the story of how these channels were used by the secret sect of Beati Paoli in the eighteenth century, but this is another mystery of this city and I will talk to you about it in a different occasion.


So, once I read the brochure, I immediately organize a group of at least ten people to go down the Qanat with a guide from CAI (Centro Alpinistico Italiano). The meeting point is in the outskirts of Palermo, in the Altarello borough, near the AMAP casamatta (AMAP is the water company and casamattais an old fortress). I’m excited: this is not an everyday experience, going underground to cross these rich water channels built centuries ago by our ancestors. After wearing a waterproof jacket, helmet and harness, I climb about ten meters down a very steep staircase. As soon as I reach the floor the water fills my boots. The water pressure is very strong and the boots they gave us are quite short. We had been told to bring an extra change of clothes since nobody knows how much water is going to be there at any specific time.

And today there is an impressive amount of water! The tunnel is about five-feet-three tall, the width varies between two and three feet and it’s mostly made of calcarenite. These are all information our competent guide provides us with. The underground walk lasts about forty-five minutes, going further down to additional lower level. Coming back up, with the boots filled with water, is exhausting, but it was all worth!


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