Beachcombing Destination: Palermo, Sicily

Panòrmos: A Whole Harbor

By Adele Cammarata

castle overlooking the harbor beach in sicily

Palermo is my hometown. I was born here and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Visitors from all over the world come here and admire its wonders.

sunset in palermo italy

Palermo’s history spans almost 3,000 years and is written in its geography: when Phoenicians arrived here in 800 BCE to settle a colony, they found it was a natural harbor and called it Zyz, which means “flower.” The Greek named the area Pan Hòrmos, which means “whole harbor.” The ancient part of the city of Palermo developed in the middle of fertile green plains called Conca d’Oro (“The Golden Conch”) because it was surrounded by hills and was once full of oranges and lemons (a cultural gift of the Arabs). Over the centuries, this place was home to many cultures, including Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragons, and more—now, it is a magnificent city that reflects those many influences.

searching for beach glass in sicily

Outside Palermo’s city walls, which remained almost the same from the 1600s until the second half of the 1800s, there were many small fishing villages along the coast. These were built around tuna fishing, and each had its own culture and traditions. During the 19th century, the owners of the tonnara (tuna fishery) of Arenella were the well-known Florio family. They were modern industrial entrepreneurs and the first to preserve tuna in oil, which revolutionized the fish packing industry.

After Italy was united, Palermo gradually lost its importance, growing wider and wider and “turning its back to the sea.” World War II made it worse; massive bombings destroyed most of Palermo’s center, devastating historical places and many homes. After the war, monuments were restored, but many people remained homeless. Over the following decades, most of the once golden and green “conch” turned into an expanding extension of concrete. As a result, all the waste of the demolition was spread around the Gulf of Palermo, both southward and northward, gradually turning the southern part of Palermo into a wild trash dump.

But it’s not all bad! Going northward along the shoreline, past the harbor and the shipyards, following the part of the coast that was once the domain of the Florios, beachcombers find a paradise. If you go beachcombing along the shore of Vergine Maria Beach, named after a sacred image venerated in this area, you will find that all this history has been written on the sand and pebbles.

Overlooking Vergine Maria Beach is Tonnara Bordonaro, which was settled in the 14th century. It looks like a castle, served as a watchtower, and was used as a military post in World War II. In 1962, the Tonnara became the headquarters of film director Luchino Visconti’s team when he was filming The Leopard. Until recently, the tonnara had been a pub with live music, until last summer when it became a sushi bar and a steakhouse. The Tonnara occasionally opens to the public for exhibitions, which I highly recommend.

I began visiting Vergine Maria Beach regularly at the end of 2021. I had attended a flatlay composition art course and wanted to use materials from the beach. Now, I go when I want to relax and look at the hues of the blue sea. The beach is cleaner than the one in Arenella, and much more interesting. I always find something beautiful—sea glass (mostly green or white but also some nice blue pieces), a marble, or a beautiful piece of tile. Tiles from the buildings of the past century are quite common here. The most beautiful are those of cementine—typical concrete tiles that decorated the floors of homes from the Liberty style period, the Italian Art Nouveau period from about 1890 to 1914. You can also find older Riggiole, Maioliche, and Cotto enameled tiles that were produced here and around Naples. More common are modern industrial tiles, milk glass, and wired glass.

I love waiting for the sunrise here. Some days, when the horizon is clear, you can see the shape of one or two of the Aeolian Isles, magically appearing for just a few minutes before the sunrise. In blue serene afternoons in winter, you can look eastward and see the snowy Madonie Mountains and—if you’re lucky—even Mount Etna with its smoky feather. This is a good place for moonrises too, of course: the moon rises from behind Capo Zafferano (the extreme point of Conca d’Oro) or from the middle of the sea, reminiscent of an ancient myth.

Every season has its wonders here on this beach, but I recommend avoiding the summer, especially during the weekends—it is quite crowded. You will find people swimming all through spring and autumn, if the weather is warm. Vergine Maria is a destination for fishermen too, so watch out for the fishing lines while looking for your beach treasures.

My favorite pieces, along with sea glass and sea ceramics, are hag stones. I don’t know if they are frequently found in other parts of Sicily, and I didn’t even know that there were legends and superstitions all around the world about these holed pebbles. I wondered if looking through them let you see a siren. I asked my local guide Antonino Prestigiacomo if there are any tales about them, but he suggested that the beach is too young and that there were no hagstones found here before. That’s a pity. I’ll have to invent a story myself.

After walking along the sea, I usually climb up the stairs to the Belvedere: the view from here is magnificent. It’s also amazing to watch the strange, tenacious flora change during the seasons. You can’t leave this place without a stop to the gelateria La Vela, just around the bend. It is one of the best in Palermo, and offers both ice cream and shaved-ice snow cones called granite.

You can easily grab a snack in the morning just by going into a panificio (bakery). Bakeries usually have all sorts of bread, but also pizzas and other salty and sweet deli delights. In Vergine Maria you can go to Panificio Bellavista, and there’s also a pasticceria, a pizzeria, and a restaurant near the Tonnara. They say that Palermitans invented street food, so there’s little chance you’ll starve here. A typical street lunch is pane e panelle, made with bread and chickpea fritters, and you’ll find it everywhere.

Making a list of everything to see in Palermo is impossible, so I will just mention some places that a beachcomber will certainly appreciate. The first is the Ecomuseo Mare Memoria Viva, located at the opposite end of Palermo from Vergine Maria Beach. This is a kid-friendly interactive museum where you can learn all about Palermo and its complex relationship with the sea. You also may enjoy the recently opened Radici, Piccolo Museo Della Natura, a private museum with creative experiences for both adults and children. Another place I would recommend is the Museo delle Maioliche, near the Central Station. This is a private collection of beautiful Maiolica tiles that were commonly used in old buildings.

If you want to see painter Francesco Lo Jacono’s seascapes, go to Galleria Regionale d’Arte Moderna and Pinacoteca di Villa Zito. There you can admire a picture of traditional tuna catching too.

If you ever come to Palermo, I invite you to join me for a visit. I would love to share my beaches, as a beachcomber and a native of the capital of Sicily!

Follow Adele on Instagram at @adelepa and on Facebook at @adele.cammarata.

best beaches for beachcombers

Learn more about the best beaches and destinations for sea and beach glass, seashells, fossils, rocks, and more beach finds around the world. Articles ›

All photos courtesy of Adele and Vincenzo Cammarata.

This article appeared in Beachcombing Volume 36: May/June 2023.

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