Imagine being a married woman and living in Sicily centuries ago. Your husband dies and, as a widow, that practically marks the end of your social life. The future is of total seclusion in the home. Just a window to look out of and only household chores to occupy your time, with the hope that friends and relatives will come and see you to break the monotony. But, if you were lucky enough to live in Palermo, things would have been a little different.
Today, if you are in the city, the popular area for the evening passeggiata is along the sea front called Foro Italico, where in summer, all the ice cream parlours and the cool sea breezes are. The perfect area to enjoy the evening walkabout. What many people do not know is that here there is another elevated parallel walkway built on top of the city wall which is not visible from the street below. It is part of the old 16th century Spanish military casemates.
However, this area was reserved from the 17th century onwards for just one category of people. Widows.
It runs from the monumental Porta Felice, the main sea gateway entrance into the city, to just past the bandstand of Foro Italico. Very near to Piazza Marina.
Foro Italico, incidentally, was also from where Mussolini spoke to Sicilians during his propaganda tour of the island in 1937 and Pope Ratzinger held mass here during his visit to Sicily in 2010.
The word cattive, given to this walkway, (in Italian it means ‘bad’) is a distorted version of the latin word captivae, meaning prisoner, as the widows were considered prisoners of their grief. The gated walkway is precisely 300 paces long.
Here, towards dusk, dressed in their widow’s weeds and escorted, they could stroll together backwards and forwards along the path at a comfortable distance from curious onlookers and indiscreet glances which, in those days, were certainly not encouraged. That would have been their only moment of freedom outside the house to enjoy some fresh air.
Although it was open to all classes, the upper social class ladies mostly used it, since the pathway runs in front of some renowned aristocratic palazzi, including Palazzo Lanza Tomasi which belonged to Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, author of the famous Sicilian classic The Leopard.
Today, the heirs and owners, the Duke and Duchess Lanza Tomasi, will be happy and proud to show you round. You can even stay in their beautifully restored home. Palazzo Lanza Tomasi di Lampedusa. Or for avid foodies, the Duchess can give you an excellent cooking course.
Nowadays, you won’t see any widows along here. Anyone can stroll along this walkway and admire the noble palazzi, but as it is gated it might be an idea to note its opening times: 10.00 – 19.00 (more or less, we are in Sicily! – depending on the season).