Not so long ago Mondello was a swamp. Today it is considered a pearl, a welcoming seaside resort, the sea of Palermo, but back then it wasn’t a place where anyone would like to go.
It was far from the city, for a start. To get there, people had to walk along bumpy paths at the slopes of Monte Pellegrino and, at any rate, who could possibly have a reason to go there? There were only a miserable fishing village and two sixteenth-century watchtowers, a memory of the time when it was necessary to defend people against pirate raids.
Furthermore, the area was decidedly unhealthy due to the presence of extensive marshes. An excellent feature according to King Ferdinand of Bourbon, who had incorporated the coastline into his Favorita hunting reserve, because the wetland attracted birds. Much less for the inhabitants, who were decimated by malaria. In the archives of the Senate of Palermo there is plenty of documentation about considerable outlays for the care and assistance of the sick.
The intervention of the prince
The situation was resolved only at the end of the nineteenth century, when Francesco Lanza prince of Scalea placed himself at the head of a committee promoting the reclamation and managed to obtain an impressive and finally effective rehabilitation fund.
The bust of the prince stands among the palms of the square Piazza Valdesi, at the end of the long Viale Margherita di Savoia which, from the Favorita park, leads to the sea. In spite of the severity of the pose, Prince Francesco, with his mustache and curly hair, looks like a nice guy, as he watches over the always rather intense traffic of the square. The “roundabout of Valdesi”, on the other hand, is the door to Mondello, the place where, after the long tree-lined avenue, the view of the sea finally opens.
A first-class seaside resort
The beach began to take shape in 1910s, when a Belgian company, the day after the reclamation, spotted the deal: that large coastal basin, lush with vegetation, bordered by a soft beach and lapped by the blue sea, would become “a first class seaside resort”. The project, in truth, was not exactly original. It had been formulated by Luigi Scaglia, a visionary entrepreneur who had already made a good part of the work, promoting a compromise between a consortium of Italian entrepreneurs and the Municipality, for the construction of a garden city such as those rising in many fashionable places in Europe.
Scaglia was in love with Mondello, which he called a “strip of paradise”, but he was a dreamer and, looking at his story a hundred years later, also quite naive. The project, in which he did not officially appear, was in fact “snatched” from him by the Belgians. Some years before they had created a transport company, Les Tramways de Palerme, and, looking more solid, managed to attract the Italian entrepreneurs.
The company asked for and obtained the concession, and starting from 1909 built villas, roads, the large bathing establishment and a tramway that for decades made it easy for the people of Palermo to reach Mondello.
High society in Mondello
Villas and establishment were built in Art Nouveau style and still are the characteristic and richness of the area. The villas (which at first were rather difficult to sell, because Mondello was still considere a little distant from the city) are almost all privately owned. They are visible only from the outside, among the greenery of flourishing gardens, full with Mediterranean and exotic plants.
The bathing establishment, on the other hand, has never lost its “public” vocation and is still the heart of the beach. Its characteristic golden silhouette adorned with sculpted fishes and stone curls emerges from the water a few steps from the sand, and is the symbol of Mondello.
For a long time it was the hub of Palermo’s summer social life: dances and competitions, dinners and shows were organized there, and Mondello was among the most popular seaside tourism destinations in Italy. There also were a golf course and prestigious nautical clubs.
From Mondello, on May 1, 1910, Clemente Ravetto took off, for the first flight ever in Sicily. It was Vincenzo Florio who sponsored it, buying a Voisin plane in Paris and taking it to Palermo by train (sic!). A stele in Piazza Caboto marks the exact spot where the aviator took off and soared towards the sea (for the record, he reached a height of 40 meters and flew for 200).
Although it has lost most of its glamour, Mondello is always in the heart of the Palermitans, who “come down” here for pizza, ice cream and a stroll along the seafront. When a bit of sunshine starts to peep among the winter clouds, people from Palermo move en masse towards the beach, walking back and forth along the avenue that borders it, between the rowing club Lauria, at one end of the gulf, and the village that everybody calls “Mondello Paese” (Mondello village), suspended between its seafaring past and the touristic vocation.