People who know how much I love Sicily often ask me what my favourite place is out of all the towns I’ve stayed in and each time I give the name of the last one I visited. Because each time I go there, Sicily works her magic on me and I fall in love all over again with the people, the scenery, the ambiance of wherever I happen to be. Last time it was Cefalaù, the medieval town lying just an hour's drive east of Palermo and located between its own natural bay and the towering rocky granite mass called La Rocca.
Cefalu, Sicily - The Town with Everything
Sicily is breath-taking in its beauty, its countryside sings with colour and natural life, its towns and cities cry out for you to clamber over its ruins and its sunshine seduces.
Interior of Pharmacy in Cefalaù's main street
Cefalu, the Sicilian town with everything.
I had thought of Cefalaù as a touristy town as it seemed to feature in most of the holiday brochures but when I first walked down its winding mediaeval streets flanked with an array of little shops from artisan bakers and designer boutiques to a beautifully tiled pharmacy kitted out with all manner of ancient fittings, I realized how wrong I’d been. In between the shops are family-run restaurants serving the freshest of fish and superb local delicacies, and to crown it all its unique Norman cathedral is right in the street, although set a little way back, its place in the life of the town assured: doubly so, as there is a bar and a gelateria on the corner!
Cefalù’s origins go back to the Carthegenians. It was then colonised by the Greeks (the name deriving from the ancient Greek word for "Cape") but the town we see today was built at the behest of the Norman King, Roger II. Building of the two-towered Cathedral began in 1131 and is an example of what is termed "Sicilian Romanesque".
There is an exquisite mosaic of Christ Pantocrator on a gold background above the altar, created by twelfth-century Byzantine artists: it dominates the apse, above the Madonna, archangels and Apostles and is twinned with the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo in Monreale and if there is a chance to see all three on a trip do take advantage of this, because seeing the trio of mosaics enhances one’s appreciation of each one.
El Duomo, Cefalu
The Rock that dominates the town of Cefalu
Towering above the Duomo and the town centre is La Rocca, a massive crag which presents quite a challenge to walkers in the hot summer months, as the steep ascent is up well worn and ancient steps and footpaths (take a bottle of water and don't attempt the climb in very hot weather) but it's well worth the effort. It is an old Saracen stronghold and near the top there is the remains of a megalithic Temple of Diana which dates back to Sicanian-Greek times (the Sicans were one of the native peoples of Sicily, and Diana, of course, is simply a Latin name for the Greek goddess Artemis). Left to decay over time only parts of the fortress survive, such as the outer wall encircling the mountain, although fragments of several small castles are present within the vast medieval wall encircling it. The crennelated ‘castle’ at the summit is a recent - but faithful – reconstruction and beyond the temple, the mountain is wooded with pine trees and a few indigenous shrubs.
As well as the ruins of the temple, the climb is worth the effort for the truly spectacular views of the cathedral, town and coast. Red roofed houses and the ochre and yellow walls of the town are gilded by the sun and on the sapphire blue sea tiny white sail boats are bobbing.
The Harbour at Ceflu
The Harbour Area at Cefalu
The harbour area with it narrow alleys and medieval buildings is a picturesque spot but unlike most of the fishing villages that dot Sicily’s coast, Cefalù had a great and grand past (certainly important enough for Roger II to build a cathedral here – the Duomo).
There is a Saracen wash-house, the Lavatorio, which is worth seeing, as is the The Osterio Magno which now houses art exhibitions but is thought to have originally been King Roger's residence. No one I spoke to seemed very sure on this but it is worth looking inside and the art is often quite striking.
Upturned boats sit on the sands, some being repaired, others just getting ready to take to sea again. A rocky path winds along the shore below the city's seafacing walls which can be walked, or sat on to watch the moonlight or sunlight on the waters.
While its later history was less distinguished, there is still an indefinable air of something important about this harbour. The beach is indifferent but its position, and views of stunning sunsets through archways in the walls, makes it a magnet for groups to congregate at night, to sit in contemplation, to walk, or to just have a drink in one of the little dusky bars that hug the waterfront.
Out and Around Cefalu, Sicily
Around Cefalù, places of interest include a hillside pilgrimage destination, the Sanctuary of Gibilmanna, and directly south of Cefalù is the Madonie National Park (my own favourite) where holiday-makers will find skiing in winter and hiking in spring and autumn.
The pictuesque town of Castelbuono in the park makes a pleasant day out whether you take a taxi or a bus (a 40 minute journey departing from Cefalù railway station), Palermo is just an hour away by train, and the Aeolian Islands can be reached by hydrofoil in the summer and early autumn, including Volcano with its still live volcano (best seen at night if you don't mind a midnight return to the town).
Pistachios and Sicily
Sicilian cooking has a reputation second to none but you must realize that the locals really love pistachios. They sprinkle them over pastries, create wonderful ice cream with them and make pasta sauce with them. Pasta with prawns, tomatoes and pistachio has to be eaten to be believed - it’s fabulous. They eat these green nuts wherever possible and will even smear pistachio paste from a jar on a slice of panettone. And while pistachio ice cream is not unknown to us in Europe or the USA, that in Sicily has a flavour so intense that most people after the first one, ask for an large one next time.
All this is available in Cefalù including beaches (although most have a charge for chairs and umbrellas but for this you get clean beaches and well behaved people), sunshine, sea, boat rides, and great shopping. What more could the seeker after a hedonistic holiday, with a smidgin of culture thrown in, ask for?