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One of the Mediterranean's undiscovered jewels. The epitome of picturesque grandeur. Good descriptions of this captivating seaside town beneath a steep mountain. Cefalu has a beach, winding, narrow, medieval streets, and delightful restaurants overlooking a rocky coast. All under the everpresent gaze of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine cathedral, one of the greatest churches of southern Europe. Nestled between the Madonie Mountains and the sea, Cefalù's mountain boasts the ruins of a large fortress and an ancient Sicanian-Greek temple. The view from the summit is inspiring.
On the northern coast, 75 kilometers east of Palermo, from which it is about fifty minutes by car, a bit longer on an express train, Cefalù (with the accent on the last syllable) is a medieval town built on the site of an ancient Sicanian and Greek settlement. In fact, its name derives from the Greek word for a cape; the ancient city was called Cephaloedion. Except for a few archeological items in the local museum, all that remains of these ancient cultures today is a small structure, the Temple of Diana, on the mountain overlooking the town. the foundation of this simple enclosure is said to be one of the oldest structures still standing in Sicily.
Though the fortress itself crumbled long ago, the battlements atop the mountain were built during the Norman rule of the island in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A few segments of this outer wall are restorations; most are original. For the stout hearted, the summit, with its magnificent view of the town, cathedral, mountains and sea, is well worth the climb. Viewed at night from the coast to the west, the illuminated mountain and cathedral make for an inspiring site, evoking much of the city's medieval grandeur.
Begun in 1131 during the reign of Roger II, the cathedral and the adjoining abbey and cloister were completed some years later. The floor plan and artistic style, typical of those of many cathedrals built in Normandy during the same period (notably Saint Etienne), differ somewhat from the simple Romanesque lines of Monreale's cathedral, especially when viewed from the outside. The church, with some proto-Gothic features, was one of the first Sicilian cathedrals built on the Western model, with a long nave and distinct transept.
This indicates an influence more Norman than Byzantine or Arab, though the icon of Christ in the apse leaves no doubt about the Eastern (Orthodox) tradition still very much alive in western Sicily at the time the church was built. Cefalù Cathedral lacks the extensive mosaics of Monreale; its ambience is altogether more Gothic than Byzantine, though purists would point out that its style shows only partial signs of early Gothic forms. While the mosaic icon of Christ Pantocrator in the apse is a key element, it also has a charming cloister. Do keep in mind that the cathedral is closed in the afternoon from 1 to 4.
During the the War of the Vespers, Charles the Lame, son and heir of the King of Naples, was imprisoned in the citadel by the Aragonese following a naval defeat. While the royal visitor's imprisonment could not have lacked for splendid views or fine cuisine, one senses a certain isolation here. The prince survived his stay at Cefalù to be crowned Charles II of Naples upon his father's death in 1285, though his dynasty had to renounce their rights to Sicily in favor of the House of Aragon.
Near the ruins of the fortress at the top of the mountain are the remnants of the so-called Temple of Diana, probably a Sicanian structure. Its portal and cut stone reflect Greek and Roman construction, and in fact the cult of Hercules worshipped here. However, the temple's foundations are actually far more ancient, dating to the ninth century BC if not somewhat earlier.
Several medieval buildings still stand in the city itself. These include the lavatoio (lavandai), a medieval wash house fed by freshwater springs, and the Osteria Magna (Great Guesthouse), where King Roger stayed during his visits to Cefalù. A maze of charming medieval streets make Cefalù a pleasant spot, whether you stay for a morning or an entire day.
High in the Madonie Mountains nearby, some 15 kilometers away, is Gibilmanna Sanctuary. The church itself is unremarkable but the wooded area surrounding it is beautiful.
Castelbuono, a mountain town about 25 kilometers from Cefalù, boasts a castle once owned by the Ventimiglia family, feudal lords of several towns in the area. Castelbuono is a charming locality in an attractive wooded location, though a bit remote for the casual traveler. Like Caccamo, Castelbuono (literally "good castle") has vestiges of medieval architecture, but its castle, which was modified somewhat over the centuries, is usually closed to the public.
For Visitors: There are some good restaurants in the town center and near the shore that offer seafood and other local specialties, and a number of pizzerias. Cefalù also has a nice public beach. As the cathedral and most museums are closed in the afternoon from 1 to 4, this is a perfect time to eat or go sunbathing. Finding parking space is difficult at times, but Cefalù is conveniently located on the Palermo-Messina railway, and most (though not all) trains traveling this line stop here. The train station is just a few steps from the centre of town.
© 2008 Best of Sicily Travel Guide. Used by permission.