The western coast of Sicily offers so many unique experiences; it can be described as a treasure chest of glittering jewels. One of the brightest gems is the small town of Cefalù. Although it has a population of less than 14,000, it attracts millions of visitors each year, including the recent Publisher’s Tour.
Beautiful Cefalù offers a rare combination for visitors – one of Sicily’s finest beaches side-by-side with one of its great architectural masterpieces. The honey-hued stone buildings, piazzas, streets and churches of this medieval town are so postcard-pretty it is no wonder that director Giuseppe Tornatore chose to set parts of the beloved film “Cinema Paradiso” here. The historic town center is also perfectly suited to a leisurely walking tour, where the group could watch the small port lined with fishing boats as the daily catch was unloaded. Cefalù’s unpretentious charm makes it very attractive as a destination for a seaside vacation, with several resorts, sandy beaches and excellent cuisine, especially seafood and the local specialty sfingi (or sfinge). To the uninitiated, sfingi is the same as a zeppole. Similar yes, but although both are made with a simple batter that is dropped into oil, in Cefalù, a small anchovy is often added to each ball of batter. It is fried to a crispy consistency and then dusted with sugar. The result is a delicious treat that is both sweet and salty.
Situated about an hour’s drive from Palermo, Cefalù flourished as a Roman town once it was wrested from the Carthaginians in the mid-second century BC. After the fall of Rome, the town remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire, but in 858 AD, after a long siege, it was conquered by the Arabs, who controlled it for the next two centuries.
Norman rule began in 1063. It’s most famous ruler of the Middle Ages was Roger II, King of Sicily. The King loved Cefalù. He built a small palace (part of which still remains as the Osterio Magno) during the same period that he began the construction of a mighty cathedral. King Roger wished to be buried in the town, but ultimately, his remains instead were interred in Palermo’s cathedral. Construction of the Cefalù’s cathedral began in 1131 and was completed in the remarkably short period of 20 years.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral was built in a Romanesque-style with Byzantine flourishes – such as its interlaced pointed arches and Gothic elements (the vaulting of the roof), but it is the interior that is a site to behold! Like Monreale, artisans were brought in from Byzantium to create the mosaics that are adorned in pure gold. A large Christ Pantocrator dominates the apse, above the Madonna, archangels and Apostles. Set within the medieval district, the mighty church dominates the rooftops of the centro storico. Alongside the church is its recently restored 12th century cloister. It is lined with double columns and similar to the cloister in Monreale, the capitals are intricately carved, primarily depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
Towering above the Duomo and the town center is the massive limestone crag called la Rocca. It is a very steep ascent to the top of the hill, some 860 feet above the town below. Near the top are the ruins of Tempio di Diana (Temple of Diana), an ancient stone structure that was transformed to the classical Greek style in the fifth century BC. In addition to the superb views at the summit, the tour group encountered the remains of the old fortification. The castle’s crenelated medieval walls are almost two miles in length. Although the wall on the eastern side has been rebuilt, the section built on top of the promontory’s cliff overlooking the town are original and well-preserved.
An interesting stop on any cultural itinerary is Cefalù’s town museum, the Museo Mandralisca. It effectively mimics that quaint atmosphere of the town, yet it includes several gems, including a portrait by Antonello da Messina and a striking vase from the fourth century BC. Creating a parallel with today, the vase portrays a fisherman cleaning a large tuna, a sight that a visitor to the Cefalù fish market is likely to see on any given day. Often voted among the most picturesque towns in all of Italy, it is no wonder that Cefalù is described as one of the jewels of the Sicilian coast.