Off to Cefalù, Sicilia: The Pearl of the Mediterranean Sea
The City's Coat of Arms
Guest piece for Nellino's by Jessica Greenfield, PhD.
Cefalù, located on the northern coast of Sicily in the province of Palermo, is one of Sicily’s gems. Originally founded by the Greeks, the city’s name derives from the Greek word for "head," Kephaloidion, attributed to the large head-like rock outcropping (la rocca) that dominates the skyline of the city. Since the eighth century BCE, Cefalù has been under Byzantine, Arab, and Norman rule, and was finally moved down from the top of la rocca to its current position by Ruggero II in 1131 CE. Remnants of the ancient city are still accessible on foot and are not to be missed by any visitor.
Atop la rocca, visitors can explore various types of settlements. Upon entering the first tier of la rocca, hikers must pass through the mura megalitiche (ancient megalithic city walls) erected centuries ago to keep foes away from the city. Continuing up the path, visitors next arrive at the ruins of the old town where they can visit the homes and see what’s left of living quarters. There is also a breathtaking panoramic view of the centro storico (historical center) and the città nuova (new city) from the pathway along the precipice of the rock. Those who are daring may climb the switchback trail up to the very top of la rocca to visit the ancient castle and enjoy a spectacular 360-degree view of the bay. On a clear day one can see all the way to Palermo and almost as far as Messina with a view of five Aeolian Islands.
Today, Cefalù’s population of 10,000 swells by nearly three times in the summers because of its popularity with European vacationers. Its fabulous location boasts the best that the island has to offer: pristine beaches, hiking trails, two sea ports, easy access to the Parco delle Madonie (one of three nature reserves in Sicily), and easy train and automobile access to some of Sicily’s most sought after tourist sites. Among the city’s must-see attractions are the lavatoio medievale (medieval wash area) where tourists can descend from the busy streets for a break from the hustle and bustle of shoppers and street vendors to visit the site where the townspeople used to wash their clothes. The natural springs that still flow under the city also provided the city’s water supply until the mid-twentieth century when city-wide plumbing was installed. Film enthusiasts will also recognize the molo vecchio (old pier) from Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and will surely see a newly wedded couple taking their photos on the picturesque sea wall. A walk around the backside of la rocca reveals the more residential side of the city where the larger sea port allows access to the Aeolian Islands, Messina, and Milazzo.
Cefalù is also home to the Museo Mandralisca, which boasts an impressive collection of Greek, Norman, and Arab relics as well as the Mandralisca family’s private oil magazzino (storeroom). Be sure not to miss what is called the male Mona Lisa: Antonello da Messina’s Ritratto d’ignoto marinaio (Portrait of an unknown sailor). Also, visit the cattedrale (cathedral), begun under Re Ruggero II in 1131 and finished in 1240. Intended to be the island’s principal religious site, the edifice boasts a beautifully intricate architecture. Inside, visitors can see the island’s most beautiful rendering of Cristo Pantocratore, even more striking that the mosaics in the Monreale of Palermo. The stained glass windows have been recently replaced by a modern artist and feature abstract images of the creation story.
Stop in Piazza Duomo for a cappuccino, a gelato, or maybe a glass of wine, and soak in the splendor of la perla del mediterraneo (the pearl of the Mediterranean). Anyone looking for the “real” Sicilian experience should spend a few days here. Drop by Piazza Garibaldi any afternoon at 5pm to see the town gentlemen gather to discuss who-knows-what in Sicilian. Take a language course at the town’s premier language school Culturforum (contact Vittoria Cirello). Spend a few days on the beach and perhaps take a few trips into "Sicilia sconosciuta” (unknown Sicily) with Sicilian Realty Tour Operator (www.cefalu.it or contact Massimo Provenza). If fact, you can make all of your arrangements for lodging, day trips, and anything else you could need through Massimo.
Click on the photos below!