see also www.cefalu-sicily.it
Enjoying a splendid position and clearly visible from the road running north from Palermo, Cefalù is a fishing village, now a small town, perched between the sea and a craggy limestone promontory, landmarked by a cathedral and a maze of narrow streets. Of Greek origin, its current name right deriving from Greek Kephaloidion meaning head or chief, it saw its heyday under Roger II who in 1131 decided to initiate work on the cathedral.
Have a sweet tooth? – Pasticcerie: Pietro Serio’s, on via Giuseppe Giglio, is regarded as the best confectionery-shop in Cefalù. At Bar Duomo, on Piazza del Duomo, the best ice-creams can be found.
Where to eat? – For a good Pizza try the Porticciolo, on Via Di Bordonaro. For traditional dishes go to La Vecchia Marina, on Via Vittorio Emanuele, near the Medieval wash-house.
Corso Ruggero – Cefalù’s main thoroughfare overlies the ancient roman decumans which bisects the town on a north-south axis. The two resulting haives have quite different character: to the west lies the medieval quarter, a labyrinth of narrow streets dotted with steps, arches and narrow passageways; to the east, a network of perpendicular, regular streets. The difference can probably be attributed to the two different social classes that lived in the two quarters. The western half was occupied by the common people while in the eastern side were the clergy and the aristocracy.
The Corso starts from Piazza Garibaldi where was one of the four city gateways. The piazza is overlooked by the Baroque Chiesa di Santa Maria alla Catena, whose bell-tower incorporates remains from the ancient megalithic town walls.
Osteria Magno – The legendary residence of King Roger, later belonged to the Ventimiglia family, comprises two units dating from different periods. The older, two-coloured side, built of lava and gold-coloured stone, overlooking Via Amendola and graced by two elegant mullioned windows, dates from the late 1200s. The adjoining square tower, on the corner of Corso Ruggero, was built in the 1300s and has a fine three-light window set into an elaborate Chiaramonte-style arch. The palace, now completely restored, is used for temporary exhibitions.
Further along, on the right, stands the Chiesa del Purgatorio (formerly Santo Stefano Protomartire’s), its front graced by an elegant double stairway leading up to the Baroque portal. Beyond the entrance, on the right, is the sarcophagus of Baron Mandralisca (see museum of the same name). Towards the end, the street opens out into Piazza del Duomo, overshadowed by the cathedral enclosed with ranges of splendid palazzi: Palazzo Piraino (on the corner of Corso Ruggero) with its late-1500’s portal, the Medieval Palazzo Maria, with a Gothic portal, and possibly once a royal residence, and, left of the cathedral, the Palazzo Vescovile (Bishop’s Palace) dating from the 17th century.
Duomo – The Romanesque cathedral is built of a gold-coloured stone that, set back behind a series of palm trees, appears to merge with the limestone hillside called La Rocca rising behind. The edifice was built between 1131 and 1240 at King Roger II’s behest following a vow he made when on the point of being shiprecked when returning from Naples. It is more evidently Norman than its counterpart in Palermo, notably in the Moorish style of the façade framed by two towers and in the upper apse flanked by smaller ones. The façade, completed in 1204, is divided into two storeys by a portico which was rebuilt in the 15th century by Lombard architect Ambrogio da Como. The upper section is finely ornamented with blind arcading. The twin towers, built on a square plan, rise through levels with single and two-light openings that culminate in crenellations. Below the portico, is the central Porta dei Re, the ancient main entrance to the building.
Interior – Entrance from the right side of the church. The church has a latin cross floorplan divided into three naves by columns bearing fine capitals carved in the Sicilian-Norman style. The chancel is adorned with wonderful mosaics, in a spectacular array of colours on a gold background. The eye is immediately attracted to the huge majestic image of the Christ Pantocrator gazing down from the apse, his right hand raised in benediction, his left holding a sacred scroll inscribed with text from St. John’s Gospel (Chapter 8, verse 12): “I am the light of the world; he who followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall gave the light of life”.
Below, on three different levels, the Virgin attended by four Archangels and the Twelve Apostles are imbued with sensitivity and gentleness of a kind far removed from the more typical wooden face-on portrayals normally associated with Byzantine art. On the side-walls are other mosaics from the late-1200s depicting prophets, the saints and the partriarchs. The angels in the vault date from the same period. To the right of the choir is the old bishop’s throne and, on the left, the royal marble and mosaic throne (currently under restoration). The cloister, that has been closed for years, preserves columns and capitals in the same style as Monreale’s.
At the end of Corso Ruggero, turn right to Piazza Crispi, where is the Chiesa dell’Idria, flanked by the Bastione di Capo Marchiafava, where the view spans a large stretch of coastline. Nearby, along Via Porpora, behind Via Giudecca, lie a tower with a postern (an opening that allowed only one person to pass at a time) and remains of ancient fortifications. Climb back up and along Via Ortolano di Bordonaro to Piazza Marina. From here, Via Vittorio Emanuele leads past Porta Pescara, which stands immediately off to the right – the only surviving of the four medieval city gateways. It is currently used to display a collection of fishing equipment.
A little further on is the cosy Via Mandralisca leading to the museum of the same name. Set into the paving (at the end, near Piazza del Duomo) is Cefalù’s coat of arms: three fishes with a loaf of bread, all symbols of Christianity (the fish being an acronym of the word Christ), while also referring to the town’s economic resources.
Museo Mandralisca – The museum was founded at the request of one of Cefalù’s most generous benefactors, Baron Enrico Piraino di Mandralisca, a 1900’s art collectot who bequeathed his art treasures and extensive library (more than 6,000 books, among which are many 1500’s pieces). The museum holds a collection of coins and medals; a series of paintings among which is the beautiful Portrait of Unknown by Antonello da Messina around 1470; archaeological relics mostly from Lipari, among which is an unusual bell-shaped Krater illustrating a tuna seller (4th century BC); a changing selection of molluscs taken from an extensive collection of some 2,000, and a variety of objects d’art, among which is a Chinese puzzle in ivory.
Return to Via Vittorio Emanuele. A little further along, on the right, is the medieval wash-house, that is referred to as ‘u ciumi, used by the town’s womenfolk until comparatively recently.
La Rocca – It takes about 20 minutes to reach the Tempio di Diana and another 40 to get to the top. A path leads uphill from Corso Ruggero and Via dei Saraceni to the top of the promontory. The first stretch of the trail leads past the ancient crenellated walls before rising steeply; particularly tiring in the midday heat of summer, it is best tackled in the early morning or at dusk. From the top extends a wonderful view ranging from Capo d’Orlando to Palermo. Below, to the east, the town is protected by the promontory marked by a lookout tower, the Torre Caldura, with only few remains surviving. In particularly clear days the Aeolian Islands are clearly visible. Finds on this rocky outcrop confirm it to have accommodated the earliest settlements in the area with evidence from different periods in history including the ruins of an ancient Greek megalithic building, known as Tempio di Diana. At the top, are remnants of a castle dating from between the 12th-13th century, recently restored.
EXCURSION INLAND 59km round trip
The short circuit includes a climb up to the Santuario di Gibilmanna, on the slopes of Pizzo Sant’Angelo along a panoramic road. From Cefalù, follow signs for the Santuario di Gibilmanna.
Santuario di Gibilmanna – The shrine dedicated to the Virgin is set amidst oak and walnut woods at some 800m a.s.l. Its name refers (from Arabic Jabel meaning ‘mountain’) to its location atop a mount, while the second part relates to the tradition, now obsolete, of making manna. Of ancient origin – it is supposed to have been one of the six Benedictine communities or coenobites founded at the behest of Gregory the Great in the 6th century –, it passed to the Capuchin Friars Minor in 1535. The present building is the result of numerous changes, above all in the Baroque period. The façade was rebuilt in 1907. The Santuario is a destination of pilgrims on 8 September, the Virgin’s Day. Inside, the Cappella della Madonna (1625) preserves an 11th century Byzantine fresco depicting the Virgin and Child dating from an earlier Benedictine building, and a statue of the Virgin, possibly the work of Antonello Gagina, set into an ornamented baroque altar.
The building next to the convent, once used as a stable and guest-rooms, was converted into an interesting Museum dedicated to the life and culture of the Capuchin Friars of the Demone Valley. On display are 1600’s-1700’s sacred vestments, paintings, tools (the community was completely self-sufficient), objects worked from base materials such as wood, tin and wax, as was the custom for this order. Of particular interest are a polyptych by Frà Feliciano (at the time he was Domenico Guargena), a 1500’s alabaster rosary belonging to Frà Giuliano da Placia and a small 1700’s reed organ. The catacombs contain the reliquaries in painted tin or wood made by the friasrs.
Isnello – Isnello is a little holiday resort, a starting-point for excursions on foot through the surrounding area. It occupies a fine position clinging to the rock in the middle of a gorge surrounded by high limestone walls. Its narrow streets reveal a typical medieval layout.
Go back towards the Santuario, at the junction (signposted for Piano delle Fate) turn left along another panoramic road, leading through the villages of Gratteri, whose centre retains a medieval feel, and Lascari, and then continues on down to the coast and Cefalù.