Visiting Cefalu, the Jewel of Sicily
Situated on the northern coast of Sicily facing the beautiful Tyrrhenian Sea sits one of the most beautiful coastal villages in all of Italy. Relatively unknown to those of us in the western hemisphere, this quaint fishing village is steeped in history and charm.
The origins of Cefalu go back to at least the 3rd century BC. Although it is unclear precisely when the community was founded it is known to be of Greek origin. It was most likely that Cefalu, which was known then as Cephaloedium, was used as just a fortress early on and was not settled until refugees arrived following the destruction of Himera, another Greek colony on the coast.
The first recorded mention of Cefalu in history was found to be in 396 BC when the Carthaginians signed a treaty with the Himeraeans and the residents of Cephaloedium. For those not familiar with the terminology here the Carthaginians are Arab North African and the Himeraeans are Greek.
The village of Cefalu went on to change hands many times over the centuries and at various times was controlled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, Normans and of course the Italians. While the history of Cefalu is long and complicated, today life here is simple and remarkably uncomplicated.
Carthaginians: Arab civilization located in North Africa. Established settlements throughout the Mediterranean, Spain and Africa.
Himeraeans: The inhabitants of Himera, which was the first Greek settlement on the north cost of Sicily.
As you approach Cefalu your attention will quickly be drawn to La Rocca or the “Rock” as it is referred to. This large rock formation casts a shadow on the village and makes for a very scenic backdrop to the community. There are some ruins remaining at the top of the rock and along parts the climb, and it is evident that at one time there was a presence on top of the Rock.
There is a path that leads to the top of La Rocca and it passes the ruins of the Temple of Diana along the way. The climb takes visitors up 290 meters and should take about 40 minutes or so. At the top is what is thought to be the ruins of a 13th-century castle known as the Cefalu Castle. With its great view of the coast and the village below, the castle may have been a key to protecting the town and its harbor.
The Village of Cefalu sits directly on the coast and has what I think is one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in all of Sicily. Not all beaches in Sicily are sand, many are rocky, but Cefalu has been blessed with fine golden sand that runs the length of the beach.
If you are looking for a beach holiday in a quaint and scenic Sicilian village then Cefalu certainly makes for a great destination. The beach, known as Lungomare, is easy to get to and is just a short walk from the town’s main road. There are numerous lidos up and down the beach that offer umbrellas and beach chairs for a fee. There are also public stretches of the beach that are free. From October to April the entire stretch of beach is free of the lidos and is considered public.
Tip: If you want to rent a beach chair or umbrella they get cheaper the farther away from the town center that you get.
The Duomo of Cefalu
The focal point of Cefalu is undoubtedly its Duomo, which sits prominently at the base of La Rocca.
Constructed in 1131 by the Norman King, Roger II, the Cathedral stands guard over Cefalu with its twin towers visible from anywhere in the village. Originally designed to double as a fortress, the cathedral resembles a fortified castle.
Legend has it that Roger II, the King of Sicily at the time, was lost at sea during a storm and made a vow to his Savior that if his life were spared he would build a grand Cathedral in his honor. He survived the storm and landed on the beaches of Cefalu.
Fulfilling his vow, Roger II began construction of this magnificent Cathedral in 1131. Unfortunately, he died in 1154 and did not see the Cathedral of Cefula completed. It was not until 1267 that the cathedral was finally completed and consecrated. The body of King Roger II and that of his wife were originally interred in the Cathedral but were later moved to the Cathedral of Palermo
Duomo of Cefalu
As you approach the Duomo you will notice that in addition to the twin towers there are the three arches over the portico. The portico was not part of the original construction but was added in the 15th century. The cathedral sits in the beautiful Piazza Duomo and this area makes for a great meeting spot or a place to sit and unwind while having a cappuccino or a gelato.
Once inside the cathedral, the long open timber ceiling leads the eye to the main apse and the magnificent mosaic of the Christ Pantokrator. Depicted holding the Gospel of John in his left hand, the mosaic work here is simply amazing and is considered some of the best-preserved in all of Sicily. The mosaics that cover the apse and parts of the side walls were done by craftsmen from Constantinople and are considered some of the finest Byzantine mosaic work in all of Italy. Consider for a moment that each tiny piece of stone, marble or glass is about the size of a dice and was cut and set by hand. One can only imagine how many pieces it took to cover the walls of this cathedral.
When you are done marveling at the stunning craftsmanship of the Duomo and have had enough sun at the beach it is time to partake in one of Cefalu’s best activities, walking its narrow, winding, medieval streets. The old section of Cefalu is a maze of unique shops, cafes, and wonderful restaurants. It is here that you will discover the charm that makes this village so special.
Cefalu certainly has enough to do that would warrant spending a couple of nights here, especially if you are looking for some relaxing time at the beach interspersed with visits to the old section of town and its churches. Due to its convenient location on the Palermo to Messina rail-line it can also be done as a daytrip from either location. Numerous trains run to and from Palermo and the trip is just under an hour. From Messina the trip is longer and will take from 2 to 2 ½ hours depending on which train you take.
If you find yourself visiting Sicily be sure to consider a stop in Cefalu. Its warm sandy beaches, beautiful setting, and centuries of ancient history combine to make this jewel of the Mediterranean a wonderful vacation destination.
Ciao for now.
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© 2012 Bill De Giulio