An Afternoon In Cefalù

Cefalù is a small fishing village, now a resort thanks to its good sandy beaches, located on the northern coastline of Sicily.

It is just over an hours drive east of Palermo and just over two hours drive west from Messina. The town lies on a strip of land between the sea and a huge promontory looming above. It is one of the most popular seaside resorts on the Tyrrhenian coast, is included in the list of "The most beautiful towns in Italy" and is part of the Madonie National Park.

Cefalù was founded in the 4th century BC but was destroyed by the Norman Count Roger in 1063. It only regained prominence thanks to his son King Roger II who endowed the town with a cathedral decorated with exceptional Byzantine mosaics and made the town a bishopdom.

The modern holiday resorts lie to either side of the town because the village has closed itself to the sea fortifying itself against storms with protective sea walls and its beauty is boasted inward. The cathedrals architecture and mosaics make the village one of Sicily's must sees. Whilst it is a constant tourist draw the village has managed perfectly to retain its medieval character.

Wedged between mountains and coastline Cefalù is perfect for couples and families looking for a low-key seaside escape and is a great base for exploring the northern coastline of Sicily. 

If you are a regular follower of my Blog then you will know that twice a year we drive between London and Sicily with our rescue dog Daisy. Part of our road trip involves taking a 20 hour dog friendly ferry from Genoa to Palermo and vice versa. Returning to the UK the ferry does not leave the port of Palermo until midnight which means that I end up spending the whole of the last day moping around our house with a sad face, so last year we decided to leave a few hours early and stop off somewhere along the way. Last year we spent an wonderful afternoon in Palermo, this year we decided to stop in Cefalù.

Cefalù has always been on our to do list and friends have always exclaimed "Sarah I cannot believe you have never visited there, you will love it, it is definitely your kind of place!!!" and it really was.

The village was used as a filming location in one of my favourite films "Cinema Paradiso" in a scene where the broken hearted Toto is surprised by a kiss when his school sweetheart Elena returns to Sicily after her family moved away. This iconic scene is set during an outdoor summer showing of the movie 'Ulysses' which is being shown at the marina and is interrupted by a rain storm.

The village was known as Kephaloidion and Coaephaledium in Greek and Roman times, meaning head cape or extreme top and in Arabic times it was known as Gafludi meaning fortified city with abundant waters.

Cefalù is a short drive as you turn off the Messina/Palermo autostrada. As we approached in our car we could see the promontory and the medieval village in the distance. On arrival we passed through the outskirts of the town where there are modern buildings, shops and hotels. After parking our car we headed off with our trusty map in search of the centro storico (historic village centre).

Walking along the lungomare, a long sandy beach front lined with restaurants, we reached the beginning of the historic centre which divided into narrow warren like pedestrianised Arabic style alleys with cobbled stones.

We passed many tempting bars and restaurants that if you peeped in through the doors had open terraces looking out over the waterfront and the sea of "The Drunk Rock". There were many small shops full of Sicilian wine, local handicrafts, souvenirs and antiques that were begging to be explored.

As we walked through the village along Via Vittorio Emanuele we fell in love with Cefalù's charm and were eager to find the cathedral. On our way we saw the Women's Benedictine Monastery and the Church of Santa Caterina, the Churches of San Sebastiano and San Leonardo, the Church of the Purgatory and Church of Immacolatella, the Bishops palace, just to name a few.

Turning up an enticing alley with washing strewn across from building to building the cathedral beckoned to us at the end. As we walked along we passed secret little courtyards full of brightly coloured flowers.The alley opened up into Piazza Duomo which was a hub bub of activity boasting chic cafes and gelaterie shaded by tall palms trees with the cathedral overlooking the piazza with pride.

The cathedral is a Roman Catholic basilica and it is one of nine structures included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Arab-Norman Palermo along with the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale.

The cathedral was erected in 1131 in a typical Norman architectural style. According to legend the building was erected after a vow made to the Holy Saviour by King Roger II whilst sailing by boat from Salerno on the mainland back home to Palermo. He escaped from a violent sea storm by landing on the beach. King Roger knew that in the storm he and his crew would not be able to survive or make it safely back to Palermo and so they decided to head for the nearest headland and he vowed that wherever they reached he would build a cathedral. He liked Cefalù so much that he chose the cathedral for his last resting place instead of in the cathedral of Palermo.

The building has a fortress-like character and seen from a distance it dominates the skyline of its surroundings. It makes a powerful statement of Norman rule in Sicily.

Construction began in 1131, the apse mosaics were begun in 1145 and the sarcophagi that Roger II provided for his tomb and that of his wife were put in place the same year. Unfortunately in 1154 the sudden death of King Roger prevented the church being finished and his body was laid to rest in Palermo.

On arrival at the cathedral a Sicilian wedding party was just exiting, (we always seem to gate crash Sicilian weddings wherever we go). As we entered our breath was taken away by the mosaics inside which the cathedral is famous for. The mosaics are considered to be among the greatest Byzantine mosaics in Italy because they were created by artisans brought to Sicily from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire. The motifs are religious and they portray Christ, the Virgin Mary, archangels, the apostles and angels.

Decorating the semi-dome of the area behind the altar, the Christ Pantocrator is considered the most important mosaics of the cathedral and is considered second only to that which adorns the cathedral of Monreale. A Pantocrator is a representation of Christ sitting on a throne, blessing with the right hand and holding a bible with his left hand. The Christ here is depicted wearing blue clothes, which creates a strong contrast with the golden background. The image dominates the central apse, underneath is the Madonna flanked by archangels and then the twelve apostles.

After 1172 the church suffered a period of decline and therafter construction was resumed with the façade being completed in 1240. As we exited the cathedral we descended the many steps leading down which were full of excited wedding guests waiting for the next wedding.

Looming above the cathedral is the mountain of La Rocca which for those of you who are energetic enough you can climb and see the Tempio di Diana, a forth century temple ruin overlooking the town and coastline, for the even more energetic you can climb right to the top. The northern coastline of Sicily boasts stunning sunsets and on the top of La Rocca is one of the best places to watch the molton Sicilian sun crash into the western hemisphere. Due to time restraints we decided against doing the climb plus it might have been a bit too much for Daisy's little legs, plus it was a very hot and humid day with dark storm clouds gathering over the Madonie Mountains.

Another place that we were told to visit but were unable to do so with Daisy was the Museo Mandralisca which has a small collection of Greek ceramics, Arabic pottery and some Italian Renaissance portraits its most famous being the 'Portrait of an Unknown Man' by the 15th century Sicilian master painter Antonello de Messina. The museum dates back nearly two centuries and is the personal art collection of Barone Mandralisca.

After leaving Piazza Duomo we were starting to feel a bit thirsty and were in desperate need of a cold crisp glass of Sicilian white wine, so from the piazza we headed off down Corso Ruggiero (Ruggiero meaning Roger) where we ended up following a happy bride and groom down the cobbled alleyway that were having their wedding photos taken. I have to say that Cefalù really is a romantic destination to get married and it boasts some very beautiful venues nearby.

Our next port of call was Piazza Marina and the picturesque harbour, as seen in Cinema Paradiso, whose wall reaches out to sea giving you a boats eye view of the town. This location is one of the most photographed scenes on the island and sure to invoke insta-envy with your Instagram followers. Here there is a busy little beach with brightly coloured fishing boats.

After stopping for our glass of white wine at Bar Molo 19, a restaurant bar overlooking the marina, and nibbling on biscuits the shape of little fishes we sat and watched the world go by but it was soon time for us to leave Cefalù and head off to Palermo to board our ferry to Genoa. However there was one more discovery along our walk back to our car.

As we walked back along Via Vittorio Emanuele our dog Daisy discovered some stone stairs leading down under an archway which led to the Lavatoio Medievale, an old wash house. This old wash house dates back to medieval times and was used by the inhabitants of the village for centuries. The structure was built over the River Cefalino which stems from a source in the Madonie Mountains. It is located at sea level and is approximately four metres below street level.

The orginal structure was much closer to the sea but it was demolished in 1514. The river on which the wash house was rebuilt on is said to have originated from the tears of a nymph who accidently caused the death of her lover. Water still flows into the wash houses numerous rectangular tanks and pools flowing from twenty two cast iron openings, fifteen of which are lions heads. It eventually leaves via covered tunnels that flow into the sea. The wash house was used by locals well into the 20th century to wash clothes and in 1991 was restored to its former glory.

At the top of the stairs there is a stone plaque that reads, "Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow".

We drove to Cefalù but it is easy to reach by train from Palermo or Messina. The nearest airport is Palermo.

Excursions are available from Taormina and are usually combined with a visit first to Palermo and Monreale.

If you are planning to stay in Cefalù my advice would be to avoid high season as it will be overrun with summer visitors, out of season is sometimes best.

From Cefalù it is easy to visit Palermo, the beautiful Madonie Mountains with its attractive towns, Himera which was one of the first Greek settlements on Sicily's northern coast, Santo Stéfano di Camastra a town renowned for its colourful ceramics, Tindari with its sanctuary of the Black Madonna and the Aeolian Islands that appear out at sea like mysterious apparitions. A street food tour is also a fun experience through the medieval alleys.

Beaches on the northern coast are famous for their golden sand and apart from the small beach near Piazza Marina and the main stretch along the Lungomare there are many close by, each one different to the other.

The town has many bars and restaurants both in the village and along the Lungomare offering fresh fish caught that day and fine Sicilian wines. The best way to enjoy the village is to get lost in its narrow alleys and enjoy the unique atmosphere.

If you like Taormina then I think you just might like Cefalù.

We fell in love with this charming medieval town and as we watched the sun set into the sea on our way to Palermo we vowed "Cefalù … we will be back!!!!!"

If you loved this post then you might enjoy this one from my Blog archive:"an afternoon in Palermo"2018/07/an-afternoon-in-palermo.html
also"Cinema Paradiso … Movie Locations"2020/05/cinema-paradiso-movie-locations.html

My Cefalù Photo Album

Last month the 5* Hotel 'La Calette' in Cefalu celebrated it's 50th Year Anniversary
I was invited by the team from the Times of Sicily to the celebrations unfortunately I was unable to attend
BUT here is a great review of the spectacular evening by the Editor,
 the lovely Giovanni Morreale


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Britains Got Talent winner
"Paul Potts" performing LIVE at beautiful
Villa Cristina Scopello
24th August 2019
An event not to be missed !!!!!
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Love Sarah & DaisyWE ❤ CEFALÙ