Cefalù, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, is one of the most evocative destinations on the island. It is located on the northern coast of Sicily, in a strategic position, to say the least: about an hour from Palermo and Capo d’Orlando, on the A20 road.
For the Greeks, it was Kephaloidion, “head” or “headland” (most likely referring to its promontory), and the Romans knew it as Coephaledium. The Arabs called it Gafludi, “fortified city with abundant waters”.
The town is dominated by a monumental rock rising to a height of 270 metres, already known to the Phoenicians as the promontory of Hercules, on which stands the Temple of Diana, a megalithic building linked to the cult of water, as indicated by the nearby cistern dating from the 9th century BC.
The historic quarter lies in the shadow of this bastion and clusters around its beating heart, which is undoubtedly the Duomo, a gigantic cathedral commissioned by Ruggero II The Norman.
According to legend, the cathedral was built in this city and not in Palermo, the capital of the kingdom, following a vow made to the Holy Saviour by Roger himself, who had escaped a storm and landed on the town’s beaches. It is more likely to have been built for political and military reasons, given the connotations of the area and the undeniable peculiarities of a natural fortress and the outsized proportions of the Basilica, all amplified by the ancient megalithic walls of which evidence remains along the Giudecca cliffs (Postierla) and at the ancient Porta Terra (today’s Piazza Garibaldi).
Although it may seem strange, this symbol of the power of a Norman sovereign was inspired by the skills and mastery of Islamic craftsmen and architects. The design scheme is the same as that of other masterpieces in Palermo, inspired by the magnificence of the Zirite and Hammadite palace-fortresses typical of Maghreb architecture. It is a daunting structure, compact in the block with two towers yet luminous due to the gold of the walls and the reflections of the mosaics. Inside, the imposing colonnade marks the rhythm of the room and leads the eye to the benevolent gaze of the Christ Pantocrator, a marvellous Byzantine mosaic on a gold background with Greek and Latin inscriptions. The wooden cross suspended in the central apse is attributed to Guglielmo da Pesaro. Also noteworthy are the cloister attached to the cathedral, decorated with sculpted columns and capitals, and the Romanesque baptismal font.
There is also much to admire in medieval Cefalù. The Palazzo Maria in Piazza Duomo and the 13th-century Osterio Magno in Corso Ruggero, owned by the conti Ventimiglia, have two beautiful 13th-century mullioned windows and a 14th-century triple lancet window.
The medieval washhouse, entirely dug into the rock and in daily use until not long ago, can be reached via a suggestive lava stone staircase known as “a lumachella“.
We find ourselves in a semi-covered space, occupied by a series of ancient basins, where the water of the fiume Cefalino flows from twenty-two cast-iron mouths, some of which are in the shape of a lion’s head.
In this setting, steeped in history and culture, we immediately feel projected into the past, amidst the songs and cries of Sicilian washerwomen busy with their daily rituals.
The covered area is surmounted by a large ogival arch with a strong Arab influence and, on the right-hand side of the entrance, we notice an unusual inscription that takes us back to an ancient legend: “Qui scorre Cefalino, più salubre di qualunque altro fiume, più puro dell’argento, più freddo della neve – Here flows Cefalino, more salubrious than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow“. Legend has it that the Kefalinus River was created by the tears of a nymph who regretted having punished the betrayal of her lover with death.
This is a visit not to be missed – a place that offers a magnificent glimpse of medieval Sicilian life.
If you want to admire Cefalù’s Baroque Architecture, so pause to take a look at the façades of the Monte della Pietà (1716) and the beautiful Chiesa del Purgatorio (1668) as well as the countless portals, corbels and other architectural details that adorn the streets and squares of the historic centre, which is still medieval in layout.
It would be a shame to leave Cefalù without dropping by the Museo Mandralisca to admire the extraordinary “Ritratto d’Ignoto” by Antonello da Messina and, for fans of the genre, delve into the rectangular crypt crypt of the Chiesa del Purgatorio in which completely dried corpses are preserved.
After this interesting immersion in art and culture, all that’s left to do is to find a good spot in front of the beautiful sea and order fresh fish while waiting for the sunset and the spectacle of the illuminated harbour that lights up the night.
Not far from the town centre, there is a beautiful illuminated pathway that runs along the cliffs, a beautiful place to relax and contemplate the sunset. And speaking of enchanting views, after having taken a beautiful postcard from Porta Pescara, we immortalise in a photo our visit to the marvellous pier, where a romantic bench awaits us!
A delicacy of the village is pasta a taianu, that is pasta in a pot, seasoned with meat, fried aubergines, pine nuts, sultanas and pecorino cheese placed in layers in a large earthenware pot.
Food is culture, and tasting it is a way to visit and learn about Cefalù’s history.
Cefalù’s dishes also reflect the local buildings: such as carne murata, reminiscent of a Norman stronghold, built in layers with meat, onions and potatoes and topped with fresh basil, oregano and pepper.