Hello From Sicily – Medieval Treasures In Cefalu

Hello From Sicily – Medieval Treasures In Cefalu

Hello From Sicily – Medieval Treasures In Cefalu

An early morning was in store for me: I decided to accompany my newly found friend and sailing buddy Claudia to her bus which would take her to the airport in Catania to return back to her home in Germany. Right next to the bus station, a few steps from the municipal buildings of Milazzo, was a bus stop for a local bus that was going to the train station. I inquired with the bus driver who told me he would be leaving within 10 minutes. Perfect! My backpack contained all the necessities for a day excursion by train to Cefalu, a gorgeous medieval town about two hours west of Milazzo.

So Claudia and I had to say goodbye, after spending more than a week together, having enjoyed our intense sailing experience through the Eolian Islands. After a big hug and the promise that we would both see each other again, we went our separate ways. A fifteen minute bus ride took me to Milazzo’s rather unremarkable train station on the outskirts of town where I caught the 8:12 am train to Cefalu.

I enjoyed two hours of the beautiful ride along the northern coastline of Sicily, past hills, villages, orchards and vineyards. Just after 10:15 I arrived in this medieval town and I noticed right away that this was a popular tourist destination. The walk downtown was very quick and within 10 minutes I had reached the old medieval section of town. Corso Ruggero is the town’s main street and lined with many retail shops featuring food, fashion and local handicrafts, particularly some of the brightly painted earthenware items such as vases and huge round plates.

Today were municipal elections and several polling stations had been set up around town to allow the locals to cast their vote. I had reached the main square, Piazza Duomo, which is anchored on the eastern side by Cefalu’s Cathedral, an enormous imposing building, starting in 1131 under Norman ruler Roger I. A beautiful square flanked by numerous outdoor cafes was stretching up towards the steps of the Duomo whose size truly dwarfs all the other surrounding houses.

The Cathedral dominates the square with its two massive bell towers. I walked into church but a mass was just being held for a group of boys and girls who were celebrating their First Communion. Far away from the entrance door I could see the extremely well-preserved gigantic Byzantine stone mosaic of Christ Pantocrator with the Virgin Mary, dating back to 1148. Norman churches are generally very rare, and their grey stone austerity differs greatly from the generously ornamented baroque churches that are much more common throughout Europe and Latin America.

From here I started to explore the old town of Cefalu. I walked all the way to Via Ortolano, the street furthest north which is separated from the seafront by a row of houses. The Capo Marchiafava rampart, a fortification dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, testifies to the strategic importance of this town on the northern coast of Sicily.

As a matter of fact, similar to other areas of Sicily, Cefalu has been inhabited for thousands of years. During the Greek era it was called Cephaloedis (meaning “head”), and the Greeks, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Romans, Normans and many other feudal groups left their mark on this town. Narrow houses with small windows are built together, and most of them feature hidden interior courtyards, private sanctuaries for generations.

At the northern end of Via Ortolano is an opening towards the small fishing harbour of Cefalu. A small sandy beach provided a great opportunity for local kids to cool off, restaurants with outdoor terraces invited to have a cool drink, and Japanese tourists, well sheltered from the noon time sun, were sitting in a corner of the beach, painting the scenic waterfront.

I relaxed a bit on a bench, watching the scene and continued my walk westwards along Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main street running along the northern waterfront of Cefalu, separated from the water by narrow medieval fishermen’s houses.

One of the popular sights in Cefalu is the Gothic-style “Porta Marina”, also called “Porta dei Pescatori” (Fishermen’s Gate), the only remaining of four city gates and a popular spot for photographers. A few steps away from here is the “lavatoio”, a public laundry washing area with a stone fountain with numerous basins that were used until recently to wash clothes by hand.

I strolled through the narrow streets which were now getting quieter since the afternoon siesta time had started. Cefalu is flanked on its eastern side by a rocky promontory called “La Rocca” which towers over the town and promised to provide a perfect vantage point of the area.

So I strolled up to the Piazza Duomo and beside the ancient Norman cathedral I found a narrow side street that was running right along the base of the rock. A few hundred meters further inland the pathway started to climb upwards, with the view getting increasingly more impressive. About 15 minutes into the climb I reached a gate with two local municipal employees who were charging admission of 3.50 Euros to the rock. I figured it was worth it, paid the fee and continued my climb.

Looking up towards the top of the rock I saw the stony ruins of a fortification dating back to the 12th and 13th century. Once I had reached the plateau below the summit I saw a number of ancient structures, including the “Tempio di Diana”, a megalithic structure dating back to about the 9th century BC.

The noon time sun was too hot for me to try to make it all the way to the Norman fortification ruins at the top of the mountain so I walked along the forested plateau towards a lookout area that provided an astounding view of the centre of Cefalu. The rock walls descended almost vertically down, and this vantage point allowed me to look almost straight down into the courtyard of the Norman Cathedral. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the views over the turquoise coastline of Sicily were simply phenomenal. I sat down for a bit to rest and soak it all in.

Then I strolled along the lower fortification walls which cap off the plateau area just before the precipitous drop of the rock and caught a good look westwards of the town and the coastal mountains inland. I have traveled a fair bit in the last few years, but the beauty of Sicily is indeed quite overwhelming.

The heat had made me thirsty and I figured it was time to head back into town to sit down in some patio and take in some fluids. Naturally, the walk down was much quicker than the climb up and within about 25 minutes I had reached the old town. It was the middle of the afternoon and everything was shut down now, typical siesta-style. I did find a local bar that served me an ice-cold limonata (actually two or three since I was absolutely parched) and I was listening to some Australian tourists talking loudly at the next table. There seemed to be quite a few Aussies in this town, along with some German and French tourists. Definitely not too many North American travelers though…

After quenching my thirst I took a stroll along the waterfront promenade in the modern portion of Cefalu. Dozens of street vendors, mostly of North African background, had set up tables to sell belts, inexpensive jewelry, electronic gadgets and all sorts of other knick-knacks. People were lounging along the long sandy beach in the new part of this town and it certainly looked like a great place for some sun-worshipping.

I felt a little exhausted from all the hiking in the hot sun and decided to head back to Milazzo and caught a train back. I really enjoyed the two hour train ride, all the windows were open and the warm air was blowing through my train compartment. In my head I was still trying to process all the beautiful images that I had seen in this exquisite historic town.

After a quiet evening and a stroll along the Lungomare (to watch the ritual of the passegiata, the daily stroll along the waterfront), I had a nice relaxing evening in the apartment, reading, sitting on the balcony, and looking forward to my final discoveries of Milazzo and its surrounding areas tomorrow.