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Rediscovery in Cefalu

Posted by Suzanne on 21 Mar 2014

When I am in Sicily I like to travel the scenic SS 643 from Polizzi down to the A roads, the A19 and A20, before taking the coast road, the  SS113 to Cefalu to spend a few summer hours by the sea to rediscover the simple splendour of this seaside town’s 12th century Norman cathedral and the perfect piazza in which it is set.

At Buonfornello the A roads meet and it is the A 20 that leads to Cefalu. As soon as I take this and then join the SS113 my soul is set for Cefalu. 

Cefalu appears:

When the SS113 passes the Mazzaforno exit and before Caffé Santa Lucia, the road narrows and the sight that I wait for appears; a delighful jumble of burnt orange terracotta rooftops with Sicily’s 'loveliest'  12th century Norman Cathedral sitting high behind , nestled at the end of the arced beach in the 'protection' of a limestone headland of mythical proportions at the foot of a headland called, “La Rocca”.

This scene from the western approach, never fails to draw me in. (The historian John Julius Norwich says that it is from the west that Cefalu should first be seen).

I leave the car in an empty allotment, now a makeshift open car park opposite the beach, and walk along Lungomare Giuseppe Giardina to the historic heart, past the blue striped lidos ready for summer tourists.

Piazza del Duomo:

I always head for Piazza del Duomo in the centre, taking long narrow streets and sit at one of the outdoor tables at Bar Duomo facing Sicily’s most divine Norman Cathedral built by the famed Sicilian King, Roger II.

It sits higher than the piazza and with mighty La Rocca 'protective' from behind it has to be one of Italy's most perfectly arranged piazzas. Its setting is unrivalled.

In John Julius Norwich's words, 'it is only on arrival in the central piazza that the full splendour of Cefalu is revealed' and  'one is astounded by the perfection of its placing'.

The Cathedral:

The simple Norman exterior, with two non identical towers joined by a series of Arab inspired blind arcading, is perfect simplicity.

The details are 'uncluttered' and they make a splendid backdrop for; a young, dark haired bride in lace, animated children weaving and swerving on their bikes shouting in Sicilian and people simply watching people while eating ice cream in the warm summer air.

There is more. Up a pyramidal set of stairs and through the iron gates flanked by two baroque bishops the soft light of the interior is always welcoming.

The interior is filled with graceful columns and a 12th century baptismal font carved from a single block of stone. And high arched windows run along the top and light streams in.

It seems quite empty until you look towards the high reaching enormous apse. There is Christ the Pantocrator created in 'pure' Byzantine mosaics. The face has a 'sublime' gaze filled with 'compassion' which transfixes. It is fabulous art.

As I leave the interior, and descend the steep stone stairs and walk through the piazza I have to turn back and look at this beautiful setting again.

It was Roger II, says Norwich, who 'designated' this cathedral as his place of burial. This was never to happen. His remains are in the cathedral of Palermo to the west.

As I take the road back to Polizzi the impressive view of exotic Cefalu seen from the western approach is behind me. If there is time though, I do sometimes take the Mazzaforno exit, to take a final look at the beautiful balanced scene of a bay, jumbled rooftops, a cathedral and a rock.

There really is something in what the American travel writer Peter Jon Lindberg calls, “the soul affirming joy of returning".





Edited August 2015:  This blog has been reviewed and edited to include references to John Julius Norwich's "The Normans in Sicily" section on Cefalu which was part inspiration and background reading for the original blog. I also want to make particular reference to his comment that Cefalu is best seen for the first time from the west. It is always how I love to go to Cefalu. Suzanne

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