What to see
Situated on the northern coast of Sicily, about 70 km from Palermo, Cefalù is a town of about 15,000 inhabitants and one of the greatest seaside resorts in the province of Palermo. The town, which is part of the Madonie Park (Regional Nature Park, which includes fifteen municipalities in the province) is included in the club of the most beautiful villages of Italy, which means a unique combination of small Italian towns which are distinguished by artistic, cultural and historical interest and by the harmony of the urban livability and services to citizens. Built, probably at the end of the 5th century B.C., on a promontory dominated by an imposing rock, Cefalù took its name from the Greek Kefaloidion, whose meaning is bound with the characteristic shape of the rock that rises above it, like a head. Over the centuries the town was dominated by Greeks, Syracusians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. Traces of a pre-Hellenic settlement are the megalithic walls, which surrounds the current historical center, and the Temple of Diana, situated high on the rock, La Rocca. The Roman domination influenced the geometric and regulated urban layout, while traces of the Byzantine age (crenellated walls, barracks, storage tanks, churches and furnaces) are located on the rock where at that time inhabitants lived. The town however, is most famous for its medieval feel and monuments at the base of La Rocca.
The Cefalù Cathedral is one of Sicily’s major Norman monuments built by Roger II between 1131 and 1240 as an act of thanks to God after surviving a shipwreck nearby. In the Cathedral the Norman architecture and Arab, Byzantine, Latin and Nordic art are harmoniously combined in a wonderful synthesis of styles. The dominant feature of the cathedral are the two majestic towers with battlements. Each spire is different: one has a square plan surrounded by flame-shaped merlons, the latter symbolizing the Papal authority and the mitre; the other has an octagonal plan and Ghibelline merlons, symbolizing the Royal and the temporal power. The façade has a magnificent portico, with three arches supported by four columns and an imposing, richly decorated marble portal, dating back to the15th century. The battlement on the south side and the presence of numerous underground passages contribute in giving the building the look of a fortress. The interior of the Cefalù cathedral is Latin cross plan. The nave is divided by arches supported by marble columns, while the wooden ceiling, with its painted beams, bears an obvious Islamic influence. It was probably planned that the entire church should be decorated in mosaic, but it was only completed in the presbyterium area. It still covers the apse and some half of the side walls. Roger II brought masters in the technique of mosaic from Constantinople. They adapted their traditional Byzantine decorative art to an architectural structure that was Northern European origin. The dominant figure of the decorative scheme is the bust of the Christ Pantokrator, portrayed with a hand raised in Benediction on the semi-dome of the apse. In his left hand he carries the Gospel of John, in which can be read, in Greek and Latin: "I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in the darkness but will have the light of life" (John, 8:12). The mosaic decoration that includes other figures too is considered the finest Byzantine mosaic in Italy.
Next to the Cathedral there is the charming Cloister of Cefalù which has four galleries of slender twin columns surmounted by carved capitals decorated with Biblical figures and mythological scenes.
This was Roger II's favorite home before it was owned by the Ventimiglia, a feudal family who ruled the whole Madonie area for years. It bears two architectural styles. The façade, in volcanic rock and gilded stone with its two elegant two-colour gemeled windows, dates back to the 13th century. The square tower, instead, dates back to the 14th century. Its trefoil window, which is surmounted by a magnificent arch, is in the Sicilian chiaramonte style. The Osterio, now completely restored, is used for art exhibitions and lectures.
La Rocca of Cefalù, the rock, known by the Phoenicians as Hercules promontory, is a massive spectacular calcareous crag with an altitude of 270 meters. The mythological and legendary origins tell of the importance of the area. A Greek myth tells of the love and despair of the handsome shepherd Daphnis, Sicily's Orpheus. He was blinded by the goddess Hera whose daughter he had betrayed, and was then transformed by the god Hermes into the huge crag that dominates Cefalù and that gave the place its name. The ancient Greek inhabitants saw it as a gigantic head, and "head" is in fact the meaning of the town's name.
Sitting at the top of La Rocca there are the remains of the Cefalù Castle. The structure dates back to the 13th-14th Centuries. It had a rectangular plan of 35 m. x 20 meters. What is left of these ancient stones has made it possible for experts to formulate a firm hypothesis on the layout of the castle which consisted of two towers and twelve rooms. The castle dominates the surroundings of Cefalù showing how important strategically La Rocca and castle once were.
The Temple of Diana
Near the ruins of the fortress at the top of the rock of Cefalù are the remnants of the Temple of Diana, a Megalithic building which dates back to the 9th Century BC. It is believed to have originally had a sacred function connected with local water worship, in fact, into it there is a cistern which also dates back to the 9th Century BC. Because of its strategic position, which dominates the surrounding area, the building probably had a defensive role as well.
The most remarkable testimony of the Kephaloidon (Cefalù) are the fortifications, the so-called "megalithic walls" built with the technique of dry stone with huge blocks three feet thick. The walls, still very well preserved today, most notably on the northern side, encompassed the whole town giving it the appearence of an unconquerable stronghold. Up to the 600’s, along the walls, opened four doors: two to the south, "Land Door" in Piazza Garibaldi, and "Osuna Door" in Columbus Square, to the west, "the door of the Navy or weir" and to the east "Giudecca door".
The lovely Porta Marina of Cefalù with the Gothic arch is the only remaining city gate of the four that once afforded access to the town. It leads to the colourful fishermen's quarter, where scenes were shot for the film Cinema Paradiso.
Marchiafava Bastion is a splendid terrace on the sea of Cefalù from which, on clear days, the Aeolian Islands and a large stretch of the eastern coastline are distinctly visible.
The Medieval wash-house
Is located at the mouth of the Cefalino, a little river which originates in the mountains surrounding Cefalù. After running for some kilometers underground and beneath some of the houses in town, the river flows here into the sea. An ancient Greek myth says that the water is actually the tears of a river nymph who is still crying for the death of her beloved husband. An elegant lava staircase leads to the basins carved in the rocks where the water flows through 22 gisa vents, 15 of which have the form of lion heads. The Lavatoio was used by women until recent times, who knelt to wash their clothes by hand on the stone scrubbers.
This museum was founded by Enrico Piraino, the Baron of Mandralisca, in the 19th century and includes fine archaeological, shell and coin collections. It also houses an art gallery and a library with over 9.000 historic and scientific works, including incunabulum, 16th-century books and nautical charts. Among the most important paintings are ‘”The portrait of man” by Antonello da Messina, “View of Cefalù” by Francesco Bevilacqua, “Christ on judgment day” by Johannes De Matta, and a series of icons on the second floor. Archaeological jewels include a late hellenistic mosaic and a 4th- century BC krater with a figure of a tuna fish cutter.