When Roger II was ship wrecked off the coast of Cefalu in 1131 he decided to build a great church at the base of the rocky promontory ‘La Rocca’ as a way of giving thanks to God for his salvation. To this day the attractive medieval town of Cefalu is dominated by the solid structure of the Cathedral.
We arrived in Cefalu in late October. The sun was shining and there were people sitting on the beach. There was even a small child paddling in the water. Every Sicilian will tell you that swimming outside the months of June, July and August is likely to lead to pneumonia and possible death. So there’s no way that child was Sicilian. The beach was clean, the water lapped gently on the shore. Colourful houses tumbled down the hillside in a haphazard, disorganised fashion. I love the inter-connected nature of these little towns, houses on the beach (literally), the city wall separating the town from the beach. All in close proximity. We entered the town through an archway that leads slightly uphill along a cobbled street. Small shops line the route, numerous souvenir shops but also everyday shops too; bakery, ironmonger, grocer, hair-dresser. Everywhere we looked we saw smiling faces, happy people, smart little shops. Cleanliness, order and contentment filled the air.
Our driver Giuseppe had told us to look out for the public laundry, which we found quite easily. Descending a short flight of steps there was a washing area that served as the laundry for the town for centuries. There is a fast-flowing stream that makes it’s way under the streets providing the perfect spot for a series of stone wash boards, various troughs and a constant, clean, replenishing supply of crystal clear water. There’s even washing positions for about half a dozen laundresses at a time. I’ve always had a thing about laundry, if I was a Beatrix Potter character I’d be Mrs Tiggywinkle. Mrs Tiggywinkle was a hedgehog and, most importantly, an excellent laundress. Her handkerchiefs were perfectly washed, pure white and crisp (with just a hint of starch). I’m intrigued to think of the washer-women of Cefalu in days gone by, washing the family clothes, gossiping and chatting as they scrubbed away the dirt and grime from the family linen.
It’s the purity of the water that is so striking. The water cascades into the laundry area quite rapidly, the perfect place to wash the clothes of the town’s folk before the water tumbles back into the sea. No doubt this was the centre of gossip and conversation amongst the womenfolk of the town in medieval times. It would have been fascinating to evesdrop on those exchanges…….
As we continue our stroll through the old town I purchase a rather beautiful map of Sicily, we photograph doorways, clothes lines, street signs. The town is enchanting. We encounter what looks like a Roman Olive Oil shop – the sign says Magazzino dell’olio. There are more than a dozen huge terracotta amphorae embedded in vast stone troughs lining both sides of the building. In fact this is part of the Museo Mandralisca. A private palazzo that is now a museum. The museum gives a glimpse into the life of a wealthy Cefalu family. The owner Enrico Piraino Mandralisca was a great collector of the 19th century, he established the house and its fabulous furniture, art and ceramics. He even re-created the olive oil store to show how the family’s oil would have been stored and then used, as required, in the palazzo kitchen.
A little further up hill we emerge into the piazza – beautiful, elegant, smart, elevated. The Cathedral dominates the square with it’s twin towers and raised ‘square’ lined with palm trees. They say that the raised area outside the church was created with earth from Jerusalem (this is highly unlikely)! According to historian John Julius Norwich one of the finest mosaics in the whole of Sicily is inside. It is called Christ The Pantocrator. It is an image of Christ on the domed ceiling of the apse. Christ has his hand raised to bless those that view him. In his left hand he carries an open book, The Gospel of John, which says, “I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in the darkness but will have the light of life”. (Chaper 8, verse 12)
The Normans loved their mosaics and after their conquest of Sicily and their self-establishment as the royal family they set about creating magnificent mosaic decorations in their churches, not just here but also in Monreale (outside Palermo), The Palatine Chapel, within the Palazzo Normanni and the Cathedral of Palermo. Treading carefully on the uneven and worn terracotta paving outside the cathedral we make our way into the sacred space. This church is truly awe-inspiring, which was certainly the intention of the King of Sicily. Keep the population in awe in that way you can keep them under control.
We emerged from the church into bright sun light. Our destination a cute little cafe in the square, they served wonderful coffees, cakes, ice creams. All truly delicious. The ice-cream junkies in our little group were in heaven. That’s Mary Lou and Kate in the photo! This is one of life’s golden moments, a magical square, blue sky, history all around you AND its the end of the season so almost no tourists – except us! And we don’t count!
The interesting thing about Cefalu is the atmosphere. It is welcoming, well-maintained, clean. Everyone we meet is happy to see us – even the man in the bakery when I purchase a couple of bottles of water and a few small pistachio pastries is pleasant and at ease. I make a mental note to find out the name of the mayor, Sindaco in Italian, and to send him a complimentary note of thanks. Mission accomplished the mayor is called Rosario Lapunzina – I’d just like to say ‘complimenti Signor Lapunzina’ you’ve done a great job in your little town. I’d rather hoped the mayor would be a woman, but you can’t have everything. After all this is Sicily. Although if any smart little town was going to elect a female mayor I think it’d be this one…………….
For more on Cefalu and Sicily in general you might like to look at:
- The web site of The Mandralisca Museum Museo Mandralisca
- For more on Sicily check out: The Majolica Sisters of Taormina
- My own article on South-eastern Sicily Ragusa, Montalbano, Modica
- There’s also a short piece I wrote about Sicily in the Movies
- Cefalu Tourism Office Cefalu Tourist Office
- With special thanks to: Barbara Hogan, Kate Marshall, Mary Lou Peters for their photos – much appreciated.