Before I began my rudimentary Italian lessons online I’d never heard of Cefalù, yet it is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Sicily. Perhaps my apathy towards beach holidays is at fault. In any event when I arrived there in late March, the island was still at the mercy of “The Beast from the East” or one of its variants and it was cold, grey and wet.
So why did I make the journey along the coast from Palermo to begin my trip here, when the rest of my intended stops were in the opposite direction? Well naturally, because the place has history. Now you good be forgiven for thinking that it was originally a Greek settlement. Even had I not given you its Greek name as my title, Cefalù (pronounced Cheffaloo) still looks a lot like Kephalonia, yet there is no mention in Thucydides, the bible of my long forgotten Ancient History lessons. Kephale meant “head” in Classical Greek, and the headland may have been home to no more than a fort or lookout post. It’s clear to understand why this may be so when you see the enormous cliff (La Rocca) that overshadows the little town.
I was here for more modern fare. Not quite as modern as the chemist’s shop on Corso Ruggero, though it did have a quaint appeal, nor the church of Santo Stefano whose baroque facade dominates a tiny piazza.
It wasn’t the medieval wash-house located well below street level where the basins used for the laundry remain supplied by fresh running water.
No, the clue was in the name of that main street. Corso Ruggero. The course of Roger.
Following the Norman invasion of 1063, King Roger II of Sicily moved the settlement down from the headland to the small harbour below and began construction of a cathedral. Though built in the Romanesque style, this is a very different building from the great Normal cathedral in Durham that I grew up with.
Externally the twin towers at the west end provide some echo of its English contemporary, but internally there are no vast load bearing columns (though as I clumsily clattered about with my tripod they may have been glad of them). It has something that Durham does not. Decoration.
Like so many of the churches in Sicily the Byzantine influence is here in golden mosaics and the vast figure of Christ Pantokrator looks down on all. This was the first example that I’d seen. By the time I left Sicily two weeks later I’d lost count! Between the Greeks and the arriving Normans that small town on the rock had been Roman and then Arab. The unique mix of influences that is peculiar to Sicily was suddenly tangible.