Cefalù, 70km (42 miles) east of Palermo, would be a remarkable place even without the twin towered cathedral that rises high above its red tile roofs. This magnificent structure, founded by Roger II in 1131, is itself overshadowed by a massive crag that crowds the church and the town between a wall of rock and the sea.
Museo Mandralisca
Allegedly, Roger was caught at sea in a storm and vowed to build a cathedral at the first harbor he came upon. That harbor was Cefalù, which by then had already witnessed the passing of the Carthaginians, Greeks, Byzantines and Arabs. Their presence is noted in the dusty collections of the Museo Mandralisca, where the relics on display include rare Greek vase depicting tuna fishing in the nearby Lipari Islands. The treasure, though, is Portrait of an Unknown Man, Antonello da Messina’s rendering of a sly-smiled, enigmatic man who is often compared to the Mona Lisa. This collection and the palace were bestowed to the town by the 19th century Baron Enrico Mandralisca, by all accounts a remarkable man who devoted his life to the study of natural history and archaeology and served in the first Italian Parliament.
Piazza Duomo and the Old Town
The cathedral is on the Piazza Duomo, in the centre of town. Recent restorations have stripped the church of its later Baroque decoration to show off the Byzantine mosaics to their best advantage. High above the central apse is Christ Pantocrator, with an elongated face and powerful eyes that seem to follow a visitor around the church, the Bible he holds is open to Latin and Greek inscriptions of “I am the light of the world”. He is surrounded by the Virgin Mary and the twelve apostles. Among the other sparse ornamentation that remains is a Madonna and Child, by Sicilian master Antonello Gagini. From the piazza, narrow alleys lead into the old town and to some appealing relics of Cefalù’s past. The old Greek walls provide a nice view over the sea and the town, and the lavatoio is a wash house from the Arab days. Many of the streets end as staircases that descend to the old harbour, where a stone wharf juts into the sea and fishermen still pull their boats up to a pebble beach backed by little houses. What to many visitors is Cefalù’s greatest attraction stretches to the south of the old harbor, a long sandy beach that is one of the most finest strands in Sicily.