A guide to amazing Cefalu’, where Arab and Norman cultures merge

March 11, 2020 By Bellarome Travel

Cefalù is an Italian town of 14.307 inhabitants in the metropolitan city of Palermo in Sicily. It is a very ancient city and even seems to have been founded a thousand years before the birth of Christ; the first colonies would have been created by the Greeks who landed there in the fifth century BC. calling this place Kephaloidion (from kefalè, head). It becomes Cephaloedium, in the middle of the third century, due to the Roman conquest.

Then it was the turn of the Arabs who renamed it Gafludi and then returned to the Latin name with the arrival of the Normans (11th century).

It is located on the northern Sicilian coast, about 70 km from Palermo, at the foot of a rocky promontory. It is one of the major seaside resorts in the whole region; despite its size, every year it attracts a significant flow of local, national and foreign tourists who, in the summer, triple the population, making the main squares and the most important streets of the country crowded. It is an episcopal see.

The town, which is part of the Madonie Park, is included in the club of the most beautiful villages in Italy, the association of small Italian towns that stand out for their great artistic, cultural and historical importance, for the harmony of the fabric urban, livability and services to citizens.  Cefalù is also part of the network of solidarity municipalities.

The cathedral of the city inserted in the Arab-Norman Palermo site and the cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale in 2015 was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Let’s start our tour in marvellous Cefalu’ to discovers its treasures!

The Cathedral

The cathedral of Cefalù, the name with which the Cathedral of the Transfiguration is known, is a minor basilica located in Cefalù, in the metropolitan city of Palermo, and cathedral of the homonymous diocese.

According to legend, it would have arisen following the vote to the Most Holy Savior by Roger II, who escaped a storm and landed on the beaches of the town. The real motivation seems rather political-military in nature, given its strong character.


The construction of it was complex and was definitively completed in the Swabian age. An ambulatory built into the thickness of the wall and the same roof, consisting of three roofs, of different eras and construction techniques, testify to the changes that have taken place in the project. The monument has a Romanesque style with Byzantine features.

National monument since 1941, since 3 July 2015 it is part of the World Heritage Site within the Arab-Norman itinerary of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale.

Its construction was started in 1131 by the will of Roger II, first king of Sicily. In the intentions of the Norman ruler, the sacred building was to become the family mausoleum. In 1145, in fact, he had two porphyry sarcophagi built, to be placed in the lateral arms of the transept, one of which was to retain his remains, which however never happened because at his death in 1154, the building had been completed only the presbyterial part, and so the sovereign was buried in Palermo.

Since then, construction has slowed down several times. In 1215 Frederick II, not respecting the will of Roger II, even had the two sarcophagi transferred to Palermo.

Bell tower of the Cathedral of Cefalù Only several decades later, with various modifications compared to the original project, construction was completed and in 1267 the Cathedral was finally consecrated by Cardinal Rodolfo, bishop of Albano.

As it happened to other important religious and civil buildings, the Cathedral of Cefalù has also undergone several interventions over the centuries that have altered its original structure, transforming it, in fact, into a very complex architecture where different styles coexist.


The medieval washhouse of Cefalu’

The medieval washhouse of Cefalu’ is a small jewel nestled among its characteristic alleys, an interesting medieval public washhouse still intact. The story and the imagination immediately strike the visitor, projecting him into a past in which the cries and songs of the Sicilian washerwomen seem to echo busy in the daily ritual of washing clothes. You almost seem to see them at work inside the sink while rubbing the large white linen sheets in the grooves of the tubs.

A place steeped in history, art and local culture in which a strong Arab influence is evident from an architectural point of view, as suggested by the large pointed arch that overlooks the covered area. The public wash-house known as the “medieval wash-house” is located in via Vittorio Emanuele at the late Renaissance Martino building. It is accessed through a lava stone staircase called “a snail” which leads to a partially covered space in which there are a series of pools in which the water conveyed by the river Cefalino, flows through twenty-two cast-iron mouths of which the majority represented from lion heads.

The wash house was demolished in 1514 and rebuilt in a position further back than the city walls and later around 1600 the part of the river that flowed in the open air was also covered. Example of medieval hydraulic engineering shows the simple but ingenious technique of conveying the waste water which, conveyed through a small cave, flows directly into the sea.

A curious writing placed on the right side of the entrance brings the visitor back to an ancient legend. It is written: “Here Cefalino flows, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow“.

Legend has it that Cefalino was generated by the incessant tears of a nymph repented of having punished the betrayal of her beloved with death. The restoration work completed in 1991 further enhanced the site by offering the visitor a magnificent example of an insight into medieval Sicilian life, a visit not to be missed.

Especially in summer, numerous tourists take advantage of the cool atmosphere of the medieval wash house, they sit on the “snail” steps in the shade, before resuming the journey along the other enchanting places of Cefalù. A few steps, for example, along the road formerly called “del Fiume”, you reach the characteristic harbor but also the main square where the imposing Cathedral stands.


The fortress of Cefalu’

The fortress of Cefalù, called locally in Cefaludese u castieddu, is a 268 meters high cliff that surmounts Cefalù.

The historic town of Cefalù develops at the base of the fortress mainly on the north and east side. The lower western part, on the other hand, is characterized by the ruins of a series of mills and forced pipes that collected and exploited the water that came down from that side. From this side the path climbs, fortified in the Middle Ages, which allows you to climb the fortress.

The half-perimeter of the fortress is entirely surrounded by crenellated walls dating back to the Middle Ages and completed in the most recent part in the fifteenth century. On the western side of the walls the door opens to which the access path arrives.

Still halfway up the hill but in the small internal plateau of the fortress there are remains of a megalithic construction dating back to the 9th century BC. called the temple of Diana.  In the vaulted part north of the walls, overlooking the precipice immediately above the Cathedral of Cefalù and above the whole town, a metal cross several meters high was erected which lights up to dominate the panorama at night.

On the top there are the remains of a medieval castle dating back to the XIII-XIV century which locally give the name to the whole fortress called u castieddu.

The fortress of Cefalù is part of the sites of Community interest in Sicily. Once you reach the top of it (270 m), you can benefit from the  suggestive panoramic view of Cefalù in the distance, and you can see the remains of the castle are located, two cisterns for collecting water and the upper city wall.

The castle was built in the 12th century and extensively remodeled between the 16th and 17th centuries. Military importance diminished and was definitively abandoned during the 19th century.


Mandralisca Museum

The Mandralisca Museum is the only museum in the city of Cefalù. The foundation was due to Baron Enrico Pirajno of Mandralisca, who collected, in his short life (1809-1864), numerous art objects by placing them in his home, where they are still found. The site also houses the museum and foundation archives, on the basis of which it is possible to reconstruct its history in detail.

The Mandralisca museum – which preserves within its ancient walls the artistic heritage, but also the legacy of memories – can be well defined as an interdisciplinary museum including, in addition to the art gallery, a remarkable archaeological collection, a splendid monetary , one of the richest malacological collections in Europe, as well as valuable furniture and objects that already belonged to the Mandralisca family.

The pride of the museum are two recognized masterpieces: the magnificent Portrait of a Man, by Antonello da Messina, and the Sicilian red-figure crater on a black background known as the Tuna Vendor.

The first is known worldwide also for Vincenzo Consolo’s novel, The Smile of the Unknown Sailor, which is inspired by it.

The museum still partially maintains the intimate atmosphere of a domestic environment and the imprint of a private place of memories. In this evocative atmosphere one almost grasps the presence of the baron, philanthropist, scholar, enlightened intellectual, and the value of the scientific collections, antiquities and works of art he collected is also in the testimony that they give of the personality of the Founder.

Legally, it is a “museum belonging to a private entity” and a “library of a moral body governed by private law”: therefore both are subject to restrictions and supervised by the competent public administration.

It collects the collections of paintings by the founder and the lawyer Cirincione, currently on display in various rooms between the first and second floors, without following a strictly chronological exhibition itinerary. The collections are of a heterogeneous nature (XV-XVIII century) and mainly Sicilian.


Porta Pescara

Cefalù, like many strongholds overlooking the sea, was completely surrounded by walls that guaranteed safe protection from pirate attacks during the Middle Ages and in the years immediately following. On each of the defense walls there was a single door, for a total of four doors that allowed access to the city center only after a very strict control.

The original gates, as indicated by the topographic maps, were so located: two on the longest part that runs alongside the beach, one on the mountainous side, towards the hinterland, and the last on the Porto Antico, in what is called today “Old part” of the city.

This is precisely the only surviving door of the four. Many have been canceled together with the demolition of part of the city walls, but the latter, the door that opens onto the sea of ​​the old port, is still there, to remember the life of Cefalù before modernity.

Porta Pescara has a characteristic late-medieval construction, with a Gothic arch surmounted by the coat of arms of the kings of Sicily. It was built during the regency of the Ventimiglias, who ruled the city between 1200 and 1300, and still bears the remains of columns dating back to the same period.

The door we see today arriving from the Porto Antico is not, however, exactly the original one. In 1570 it underwent an expansion and restructuring work by the will of the viceroy of Sicily, Francesco Ferdinando d’Avalos, who temporarily held this position. The viceroy was also Marquis of Pescara, which is why his name was given to the wall gate.

Porta Pescara, also called Porta sul Mare by the inhabitants of the city, is just one of the numerous testimonies of the alternation of different cultures and arts in Sicily. The different dominations suffered by the region are practically all visible in the artistic path of Cefalù.

Temple of Diana

The temple of Diana is a megalithic structure dating back to the 9th century BC. which resides on the cliff north of the city of Cefalù. The intended use of the complex is still uncertain but the strategic value of the view of the underlying coast is clear. Probably intended for the worship of pagan gods it was built in several stages in antiquity with squared blocks of rock. The site was eventually renovated during the 2nd century BC.

If the Temple of Diana is the most famous monument on the fortress, the oldest architectural work is the cistern incorporated right inside the temple. According to some scholars, the cistern was the site of a local cult of water and the system dates back to the protohistoric period (9th century BC). It is partially excavated in the living rock and closed with a dolmenic type cover formed by a series of large limestone slabs.

The temple, however, was built, using large blocks of stone, in later periods. This original building, if on the one hand has fascinated travelers of all times – it was the only non-classical monument to which Jean Houel, during his trip to Sicily, dedicated an illustrated table – on the other Column on which the dolmenic covering of the cisternalato has created many problems for the scholars involved in establishing its construction period and intended use. According to data that emerged following numerous studies and several archaeological investigations conducted on the field, the temple was built in two different periods.

For many years the building has been wrapped in an aura of mystery. Local tradition has always identified it as the Temple of Diana. Most likely, however, it is a sanctuary-fortress. Some scholars came to this conclusion after carefully interpreting some of the characteristics of the building.

In fact, given the sacred function for granted, connected at least to the existence of the cistern, the building, two to the position it occupies, ideal for controlling whoever came from the sea, and for the particular construction typology, very similar to that adopted for the fortresses, it is believed that it also played a defensive and sighting function.

The Church of Purgatory

The church of Purgatory, otherwise known as the church of Santo Stefano, is a religious building in Cefalù. It overlooks a small square in Cefalù. You enter the decorative baroque portal of the church thanks to a scenic double staircase. This block along Corso Ruggero was once occupied by the previous church of Santo Stefano and the chapel of Santa Margherita.

The church faces a small square open on Corso Ruggero. The block was previously occupied by several buildings, including a previous church of Santo Stefano and the chapel of Santa Margherita, founded in 1466 by the Giaconia family and abolished in the early seventeenth century.

The church of Santo Stefano, initially entrusted to the confraternity of the same name, had passed in 1601 to that of “delli Nigri” (or “delle Purganti Souls”, founded in 1596 as a continuation of the previous confraternity “della morte”). The brotherhood bought the buildings adjacent to its church and built the new church of Purgatory, whose facade was finished in 1668. In 1868 the pavement of the external square was lowered. It was also the seat of the newly established “Congregation of the Virgin” in 1895.

In 1927 a restoration took place: the external facade was plastered, the walls of the base symmetrically and the window of the elevation arranged. The facade is preceded by a scenic double ramp staircase and has a Baroque portal. Originally it had two towers: the one on the right, incomplete, is partially hidden by a later building, while the one on the left, culminating in a spire, acts as a bell tower.


The interior of the church is divided into three naves distinguished by columns with monolithic stems. There are the chapel of the Crucifix and that of San Pietro Apostolo, founded in 1614, which houses a statue of the Addolorata which was cared for by the “nation of butchers”. The church contains a crypt with the bodies of the members of the Confraternity of the Blacks (or of the purging Souls).

Above the high altar there is a large painting from 1813 (“Christ who imparts the Eucharist to the souls in pain”). In 1867 the burial of Baron Enrico Pirajno of Mandralisca was moved there, with a marble sarcophagus, the work of the Palermo sculptor Salvatore Valenti.