Cefalu – Sicily’s unpolished medieval gem

by Andrew_Morris

After a week walking over the Madonie mountains in northern Sicily, there can be no better prize than the tantalising view of Cefalu

Stuffed between the imposing crag of La Rocca and the shimmering Tyrrhenian sea, Cefalu is the filling in an urban sandwich.

The final day of our trek across the atmospheric Monti Madonie took us 17 kilometres through vineyards, up challenging overgrown ridges and down into a semi-rural hilltop suburbia, whose gardens teemed with aubergines, oranges, lemons & limes.

From foothills to the ocean in strong late summer sun, the last stretch of the walk took us past the marina to the north-eastern side of the old town. Here, we grabbed some welcome shade at a rustic roadside restaurant on the Contrada Presidiani and enjoyed huge glugs of ice-cold water, looking down on a spear fisherman bobbing up and down amongst the rocks in the sea way below us.

Our rewarding lunch of tuna salad and caponataa Sicilian speciality of cold sautéed aubergines, olives and tomatoes – couldn’t have been fresher or tastier. 

Sated, on reaching the Piazza Messina and the Via Candeloro the cramped old town pulled us in. Head to the right here at every opportunity to dive onto ramparts and ledges, now much closer to the sea as it laps against the rocks.

The vast crag of La Rocca towers above the town, like a protective sentry. It’s 270 metres high and takes less than an hour to reach the remains of a Norman castle on the summit, via the alleged 9th-century BC remains of the Temple of Diana. Starting from the Piazza Garibaldi, it’s a tough climb in heat – and costs €3.50 between Easter and October – but is worth it for the views of the town and epic coastline laid out below.

The Corso Ruggero is the main artery of the tangled medieval centro storico. Crammed with restaurants, souvenir shops, local produce vendors, gelaterie and a stone washing area from Saracen times, the street is too narrow for tourists and crazy local drivers to co-exist…which makes for a fun dodgem-like stroll. 

Turn left from the Corso into the Piazza Duomo to confront Cefalu’s defining building, a commanding twin-towered cathedral built in 1131 by Roger II, a powerful Sicilian ruler. Inside, important Byzantine-influenced mosaics remain; outside, in the Piazza, you can get ripped off at all the central bars and restaurants in a thoroughly contemporary touristy way, whilst admiring the Duomo and other atmospheric surrounding buildings.

This central part of town is a maze of washing-strewn balconies on Arab-influenced houses, narrow streets sloping away from the Corso Ruggero to the long sandy beach that links the haunting old town with the scruffy new. This proximity of ancient urban culture and beach makes Cefalu a must-visit if you’re anywhere on the north coast of Sicily.

We lucked out in our short September visit, coinciding with an ice-cream and music festival http://www.sherbethfestival.it/home/ …what a perfect marriage. Watching a fiery Sicilian sunset with a beachside cocktail, whilst listening to mellow live Inca tunes and chants, is hard to beat. Unless followed by an ice cream gauntlet – stall after stall of imaginatively flavoured artisan gelato – and unexpectedly, the finals of Signorina e Signor Sicilia, loads of bikini- and Armani-clad ragazzi strutting their stuff on a floodlit stage to pulsating house music. 

Back in the Piazza Duomo, we people-watched and listened to a scintillating classical guitarist on the main stage, morphing into a funky jazz ensemble as other gifted musicians wandered on, before the short scooter-dodging amble down the Corso Ruggero to our cosy B&B Dolce Vita on the Via di Bardonaro.

Cefalu has a few more rough edges than Taormina, the more popular beach-and-history resort on the east coast, but it’s all the more alluring for that. Make a detour and spend a couple of days here, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

Where to eat

For a decent – but not cheap – lunch on one of the breathtaking terraces jutting out over the Tyrrhenian ocean, try the Vecchia Marina. Perfectly al dente pasta with an anchovy sauce, accompanied by a glass of chilled Sicilian white wine on a hot day, will make the world seem a better place.
Vecchia Marina, Via Vittorio Emanuele 73 - +39-0921-420388

In the evening, avoid the overpriced underwhelming places in the Piazza Duomo, and head for Al Vicoletto, a few metres away from the square, for a great value pizza and some excellent vino rosso di casa. Eat outside in the narrow alley, where tables cascade down steps towards the Piazza and lively conversation bounces off the ancient walls.

Where to stay

In Cefalu, try the small – but beautifully located – Dolce Vita. It’s a 5 bedroom B&B, with the latter B taken at a café in the nearby Piazza Duomo. A shame, since the Dolce Vita’s terrace is perched vertiginously over the rocks, with buonissimo views down to the sea and across ancient rooftops. The rooms are basic, but very comfortable and funkily decorated, with vital air-conditioning and handy fridges. A word of warning - this place is not suitable for those with dodgy tickers. You have to climb 3 flights of steep narrow steps to reception, the bedrooms and the terrace. But you’ll be right in the heart of the old town, a few steps from the main artery of Corso Ruggero and just 100 metres from the closest beach. We paid 80€ for a Saturday night in September 2010 – good value, but rates probably rise significantly in July & August.
Via di Bardonaro 8 

A more luxurious option is the Relais Santa Anastasia, a beautifully restored 10th century Abbey. Now a 5* luxury retreat, surrounded by its own vineyards (the red Nero d’Avola is highly recommended!), it’s about 15 minutes by car from Cefalu on the Castelbuono road. The rooms’ warm colours are balanced by cool tiles and air-conditioning. And I’m not sure what the Italian equivalent of pièce de résistance is, but at Santa Anastasia theirs is the swimming pool - an oasis of calm overlooking vineyards and an unchanging landscape in the foreground, but way below in the distance a road on stilts whizzes people on the autostrada along the coast.
C/da Santa Anastasia, 90013 Castelbuono


I'm a mountain-loving bean-counter (CFO at www.lovemoney.com, a great new social finance website), who hankers to replace the Balance Sheet with a boarding pass. I come alive as soon as we wave goodbye to Blighty, and embrace different locations, cultures, people, food and wine with a passion not usually associated with my profession. I lived and "worked" in Bermuda for 6 hedonistic years in the 1980s. Note to Simonseeks Favourite Places editor - Bermuda is in the Atlantic rather than the Caribbean ! Since then I definitely favour mountains over beaches. Way more personality, whether walking up or skiing down them. Ambition? To retire early enough to travel more...and to communicate some of these adventures on Simonseeks, of course.