A tempest, unforeseen and violent, suddenly tossed the ships into chaos, striking terror into even the brave heart of the popular King Roger.
At the time (actually 1131), Normans ruled Sicily, and King Roger II was sailing along the island's northern coast, with several ships as his escort. Praying for safety, he made a solemn vow to build a cathedral at the shore where he landed and dedicate it to Christ the Savior. Out of the mists, St. George (a Norman favorite) then appeared to the king and assured him that all would be well. The next day was Pentecost; the seas calmed and the king found himself at Cefalù, east of Palermo.
Visitors to Sicily today still see his ruggedly elegant, double-towered cathedral — the Palermo Cathedral — at the foot of an enormous rock, an unforgettable sight in this charming town. Right after landing, the king had a temporary chapel built and named it for the messenger, St. George, and then Roger commenced work on the cathedral, which would be his royal ex-voto to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Arriving at Cefalù from the west is thrilling. A curve of coast brings a massive boulder, shaped something like a priest's biretta, or a pastry shop's brioche, into view with the town beneath it, as if huddled in the wake of a tidal wave.
Cefalù sits on a promontory from which this mass, called La Rocca, rises about 900 feet above the Mediterranean. The cathedral is massive as a Norman fortress, but softened with elegant Arab arches. Arabs had occupied Sicily before the Normans. The latter seemed to achieve a relatively peaceable kingdom, at least under Roger. Walk around to the back, too, as it is a gem from all directions. Each of the twin towers has three tiers of mullioned (divided) windows.
The cathedral, or Duomo, as all major city cathedrals are called, stands on a charming piazza where coffee bars and restaurants leave their tables and chairs out at all hours for the hundreds of tourists who visit the town each day. Just sitting there and looking up at Roger's gift is awe-inspiring.
Blessed Beach Town
Inside the church, the vast Byzantine mosaic of Christ is one of my favorites of this kind. Although his grandeur is apparent, Christ's appearance is softened by a stray lock of hair that seems to have just slipped down on his forehead. The open Gospel he holds shows the Greek and Latin text of St. John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
A beautiful Madonna and Child statue by Antonello Gagini (1533) stands in the left nave. Near it is the entrance to the 12th-century cloister, which is still evocative of its time, though fire has damaged it. Biblical events can be seen finely carved into capitals of columns. Cefalù was a bishop's see: A bishop's palace, a seminary, and a convent stand alongside piazza Duomo, the palm tree-graced piazza in front of the cathedral.
Down the hill, at the beach, bathers linger during long spring days and well into the fall, and raucous cries of diving seagulls shatter the air along the sea. The first day I saw the town with its mighty cathedral I thought it would be a fine place to live, and not long afterward my work took me to Sicily, where I rented an apartment in Cefalù on the rocky shore near the cathedral.
The town of Cefalù, whose name comes from the Greek word kafale, for headland or cape, dates back to about the 9th century B.C. Remnants of that time can be seen high above the town on top of La Rocca. If you like hiking, walk up there (the path is not very steep), to enjoy a thrilling view of the honey-colored town against the often deep-blue sea beyond. A temple to the Greek goddess Diana and other ancient Greek ruins are there for the exploring.
Some fine religious paintings as well as Greek vases are displayed at the attractive Mandralisca museum, on a street in front of the Duomo. Its most famous painting, however, is by Antonello da Messina (1465), Portrait of a Man, which shows a sly Sicilian.
Apart from the Duomo, several churches of Baroque elegance can be seen along the main Corso Ruggero (Roger). The Purgatorio Church at the top of a double stairway is worth searching out. At the end of the Corso, the Church of Santa Maria della Catena has a graceful portico.
Cefalù is beguiling, filled with charming streets and sea views. The pilgrim will find places for reverent prayer and for exultation at the beauty of the world.
A popular place for pilgrimages can be found nearby, about five miles south, on Monte Sant'Angelo, at the Sanctuary of Gibelmanna, built in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Cappuchin friars’ museum there contains Franciscan creche figures, vestments, enameled reliquaries, a 16th-century alabaster rosary and a Pieta. The humble carts, looms and utensils were collected from Franciscan monasteries (conventi in Italian) for men or women. A late 18th-century wax baby form is typical of ex-votos found in Sicily even today, asking favors for a child.
Sicily was a major destination for Catholic pilgrims all last year. The Jubilee may be over now, but, for those hungry for beauty and spiritual refreshment, Cefalù's appeal is timeless.
Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.