Just east of Palermo lies Cefalu – a city grown up around a cathedral, nestled snugly into the tiniest of corners of flat(ish) land between a monumental rock and the sea.
The town is a maze of tiny back streets, with tall narrow buildings looming over them as they climb and drop from the seafront. To the west of the town, a beautiful golden sandy beach curves along – the reason why Cefalu is one of Sicily’s two biggest tourist resorts (Taormina, on the east coast, being the other). But it’s the cathedral and the rock which dominate and define the town.
The cathedral, opening onto an airy piazza, is home to another set of gorgeous golden mosaics – slightly earlier than those at Monreale and Palermo’s palace chapel, and confined to just the altar end rather than filling the entire building – but no less beautiful for that. On one of the roads, there’s the medieval baths, a series of sunken basins with rapidly flowing water through carved stone lion’s head spouts.
On another, the derelict old fish market – with several scruffy ageing cats hanging around in vain for somebody to come and unlock the gates again. “Ah remember, when ah were a kitten, it were all fish guts around ‘ere, lad…”
Immediately behind the cathedral, a sheer cliff face soars upwards. There’s a footpath up from the town, climbing through two sets of 8th century fortifying walls. On top of the rock, there’s the ruins of a number of buildings, including a temple to the Greek goddess, Diana. A network of small paths wind around, taking you along the walls and all the way around the rock, before climbing upwards towards the ruined castle – occupied now by a large number of grazing goats. The views, of course, are stunning.
For miles in both directions, the coastline unfolds in twists and turns. Headlands jut into the sea below hill towns, whilst inland there are jagged rock crests leading into the mountains of the interior of the island. We sat on the wall, staring at the town and cathedral far below us, as we ate panini filled with delicious herb-roasted ham from one of the town’s delis.
However, it was a bit out in the middle of nowhere – to get the train to Cefalu involved asking the campsite staff to give us a lift the five or so km to the nearest station, along the steeply winding main coastal road. It did, though, have decent campsite cats – always a bonus. A lot of the cats on Sicily seem to have a lot of Siamese in them, and these were no exception – staring up at us with big blue eyes begging for the rind from the cheese we were eating. Yes, we are suckers.
The nearest town, horizontally, to the campsite was Pollina – only a couple of km inland. However, that masked the fact that the town is over 750m above sea level, and the road winds steeply for 11km to get there. Once at the top, though, the town was gorgeous – semi-circular open-air theatre seating with breathtaking vistas over the inland mountains, and the ruins of a castle dominating the coast. A randomly meandering old boy took us under his wing, and gave us a totally unintelligible guided tour of the centre of the town and the views.
We, of course, cheated and drove to Pollina. We’re not daft. However, Nadine and Christian, who we’d met at Tropea before crossing to Sicily, had been staying at the campsite for a month, and had cycled to Pollina. Apparently, it took three hours to get up, yet only one to descend again. They’re clearly made of sterner stuff than us – but, to them, it probably didn’t seem that major a climb – they live in the Alps…