Golden hour. It’s half past six and the terraced houses have emptied their furniture, families, cats and dogs out on to the streets to savour the late sunshine. Pink bed-sheets flutter gently from a balcony as a Schillaci in the making zig-zags across the cobbled square tackling an imaginary defender before stopping abruptly. Hands on head, he watches in frustration as the ball escapes, rolling and swerving downhill through a laneway.
On the pavement, three granddads with walking sticks line out on a bench. They’re wearing the unofficial uniform of old Sicilian men: light jackets, flat-caps and a look of quiet contemplation. For them it’s just another Tuesday evening. For the handful of visitors who’ve made the 40-minute train journey from Palermo (myself included), it’s as if every cosy Italian village cliché has been brought to life. And it’s amazing.
If Cefalú looks familiar, it’s because it should – the seaside town provided the back-drop to one of the most beautiful Italian films ever made, Cinema Paradiso. The 1988 classic was shot on location at various points around Sicily including Palermo, with Cefalú starring in several of the film’s most memorable scenes.
The city hasn’t let fame go to its head though. Despite its scene stealing appearance, Porta Marina with its gothic arch still looks exactly the same as it did when Giuseppe Tornatore filmed a crowd of locals watching an outdoor projection of Ulysses in the rain.
In a world of selfies and tacky souvenir shops, Cefalú is a refreshing slice of authenticity that remains still largely undiscovered. But things may be about to change. This year, the town is in the running to become one of the next UNESCO World Heritage sites. Cefalú officials hope to sway judges with the stunning Norman-Byzantine cathedral. Along with the cathedrals of Palermo and Monreale, the church represents how Norman, Byzantine and Arab cultures coexisted in Sicily, working together, rather than against each other.
It’s an ethos that locals are eager to promote – they have an old saying, “In Sicily the cat, mouse and dog all live together”.
On the streets of Cefalú this evening, it’s good to see things haven’t changed
While you’re in the area, the following are three nearby towns worth a visit, all are closely connected by rail and can be easily reached from Cefalú train station.
Its name translates as “pretty port,” and the tiny fishing village of Porticello certainly lives up to its promise. It’s unchartered territory for foreign visitors, but Sicilians love it for its restaurants and pastel-coloured buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Cinque Terre.
Worth a visit if only to appreciate the haunting, faded glory of the honey-coloured Baroque villas. It also happens to be the birthplace of Cinema Paradiso director, Giuseppe Tornatore.
The Roman ruins at Solunto watch over the coast of Santa Flavia from their elevated position on the slopes of Mount Catalfamo. Originally a Phoenician village that was conquered by the Greeks then the Romans, the ancient town of Solunto is another fascinating example of the ‘live and let live’ philosophy engrained in so much of Sicily’s history and culture. Although no complete structures exist, sections of mosaics and paintings are still visible and are open for the public to explore. As Solunto is still somewhat unknown amongst tour operators, you’re not likely to find queues of visitors and you’ll be free to look around the ancient buildings and agora at your own pace. Tip: Some steps are involved so wear comfortable shoes – it’s worth the climb though, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the bay including Porticello and Santa Flavia.
Take the train from Stazione Centrale in Palermo. Make the most of the journey by grabbing a window seat – the stunning view of the Sicilian coastline is worth the €8 ticket alone.
Palermo is the closest airport to Cefalú. See Ryanair.com for Flights to Palermo.
- Fiona Hilliard