For a long time I wasn’t a fan of the ‘golden hour’, photographese for the brief period before sunset and after sunrise when everything is tinged with a warm, soft golden hue. As far as I could tell, the only thing those golden rays did was dull the light and turn gardens into sickly yellows. Then I went to a small fishing village on the north-east coast of Sicily and saw what all the fuss was about.
Cefalù (chay-fah-loo) is the site of the third cathedral in the UNESCO triumvirate of Arab-Norman cathedrals. (The other two are in Monreale and Palermo). It was only 120 k west of Tindari (post to come), but the coastal road was a lot more coastal than I’d expected and while it wasn’t ‘eternal’, which is how one commentator on Trip Advisor described it, it took a lot longer than I’d anticipated.
By the time I arrived in Cefalù, it was late afternoon. After driving round and round for what did seem like an eternity I found the B&B, but what to do with the car? Of all the charming medieval villages I’ve visited, Cefalù is by far the most challenging when it comes to parking. On a previous trip to Sicily I had spent a miserable hour driving up and down the narrow, congested lanes before I gave up and continued on to Palermo. But this time I was staying in Cefalù. I drove round and round some more until it was obvious, even to my frazzled self, that I was merely illustrating the definition of idiocy – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
So instead of driving by, I pulled over in front of a tiny fruttivendolo (fru-tee-ven-doh-low) across from the B&B. One thing I’ve learned in all the years of visiting Italy’s charming, but cramped villages is that everyone in these villages knows everyone else. And everyone else’s business. I went up to the fruit seller, apologized for the disturbo and explained my predicament. Without a moment’s hesitation he called over to a woman standing by the fence surrounding the B&B. It was Maria Luisa. She had been waiting for me. Had been holding a spot for me with her car, which she promptly backed out of the spot, blocking the road so no-one would zip in front of the straniera who she correctly assumed was no match for the locals, and I slowly inched into my very own posteggio riservato. Which is where my car stayed for the duration of my stay in Cefalù.
Then I set out for the cathedral.
The cathedral was closed, so I went looking for a bar.
The view was wonderful, as was the bianco locale, and before long, all the second guessing and nasty recriminations about who in their right mind would willingly choose to drive into this place, let alone stay here had vanished into the ether.
After a while I noticed people setting up tripods along the boardwalk at the west edge of town. Tripods are always a good sign that something interesting photographically is about to happen. I went over to see what they were up to.
I didn’t have a tripod so I set my camera on the balustrade in anticipation of whatever it was that all the better equipped photographers around me were waiting for.
And then, when I was sure the fantastical light show was finally over, something equally magical happened.
I later read that what I was watching was the ‘Blue Hour’. Unlike the ‘golden hour’ (the period after sunrise and before sunset), the Blue Hour occurs – sometimes, it’s not a given – before sunrise and after sunset. The bluish tones have something to do with residual, indirect sunlight caused when the sun is at a significant depth below the horizon.
The following morning I got an early start. There was a lot to see in the tiny village and because of my late arrival the evening before there was one more thing on my to-do list.
When I reached Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral hadn’t yet opened. I went over to one of the caffès, which as usual kept longer hours than the church, and had a cappuccino.
The cathedral looked much less forbidding under sunny skies, and what struck me now was how out of place it looked in what had been, and apart from the seasonal hordes of tourists, still is essentially a small, simple village. So what was it doing here?
In 1131 Roger II, the Norman King who had conquered Sicily a few decades earlier, was returning to Palermo from Salerno on the eastern end of the Amalfi Coast when suddenly a violent storm arose. Fearing for his life, the king made a vow. If they survived the storm, wherever they first touched land, he would build a majestic temple in honour of his Saviour. (The part about the Normans conquering Sicily is history. The part about the storm and the vow is (sadly) more legend than history.)
As I sat there looking at the cathedral I began to feel that something was off.
The towers are invariably described as ‘twin’ towers. In human twins, there are usually a few minor (and extremely helpful) variations – although I once had twins in an Intro Italian class that cause me conniptions all year long – but when we talk of twins in architecture, we are usually referring to 100% identical structures. As far as I could see, these two towers started off in identical fashion, but at the top they were not at all the same. Most glaringly, the window treatments on the spires – a 15th century addition – were different. And, more importantly, so were the merlons (‘notches’ for those whose knowledge of battlement design is as non-existent as mine). The v-shaped merlons on the left tower symbolize royal, temporal power, while the flame-shaped merlons on the right tower represent the Papal authority.
When I got back to the B&B later that day I asked the Signora why the towers were different. She hesitated and then, with a remarkable degree of confidence, explained. ‘Perché l’una è nata per primo e hanno fatto l’altra diversa per distinguerla.’ Because the one was born first and they made the other different to tell them apart.
As I made my way over to the path up the Rocca I couldn’t help thinking that if the cathedral had been open I probably would have taken a photo or two of the exterior, had the same quick look inside and then gone off without ever realizing that the towers were mismatched. It was an unsettling thought. How many other things had I missed because I hadn’t had to wait around?
A laundromat is normally something I try to stay away from while travelling, but when I saw all the people going down to the Lavatoio medievale I decided to have a look.
The lavatoio was built over the sorgente (source) of the Cefalino River, known since antiquity for its water – ‘purer than silver and colder than snow’ – and which had been created by the tears of a disconsolate nymph who, after killing her unfaithful lover, later came to regret the act.
On the same website I also learned that until a few decades ago the village women still did their laundry in the lavatoio and the sound of their voices raised in canti tradizionali would echo along the lanes of the village. Between the story of the ancient nymph and of the 20th century village women singing gaily as they scrubbed their families’ dirty clothes on the cold lava rocks, I don’t know which strikes me as more fanciful. For the sake of the latter, I hope it was more than a few decades ago.
When I reached the beginning of the path up the Rocca, I was surprised to see a gate and a ticket office. You had to pay to climb up Hercule’s Promontory! But it was only a few euros and there would no doubt be some costs involved in maintaining the site. And the staff. In addition to the ticket collector I was surprised to see a second fellow sitting inside the entrance. He had one of those clickers that are used at crowded sites like the Colosseum in Rome or the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. But a path up a mountain in a small village? There weren’t exactly hordes lined up for the 270 metre climb.
The clicker fellow explained that his job wasn’t only to keep track of the number of people who walked into the site, but also the number that walked out of it. In the past there had been problems with visitors being stranded on top of the mountain in the dark.
They say we see what we look for. Or what we know. While rocks are a total mystery and will probably remain so for me, plants are becoming more and more familiar.
At the top of the Rocca are the remains of an Arab citadel and the castle which the next conquerors, the Normans, built on top of it. Some visitors talk about goat droppings and giant lizards. I didn’t see any of that. Just spectacular views.
They say that on a clear day you can see all the way from Messina to Palermo. But that will have to wait for another trip.