Saturday, 27 February 2016

Let's hear it for Roger!

Cefalu, like many places in Sicily, has been inhabited for a very long time. There are traces of prehistoric settlement, and a city has existed here since the Greeks colonised the area 2500 years ago. In the intervening time the place has been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans; it became an independent Principality in the later Middle Ages, before being assimilated, first into the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, then finally as part of a unified Italy in the 1860s. It's a small place with a lot of history, which is why, for reasons I can't fully explain, I find it vaguely amusing that the man to leave the biggest mark on the town was King Roger.

Not that I am particularly prejudiced against the Rogers of the world, I just don't find the name particularly regal; I keep reversing it to Roger King, and imagining him as a bent accountant or the Mr. Big of Dudley's PVC replacement window trade, and not a powerful 12th Century Norman monarch. Potentates should be called Vlad the Impaler, Ivan the Terrible or Macbeth, not Roger.

Despite his nominal disadvantage Roger II created one of the most enlightened courts in Christendom, remodelling Palermo's palace and cathedral by employing Muslim, Jewish and Byzantine craftsman and Norman masons. In 1141 he turned his attention to Cefalu, building the monumental Duomo that still towers today over an otherwise modest town. Of course Cefalu is not the only small place with a bloody great big church plonked in the middle. In Britain, Beverley, St Davids and Hexham are small towns with cathedral sized churches. In France, Bayeux, Conques and Tournus are the same. However, these monuments all dwarf their respective towns for the same reason, they are big because they were abbey churches, once centrepieces of major monastic institutions. Cefalu is different. It was built as a See, and as such it remains a bit of a mystery as to why Cefalu never developed as a major city. Perhaps after Roger's death its proximity to Palermo discouraged further development. So it remained, a small town with a striking edifice at its centre... like a medieval Cumbernauld.

King Roger's big church

Fabulous Byzantine mosaics

Slender columns and narrow arches reveal Islamic influence.
There is good reason to visit Cefalu aside from Roger's ambitious ecclesiastical folly. The old town tumbles down towards the sea, a warren of narrow alleys with interesting old houses. Looking back towards the place from the harbour , the plain dun-coloured buildings backing onto the shore reminded me of small ports in Corsica, like St. Florent or Erbalunga.

Cefalu's small harbour

These days Cefalu earns its crust from being a slightly up-market tourist destination, with all the artisan retail that implies. We tracked down the Galleria restaurant, recommended by our daughter. Sadly at this time of the year it only opens at weekends. Instead we decided to find a place to buy a couple of aranchini. Trickier than we anticipated in the old town, designer handbags, kitch cherubs, hand-crafted ceramics, a plethora of fridge magnets, dainty cakes...but not a humble aranchini to be had. We headed for the more workaday outskirts, and found a place behind the promenade selling them. Another street food lunch ensued sitting on a bench staring at the Mediterranean, we're happy with that, we're well past aspiring to be stylish. In fact I don't think we ever have been image conscious, and it's way too late to start now.

Stylish streets

sunlit squares
steep narrow alleys

An ancient lavaggio

and finally back to the Piazza Duomo

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