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CEFALÙ IS NOT THE FIRST TOWN that comes to mind on a visit to the Italian island of Sicily.
Top on a traveller's go-to list are likely the region's capital Palermo, Taormina with its spectacular Greek mountain-side ancient theatre or Syracuse, the birthplace of Archimedes, renowned for its Greek ruins including the fortress island of Ortygia.
Small it may be, with only 14,000 inhabitants packed into an area of 65 sq km, but Cefalù has a couple of heavyweight attractions to give its bigger and better endowed cousins a run for their tourist money.
The landscape of this tiny seaside town, about an hour-and-a-half's drive east of Palermo, is marked by two distinct features. Rising above the rest of the cream-coloured buildings are the twin towers of the Unesco World Heritage Site-listed Cathedral of Cefalù. Looming in the background overshadowing the town is the behemoth rocky promontory La Rocca.
Like the rest of Sicily, Cefalù has a varied history which is reflected in the rich diverse architecture of its buildings. At different stages of its chequered past, it has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. One of its star attractions is the Cathedral of Cefalù, built in the 12th century by the then-ruling Norman king. Looking more like a fortress than a holy place of worship, it houses some of the finest Byzantine mosaic decorations in Italy, evident in the elaborate renderings of Christ Pantokrator, the Virgin Mary, and other biblical figures in tiny brilliant tiles.
Another popular stop for tourists is the Museo Mandralisca, a private museum which houses an eclectic collection that includes paintings, archaeological artefacts, Greek and Arab ceramics, antique coins and shells. But there is one which most come to see, and it is a stupendous work by the great Italian Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina, Portrait of an Unknown Man.
While you are not likely to find any designer shops here, the narrow cobbled streets of its historic centre are begging to be explored. The best way to start is at a local bar, which is really more like a café, for a typical Sicilian breakfast of granita and brioche. Then take the time to get lost in the alleys - admire the mishmash architecture of the buildings, shop for souvenirs, stop for freshly-made cannoli or fill up on piping-hot arrancini. The sweet ricotta-filled tube pastries and fried rice balls are, of course, the quintessential snacks of the island.
There are always surprises around the corner, whether it's a fisherman selling his day's catch from the back of his Vespa or a fruit and veggie vendor with his little pickup over-laden with locally farmed produce. One of these is the Lavatoio Medievale, a 16th century laundry house with an inconspicuous roadside entrance that's easily missed if not for the sound of running water pouring into its stone tanks. It was used by the townsfolk for hundreds of years right up to the 20th century when it was finally restored in 1991, and became a tourist attraction.
Just at the edge of the historic centre is the Bastione di Capo Marchiafava, which was part of the town's fortification system built in the 17th century. It offers a great view of the coast stretching from a lighthouse at one end, down to the beaches of Cefalù at the other. From here, it's a short walk to the picturesque old port, where the fishermen's colourful boats rest on a small sandy bay next to the main beach before they are taken out to sea again.
One of the Cefalù's biggest draws is its beach, the main reason that visitor numbers swell exponentially during the summer months. Italians and European tourists, in particular, descend on its sands to bake under the Mediterranean sun before the winter months begin.
Tapping this market is French resort group Club Med, which recently re-opened its decades-old resort here after an extensive renovation. First opened in 1957, it was closed in 2006 and remained shut for 10 years before construction began to give the resort a much-needed facelift. The original clusters of holiday huts have mostly been gutted, and in their place are 302 rooms including 128 villas scattered across the resort's extensively landscaped grounds, each looking out to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The resort has also been re-launched as Club Med's highest tier Exclusive Collection Resort, only the third within the chain.
Cefalù's convenient position between the sea and the Madonie Regional Natural Park allows one to easily make a quick escape to the higher hinterland when the sun and surf get too much. The nature reserve is home to a handful of the highest mountains on the island, and is dotted with pretty medieval villages throughout. A fun way to discover the Madonie is to get behind the wheel of a hired Fiat 500. The iconic Italian car is made for zipping round the narrow bends and turns of the park's scenic winding roads.
A popular stopover here is Castelbuono, just 20km from Cefalù, named for the imposing 14th century castle which sits atop a hill near its entrance. Its other main attraction is the Church of Matrice Vecchia, fronted by an arched Renaissance portico and guarded by a lofty Romanesque bell-tower topped by a distinctive majolica-tiled spire.
For the adventurous, a stay in Cefalù would not be complete without a hike up the town's backbone La Rocca. While there is a well-marked path up to the 270-metre summit, it gets much steeper nearer the top, so one would need to be fairly fit to make the trek, which would take between 30 and 45 minutes. On the way up, there are remains of a 400-BC Greek monument, Temple of Diana, and outer fortress walls which ring the rock. At the top are remnants of a Saracen castle, but what people come up for are the stunning views of Cefalù below and the surrounding sea. It is also a fitting place to reflect on the amazing history that has shaped this tiny town for millennia.
The writer was a guest of Club Med Cefalù. For more information, please visit https://www.clubmed.com.sg/r/Cefalù/y