Capturing Cefalu: from Cathedrals to Covens


It is understandable why Cefalu was named after the classical Greek word for ‘cape’, situated on the Northern Coast of the Island of Sicily, Cefalu is a city on a rock and looks over the Mediterranean Sea.

It is also understandable why Cefalu’s motto is ‘Tra Cielo e Mare’, or in English, ‘between Heaven and the Ocean’. Cefalu boasts idllylic views ranging from seven golden-sand beaches to the remains of a Saracenic Castle on the summit of the promontory.

The camaraderie of the little city on the rock became evident during my own stay several Junes ago. Commissioned by my parents with the task to watch my then 9-year-old sister on the Longomare Beach, I typically became distracted by the prospect of buying some refreshing gelato. When I had returned to the spot where my towel and sandcastle stood in wait, it was to my dismay to discover that sister did not join them. Panic enveloped, gelato plummeted to the sand, and a mission to locate my sister ensued. In actuality, my sister was merely ‘collecting shells on the shore’ and was in no apparent danger but upon seeing my angst, a crusade of passionate Italian investigators began to develop. With the generous help of the locals, the worst my sister was exposed to was a very ‘Sicilian’ celebration upon her discovery, she was met with more gelato. Indeed, the warmth of the locals towards tourists is a credit to Cefalu. The hospitality is certainly not one found in other areas of the world, where bags on bus-seats and earphones-in upon being asked a question is the vogue.


Religious Identity

Cefalu Religion

Cefalu cannot be discussed without a mention of the rich religious identity that punctuates its history.

Built in 1131 and on earth brought from the Holy Land of Jerusalem, the Cathedral-Basilica of Cefalu invokes the ‘Italian Romanesque’ style. A style named so for obvious reasons; it borrows from Roman architectural precedents. Yet the Romanesque style had another design feature, it was considered so arresting, severe and monumental that any worshipper to look upon the Cathedral would be encouraged to stop and worship there.

The ‘call-to-worship’ of the Cathedral was heightened by the inclusion of the Presbyterian mosaic that decorates the ceiling of the dome. The golden and blue mosaic dictates an image of Christ and was designed so that when the faithful raised the heads towards the Heavens, they’d be reminded to live a life of virtue like Christ to avoid damnation.

Cefalu Cathedral

The Cathedral-Basilica of Cefalu is also notable for its inclusion of two large Norman Towers on the façade that hint at Cefalu’s Norman presence in 1091 and serve as a warning to any potential invaders of the coastal City.

December is arguably the best time to get a flavour of Cefalu’s religious heritage. Alongside the Christmas celebrations, there are two main festivals; the festival of La Madonna L’ immacolta on December 8th and the festival of Santa Lucia on December 13th. Both dates are characterized by an elaborate procession through the city, however, the second claims the unique accolade of worshipping a shoe. On the same day in 1645, legend dictates the Shoemaker Vincenzo Combi refused to abstain from work as is required on a Saint Day. As a punishment, Santa Lucia caused the shoe he was working on to drip blood and so cast it as a relic that reminds the locals of the importance of worship.

It may not be expected that Cefalu also houses what is considered to be one of the Twentieth Century’s most controversial spiritual relics, the ruins of the Abbey of Thelema. With a notoriety that far outweighs its physical grandeur, the Abbey is the antithesis of the Cefalu Cathedral and one that preached a vastly different dogma. The abbey of Thelema was home to the occultist and reputed most ‘wicked man in Britain,’ Aleister Crowley.

In 1920, Crowley founded the abbey in Cefalu, looking for a pocket of the Mediterranean to create his own paradise. The name of the Abbey was Inspired by the French Renaissance novelist, François Rabelais’, fantasy novel, ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’. Here, Rabelais describes an ‘Abbaye de Thélème’ where in the lives of the inhabitants were “spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure”.

Crowley’s abbey was more than just an anarchic and carnal haven as described but was a home to his very own brand of magical activities. Crowley brought to Cefalu his very own cult of acolytes seeking an education in the magical arts. The clandestine activities of Crowley and the Church of Thelema culminated in 1923 when the death of one of his followers sparked public outrage.

Raoul Loveday, nee, Frederick Charles Loveday was a 23-year-old Oxford undergraduate and met his end in elusive circumstances. His wife and fellow practitioner, Betty May, claimed the death could be due to his participation in certain ‘suspect’ magical ceremonies. When May returned to London, she gave an interview with ‘The Sunday Express’ newspaper which cemented the growing suspicion towards Crowley’s clandestine witchcraft. Soon after, Benito Mussolini ordered Crowley and the Followers of Thelema to leave Cefalu and the abbey became a carcass of it’s not too distant bestial activity.

However, all traces of Crowley and Thelema have now left Cefalu. Immediately after his deportation, the locals whitewashed the occult murals that decorated the interior and in doing so, bleached the building of what they considered to be sinful practices. In a cleansing act, Cefalu was again Catholic and it’s flirtation with the esoteric had ceased.


Local Cuisine

A religion ubiquitously worshipped in Cefalu is its cuisine.

A temple of this religion, ironically bears a name of a creature associated with witchcraft, ‘Le Chat Noir’ – ‘the black cat’. However, I am certain that no cats were involved in the making of the food. Both family-friendly and ideal for couples, the indoor tables are situated amidst vaults and arches that certify the building has been renovated from its Sixteenth-Century original.

Le Chat Noir is a short walk from the Cathedral square and the family run restaurant epitomises what makes Italian cuisine the healthiest and arguably tastiest in the world. Banish ideas of a meat-zilla stuffed-crust mega-base pizza; this is authentic Italian. What is on the menu here is the best an Italian coastal city can offer, freshly caught seafood and seasonal vegetables. However, unique to Sicily are the culinary vestiges of it’s Arabic occupation in the Tenth and Eleventh-Centuries. This means ingredients such as rice, raisins, pine nuts and citrus fruits and spices such as cloves, saffron and nutmeg are just as prevalent as passata and extra virgin olive oil.

Dishes to expect at ‘Le Chat Noir’ are grilled sword-fish served with capers, cherry-tomatoes and olives, a sweet and savoury orange salad and an aubergine parmigiana with Ricotta.

Blood Oranges

If looking to prepare your own food, I would recommend a visit to the weekly market held close to the Hotel Pescatore, and open from 08:00 – 13:00 every Saturday. The market sells fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish, and even shoes and linen and at a much higher quality found in the ever-present supermarkets.

The best accommodation in Cefalu is found on the beach via booking a stay in one of the eight ‘3-4 star’ hotels located on the coastline or by renting a shore-side villa.

A City of 14,000, Cefalu may be small but champions Sicilian culture with great tenacity. In the Summer Months, Cefalu’s population can often triple but the City handles it well. With all its medieval pathways and sun-kissed shores, Cefalù can carry the extra weight.