Having spent a few weeks in Palermo over the years (I’ve written up 27 things to do in Palermo and the article is still current!), it was time to get out of town and visit the coast. An opportunity came up for me to have a home base on the beach near Bagheria, but as everything is pretty close by, I’m writing up this experience as possible day trips from Palermo up the Tyrrhenian coast. To minimize time in the car, I spent some time trying to find out what to see along the coast between Palermo and Cefalù and found that there isn’t much information online in English. Sicily is so incredibly rich that in a just few days we experienced everything from mountains to beaches, small towns and the big city of Palermo. Wherever we went there were very interesting works of art and architecture as well as delicious food. So here are just four of the interesting stops on the coast within a few hours of travel from Palermo.

The Norman Cathedral of Cefalù

Bagheria and it’s crazy villa

Bagheria (40 minutes drive from Palermo or a trip on the regional train) was a favourite summertime destination of Palermo’s aristocracy and as a result, it’s home to numerous Baroque villas built from the middle of the 17th century onwards. The most famous of these is Villa Palagonia, begun in 1715 for Ferdinando Francesco I Gravina Cruyllas, Prince of Palagonia (a city in the province of Catania). Known as the “villa of the monsters” due to its very unusual décor, it’s easy to pass the owner and his villa off as completely insane. Yet the prince, who apparently was extremely lacking in physical beauty, held important political roles, contributed to important social works, and was described as elegantly dressed and orderly. So what drove him to spend his lifetime and a considerable amount of money building an extremely weird villa?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Villa Palagonia in 1787 and he described the sculptures that top the villa’s outer walls as representing human beings of many sorts (he lists beggars, soldiers, mythological figures, hunchbacks and more), animals, sometimes combined with human bodies or to other animals… Visitors can walk around the villa through its lush gardens and marvel at the sculptures that are now silhouetted against what Peter Robb, in his “Midnight in Sicily”, calls “mafia slums” that grew up around this and other villas.

Of the spaces we can visit inside, a ballroom with a ceiling made of broken mirrors “had the thought-provoking purpose of inviting each visitor to reflect about the egotistical vanity and feeble fragility of humanity.” (Source) As a whole, the project could be seen as a reflection of the madness of the world around us, or may refer to the Prince’s interest in alchemy, as a physical manifest of philosophical reflection.

Salvatore Dalì expressed his desire to purchase this villa as his summer home, but it’s now in (other) private hands, with the gardens and much of the first floor open to the public (€6 entrance fee).

Parco delle Madonie, the Sicily you didn’t expect

I think of Sicily’s wealth of architectural and archeological heritage, its sea and great food, but hiking in high mountains really isn’t the first connection I make with the island. But drive an hour and a quarter out of Palermo and you start climbing up into the Madonie park, with awesome views, cooler temperatures and incredible biodiversity. A section of the park has been named a UNESCO geopark to recognize its geological and biological importance, and in fact while the geopark occupies just 2% of Sicily, it contains some 2600 species of plants, many of which are endemic.

While I wouldn’t recommend hiking here in July or August as it can be brutally hot, it was 12 degrees up here at 1600 meters above sea level versus 26 in the sun down below when I visited in early June. There are nicely maintained, marked trails for all abilities. Plan your hike at www.parcodellemadonie.it.

Polizzi Generosa, a Renaissance crossroads

We arrived at Polizzi Generosa from over the mountains where we’d been hiking, making this town perched 900 meters above sea level seem rather more isolated than it is – a straight hour and twenty minutes on the “highway” from Palermo. A town of 3000 inhabitants that nowadays has trouble convincing young people to stay was once an important crossroads, and any art lover knows what that means: many churches rich with artistic heritage! Yay!

Polizzi has origins dating back to the 6th century BCE, and the name Polis refers to the Greek word for city, while the “Generosa” part was added by King Federico II of Sicily in 1863 in thanks for some particularly stellar hospitality he received there. In the Middle Ages it became a citta demaniale which means it was directly controlled by the King rather than under the feudal system. As a result, in the early 16th century, Polizzi had 49 churches and was home to five different ethnic groups who each governed themselves. The churches are decorated by local but also international artists such as the Spanish Johannes de Matta who set up a workshop in town in the 1530s.

Visitors to Polizzi who find the main church – Santa Maria Maggiore – closed should call the number on the sign because someone will open it for you, probably a toothless local named Nino. A tip to signor Nino will get you the tour of the town and its wonders, as Nino holds the keys to everything and is the living Wikipedia (but way better) of its artworks, rattling off names and dates with obvious pride. You won’t find any of his information on the internet – he says it comes from little booklets written here and there but that he wishes some graduate student would come around and put it all together and that the city hall ought to pay for it. Which they should!

Inside Santa Maria Maggiore, Nino showed us a Flemish tapestry that was a gift of Carlo IV in the 16th century, and a beautiful silver tabernacle with a miniature scene of the Last Supper created in 1586 by Nibilio Gaggini, an important Sicilian goldsmith. We also visited other churches, like one dedicated to the town’s patron saint, San Gandolfo, full of paintings representing his miracles.

The Madonna dresses Dolce (& Gabbana)

Here’s something you don’t encounter every day: the church run by the confraternita di Maria Santissima degli Agonizzanti boasts a Madonna wearing Dolce & Gabbana! Domenico Dolce is originally from Polizzi and he recently donated an ornate outfit and structure for the Madonna who is displayed in the Good Friday processions. An earlier mantle of silk and more staid black beading was made for the Madonna by Domenico’s father Saverio and is displayed in a wooden case that Nino opened for us so I could admire the incredible craftswomanship.

The Polizzi Tryptich, Rogier van der Weyden

The real miracle in Polizzi is the presence of a triptych most recently attributed to Rogier van Weyden in a chapel of the town’s mother church. It was moved here from another church in Polizzi. How did this masterpiece of 15th-century Netherlandish art get to this remote town in Sicily? Legend tells of a shipwrecked captain from Genova tasked with delivering this work to somewhere in Sicily, but the “address got lost in the mail” so to speak. Grateful to be alive, the captain arrived at the port of Palermo and vowed to donate the painting to the first poor church he would encounter. Luck would have it that a monk from Polizzi was in Palermo that day and convinced the captain that their church was as poor as can be.

The triptych is housed in a large chapel dedicated to San Gandolfo to the right of the high altar. Signor Nino opened the large iron gates to the chapel, without which one would only get a side view. There are few opportunities to get so close to a painting like this, which has been perfectly restored just recently. It’s a Madonna enthroned with the “little man” infant Jesus on her lap, flanked by musical angels and saints Catherine and Barbara. Jesus appears to be scrunching up the pages of a book in the Virgin’s lap, but actually his hands are in a rather tense and specific position that has been identified as the hand position for playing an instrument (I believe the lute?). An angel points at a scroll that contains a musical verse that is clearly oriented towards the viewer, so not too long ago a scholar transcribed and identified the music. As an extra special treat, Nino switched on the Renaissance music for us, two minutes of “soundtrack” that enhance the viewing experience of this immaculate painting.

Given my infamous digestive problems, we didn’t eat out much on this trip, which may be why it’s all the more a pleasure to cite a very memorable meal we ate in Polizzi at Baroon Bistrot. This recently opened casual restaurant is run by a young restauranteur, Stefano, who serves up both mountain fare and fresh fish – he goes down to the fish market in the morning as it’s just half an hour to the coast. Lovely interpretations of classic dishes in a welcoming and modern setting. We have him to thank for putting us in touch with Signor Nino!

Cefalù, a Norman jewel

Porta Pescara, Cefalù

Cefalù is a medieval city overlooking crystalline waters, replete with clean and charming alleyways and an impressive Norman Cathedral, just one hour from Palermo by car or direct train. Probably because it’s both beautiful and accessible, it’s also one of Sicily’s top tourist destinations, though the crowds are nothing compared to Florence! Aside from a few streets that are entirely dedicated to souvenirs and avoidable restaurants, there’s still plenty to enjoy away from the hoards; warm shoulder seasons like May, June, September and October would be the best times to visit.

Cefalù’s history is Greek, Roman and Arab, but its current form, that develops from the port towards the hill behind the town, derives from the Norman invasion of 1063 and subsequent centuries. One thing I really enjoyed was how compact and rich the city is: it’s just a jaunt between the huge Cathedral complex commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily in 1131 and Porta Pescara, an archway that gives onto a tiny harbour beach where locals sun themselves and the kids jump off the dock.

As a recently-declared UNESCO Heritage site, expect areas of the Duomo to be in a perpetual state of scaffolding; currently the impressive apse mosaic of Christ Pantocrator and rows of saints is being restored so we couldn’t see it. Next in line for the restorer’s attention might be the cloister, which is my favourite part of the Duomo – even better than being able to walk up the towers (cumulative ticket, €12). About half of the columns and capitals of the oldest cloister in Sicily are well preserved. The twin columns supporting ogival arches represent the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) with their variegated forms. The capitals, often quite worn from the elements, represent stories from the Old and New Testaments – I spotted an adorable Noah’s Ark – while the cloister itself symbolizes heaven on earth. The treasury and museum host innumerable reliquaries and religious instruments and there’s also a throne room that’s worth seeing.

Polizzi Generosa
View of Polizzi Generosa from afar

We had a wonderful stay exploring this part of the coast not far from Palermo! There are plenty of beautiful beaches, too, that I’m not an expert in but I recommend going for a dip if it’s not too cold when you visit. Sicily is probably the most laid back and welcoming part of Italy one can visit, truly offering an impressive range of experiences. I hope I’ve inspired your next visit – I know that I’ve just awoken my desire to return!

Further Reading about Sicily

27 Things to do in Palermo

Sign up to receive future blog posts by email