Published On: Fri, Jul 8th, 2016

48 Hours in Cefalù and the Aeolian Islands

With nothing particular to do except enjoy the sun, sea and scenery, James Miller spent the weekend ambling around Cefalù and venturing out to the neighbouring islands…


DSC_0591 Locals enjoying the surf on Panarea

Here are countless reasons why visiting Sicily is a good idea: natural beauty, historical and cultural interest, food, even romance. As a regular visitor I’m no stranger to any of these. However, in this instance, I’d decided to immerse myself in the island’s charms to seek inspiration, clarity and peace from the hectic lifestyle and confusion that goes hand in hand with British living these days.

During my time as a correspondent for Italia! I’d never embarked upon a trip without a focused itinerary. This time, however, my plan was literally to have no plan, other than to be spontaneous and go with the flow, see where my adventure took me and let this ancient and unpredictable land work its magic!

Following the northwest coastal route, my first stop was the medieval beach town Cefalù. The town is nestled beneath an enormous rocky promontory. The Cathedral’s twin peaks poke through the terracotta rooftops, enticing would-be visitors to stop and explore this ancient and picturesque little Sicilian town.

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I checked into the hotel closest to the beach, the Riva del Sole. And without wasting any of the glorious Sicilian sunshine I went straight to the beach. I ventured into the lively beach bar the Lido Apollo. I ordered an Italian beer and got chatting to the bar staff and lifeguards. In no time at all we were getting on like old friends and I’d been invited to join them in the evening. They explained how much they loved the lifestyle in Cefalù. Toto, the lifeguard, had lived in Miami for a while but to him and his friends there was nowhere that offered the simplicity and sincere friendships that were all in Cefalù. 

After enjoying the beach with the Lido Apollo bunch, I decided to take a stroll through Cefalù’s quaint streets. The cool shade of the medieval streets offered a respite from the glorious but intense Sicilian sun. Amongst the art and antique shops there was plenty to look at.

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I arrived at the main piazza, it was a site to behold, the Norman cathedral at the top dominating the beautiful square lined with cafés and restaurants. The exotic appearance of the cathedral is part of Cefalù’s legacy as a Norman stronghold. Roger II, so the story goes, survived a storm and landed on Cefalù’s beach. So grateful was he for his salvation, Roger commissioned the cathedral’s construction. The piazza and cathedral are the pride of the town and in the evening, when the cathedral is illuminated, the scene is quite magnificent.

I decided to cool down and enjoy the serenity of the piazza, with a typically Sicilian way of eating ice cream, gelato in a brioche! I met some locals in the gelateria who were organising a sailing excursion around the nearby Aeolian Islands. I jumped at the chance to island hop around Sicily’s famous volcanic archipelago and agreed to meet with them the following day.

After an exhilarating morning’s sailing we arrived at the island of Panarea. The experience was like stepping into a timeless paradise. The shimmering blue water and view of the volcano in the distance were breath-taking. I stopped to get some lunch before exploring the island further.

The little harbourside restaurant was frozen in a time where romance and la vita bella were the order of the day. The charming waitress seemed to genuinely enjoy the sight of another spellbound customer at one of her tables. I sat outside and enjoyed a delicious bowl of local seafood pasta and white wine.

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This is a place where romantically intertwined couples can allow vero amore to blossom whilst isolating themselves from the rest of the world. I allowed myself to drift into the ambience and natural beauty of the island. The restaurant owners were playing slow, smooth melodies from the 1940s and ‘50s on their radio. The moment had something of a dreamlike quality. I looked out at the harbour, the volcanic island in the distance billowed out wispy puffs of smoke into the cloudless blue sky.

Fishing boats bobbed lazily in the harbour. It was serene, unspoilt, and beautiful. It was as though the rest of the world didn’t exist, or at least for this moment didn’t matter

I walked slowly upward through the narrow, flower-lined streets. The midday heat was becoming intense and a brief respite was in order. I found a small church at the top of a hill with spectacular views over the island and blue horizon. A breeze brushed the back of my neck and the only sounds were that of birdsong and children playing in the distance. It was the perfect location for a moment of calm reflection.

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I took in a few more sights before departing for the next island. Sun-kissed locals were leaping off volcanic rock into the sea. Later I lay by the harbour listening to the waves gently lap the stones, watching Mount Vulcano puff white wispy plumes into the air. This is a place that seems to exist outside of time, and for a while I was happy to forget about the past and the present and exist purely in the here and now.

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Later that afternoon our boat moored at Stromboli harbour. The first thing that struck me was the hotchpotch of colourful fishing boats strewn across the black pumice and volcanic sand. Families enjoyed the sun with a dip into the surf.

Stromboli received international fame through the film of the same name, directed by Roberto Rossellini and starring Ingrid Bergman. Released in 1950, it is now considered a masterpiece in Italian neo-realism. Bergman plays a foreigner living on the island and experiencing extreme isolation and claustrophobia. Her anxieties accentuated by the looming threat of a volcanic eruption.

I sat down and contemplated the reality of the remote but far from claustrophobic lifestyle of these islanders. I walked up the narrow, winding street towards the main piazza. Boutique shopkeepers, dressed in linen, were leaning barefoot on their stoops. It had a free-spirited, bohemian feel to it.

At the top of the hill was a piazza and a pizzeria with views out to the sea. I indulged in another bowl of local pasta and a glass of white wine. This was a place like no other I’d experienced in Italy. Not fashionable or glamorous but it didn’t need to be. It felt like the sort of place you could find yourself visiting and never returning from. The island had a slow and soothing rhythm dictated by the gentle metronome of the waves lapping against the shore. I walked back down and lay on the jetty waiting for the boat to return.

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The experience of visiting the Aeolian Islands had been almost surreal, intoxicating. Unlike Karin, Ingrid Bergman’s character in the film Stromboli, I didn’t want to leave this entrancing corner of the Mediterranean. I knew one day I would return.

Later that evening our boat dropped anchor just off the shore of an active volcano. The light was subdued and atmospheric, and our boat rocked gently in the shadow of this brooding giant as we waited for a glimpse of its elemental power.

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It was now the middle of the night and my new friend Toto had offered to pick me up in Cefalù. I was expecting a car but, true to the vita libera the locals enjoy, I ended up whizzing through the streets, helmetless in the dead of night, on his Vespa scooter – just the adrenaline jolt I needed after the tranquilizing combination of sun, sea, beautiful Mediterranean islands, volcanoes and drinks on the boat

The Goddess Diana

The ancient inhabitants of Sicily built a temple on La Rocca and dedicated it to a beautiful goddess from antiquity. The Romans called her Diana, she was known as Artemis to the Greeks. I’d heard that the mountain here was said to be a place of inspiration and ancient magic. I was intrigued. It was the start of a new day and before leaving Sicily I couldn’t resist a trip up to the summit to find some answers.

After an energetic scramble, I sat on the ruined battlements at the peak. The refreshing, cool wind blew across my face. I could hear the waves rhythmically rolling into the shore beneath. I pondered upon the powerful allure they must have felt towards their feminine deity – enough to have created a sacred place to honour her.

I felt an affinity to their passions. I wondered how this goddess must have appeared in their furtive imaginations. In my mind’s eye, I saw large, shimmering, blue eyes, crystalline and mesmerising, much like the endless blue sea – graceful, with a beauty matched by none. Although, despite her feminine beauty and elegance, her character was fiercely strong and independent. 

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This female deity had a particular relevance for woman wanting to bear children, as she was the patron goddess for conceiving and childbirth. As the classical story goes, there was a man who fell upon her gaze. Bewitched, he thought she was his perfect lover. But he is tragically thwarted by her absolute unattainability. True to the spirit of the classical myths of antiquity, where there is beauty there is also suffering… 

 I mused upon this ancient drama as I made my descent back into the town. The views were spectacular all the way down and I savoured them knowing that my time in Sicily was coming to an end. I came to Sicily with no real plans other than to go with the flow and let the island work its magic. After experiencing the staggering beauty of the Aeolian Islands, hanging out with vivacious locals and experiencing the mystique of La Rocca, I can say that I am truly spellbound.

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