Boat vacations: what to see ashore in northern Sicily

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Palermo cathedral
Palermo Cathedral houses the tomb of Frederick II.

Between the tall, imposing cliffs that make up the main stretch of coast between Capo San Vito and Palermo and the long stretches of sandy beach that stretch instead between Cefalù and Milazzo, one of the most intense spectacles in all of Sicily is staged. Once ashore, the advice is to visit magnificent Palermo and its monumental beauty, but not only that: visits to San Vito, Castellammare and Cefalù are also not to be missed. And just off the coast are two magnificent nature reserves that are really worth visiting.

 

The great Natural Parks

In northern Sicily, nature has been generous to the hinterland. Here, in fact, we discover two magnificent nature reserves that are really worth visiting. An extensive mountain range located just behind the Gulf of Cefalù and thus immediately abutting the northern coast of the island, that of the Madonie includes some of the highest peaks in all of Sicily, such as Pizzo Carbonara, which reaches 1,979 meters in height. The territory that contains and surrounds it, however, has another important feature: thanks to its naturalistic beauty, it has in fact been preserved since 1989 by a Nature Park as large as 40 thousand hectares.

Another mountainous profile facing the island’s northern coastline-also preserved by a Regional Park established in 1993-is that of the Nebrodi Mountains: its slopes start just behind the sea and Sant’Agata di Militello, and its peaks extend eastward and southward almost to Mount Etna. Spanning over 85 thousand hectares, this reserve is home to a truly rich and lush vegetation of vast forests of oak, elm, ash, beech and maple trees.

Madonie
The Madonie mountain range includes some of the highest peaks in all of Sicily.

Palermo

To recount in a few lines the many different beauties found in Palermo is almost a feat. Impossible not to start with the Quattro Canti, or Piazza Vigliena, the octagonal space built in the seventeenth century with fountains and Baroque decorations and from which the four parts of the historic center branch off: the Kalsa, Vucciria, Capo and Albergheria. Ancient churches-don’t miss the medieval one of La Martorana and the Norman one of San Cataldo-, the Ballarò market and Piazza Pretoria with its fountain of the same name are the most interesting places in the latter area, while a separate discussion deserves Palazzo dei Normanni. Erected by the Arabs in the 9th century, it became the residence of Norman kings such as Roger II, who had the splendid Palatine Chapel built there, with its enchanting mosaics. A little further north you enter the Cape and encounter the truly impressive Cathedral. Its construction was begun in 1184 but was later remodeled several times. It houses the tombs of many kings including Frederick II. Cross the shopping streets Roma and Maqueda to enter Vucciria, a famous and intricate working-class neighborhood in which a very picturesque market is held. Standing out among the alleys, however, is the Baroque bulk of the Church of San Domenico, an ornate temple that serves as Palermo’s pantheon. Finally, here is the Kalsa, an area with an Arabic name meaning “pure”: it is one of the oldest in the city and is home to several monuments. Over all are the two jewel churches known as Lo Spasimo and La Gancia, the 15th-century Palazzo Chiaramonte and the distinctive Oratory of San Lorenzo.

St. Vitus and the Cape

The eastern end of the wide Gulf of Castellamare, Capo San Vito is a long, narrow promontory at the tip of which the town of San Vito Lo Capo is reached. Moving toward the center of the gulf and past the incredible cliffs of the Zingaro Nature Reserve, one reaches Scopello, a charming village built on a high rock overlooking the sea. And it is just in front of the beach that you can visit the abandoned building of the town’s long-closed Tonnara. Placed right in the middle of the large bay located west of Palermo and Capo Gallo, Castellammare is a tourist center full of social life and stores. Dominated by the remains of the Aragonese Castle erected in the 17th century, its center is an intricate maze of narrow streets.

Termini Imerese

Leaving behind Palermo, its Gulf and its countless beauties, just beyond Capo Zafferano lies this modern town with ancient origins. In fact, it arose from the union of two cities of Magna Graecia. Worth seeing are the Renaissance Cathedral and the newer, more scenic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Finally, in the park of Villa Palmieri, the remains of a Roman house are discovered.

Cefalù

While its crescent-shaped beach is certainly one of the most famous (and beautiful) on the entire island, the town, built at the foot of the Rocca, a lush promontory that faces the Tyrrhenian Sea from its 300-meter height, is one of the most fashionable summer resorts in southern Italy. In the evening, getting lost in the medieval alleys of its charming, tiny old town means going out to discover countless seafood restaurants and nightclubs. By day, Cefalù is even more intriguing, and one should not miss the opportunity to admire the Cathedral built in the late 1100s and the well-preserved medieval wash house. On the fortress above, among the scattered remains of Byzantine walls, the white vestiges of the ancient Temple of Diana (dating back to 400 B.C.) can be discovered.

Cape Orlando

According to legend, it owes its name to Orlando, an officer in Charlemagne’s army who suggested that the king build a castle on this fascinating promontory that juts into the sea opposite the Aeolian Islands. Of the fortress, however, only a few ruins can be discovered in the city, partly because over the centuries Capo d’Orlando has been transformed into a center with a great vocation for tourism, fueled by the two enchanting beaches that stretch out on either side of the center.

Tindari

About ten kilometers east of the town of Patti and almost in the middle of the gulf of the same name one discovers the small but lovely promontory of Capo Tindari. Right here, you can admire some of the most important archaeological remains on the entire island, those of the ancient city of Tindari. Founded on the very rocky cape by the Greek ruler Dionysius I in 396 B.C., the city was later also dominated by Romans and Arabs. Among the best preserved buildings are those of Roman origin, such as the Basilica and a house with mosaics on the floors and walls. Also of interest is the Theater, which was built by the Greeks as a place of culture and later transformed by the Romans into an arena for the truculent spectacles of gladiators. Finally, on the edge of the archaeological area is a curiosity: it is the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tindari, a huge and somewhat kitschy church that houses the wooden statue of the Black Madonna, a religious relic brought from the East.

Milazzo

Built at the base of the promontory to which it gives its name and which has always been the base for roundtrips by sea from the Aeolian Islands, Milazzo can be an interesting place for both art lovers and fun seekers. The former should definitely not miss a visit to the Castle: erected in 1237 at the behest of Frederick II and expanded by Charles V in the 16th century, it is a mighty fortification formed by circular towers and massive walls. Within the latter then are a beautiful part of the historic center of Milazzese, known as the “walled city,” the severe Cathedral and the 14th-century Palazzo dei Giurati. Right in the old part of downtown and on the modern waterfront, on the other hand, are several restaurants and nightclubs.

To Solunto and Himera to revive a glorious past, including Greeks and Phoenicians

Located some 20 kilometers east of Palermo, just near Capo Zafferano, the ruins of Solunto, which was first Phoenician and then Roman, make up an archaeological area that is truly not to be missed. Visiting it today you can see the Gymnasium, the “house of Leda” with mosaic floors, the Roman theater, and a single shrine dating back to the Phoenician period.

An important center of Sicilian Magna Graecia, Himera was founded as a colony of the city of Messina in 648 BC. Two centuries later, in revenge for its earlier military defeat, the mythical Hannibal razed it to the ground: what remains can be visited in the archaeological area.

From Monreale to Monte Pellegrino

Positioned on the slopes of Mount Caputo, 310 meters above sea level, Monreale is a village not to be missed because it is home to the enchanting Cathedral. Built between 1172 and 1176 at the behest of William II on the site where he had an apparition of the Virgin Mary, it was built in a spectacular (and almost unique) composite style that combines the characteristics of Arab architecture with those of Italic art. The two massive and solemn towers guarding the entrance do not foreshadow the nimble charm of the golden mosaics that fill the church’s interior. All together they tell the story of early Christianity, from the birth of Christ to the resurrection.

Travelling the 5 kilometers of road that descends toward Palermo, between the city center and Mondello, one climbs up to discover the promontory of limestone origin a full 609 meters high: Monte Pellegrino. Stretching out over the Tyrrhenian Sea and characterized by the mysterious presence of the Addaura Caves, ancient cavities on whose walls are rock carvings dating back to the Paleolithic period, Mt. is above all the place dedicated to the shrine of Santa Rosalia.

 

 

Don’t miss the other installments of Boat Holidays:

 

 

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