Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale show an exceptional cultural exchange, dating from the era of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194). Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French traces can be found in the enlisted sites.
The serial WHS consists of 9 monuments:
- Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
- Zisa Palace
- Palermo Cathedral
- Monreale Cathedral
- Cefalù Cathedral
- Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
- Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio
- Church of San Cataldo
- Admiral’s Bridge
Map of Arab-Norman PalermoLoad map
Visit April 2006
According to recent news flashes, “Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù’ and Monreale” will become a WHS this July after receiving a positive ICOMOS evaluation. This Italian site is a serial nomination with 9 components, spread out over 3 towns/cities on the island of Sicily. The monuments date from the period of Norman domination (1061-1194), when a multi-ethnic culture developed integrating Latin, Byzantine and Islamic elements.
On my trip to Sicily in 2006, I visited two of the subsites: the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù. When I look at the photos of Palermo in the nomination dossier, I regret that I opted out of going there. At the time I thought it would be too much hassle to drive my car into that city. Palermo actually is the main carrier of this nomination. It holds 7 component parts including the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, which is rated “worth a journey” by the Michelin Green Guide Sicily.
I have to rely on my trip notes from my visit to this corner of Sicily, as I don’t recall very much. I stayed overnight in the town of Cefalù, located at the northern coast not far from Palermo. Cefalù is dominated by a gigantic rock, against which the houses seem to be plastered. The streets are narrow and the cathedral is huge.
Monreale is just a short drive away. This cathedral with Arab, Byzantine and Norman influences attracts numerous visitors from afar – it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions of the island. Nevertheless, the golden mosaics and icons in the interior are a sight to behold. The Cathedral’s more than 6,000 squared metres of mosaic decoration is the largest production in the Mediterranean performed by Byzantine workers. The decorations were crafted in the late 12th and early 13th century, and cover scenes from both the Old and New Testament.
Next to the cathedral lie the cloisters, which are inspired by Islamic architecture. They hold no less than 228 columns, all covered with polychrome mosaics and distinctive romanesque capitals. Every column is different. Here the Arab style of decoration clearly shows.
As we have seen happening quite frequently before, the nomination has undergone some small changes before finalization. In the description of the TWHS 10 locations are mentioned, while the nomination dossier has only 9. Palermo’s Cuba Palace has been left out, two other sites have been merged into one and the Admiral’s Bridge was added. A longer list of sites from the Norman period is also part of the nomination file, maybe we should be grateful that they've left it at 9 locations in the end.
To me, Sicily is one of the most worthwhile travel destinations in Europe. It already has 6 WHS (Agrigento, Val di Noto, Villa Romana del Casale, Syracuse, Isole Eolie, Mt. Etna), but this one covers a whole different side of Sicilian history and makes a great addition.
This is one of my favorite WHS in Italy. The reign of Norman kings and their heirs, Hohenstaufen such as Frederick II, is the heyday era of Sicilly and antient Calabria and Apulia from 11th to 13th century, and one can see its testimony even nowadays. The great examples are the romanesque cathedrals and castles in Apulia (TWHS + WHS), and Arab-Norman monuments in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalu (WHS). While the Apulian cathedrals show strong Norman, Lombard, and Tuscany impact with a touch of Byzantine style, the Sicilian treasures are incredible blends of Norman, Byzantine and Arab styles.
There are around 22 Arab-Norman monuments in/around Palermo that survived from midle ages. Only 9 of them have been selected as WHS, and I must admit that it is a well-balanced selection. All sites can be quite easily visited in two-three days: The sites in Palermo are in walking distance, although Admiral`s Bridge and Zisa Palace are located a little bit off the historic center. Monreale and Cefalu are accessible by public transport, Monreale by AMAT bus 389 from Piazza Indipendenza and Cefalu by train.
(1) Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel: I visited this site on Thursday, so, I could see only Palatine Chapel in the second floor of the Palace. The third floor with the Room of King Roger and the Wind Tower is open for public only from Friday to Sunday because of sessions of the local parliament. Even though the Palatine Chapel is a unique blend of western style (romanesque three-naves and large apsida with the mosiac of the Christ in it), orthodox style (dome with the mosaic of the Christ, and mosaics by themselfs, while there are executed not only in transcendental eastern style but also in descriptive western style in part), and Arab culture (beautiful wooden ceiling of the main nave), I was a bit disappointed that the Chapel is a tourist trap, and I felt there as in a museum and not in a sacred space.
During my visit of an opera perfomance in Teatro Massimo in Palermo city center (the largest theatre in Italy), I could admire the monumental curtain with painting from 19th century. It depicts the scene of Roger II leaving the Royal Palace towards coronation in the cathedral, where there is an artistic view on the medieval Royal Palace and surroundings.
(2) Zisa Palace is the best preserved "summer" palace of Norman kings, and I was surprised by the charm of this site. The Arab appearance of the Hall of the Fountain was really fascinating to me. Well, it is "only" a museum that runs in typical Italian way (too many staff members with no actual reason, they are sometimes arrogant and rude, etc.), but it emanated special atmosphere to me.
If you walk from the Royal Palace through Porta Nuova following Corso Calatafimi, there are two other sites that were parts of the Garden of Paradise, as well as Zisa Palace: (i) La Cuba and (ii) La Cubula, but they were not included to WHS. (i) The Cuba Palace (15 min walking from Porta Nuova on the left side) is somehow similar to Zisa. It is smaller and partly destroyed but more compact Norman building with Arab decorations inside. Admission is 2 EUR but still worth-visiting. (ii) In the Cubula garden (30 min walking from Porta Nuova on the right side), there are the ruins of Villa Napoli with several Norman-Arab details and marvelous pavilon with typical Palermitan red dome. Both buildings are located in the garden with citrus and palm trees surrounded by fence and only one entrance gate (for free, but not always opened). Though the area is a bit decadent, La Cubula pavilon is in very good condition though. I enjoyed my visit a lot.
(3) Palermo Cathedral is extremely monumental and beautiful from outside, and I really liked my visit even though the classicist interior is a bit boring (with an odd baroque "stain" on a ceiling in the chancel. However, I liked the chapel of S Rosario heavilly decorated by silver, the tombs of Rogger II and Frederick II, and other artistic objects inside.
(4) Monreale Cathedral contains vast Byzantine-like mosaics, marble decorations, two bronze doors, all of very strong visual impact. But I was a bit disappointed, because quantity beats quaility in this case, and I must say that I was disappointed again when walking uphill from bus stop towards the cathedral - the building is surprisingly not such monumental as for example Cefalu cathedral.
(5) Cefalu Cathedral is my favorite site from this WHS (photo of the cathedral from the Rocca). I visited Cefalu three times already. The setting, architecture, decoration had a strong spiritual impact to me. The mosaic is only in the apsida, but it is extraordinal, made by true Greek masters. The Cathedral was founded by Roger II. The building combines anglo-franco-Norman romanesque style with Byzantine decoration and mosaics, and Arab influences. The tomb of Roger II used to stand in the transept, but it was moved to Palermo cathedral by Frederick II. The eastern and western parts clearly show different styles that is very impresive, and it is seen almost everywhere in this building that ambitious programs have never been finished. This feature is maybe the most appealing and special... The modern abstract glass windows are also of interest and fit perfectly to this unique structure.
(6) S Giovanni degli Eremiti: Nice place with typical red domes, but I felt there as in a museum again.
(7) Martorama (S Maria dell`Ammiraglio) was very authentic and extraordinar place to me. The ancient core is a true Byzantine structure with beautiful mosaics of high standard elaborated in transcendent style. I liked very much two panels from former nartex, now surrounded by barocco decoration close to the entrance - Virgin Mary with kneeling George the Antioch on the left side, and the coronation of Roger II by the Christ that is very very Byzantine.
(8) S Cataldo is very close to Martorama, it is quite small but pretty interesting.
(9) Admiral`s Bridge is interesting place, not far from the main railway station, and it is a valuable addition to this WHS.
We recently drove around the island of Sicily for a week. We weren’t specifically in search of World Heritage Sites, but stumbled on the most incredible cathedral in the town of Cefalú and it changed the way we thought about the trip. By the time we got to Palermo, we were blown away by the beautiful and intricate cathedrals of this Italian island.
Along the northern coast of Sicily, remarkable cathedrals bear testament to the mix of cultures, ethnicities, and religions that have moved through the country at varying times. These sites show the influence of Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, and Byzantine/Orthodox influences with a trace of Venetian/French flair thrown in for good measure. The cultural influence is more than just on architecture, it is on the cultural traditions that surround these sites.
The cathedrals are located in the heart of their respective cities, so they are very easy to visit. The only one that was a challenge was Monreale because of the limited parking in this mountainside town. It’s easiest to reach by bus from Palermo or parking in the small lot below the cathedral.
- The Cathedral of Cefalú
- The Cathedral of Monreale
- The Cathedral of Palermo
- The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti
If you find yourself in Sicily, we would recommend you visit the Arab-Norman Cathedrals. We’ve visited UNESCO sites on our travels before, but these cathedrals have been some of our favorites.
Read more from Travel Addicts here.
Palermo is a fascinating place. Despite being the capital of Sicily, it was the last major city we visited on the island and for the first time in months it felt like we'd almost left Europe (and in many ways, we had!). The heat, the noise, the chaos - it sort of felt like we'd been transported across the Med to Cairo or Tunis. And then you see the buildings with their enormous mix of styles - Arabic, Norman, Byzantine, and later Italian as well. We had a fantastic day wandering around checking out the various sights, and were particularly impressed by the mosaics in the palace. I'm a huge fan of mosaic art and this was extremely impressive.
Read more from Joel Baldwin here.
I visited all the sites in this soon-to-be inscribed WHS in May 2015. Palermo itself has 7 sites. Most have been restored and cleaned up prior to this year's WH Conference. The main landmark in Palermo and the most beautiful site for its exterior is Palermo's Cathedral. The sheer size and sculpted details on the facade, towers and rear side of the cathedral are worth a trip to Palermo alone. Yet the jewel of Palermo is the Palatine Chapel and the royal apartments with their marvelous "golden" mosaics. It is always pretty crowded and there are no chairs to sit down and stay in awe. The presbitery treasures are also of outstanding beauty as are the royal rooms housed in the Norman Palace. Another Norman palace and the third site I visited was the Zisa Palace famous for the quadri-lingual stonepiece. Just outside of the Royal Palace and the Palatine Chapel is another stonepiece but it's tri-lingual and without mosaics. After the Zisa Palace, which is quite distant from the city centre proper, is the Admiral's bridge now standing in a rather shabby urban part of Palermo but nonetheless its condition is very good. The other three sites of Palermo which are mentioned in the very detailed nomination file and worth viewing are the Church of San Cataldo (with its 3 red domes, the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio just next to it with its minaret like bell tower and its intricate Byzantine mosaics (I visited at 08:30 and attended mass here) and the Monumental Complex of San Giovanni degli Eremiti with its 5 red domes (best viewed from the Bell tower nearby to also enjoy the best panoramic view of Palermo). I spent two nights in Palermo and then I visited Cefalu' for a day trip and Monreale for a half day trip. Cefalu' is around 80km from Palermo and it's a quaint seaside town with a lovely sandy beach and high rocky hills. The Cefalu' Cathedral is nothing special from the outside and the interior mosaics only cover the presbitery area. It reminded me a lot of Porec in Croatia. Last but not least, I visited the Monreale Cathedral. The exterior is much more elaborate and the rear exterior part of the cathedral is very similar to the Mudejar/Moorish architecture I've seen in Zaragoza. The interior mosaics are in very good condition and are the entrance and visit is free of charge and there are chairs to sit down and gaze at the mosaic masterpieces. The bookshop sells a very informative mosaic map for 1 euro just outside the church and audio guides are also available. Both in Cefalu' and in Monreale, I enjoyed visiting the cathedral inner courtyards with their ornate sculpted columns and naves. All in all, this is a great addition to Italy's extensive WH list and a true highlight of Sicily.
Includes former TWHS Palermo and Monreale Cathedral (1995) and Cattedrale di Cefalu' e abitato storico (1998)
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