For some incomprehensible reason, my husband and I feel compelled to go up. We love to see things from above, to have a broad view of our surroundings. Maybe it comes from seeing so many monuments, great works of art on a grandiose scale that make us feel puny and insignificant and we want to recapture a sense of who we are in the world. Who knows. But we’ve been up and down many hills and set of stairs, from the dome of St Peter’s Basilica to the rocky ruins of Solunto. By far the most difficult climb we’ve done yet is the path onto La Rocca, the promontory that looms over the town of Cefalu and onto which Byzantine fortifications were once erected. Our goal was the Castello, at the very top, a climb of over 278 meter from sea level on mainly uneven, rocky terrain with barely any cover.
La Rocca, or u castieddu in Sicilian, meaning “the castle” is a big hunk of rock that juts up almost vertically in some places. What makes it so spectacular is the fact that it hugs at its feet the town of Cefalu with its Byzantine Duomo and its quaint fishing village, where the houses have been built so close to the ocean the waves lap their foundations. The Duomo has its back to La Rocca, as if it counts on the rock to protect it. The entire mountain has been made into a protected park, and is relatively well maintained.
We started our hike from Piazza Garibaldi less than 500 meters from the train station (getting to Cefalu by train is dead easy) where a set of stairs indicated we should go up. Soon we came to the entrance to the park; for about a winding 500 meters, the stairs are fairly easy (if steep) with regular landings and explanatory panels. As we go up, the view becomes even more astounding. Midway a crenellated wall, 2 kilometres long, surrounds La Rocca like a belt, reminding us that the settlement was meant as a fortified habitation meant for defence of the area.
It doesn’t take long for the well-built staircases to give way to a winding, steep, rocky path that snakes its way up the mountain to the second level of fortifications: another long crenellated wall, dating from the 12-13th century, in surprisingly good condition. From the ramparts, you can look down at the older part of Cefalu, including its Duomo and a far-reaching view of the sea. Because they had to be self-sufficient, the cittadini built six huge bread ovens, one still fairly intact today. (Nothing is said on where they obtain the grain to bake the bread, so one has to surmise they either grew it on the mountain or obtained it from the plain below.)
Older than the crenellated walls or the bread oven is the Tempio di Diana, a megalithic construction with a portal that was dated to the 9th century BC and dedicated to the Goddess Diana. Looking at these immense blocks, all fitted one onto the other –and still standing — you try to imagine how the people of the times were able to build such a structure. Amazing.
Amazing as well is the Castello, the 12th century castle (abandoned 300 years later) built on top of the hill from local stone and about 700 square meters, with a massive square tower, which we see from the bottom. The view was one of the best we’ve seen so far, certainly coloured by the effort we’d put it to get there.
The climb was extremely difficult, and not for the faint of heart –literally. You need a good pair of shoes, water (there is absolutely none on La Rocca), strong legs and a strong pair of lungs. Midway, where the Temple of Diana is situated, there is a shaded area where you can rest, as well a picnic tables. It was a good place to stop before tackling the hardest part of the hike up to the Castello. The heat was stupefying and there was no wind to speak of the day we went up. It is also a good place to turn back if you’re not inclined to complete the trip.