July 2017: Renaissance secrets, Juliette’s balcony, Sicily's finest beach

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Welcome to the Hidden Italy July newsletter:  Renaissance secrets, a facelift for Juliette’s balcony, garden festivals, a weekend in Cefalu and Sicily’s finest beaches.

Hidden Italy July 2017:

Hidden Italy July 2017:

Due to cancellation, we have a vacant double room on the Hidden Italy Verona and the Dolomites 2017, which starts in Verona on 15 September and finishes in Cortina d’Ampezzo on 27 September, visiting some of the most valleys and peaks in the Dolomites in between (www.hiddenitaly.com.au/guided-tours). 

With its fines food, excellent accommodation and unparalleled walking, this tour is one of the star turns on the Hidden Italy calendar.  If you are fe and would like to join us, please contct us on:  info@hiddenitaly.com.au.

Exhibitions in July:

Exhibitions in July:

Botero, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, www.ilvittoriano.it, until 27 August.  Instantly recognisable, the colourful, rotund, sensual figures of Colombian-born artist Ferdinand Botero, grace the galleries and piazzas of an Italian town and city.  To celebrate the much-loved artist’s 85th birthday, the first major retrospective of his work in Italy will be held at the Vittoriano in the heart of Rome, over 50 works created between 1958 and 2016.

The Secret Renaissance, Urbino (Palazzo Ducale); Pesaro (Museii Civici) Fano ((Palazzo Malatesstiano), http://rinascimentosegreto.it/urbino/, until 3 September.  Often overshadowed by theirTuscan neighbours. the Renaissance art of the region of the Marche, centring around the court of the Dukes of Urbino,represented one of the highest moments in Western Art.  This extraordinary presents paintings from the middle of the 1400s to the middle of the 1500’s, starting with the works of Piero della Francesca and finishing with the works of Pontormo, masterpieces cajoled from private collection, banks and other institutions which are rarely, if ever, seen in public – worth a trip to Italy on its own!

Segantini and the Painters of the Mountains.  Archaeological Museum, Piazza Roncas, Aosta; www.lovevda.it/en/events until 24 September.  Born in Milan, but spending much of his working life in Switzerland, Giovanni Segantini (1858 to 1899) was one of the most famous painters in Italy in the late 19th century and his beautiful en plein air paintings of the Alps are hung in major museums throughout Europe.  A number of his most celebrated works form the core of this exhibition, which brings together the works of over fifty artists.

Events in July:

Events in July:

Radicepura Garden Festival:  Essenza Mediterranea; Via Fogazzaro 19, Giarre (Catania), www.radicepurafestival.com, until 21 October.  Set in the black soils at the foot of Mt Etna in Sicily, this biennial event was the first international festival dedicated to Mediterranean gardens and landscape design.  It includes wine tastings, Sicilian street food and musical events.

A facelift for Juliette’s balcony, Verona, www.casadigiulietta.comune.verona.it.  It is very unlikely the actual balcony over which Shakespeare’s heroine draped herself (daughters of a rich medieval traders didn’t have balconies), nevertheless, this doesn’t discourage over 300,000 visitors a year squeezing into the little courtyard to pay their respects, take photos and leave sticky messages of adoration.  The balcony is in urgent need of restoration, which, thanks to local sponsorship, will start this autumn.

The Arch of Palmira, Piazza San Graziano, Arona (Piedmont), www.arcodipalmiraarona.it, until 30 July.  The Arch of Palmira, along with much of this marvellous historical site southern Syria, was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.  A full-scale replica of the arch, a symbol of optimism and collaboration between peoples, as well as a symbol against bigotry and vandalism, has travelled the world (London, New York, Dubai and Florence) will stand in the central piazza of Arona, a small town in Piedmont, until the end of this month, thanks to a local school girl who wrote a letter to the organisers last year.  The Arch has been placed in front of the new Archaeological Museum of Arona, which has been dedicated to Khaled el-Assad, the defiant custodian of the site, who was murder by ISIS while attempting to save the arch.

Hidden Italy weekend: Cefalu, a Norman town with some of the finest beaches in Sicily.

Hidden Italy weekend:  Cefalu, a Norman town with some of the finest beaches in Sicily.

The magnificent seaside town of Cefalu is an hour and a half drive along the coast of northern Sicily from Palermo.  Arriving from this direction is recommended as the views that greet you make you appreciate why the town is so celebrated: a unique combination of mountains, sea and history. 

Tucked under the steep cliffs of the headland, with mountains on one side and the sea on the other, the neat medieval houses and palazzi of the town are dominated by the spectacular twin towers of the Norman cathedral, commissioned by King Roger II in 1131.  But it is the sea that really catches your eye.  Rare in these parts, Cefalu has a long, sweeping white sand beach (1.5 kms) lapped by clean cool water.  From here, on a clear day, it is possible to see the volcanic peaks of the Aeolian Islands poking up on the horizon.

With its fine accommodation, buzzy town centre, rich history, excellent cuisine (including an incomparable seafood couscous, the legacy of two hundred years of Muslim rule), a string of beautiful beaches and access to the mountainous Madonie National Park, Cefalu is an ideal place to spend a weekend, or better a week, enjoying the delights of Sicily.

How to get there:

By car:  Take the autostrada from either Messina in the east or Palermo in the west and look for the Cefalu exit.  By train:  Cefalu is on the Messina – Palermo line.  By air:  The nearest airport is Palermo Punta Raisa, 70 kms away.

Where to stay:

Hotel La Plumeria (Corso Ruggero 125, Cefalu).  Set in the heart of the town, this small, elegant 4-star hotel is in a palazzo dating from the late Medieval period that faces onto the main corso of Cefalu.  Double from 120 euro

La Caletta (Via Cavallaro 12, Kalura).  On the coast, two kilometres east of Cefalu, this low-rise 4-star hotel in nestled into the green Mediterranean ‘macchia’ above a rocky coastline, offers a range of rooms with views over the sea.  It also has a private beach and a pool.  Doubles start from 90 euro.

Vallegrande Ranch (contrada Vallegrande).  Despite its cheesy name, this is a lovely hotel.  Several kilometres out of Cefalu, set in the green and peace of the Madonie National Park, it is based in two restored historic country houses.  It has a range of rooms and apartments and an excellent restaurant.

Sicilian Experience, Sant’Ambrogio.  Apart from offering a range of guided and walking tours to the area, my good friend and colleague Carmelina Ricciardello, can also arrange excellent apartment accommodation in the charming village of Sant’Ambrogio, a village overlooking the sea six kilometres east of Cefalu.

Where to eat:

Lo Scoglio Ubriaco (Via Ortolani di Bordonaro 4, Cefalu).  A pretty restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sea.  Very good fresh seafood, including a memorable seafood couscous.

La Botte (Via Veterani 6, Cefalu).  Serving classic local dishes, this small restaurant in the centre of town is in high demand, booking recommended.  Fix menu 30 euro, degustation menu 50 euro per person.

Al Porticciolo (Via Ortolani di Bordonaro 66, Cefalu).  With a terrace perched above the rocks, dining in this little restaurant seems like eating on a boat.  Good seafood as well as good pizza.  Around 40 per person (pizza from 5 to 15 euro).

La Brace (Via XXV Novembre 10, Cefalu).  Serving a happy combination of traditional Sicilian cooking and French cuisine, with a classy but relaxed atmosphere, this is the place to come when you want an alternative to seafood.  Around 35 euro person.

What to do:

Friday evening:

Check into your hotel, join the locals for in the passeggiata, an aperitivo and enjoy an early dinner.

Saturday morning:

Get up early, get your walking shoes on and follow the steep but well-marked trail up to the top of the Rocca, the massive headland that towers over the town.  It is 2.7 kms to the top, up a path called the Trail of the Saracens, which pretty much sums up the function of the Rocca: a place of refuge that the people of Cefula used to avoid the many raiders who marauded this coastline over the millennia.  At the top, there are very spectacular views along the coast, over the sea to the Aeolian Islands and back up to the mountains behind.  There are also the ruins of a temple dedicated to Diana that dates from Roman times and the ruins of a Medieval castle.  Back down in the town go for a well-deserved swim, catch a few rays and then go to lunch. 

After a lie down, it is time to explore the town’s wonderful heritage, starting with the magnificent Norman cathedral.  The first Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, had the church built as a votive offering after being delivered to the safety of Cefalu’s port in the middle of wild tempest.  Apart from its imposing architecture (as much a fortress as a cathedral) the church is most famous for its beautiful mosaics, including the famous ‘Cristo Pantocratore’, a vast mosaic portrait of Jesus, created by an unknown Byzantine master. 

Further down Corso Ruggero, is the interesting Mandralisca Museum, based on the private collection of extraordinarily rich local noble man (Baron Enrico Mandralisca), holds one of the finest paintings in Sicily:  the Portrait of an Unknown Man by Antonello da Messina (which the baron supposedly found being used as a doorstop in a pharmacy in Lipari on the Aeolian Islands).  Along Corso Ruggero you can also the Osteria Magno, which incorporates the remains of King Roger’s palace.

Cefalu also has some excellent shopping tucked into the lanes and little courtyards in the centre of town:  the Araba Fenice, a traditional Sicilian weaving workshop that produces bags, sandals and carpets;  Il Dodo, another workshop owed by two young locals who produce object d’art and homewares (dust-collectors?);  Roberto Giacchino, a local sculptor, creates beautiful works from olive wood and stone; finally, for some culinary treats, visit Torrefazione Serio. 

To finish off the day, relax and have an aperitvo at La Galleria, a bookshop/café, which is also a restaurant, perfect for an early dinner.

Sunday morning:

Time to hit the beaches.  The most convenient is the long white beach that spreads out in front of Cefalu, with a 1.5 km boardwalk and plenty of options, going Italian and hiring serivced deck chairs or just being Australian and throwing your towel on the sand on the open beach. 

If you prefer to the rocks, walk to the northern end of Corso Ruggero, turn right into Via Porpora and you will shortly come to a series of steps that lead down to the rocky seashore below the town’s bastion – take your thongs and a matt.  Otherwise, continue on the path that winds above the coast to the east for twenty minutes and you will come the small pebbly beach of Kalura, aways relaxed, even in the busiest period.

Sunday afternoon:

A short drive east of Cefalu, Santo Stefano di Camastra is one of the main ceramic centres in Sicily.  Its main street is lined with workshops producing some of the finest traditional work in the region, which are open all day on Sundays.

Sunday alternative, explore the Madonie Mountains:

Cefalu is actually part of the Madonie National Park, Sicily’s largest, which includes the mountains and towns that climb to the south of the coast.  This beautiful area can be explored by car following the winding road that takes into the little visited heart of Sicily.  First stop is a visit to the Sant’Anastasia vineyards, a magnificent estate which produces some of Sicily’s finest wines, cellar visits and tasting can booked (www.abbaziasantanastasia.com).  It has an excellent 4-star hotel based in a restored Medieval abbey and a very good restaurant.

From here, drive on up to the lovely town of Castelbuono, the de-facto capital of the Madonie Mountains.  Protected by a ring on mountains, Castelbuono is something of a culinary centre, its celebrated food based on the very good produce produced in its fertile fields and forest.  The attractive town is dominated by a magnificent, recently restored castle which has a chapel that contains the skull of St Anne (Mary’s mother) and is covered in rich Baroque decorations by Serpotta.  Castelbuono is a nice place for a passeggiata and has a famous gelato and pastry shop (Pasticceria Fiasconaro) and a couple of very good restaurants, including Nangalarruni and A Rua Fera.

If you have time, there are number of other beautiful and interesting small towns in the area, including the sanctuary Maria Santissima di Gibilmanna and the pretty little town of Isnello.

Sunday alternative, go hiking:

If you would like to do some hiking and/or explore some of the rural traditions of this area, contact my friend and colleague Carmelina Ricciardelli of Sicilian Experience, based in the village of Sant’Ambrogio (www.sicilianexperience.com).  Apart from accommodation, Carmelina offers a range of adventures including guided walks of varying degrees (easy or hard, short or long) exploring the beautiful countryside and rich traditions of the Madonie mountains.  She can also incorporate activities such as visits to local cheese-makers, picnic lunches in the country with shepherds, vineyards visits and cooking sessions.

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