Twenty minutes, the guidebook said.
It’s easy, the guidebook said.
Well, let me tell you something, Guidebook. It wasn’t easy. And it took more than twenty minutes.
Climbing the mountain to Castello della Rocca (kah-stel-oh de-lah roh-kah) in Cefalù took us almost an hour. One way. Uphill. In the sun. The way up is a mere footpath, and in some places it’s not well defined. In fact, it’s actually quite dangerous on occasion. More than once, the path jumped up vertically, and we had to scramble up some well-worn rocks to keep to it. Those spots wore us out on the way up – we took several small breaks in the middle – but we soon found out that they were much more troublesome on the way back down. There’s nothing quite like looking down a steep rock face and wondering if you’re going to slide all the way down on your butt to make you question your previous decision-making process.
While the guidebook was mistaken as to the nature of the ascent to the charming little set of ruins, it was right about one thing: It was well worth the trek.
The town of Cefalù (cheh-fah-loo) has been on the north coast of Sicily since the days of old. At one point, somebody had the bright idea to climb the mountain that looms over the town, and they built a temple there: the Tempio di Diana (temp-ee-oh dee dee-ah-nah). Built sometime around the 5th century BC, the temple shifted from a place of worship to a place of defense. Because you can see in all directions from the spot where the temple is, it became a lookout point to guard the town from danger.
That didn’t always work, though. The city is in a prime spot, just east of Palermo, and has an enviable port. Despite the conversion of the temple to a lookout point, the city has been conquered several times. When the Normans took control in the 11th century, they decided to hold onto the town at all costs, and around 1063 they built a bigger and better lookout point above the old temple: the Castello della Rocca. Later, when Frederick of Swabia came to power over the island, he commissioned renovations and extensions on the castle. Records from the time show that it had one of the biggest garrisons of any of the castles on the island. Visitors to the town noted that it was protected by a ‘formidable’ castle up on the hill.
Interestingly, these records also note that the castle had very good food stores.
Unfortunately, these food stores were the undoing of the formidable little castle up on the mountain. In the late 13th century, the fortress was burnt down, most likely as a result of a kitchen fire. It never really recovered from that disaster, and, while there were some half-hearted attempts to bring it back to its former glory, it was completely and permanently abandoned by the 19th century.
Today, the Castello della Rocca is interesting from an archeological point of view. It’s not much to look at, nor is there much to explore. However, the strenuous hike up mountain wasn’t a complete bust: The views from what’s left of the castle wall are fantastic.
To climb the mountain, go to Piazza Garibaldi in Cefalù and look for the Banco di Sicilia. Just to the right of the bank, there’s a staircase. Go up the staircase and follow the path up the mountain. You’ll find the entrance to the park about five minutes up from the top of the staircase. The entry fee to the archeological park is 4 euros. They do close the park before dusk, so be sure to go well before then in order to make the climb (don’t worry, they won’t lock you in – they have someone keeping tally of the people coming and going). Take a bottle of water or two with you. Whatever you do, don’t be like the German tourists we saw in flip-flops. Wear sensible walking or hiking shoes.