Explore Cefalu, one of Sicily's coastal gems, and climb the imposing La Rocca for its ancient ruins

At a time when most of Europe is dusting down its autumn and winter clothes, sitting in shorts and T-shirt and sipping a cappuccino at an al fresco cafe on a sun-dappled Sicilian piazza is a life-affirming moment. The backdrop helps, too, Beneath the vivid blue mid-October sky is a clutch of palm trees, a twin-towered Gothic cathedral and an imposing crag that is crowned with ancient ruins and known as La Rocca.

We're in Cefalu, one of Sicily's most alluring coastal resorts, a place that is even more appealing after the peak summer season. You've dodged the worst of the heat, the legions of tourists have mostly gone and, as a result, you have room to breathe as you potter around this most picturesque of towns, which was a key filming location for Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 Italian drama that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

This settlement, on Sicily's north coast beside the Tyrrhenian Sea and 70 kilometres east of the capital Palermo, has been here since Phoenician and Greek sailors first dropped anchor. Cefalu later became part of the Roman empire and was then occupied by Arabs, but the town we admire today on our Splendid Sicilia tour largely evolved in the Middle Ages under the Normans, who arrived in southern Italy from France at the end of the 10th century and gravitated towards Sicily.

In 1131AD construction began on Cefalu's cathedral, the town's most dominant landmark. Legend has it that Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily, commissioned it to fulfil a vow made to God after his fleet escaped from a storm to land safely on Cefalu's shores. It features elaborate carvings and mosaics of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Noah's Ark. Cloisters and arches are supported by columns thought to have been recycled from Cefalu's ancient pagan temples, one of which used to sit atop La Rocca. It's an uplifting experience to walk through this fortress-like cathedral, one of nine structures in Palermo, Cefalu and Monreale that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They flaunt the so-called Arab-Norman style which was inspired by the Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures and architectural fashions prevalent in 12th-century Sicily.

La Rocca will likely grab your attention again as you exit the cathedral into Piazza del Duomo. It's about a 45-minute hike up to the summit and the reward is a breathtaking panorama over the town, the sea and the wooded mountains that lord over Cefalu.

You may be content, though, to just stroll around town, along the tangle of cobbled alleys that spring off the main thoroughfare, Corso Ruggero. You can wander past, or into, churches, taverns, gelaterias, seafood restaurants, boutiques and stores selling Sicilian souvenirs and staples such as ceramics, coppolas (flat caps) and cannoli (pastry stuffed with a sweet, ricotta-based filling).

You'll spot Sicilians young and old, but mostly old, nattering on benches, cafe terraces or beneath hibiscus trees. Eventually, especially if you walk downhill, you'll end up by the seafront.

Head through Porta Pescara, a medieval city gate, and there's a promenade and a little sandy beach, on which colourful boats nestle and a few towels are spread out with a scattering of bathers admiring the gorgeous views. Every so often here, and on the other, larger, crescent-shaped strip of sand that stretches beyond a row of rustically idyllic seafront houses, someone gets up and wanders towards the water. Apparently it's warm enough for swimming until November.

Returning to our tour bus, I leave Cefalu with just two regrets: I wish we'd had more time here, and I wish I'd brought my bathers.

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TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/italy

visitsicily.info

TOUR

A visit to Cefalu is among the highlights of Collette's nine-day Splendid Sicilia tour, which also includes Palermo, Siracusa and Taormina. It's priced from $2749 a person. See collette.com

FLY

Etihad flies to Palermo from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi and Rome. See etihad.com

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.

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