What is the Norman art? The Monreale case

Am I an independent traveler-explorer? No, I’m not. Although some of the best moments of my trips I’ve mentioned here are visits to some sunken villages or walks through the city alleys ignored by tourists, let’s face an obvious fact, namely, tourist attractions are attractions because they are attractive.

The note before the last one was about Erice. I complained about the herds of tourists marshalling through the town. I’ve received many comments from the readers saying that I must have been very unlucky because when they visited the town there wasn’t almost anyone. Anyway, I kept stumbling over some organised tours.

Yet, I know that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I hadn’t called at Erice. I’d read so many good things about the town that I wanted to see this little something situated on the rock. Well, all the pros and cons considered, all in all, I don’t regret going there.

And such a scenerio is very common. You can go to France and not pay a visit to Versailles. It will save you money and nerves then. But knowing that millions of people in the world believe the palace to be a real miracle on earth, knowing what kind of history took place there and the importance of the place both for France and Europe, maybe after all it’s worth dropping in?
In my opinion it is. As so many people recommend something, it means this something has to be really something. So I take a deep breath and go into the tourist crowd, after all, in a few hours I’ll escape into the woods.


The Knowledge and the Life, a guide to Italy, devotes 26 pages to Sicily, including two pages related to Monreale. It gave me a reason for some thought over the place. Our approach was as following: if we could get there without any problem let’s go then. If not, we won’t push ourselves to do it by all means.
So we asked Salvatore whether he’d be passing Monreale. He wouldn’t but he could give us a lift. And so he did.


Monreale is a small town on a hill with an amazing view on Palermo that is located below. It’s known for its 12th century Norman cathedral situated here.
Sicily is unbelievable in the sense of its cultural confusion. For centuries, the island was boosted by succeeding nations: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Vandals, Ostrogoths… phew, the list could go on and on. In the 11th century the time for the Normans came, which still keeps amazing me. This brave nation of the Vikings, from whom the French Normandy took its name, incredibly contributed to the looks of Sicilian landscape today.


The Cathedral of Monreale was built by the Norman King William II, who wanted to undermine the growing influence of the Palermo diocese. In the temple you can visit the interior of the church and the adjoining cloisters (admission: normal 6 euros/ reduced 3 euros). The latter, in my opinion, a tourist who cultivates sightseeing in a budget version can skip, especially if the medieval cloisters are news to him. Oh yes, they weren’t bad, but please keep in mind that at a fixed budget of 10 euros per day, these 3 for the entrance make a fortune :).

PicMonkey Collage

I don’t know too much about the Norman art and as I entered the cathedral in Monreale, I realised I knew even less. I would associate the Normans more with the northern raw stone and dark interior. The Norman architecture is eventually that of the London Tower and other similar places taken almost directly from medieval legends. That’s why I got really surprised when, instead of a heavy stone I saw a kaleidoscope of colours and mosaics. For a moment I was wondering if I hadn’t confused something. In my head there were swirling such question as where the hell those Normans came from, because the answer couldn’t be simply Scandinavia. I thought that I’d mixed something up. That maybe there was just some coincidence of names. In front of my eyes there was a masterpiece of something that I – after all, a person who’s passed A-levels in history of art at over 90% and studied the history of art for a year – would describe as the Byzantine art.


The Normans turned out intelligent and tolerant beasts. They had capacity to learn. They knew how to assimilate the culture of the lands defeated by them and how to take the best of them. As a result, the northern coast of Sicily is full of structures called Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. An explosive mixture. Unique and original of its kind. By the way, a gorgeous one. Such things can be seen only in Sicily.


Oh, and is it worth it? It is, but I wouldn’t call it Top 5. The next note will be about Palermo. And this one is to be called that, for sure.

Hitchhiking tips:
From Monreale to Palermo there’s just a few kilometre distance and only one road goes there. The square in front of the cathedral is actually at its drive out of town. We walked along the road for a few hundred metres, and at the place where there was a bit more space for the car we put our thumbs up. A relatively quickly caught Italian guy (few people were going out of the town – some big gun was visiting the cathedral, an archbishop, I guess) gave us a lift to the very centre of Palermo.


Hitchhiking in Sicily: Castellammare del Golfo by accident

When we told the Italians encountered later on, which corners of Sicily we’d visited so far, just hearing the sound of the name Castellammare del Golfo they always reacted in the same way: delight.


Everyone loves this place. The place where we found ourselves sheerly by accident. We hadn’t planned to stay there. Yes, of course, I’d heard the name before but I didn’t think that visiting Castellammare is a must. So quite by accident we ended up in a lovely seaside town.


As the name suggests, once there was a castle there. The castle by the sea. As many of similar Mediterranean castles, after years it’s become a town. Today, it’s a pretty popular place for recreation.

The town is charming. Located on the seafront among the rocks, it itself stays on quite a high cliff. In a small cove there is a little harbour with fishing boats and ten tourist bars. After returning from fishing, the fishermen set up their quarries on the tables by their boats and around the noon the street turns into a bustling market, where the locals can admire today’s trophies with great interest.

We found a relatively cheap pizzeria and then looked for a place to stay. The choice was situated only a few dozen metres from the harbour, a hill. It was a piece of untouched land full of stones with a fairly steep slope. On the right side, there was a house, on the left side, there was a house, and we were just left to hope that no one would kick us off. And no one did 🙂


After breakfast at the harbour we made a walk to the other end of the town. There, in front of our eyes appeared a vast, sandy beach. It stretched to the horizon and there wasn’t even a single soul. In blissful peace and quietness, and in the pleasant but not too hot sun we spent the next few hours. The clouds and approaching rain finally put us off. It was the sign that there came the right time to head for Palermo.


Hitchhiking tips:
From the beach in Castellammare del Golfo we were heading for the road that leads to Palermo. As putting your thumb up doesn’t require much effort we quickly managed to catch a car. A nice couple gave us a ride to the petrol station at the exit of the town.

From Castellammare del Golfo to Palermo we caught a car in one minute. Almost immediately at our station there stopped Salvatore, a non-speaker in any language known to us hiper-kind middle-aged man. He was going directly to Palermo, where he lived. Speaking a little Italian A. managed to keep a conversation going really well. I had to wait another two days to make my language skills reach a communicative level. But in the end: there is nothing that teaches a language like hitchhiking.

From Erice to Palermo or licking the northern coast by car

That journey was lucky for us. Hitchhiking was lucky for us. The ride and stress-free decision to spend the night in Castellamare del Golfo were the lucky for us, too.
But let’s start from the beginning…

In Erice we met a super kind couple who was spending their holiday in Sicily. Mark and Danusia, two elderly people from Sopot, whose daughter decided to buy them tickets to Palermo as presents for Christmas. Thus, they booked a hotel room in Castellamare del Golfo and for a week they were visiting the north-western Sicily by a rented car.

They like travelling. We enjoyed listening to some stories about their trips to Crete, Provence and China. Sometimes they travel with an organised group, sometimes in such a manner as now. Danusia is a trekking guide. The magazine Knowledge and Life that she was holding in her hand she knew almost by heart. She wanted to see everything and to experience everything. She was coming into her own there, in Sicily.


Before returning to the hotel in Castellamare they decided to visit San Vito lo Capo, a small town located on the furthest tip of the island. We were going on as long as we could. After passing San Vito the road reaches Zingaro Nature Reserve in the eastern part of the promontory. And there it ends too, forcing the travellers to return by the same, yet extremely picturesque, route.

We stopped in front of the sanctuary. Riserva dello Zingaro (Gypsy Nature Reserve) is located on the area of 1600 hectares of land hailed as the most beautiful natural landscape park of the island. It’s known for its picturesque coves, abandoned fishing huts and lots of wild birds.


Oh yes, I was really up for it. My head was brainstorming with ideas, such as grabbing our backpacks and trekking to the place where we’d come up on the other side of the park. The plan was ambitious (the march apparently takes around 10 hours) and at that point extremely difficult to carry out.

Firstly, we were hungry. We didn’t have almost anything to eat with us so if we decided to go through the park, we’d have to stay there for the night (illegally). Secondly, it rained (so the desires were a bit weaker than usually). Thirdly, we reached the gate of the park at 4.30, while the park closes at 05.00. Our entrance with large backpacks might seem highly suspicious, and trust me, Zingaro park is nothing like our mountains, where you can easily bypass the payment gateway. Here, on the left we had a cliff falling into the sea, and on the right almost a vertical rocky wall. The five-metre wide entrance was the only available one.


A little worried by this lost possibility I meekly entered the car. An hour later we got to Castellamare. But more about it you’ll find in the next note.

Hitchhiking tips:
From Erice to Castellamare del Golfo we were going with a Polish couple met in the town. Luckily, they stopped just in Castellamare. We weren’t planning to go there but we had no regrets at all. We approached them on the bench by the castle and asked whether they could give us a ride. This is one of the proven ways of hitchhiking: the Pole will help another Pole (abroad).