If you are visiting Palermo, your visit would not be complete without heading out to Monreale, Sicily. Hoping our B&B would have arranged a guide, I didn’t have an itinerary for our stay in Palermo.
As it turned out, one wasn’t arranged and while having lunch, we quickly mapped out the top things do in Palermo.
It’s thanks to Luca who pointed out that we should visit Monreale Cathedral. The plan was to go there early the following morning as we make our way to San Vito Lo Capo. Our main concern was not getting there as it is only eight kilometers from Palermo but the parking. In Italy, parking is a challenge everywhere.
The owner of our B&B gave us some rough indications, mentioning that there is parking nearby and we would need to walk about 5-10 minutes to get to the Cathedral. Driving to Monreale, there are some signs as you get closer and while there were no signs for a parking area, the huge lot was evidently it.
It looked a bit run down and from what we were told, we had assumed it was a covered parking area. Since there were no other parking areas in sight, we decided to settled for this. Parking fees are reasonable and apparently, it’s managed by the town hall (comune). Tip: Get there early to beat the crowds.
Walking to the Cathedral, the streets are entirely lined by shops selling various souvenirs, ceramics, refreshments to tourists. It was a short walk and though slightly uphill, nothing like the streets in Positano.
Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily
Reaching the square which is to your right, you couldn’t miss the Cathedral. Commisioned by William II in 1174, the Cathedral is the ultimate synthesis of Arabic decorations and Norman towers and structures.
It’s simply facade and bronze doors, with biblical scenes in relief made by Bonanno Pisano in 1185, don’t prepare you for the magnificent sight you will behold once you step inside. To give you an idea as to what to expect, William II had this built with the intention of surpassing the stunning Cappella Palatina.
With that in mind, as you enter the Cathedral, you will be astounded by the golden mosaics which covers almost its entire walls. Considered the largest and most outstanding in Italy and second largest in the world after St. Sophia in Istanbul, your eyes are naturally drawn to the apse with the image of Christ Pantocrato.
Though the mosaics in Cappella Palatina are no doubt stunning, the mosaics at Monreale Cathedral, with scenes from the Old and New Testament, are beyond spectacular.
It is one of the most amazing experiences and when you look closely at the details, it’s staggering to imagine the level of skill required and even more so to think it was carried out approximately 900 years ago. (Note: Little did I know that mosaics at Piazza Armerina goes back to almost 2000 years! More on that soon.)
If we had a guide, I could have easily stayed here all day to get an indepth description of all the different scenes and would have made the visit more rewarding. It was only when we were leaving we saw they had audio guides which I think, if done well, should give you a better idea of what you were observing.
Tucked in a corner, there is a sign on top of the door that indicates the entrance to the Cloister. Not very evident but not as hidden as the entrance to the Cathedral’s terrace which I will mention later.
Here we got lucky as we came not knowing the opening hours and would have been hugely disappointed if the Cloister was closed. Tip: Before your visit, check the opening hours as it would be a pity to miss out on this. There is also a small fee to enter the cloister.
The square cloister, each side 47-metres long is one the largest I have seen to date and has 228 columns with a decorated with mosaics and carving. The reasons I love visiting cloisters, is the serene and calm atmosphere as it is often less crowded and this one didn’t disappoint. It was impressive.
Walking around the cloister, we spotted people on the roof and had been told that the terrace area was closed. Apparently not. Before leaving the Cloister, we asked the person at the counter how we would get to the terrace and was told that the entrance was in the Cathedral.
We hadn’t spotted it earlier and not wanting to miss the opportunity, we made our way back to the Cathedral again.
Climb to the Roof Terrace
Going back into the Cathedral there was a person after the entrance kindly asking for donations and we asked for the entrance to the roof terrace again. He pointed to the far right corner and we finally spotted it.
Even with a sign on the door “Visitate Le Terrazze”, it’s not easy to spot from a distance. There’s a table right outside where you pay a fee (we paid €3) and a sign with the list of the hours on the table.
The passages are narrow and gets even narrower the further you go. I thought I would feel claustrophobic but there weren’t too many people here.
You get a remarkable view of the cloister and as you climb to the highest point, you are rewarded with a sweeping panorama of the Conca d’Oro (Golden Valley).
Tips on Monreale
I had mentioned that Cappella Palatina is a must-visit and this Cathedral and the Cloister absolutely falls into that category as well. To fully enjoy Monreale, allocate half-day not to feel rushed and if you are looking for a guide, I just discovered there is a list of English-speaking guides on the official website of the Palermo Tourism Department.