We like visiting churches, we really do, but we saw a lot of them in Portugal, and I've developed a bit of church fatigue. These days it’s hard for me to muster up the enthusiasm to do more than quickly pop my head inside the local house of worship, so when I saw one of Palermo's “must see” attractions was a cathedral in a nearby hill town, a thirty minute bus ride away from the city, I was not excited. Still, we figured UNESCO usually picks some pretty good world heritage sites, so it must be worth seeing, and we squeezed onto the bus full of other tourists to reach the hill town of Monreale.
Monreale has stunning views of Palermo, but the town itself isn’t particularly exciting. There was a market on so we perused the stalls a little, before tucking into some pizza and heading up to the church. You enter through a poky little side entrance, which only makes the inside even more surprising. Inside there is gold. Lots of gold. The cathedral is covered in gold mosaic tiling. Around the walls the tiles show bible stories, while above the alter a giant Jesus gazes out over the congregation. It was fairly spectacular, even if you have church fatigue.
The story behind the Cathedral is an intriguing one. When Sicily was ruled by the Normans, there was a twelfth century Archbishop of Palermo known as was known as Gualtiero Offamiglio. Behind the Italianised name, he was actually an Englishman named Walter of the Mill. He had been the tutor of the King of Sicily William the Good, but he had grown very powerful and had the ear of the Pope. William was worried about how much control the Archbishop had, but rather than demoting or getting rid of him, he decided instead to create another equally important Archbishop right next to Palermo. This Archbishop would have his own Diocese which would take some of the churches and monasteries out of the control of the Archbishop of Palermo. To do that, however, he was going to need to build an impressive Cathedral. That’s how the tiny little hill town of Monreale ended up with a Cathedral any major city would be proud of.
The political reasons for its creation also meant the Cathedral was built fast. Really fast. It took just four years to build the structure of the cathedral, and the mosaics inside only ten years to finish, by craftsmen from Sicily and imported from Constantinople
For a couple of Euros you can also climb up on to the roof, for views of the Cloister, Palermo and Monreale. It’s definitely worth doing.
After we had finally tired of the church, we noticed the crowds in the streets had increased a notch. This little hill town was positively buzzing, and people were wandering around carrying bunches of roses and we saw several dressed in white and red outfits. We followed the crowd up an alley where we could hear a man shouting. A team of twenty or so costumed men were carrying an enormous wooden statue of Jesus on the cross into the middle of the street. From their heavy breathing I guess it was pretty heavy. Once the statue had reached the designated point, people started passing up bunches of roses for the bullfighters to touch on the legs of the statue. A set of ladders appeared and people started climbing up to kiss its legs. It turned out we had accidentally turned up during Monreale’s Feast of the Holy Cross , and carrying the statue around the town is a Catholic tradition dating back to the sixteenth century.
Monreale isn’t a big place, but it is worth the trip. Even if you aren’t a huge church fan, it's not often you see that much gold in one place. I’m very glad we visited.