Monreale is a historic hill-town just outside Palermo. It’s a picturesque place most famous for the fine mosaics in the town’s great Norman cathedral. Monreale is connected to Palermo by regular city buses and is an easy short excursion from the city centre. Although it only takes a couple of hours to visit and see Monreale from Palermo, there are places to eat and drink, good views and a pleasant atmosphere, so some visitors choose to extend their stay.
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The cathedral and cloisters at Monreale are frequently cited as the island’s greatest Norman buildings. They date to the twelfth century, when the Norman ruler William II, known as William the Good, founded a Benedictine monastery here; this Duomo was its abbey. In competition with the great cathedral being built down down the road in Palermo, Monreale’s cathedral was finished rapidly and extravagantly; William wanted this to be an important royal church where he and his successors would be buried, though these plans didn’t last beyond his own burial.
The upper part of the cathedral’s interior is completely covered in gleaming gold mosaics; more than 6,000 square metres of mosaic. They were almost certainly created by Byzantine craftsmen, and the combination of Norman, Byzantine and Islamic art and architecture here is a spectacular demonstration of the influences which created Sicily’s most glorious era. In the apse, above the altar, the greatest image is of Christ Pantocrator, draped in a blue robe, his hand raised in blessing. Below him and around the walls are depictions of saints, including St. Thomas a Becket (two rows below Christ, helpfully labelled).
The central nave is lined with pictures from the Old Testament. Look out for the lovely sequence of scenes of Noah’s ark, with animals being coaxed on and off the boat, and passengers crammed in like Ryanair customers peering through windows. In the side naves are scenes from the life of Christ. For a small charge, you can buy a ticket to view the tesoro – the treasury of the cathedral – to get a closer look at some of the mosaics, and to visit the cathedral’s panoramic terrace. Once you have seen the cathedral and taken your fill of the mosaics, have a look at the exterior and the marvellous decoration on the apse.
The cathedral closes for several hours over lunch time in winter, and you should not tour while mass is taking place. The opening times are subject to variation, as a rule of thumb you are most likely to find the cathedral open between 8am and 12 noon, and from 4pm to 6pm, but if you are on a tight schedule I’d suggest asking your hotel or a tourist office in Palermo to confirm up-to-date times for you. Note that it is considered disrespectful to enter a church in Italy with exposed chest, shoulders, or knees – this includes shorts and strappy tops – and in addition to giving offence you may be refused admission.
Next door to the Duomo is an entrance to the cloisters (chiostro) of the Benedictine monastery, also dating to the end of the twelfth century. It is worth paying the admission charge to visit this sight while you’re in Monreale. The large quadrangle is lined with more than 200 twin columns, many of them fancily ornamented with mosaic or sculpture. The capitals of the columns are finely carved with sculptures, some inspired by the Bible but frequently enigmatic. To the visitor walking around the cloister the sculptures are like brief mysterious glimpses into the medieval mind: there is a person riding a camel; several scenes of fighting; men with big dogs; acrobats; strange beasts.
Monreale is a great place to get views of the Conca d’Oro, the fertile valley in which Palermo grew. The bus ride up and down the hill is very panoramic, and there are belvederes in the town with excellent views over Palermo and out to sea. On a clear day you can see the Aeolian Islands. Modern Palermo stretches up the slopes towards Monreale, without quite reaching the self-contained little town.
Monreale is a major tourist destination and can get very busy. However, if you stay in the town towards evening, when the coachloads depart and locals appear for the Monreale passeggiata, with teenagers promenading in their finery and families stopping to chat, you’ll feel a long way from the cosmopolitan world of Palermo below.
There are a few cafe-bars and restaurants around the cathedral, and you can find more places to eat and drink by wandering along the narrow sloping lanes of the town. Some of the little tourist shops and stalls just a street away from the cathedral sell cheap and good-quality souvenirs, if you look carefully.
Monreale travel and transport
Monreale is served by Palermo’s urban bus service AMAT, and is covered by standard single or all-day tickets. Bus 389 runs from Piazza Indipendenza, by the Palazzo dei Normanni, in Palermo, heading up the long straight street Corso Calatafimi and finishing up right next to the cathedral in Monreale. Timetables are available on the AMAT website under ‘Linee’ (see links panel on right); buses generally run two to three times per hour Mon-Sat and once hourly on Sundays and public holidays. There is also a bus, approximately hourly, run by another company, AST, which departs from Piazza Giulio Cesare, by Palermo’s Stazione Centrale.
Hotels and B&Bs
There are a number of nice places to stay in and around Monreale, for visitors who’d prefer to stay out of the hectic centre of Palermo. Some of these are not in the historic heart of Monreale, though, but in the surrounding area, so most convenient for travellers with cars – do check the location and information on car parking carefully if this applies to you. Try the Opera Boutique Rooms B&B for convenience and friendliness, or the B&B Casa Rossa for edge-of-town relaxation – it’s a mile from the cathedral, and has a small pool, terrace and views.
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Useful external links
AMAT – Palermo city buses
AST – buses