Situated a few miles from the coastal city of Palermo is a beautiful mosaic-filled cathedral in the Sicilian hill town of Monreal. This church and the other Arab-Norman cathedrals of Palermo recently received recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Monreal cathedral and its adjoining abbey are often cited as Sicily’s best examples of its unique Arab-Norman architecture. The cathedral dates to the 12th century when Norman ruler William II (William the Good) founded a monastery here and then added the Duomo (cathedral). William wanted this to be an important royal church and he is buried here (although none of his successors are).
Outside the Duomo is a relatively plain church, with the exception of the beautifully designed apses. As you enter the church, there’s a statue of William the Good holding the cathedral above his head, presenting it to the Virgin Mary a wonderful tribute to a pious man (see below).
The greatness of the church lies in its beautiful gold mosaics, over 6,000 sq meters of them covering the walls and pillars. The most famous and amazing of these is the image of Christ situated in the apse above the alter, raising his hand in the blessing. Its so finely detailed that to me it looked almost like a painting when I studied it in the cathedral. There are also many scenes from the Old and New Testaments, a few examples of which follow. These mosaics were mostly the work of Byzantine artists.
There is an impressive collection of church memorabilia and history in the treasury, which you can see for a small charge Here you can see old bishop’s robes and chalices, and some interesting works of art. Admission to the treasury also lets you visit the cathedral’s panoramic terrace with amazing views of the abbey courtyard and the snow covered hills behind it (we visited in February and were surprised by snow in Palermo), as you can see in the image below.
There are 200 pairs of columns surrounding the courtyard, many decorated with beautiful mosaics and sculptures. I believe this is the most beautiful courtyard I’ve ever visited. There is a separate modest admission fee for visiting the cloisters, which provides access to the courtyard.
Monreal is connected to Palermo by regular city buses and by taxi, and is an easy short excursion from the city center. To avoid disappointment and wasting your valuable travel time you need to be aware of the hours of the cathedral (closed during church services and a few hours at lunch — check before you visit). I’d count on a busy half day to travel to Monreal, explore the cathedral and abbey and return to Palermo. The town has cafes and villages and some brilliant views of Palermo.