The town of Monreale is a hill town situated on the south-west slope of Mount Caputo in north-west Sicily, a short distance south-west of Palermo. Most visitors will prefer to stay in Palermo, a lively and vibrant city, and visit Monreale on the local bus (which leaves Palermo from near the Royal Palace).
Italy This Way comment: although visitors come to Monreale to see the cathedral you are likely to also spend a short time in the town itself while you are waiting for your return bus to Palermo...
Monreale is a pleasant town and as you wander around you often get great views over Palermo, the coast and the fertile Conca d'Ora valley with its groves of olive, orange and almond trees. One of the best views is towards Palermo from the north-east of the town, with extensive views across the countryside as well as a picturesque view of the houses in Monreale.
Monreale does get busy with day-trippers from Palermo but if you stay overnight or into the evening it becomes much quieter and there are a reasonable number of restaurants scattered around the narrow sloping streets of the town.
The cathedral in Monreale is best known for its very impressive byzantine mosaics, dating from the 8th century, although the cathedral has seveal other interesting characteristics as well as a beautiful cloister.
Now listed as a UNESCO heritage site (together with the Arab-Norman churches in Palermo and the cathedral in Cefalu), see our guide to Monreale cathedral for information.
Founding of the town of Monreale
King William II reigned in Sicily from 1166. Because of his popularity and generous spirit he gained the nickname of 'William the Good' to distinguish him from his father, 'William the Bad' (1131-1166).
According to a legend about the foundation of the Cathedral of Monreale, after eight years of his reign the young Prince left his palace in Palermo to go hunting in his hunting reserve at Monreale. Tired from the exhausting hunt he fell asleep in the shade of a carob tree and the Virgin appeared to him in a dream, revealing that at that place there was a hidden treasure and urging him to use the money to build a church.
On waking up William found the treasure and vowed to build a temple to the Virgin in that place, with the name of "Santa Maria la Nuova". He gave the task to benedictine monks brought in from the “Trinità della Cava”.
As a reward for the monks efforts he also had a monastery built adjoining the Church, and enriched them with pensions and privileges. The legend may not be true, but it is fact that William II "The Good" built the remarkable cathedral in Monreale, a building on which he lavished huge amounts of money, and the town of Monreale developed around this monastery.
There has been a lot of speculation about the real reasons that led the young king (he was crowned king at age 12 and died at 37) to take on the task, but perhaps the most likely is simply that William II had a very strong desire to copy and surpass his ancestors in magnificence, in particular Roger II (1095-1154), for whom he had a great admiration. See also Monreale history and etymology.
As well as strolling around the main square in front of the cathedral, you can also walk in the narrow streets to see the ancient houses and the chevet of the church, a very impressive structure incorporating various motifs.
Most of the shops and cafes of interest to visitors are in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle and the rest of the town is traditional Sicilian with lots of apartments and houses but litle of interest to visitors.
The ancient traditions of mosaic making are still taught today, and you can find craftsmen that still produce quality mosaics in many workshops around Monreale. With regard to other local traditions it should first be said that Monreale and the “Valle del Belice” produce excellent wines at an international level.
It is also possible to find restaurants offering both traditional Sicilian cuisine and also cookery of Arab origins. Among the local specialties are the "fritters"or pancakes made of chickpea flour flavored with parsley and fennel grains, the traditional bread of Monreale, a very popular product throughout the province, and finally the Monreale biscuits, such as the “Reginelle” with sesame seeds and the “Algerians” with icing sugar.
After exploring the cathedral, we suggest you spend some time exploring the region around Monreale. Going up to “San Martino delle Scale” by the scenic route you can glimpse the so-called Castellaccio, a monastery that has the appearance of a fortress dating back to the 13th century and that the Benedictines of Monreale used as a hospital.
Nearby is the village of San Martino delle Scale where there is another Benedictine monastery, probably founded by Gregory the Great (540-604) in the 6th century, then rebuilt in the 14th century and completed in the late 18th century by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia (1729-1814). The church, with an interesting Renaissance façade, contains some paintings by famous Sicilian painters of the 16th century.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.