The Sicilian province of Trapani is a multicultural corner of Europe which sometimes seems more akin to Africa. The proposition of following in the tracks of ancient civilisations surrounded by wild nature, mountain landscapes, seaside parks and archipelagos is very tempting.
NOT ONLY MYTHS
Trapani, a former fishing village, is now a port city on the West coast of Sicily. It was established by the ancient Elymians on a crescent-shaped headland, which is said to have slipped out of Saturn's hands in his battle for power against Coelus and fell from the heavens into the sea. Nowadays Saturn rules over Trapani’s Old Town as a fountain-statue on Via Torre Arsa. Nearby we can find Romanesque and Norman churches, Baroque basilicas and palaces, as well as Aragonian architectural monuments. A stroll along the promontory with the sea on either side will lead us to the Spanish fortress of Torre di Ligny. It contains Museo di Preistoriae del Mare with ancient and medieval objects found in shipwrecks, and from the top of the tower there’s a view of the city, sandy beaches, hills and islands.
WHERE TIME STANDS STILL
The islands that can be seen from Trapani are the Aegadian Islands. The largest of these is Favignana, known for its Arab tradition of tuna-fishing. On the smallest island, Levanzo, one can see Grotta del Genovese with Neolithic cave paintings dating from 9200 B.C. The island that is furthest from Trapani is Marettimo, with a small, calm hamlet with a fishing wharf, blue shutters in white houses and beaches hidden in emerald bays. Mountain trails among limestone cliffs overgrown with wild thyme lead to the Norman castle Punta Troia, the highest peak, Monte Falcone, and to a Byzantine church on a cliff ledge with a gorgeous view of the island. In the evening, fishermen wait in the ports, offering tuna steak and the local wine, Nero d’Avola. Some people believe that Marettimo was Odysseus's Ithaca.
THE SICILIAN ORIENT
An hour away from Trapani to the i South, Mazara del Vallo combines Sicilian Baroque with the Arab architecture of Northern Africa. The oldest part of the city is a traditional i "casbah" - a neighbourhood of narrow alleyways with stone arches characteristic of oriental buildings.
The entrances to some homes lead through azure-blue Tunisian doors, f and colourful tiles embedded in i walls, painted by local artists, or-i nament the facades of buildings, i An oriental note can also be found ' in the local cuisine - fish and seafood are served with couscous. In Mazara, there is the largest fishing port in Italy. In the 19th century it , must have been significant, since timber salvaged from fishing boats j sufficed to decorate the interior of Garibaldi Theatre. It was used to ' build a stage, handrails for balconies i and the ceiling, the shape of which is reminiscent of a ship’s stern.
A SANCTUARY IN A SALT FACTORY
Salt mines stretch along the coastal roads from Trapani to Marsala. These are not only places where the same production methods have been cultivated for 2,700 years, but also an excellent place to stop for coffee or wine with a view of a rare kind of landscape. The area of 2,000 hectares is covered by salt basins which change colour depending on the time of day and the type of minerals that undergo a chemical reaction. White, mounds of salt are visible there, and the outlines of windmills formerly used for pumping water, in which over 200 species of birds nest. Over the salt mines soar hawks, ospreys, wild ducks, gulls and skylarks, and along the shore paddle herons, avocets and flocks of flamingos.
A TOWN IN THE CLOUDS
751 metres above Trapani, on Monte San Giuliano, there lies the quiet, rocky village of Erice. It was built in the Middle Ages by the Normans on the ruins of ancient temples. The microclimate attracts clouds to Erice, which enshroud the town even on hot days. The road to the town, itself, is enough to transport you to another time and world. The entrance to Erice, which was built on a triangular plan with sides of 1 km, is a 12th-century stone gateway carved into an Elymian-Carthaginian defensive wall dating from the 5th century B.C. Winding cobbled alleyways, with the Royal Cathedral, churches, monasteries and the bakery of Maria Grammatico, famous from TV cooking shows, lead to three castles on cliffs. From Cas-tello del Bailo stretches a panorama of Trapani, the Aegadian Islands and majestic Monte Cofano, and in clear, cloudless weather, which does happen here sometimes, it’s possible to see the coasts of Tunisia and Etna.