Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Trapani and the West of Sicily 4.02.06

(this is the second part of our journal about the visit of our daughter Jessica to Sicily. It continues from the entry "Jessica's trip to Sicily")

We had never been to the west coast of Sicily and wanted to see this area and the famous saltpans and charming windmills and thought we'd go there with Jessica as part of her tour of Sicily. It also made sense to do this from Palermo since it is not far from there and we could swing around the west coast from the north, stopping in Selinunte on the southwest coast and continuing on home to Marina de Ragusa. On the Internet we found Ai Lumi Bed & Breakfast, which was also mentioned in our guidebooks as having one of the 10 best restaurants in Sicily! Staying at their B&B, they give you a discount at the restaurant, and the food really was excellent. They served a wonderful breakfast there, with different kinds of breads and jams, cereals, yoghurt and some delightful cakes. The owners are friendly and helpful and we also enjoyed talking with Davide, our handsome young waiter who served us breakfast and dinner and spoke a little English. Our room was like a little apartment with a bedroom and a sofa bed in the little living room area. The room also had a table with chairs and a tiny kitchen corner we found very convenient and comfortable. Tràpani (with emphasis on the "tra" - as in TRAH-peny) is a very charming city, filled with beautiful palazzi and a pedestrian only zone in the historic center. It appears that in years passed, the citizens have moved out into the periphery, but are starting to come back and renovate these elegant palazzi and to reclaim the city center but it seems they have along way to go and we hope that trend continues. Ai Lumi is located right in the heart of centro on Corso Vittorio Emanuele (www.ailumi.it) making it convenient for walking around the center.

The town of Tràpani was built on a piece of land that juts out into the sea in the shape of a sickle. It was a port city in ancient times and all the usual cast of characters played their parts here. It was a convenient place apparently for the Crusaders, since it is close to Africa. It has a picturesque harbor as well and ferries leave this port regularly for the Egadi Islands. During the summer you can get a ferry that tours all the islands, but since it was off-season we had to choose between two to visit. When we arrived, we found that there was a ferry leaving shortly and we decided to jump right on it. Favignana was the island we chose and its little town center includes a church, a town hall, some shops and restaurants, mostly closed at this time of year and clearly catering to the summer tourist industry. We enjoyed the rocky coastline; the water was the most incredible shade of blue, aqua really. We tried to find the Roman bath but had no luck. Even the men sitting outside the café had not heard of it or, most likely did not understand what we were looking for so we just wandered around enjoying the peacefulness of the island and the incredible color of the water around us.

The following morning we had planned to go to Erice, a wonderful ancient city high on top of Monte San Giuliano. You can see Erice from Tràpani, way, way up on the top of this lone mountain. Our drive took us ever higher until we thought we were just going up into the clouds. The views were magnificent of the Tràpani harbor and the surrounding salt pans and the sea. And still we climbed higher. The air got much, MUCH colder. And still we climbed higher! Unbelievably high, sits this charming city, with its Norman Castle built on the ruins of a temple to Venus Erycina, goddess of fertility, in ancient times. Erice's medieval streets were charming with little shops and small squares, many little churches and even remains of city walls, some built by the Phoenicians which still contain letters of the Phoenician alphabet carved in them, and later additions by the Normans. The weather in Tràpani had been quite mild and comfortable but in Erice, we froze! Fortunately I had my coat in the car; Jessica and Bob only had sweaters and were quite cold. We enjoyed seeing this mountain top town but eventually had to admit we were too cold to stay any longer and headed back down the winding road to Tràpani.

Tràpani was once a big tuna fishing center. In fact, canned tuna was invented here, so of course Jessica had to bring some home to her husband Nick just for fun. He mused about why they call it Tuna FISH, since we don’t say, for instance “Chicken BIRD.” We were a bit disappointed that the saltpans didn't seem to be in operation and learned that it just is not the season for it, as the "harvesting" of the salt occurs later in the year. We did enjoy the town however and it made a good base for exploring the area.

After driving around searching for windmills (Don Quixote comes to mind!) we decided to take a drive to Segesta, which appeared on our maps to be not very far away, but inland, due east about 20 miles from Tràpani. We were glad we made the effort. Jessica was delighted to see the monumental temple that stands on a hillside in all it's majesty in the late afternoon sun, gleaming. And with not a smidge of scaffolding anywhere in site! The area around Segesta is quite extensive as an archeological site, including the ruins of the town with the remains of some buildings visible, a wonderful 3rd century BC Greek theatre and spectacular views all around. It was a late afternoon well spent and Bob was happy to be able to photograph the temple at this lovely time of day while Jessica and I wandered around some more, "touching old stuff" and exploring. It was a very full and very productive sightseeing day!

After a restful night's sleep and a hearty breakfast we took one last spin around Tràpani and headed south towards Marsala where we were happy to find their windmills and salt pans, so pretty in the morning light. I saw the piles of sand, covered as I had read about, with terra cotta tiles looking like little houses that have been buried under ground with only the roofs exposed. We could see the white of the salt at the ends of these piles and enjoyed photographing the pretty Dutch-style windmills with their red roofs and white stucco exteriors. Marsala of course is also the city famous for its wines and we had fun tasting a few at a winery outside the town. It's a medium-sized city with a population of 85,000 whose origins go back to around the 4th century BC. It was settled by the Greeks, who were wiped out by the Carthaginians, conquered by the Romans and taken over by the Saracens. Marsala was the first place Garibaldi landed in Sicily and the first to be part of a unified Italy. Unfortunately though, it also got the heck bombed out of it during the World War II, which destroyed much of its historic character. One more reason to hate war (as if we needed another reason).

We also made a stop in the fishing port of Mazara del Vallo to find them excavating a large part of one of the main squares. Not sure what was going on, it seemed they must have uncovered an ancient site and a team of archeologists were busy brushing, sifting and measuring in a fenced off area in the beautiful Piazza della Repubblica. Our time of arrival in this city was not ideal, as we got there right in the middle of riposo, which meant everything was closed. Jessica lamented this custom in Italy of everything closing between the hours of 1pm and around 4pm as being not very convenient for sightseeing tourists and I guess I have to agree. It's a pretty big chunk of time and you really do not get a good sense of a city when all the shutters (like individual garage doors) are pulled down tight. It is a fact though and one, as tourists, we just have to deal with. We try to have lunch, obviously, during this time as restaurants certainly remain open. Bob and I often use this time to photograph and sketch, or to drive from one place to another.

We had not made reservations for this next night but planned to find something near Selinunte, another Greek temple site in Sicily we wanted to visit. We called a hotel that was in our guidebooks from Mazara del Vallo, the Garzia (www.garzia.com) and were not surprised that they had a room available, so off-season as this is. It is located in the little seaside resort of Marinella, right next to the temples archeological area. When we arrived we realized we could have had our pick of all the little hotels along the shore there but were happy with our choice. Especially when we saw the little sign they had made welcoming us to their hotel. We had the most fun! We had brought along a bag full of cheese and bread, fruit and nuts and a bottle of wine and we sat out on the terrace of the hotel looking out over the Mediterranean and at one of the Temples on a nearby hill, as the sun was setting, drinking wine from little plastic cups and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bread slathered with Nutella! It doesn't get any better than that. We laughed a lot, walked on the beach and then ate fresh sardines that had been breaded and fried, (a first for Jessica who was surprised to find that she actually liked them!) that our waiter brought to our table, free of charge, along with the pizzas we ordered for dinner. We enjoyed the company of our daughter and were delighted to be able to share a bit of our experience with her in this way.

We shared a triple room to save on expenses and in the morning had our breakfast and drove the short distance to the temples. The guidebook said you will need at least 2 hours to visit this archeological site. We needed more! Because they were not able to determine which gods were being worshipped at each of these temples (at Selinunte, there are many, some only gigantic piles of rubble) they used the letters of the alphabet, as in Temple A, B, C etc. Seems very uncreative to me, but that's the system they used and who am I to argue? The area of the acropolis sits on a bluff overlooking the sea and you can only imagine what it must have been like in ancient times when all of these majestic stone structures stood tall and proud against the Sicilian landscape. Originally, the Acropolis, (the place of the temples and public buildings) was surrounded by a colossal wall with two gates. The ruins of the ancient city can still be seen and we wandered all around, walking along the very old streets on stones worn by time and weather. We tried to imagine what life was like for the people who inhabited this place and the horrible destruction they suffered at the hands of the Carthaginians who brutally captured the city, destroying the temples, and slaughtering the citizens they didn't sell into slavery. Eventually earthquakes brought down what they did not tear down and the city itself disappeared under the soil until around the 1600s when archeologists began digging. I think you can hardly put a shovel in the ground here in Sicily without bringing up some ancient bit of history!

By around 3 in the afternoon we were headed home. Just as we were approaching Gela, about an hour or so drive from Marina, we received a phone call from Elio inviting us to join him and his friends in Scicli where a festival in honor of San Giuseppe was taking place. There was to be a Cavalcata, a parade of horses decked out in all their finery down the main streets of the town. This was part of the celebrations in honor of the feast of San Giuseppe on the following day. Tired as we were, we decided to give it a try and went straightaway to Scicli, found a place to park and then, amidst a centro filled with people, attempted to find Elio! It was no easy task as they had the different areas roped off and we could not at first find a way to pass through. The horses were magnificent, some of them completely covered in flowers, like living floats and we wondered how they could see where they were going! Others had bells and ribbons and all sorts of decorations. What I had forgotten was my total and complete allergy to horses! No sooner had we arrived then I stated sneezing and by the time we found Elio and excused ourselves from the rest of the festivities, I was having a full-blown allergy attack. Fortunately, as we got further from the horses I started to feel a bit better but only getting home, taking some medication and going to bed really helped. We were all pretty worn out by the time we arrived back in Marina di Ragusa and fell into our beds. I cannot even remember if we ate dinner or not, that's how tired we were! But it was so much fun, I wouldn't change a minute.

(to be continued, see “Michelle & Jessica in Sicily”)

No comments: