Visiting Ruins in the Sicilian Countryside

On the heels of our Food and Wine Tour in Sicily, we chose to hang out in Sicily for a few more days and explore parts of the island that weren’t included in the tour. Diana especially wanted to visit the Greek temples in a place on the southern side of the island called Agrigento. We both agreed that some downtime was called for so we booked ourselves into an apartment in Trapani. While Palermo was part of our food tour, we decided to describe it in this article because we actually learned more about the history in Palermo than the food.

Palermo

Our food and wine tour left us in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. It has a large downtown, centered on the 3rd largest European opera house, which is considered to have perfect acoustics. Up until about 10 years ago, the downtown area was very seedy and not safe to visit, but the area is now experiencing a revitalization. There are now numerous churches, palazzos, and museums that provide distractions between sessions grazing on street food in the Mercato del Capo market. We also stumbled on some carts used in the annual Santa Rosalia parade. Looks like a big shindig.

The Sicilian Mafia was famously headquartered in Palermo until at least a decade ago. Starting in the political and economic vacuum created by the unification of Italy in the 1860s, the Mafia held sway over Sicily until it went too far by exterminating two progressive judges, Falcone and Borsellino, a few months apart in 1992. The resulting public outcry swept in notable reforms to rein in, but not eliminate Mafia activities. As often happens, organized crime has found a new way to co-exist with local authorities with less violence.

Trapani

We chose to extend our stay in the far northwest of Sicily in the town of Trapani, which we were told would be nice and resorty. Even though we picked Trapani because it was by the sea, we didn’t spend much time on the beach. There were too many places to visit during our short time left in Sicily. The town and the place we picked to stay didn’t turn out to be very resorty anyway but the old town was nice for strolling and people watching.

The old town itself is centered on a narrow peninsula, which broadens into a beach town for the tourists. We didn’t actually see the beachy part of town until our last day there. Another downside of our apartment selection was the parking restrictions which meant a 10-minute walk to and from our car anytime we wanted to go out. Overall, we wouldn’t really recommend Trapani for a vacation stay, but we did learn on our food tour that Trapani was well known for its salt.

Salt Museum

One of the unexpected finds near Trapani was a Salt Museum, really a salt production museum. Located in a former salt mill among the evaporation ponds. The one-room tour basically goes through the process of how sea salt is produced, highlighting current and pre-industrial techniques on this family-run farm.

The process starts in the spring by drawing in seawater and distilling the salt with a series of evaporation ponds over the course of the summer. A windmill among the ponds pumped fluid from one pond to the next using an Archimedes screw. The chunks of salt that are harvested by hand in the fall, are heaped into a pyramid and covered with terra cotta tile to dry for another 5-6 months before grinding. Electric pumps, mills, and an electric conveyor belt to transport the salt harvested from the ponds are the only modern improvements to this ancient process.

The harvest is still done by hand by laborers standing in the ponds, shoveling the final product from the floor of the salt pond into buckets, and then dumping them onto the nearby conveyor. This enables the farm to produce salt not tainted by the soft clay that lines the bottom of the pond. Diana was totally enamored with the final product and she bought some salt laced with rosemary. The salt now travels with us, just waiting to meet the perfect tomato for a quick bruschetta, and is very different from Maldon Salt.

Erice

Perched 2400 feet above the sea, the mountain top town of Erice has a commanding position in the surrounding area. We parked at the base of a gondola that ascends from Trapani and provides a sweeping view of the fertile valley, Trapani, and the sea. The gondola deposited us at a parking lot and bus stop in front of the Erice city gate. We then realized we could have simply driven up, but the ride was a fun diversion nonetheless.

The small town is a bit of a living museum, only without the role-playing locals. The narrow, steeply sloped streets lead to small piazzas, churches, and museums. Having marched around a bit, we stopped for a little refreshment. Mostly mediocre tourist fare is available, but a cool drink was appreciated. I’d say the excursion was interesting, but not imperative. Having been to a lot of authentic old towns recently, the best feature for us was the view.

Agrigento

Far from anywhere else, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento is a magnet for a history buff like me. We took a two-hour meandering drive from Trapani on the far west side of Sicily to Agrigento, which is in the middle of the southern coast. The drive was totally worth it.

Upon arrival, one finds a sprawling complex of very well-preserved Greek temples overlooking a broad sloping plain to the sea. The temples and tombs date to the 5th century BC and before. Many battles have been fought in this area over control of the lucrative trade routes in and around Sicily. As such, the high degree of preservation of some temples is quite remarkable.

Sweltering Inside and Out

Even though we tried to visit Sicily before the worst of the summer heat, we still suffered through significant heat and humidity, much like the rest of Europe at the time. It didn’t matter where we went, inside or out, the air was fairly oppressive.

It seems the goal for air conditioning throughout Europe is to cool things down to 21C, or 70F, at best. Coupled with high humidity, even 21C wasn’t refreshing. Worse, Diana and I prefer to sleep in even cooler temps. Most hotel AC just isn’t equipped to do better, necessitating a request for a fan for our room on more than one occasion.

The surrounding fields fared even worse. Almost every time we rode or drove around for an hour, we encountered an unattended brush fire. Some blazes were right at the roadside, but no one came to put them out. Not exactly green, literally or figuratively.

One of many untended blazes

Arrivederci, Sicily!

I’ll end by returning to the beginning, which seems appropriate on this ever-renewing island. My journey to Sicily started four or five years ago when a whisper of a thought lingered in my brain long enough to take root: “Go to Sicily”, it said. Why? I don’t know. There was no more to the whisper. Go to Sicily… OK, I thought.

Ultimately, while I did not experience anything like Archimedes’ Eureka moment (he lived in Syracuse, on the east coast of the island), I did come away with a far greater appreciation for the marks left by the numerous civilizations that dominated Sicily over the last few millennia. Even its inclusion in the nation of Italy is only 150 years old, a flash in terms of its long history.

Every election cycle, politicians promise to build a bridge to the mainland. The Strait of Messina is only 2 miles wide, but I doubt it will ever get built. Aside from the immediate impact on already bad island traffic, there is a sense that it would destroy the “otherness” that pervades the island. I think Sicilians prefer to think of themselves as separate and distinct. It is part of their identity. And I, for one, enjoyed getting to know them.

One last morsel

What draws you to Sicily?

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1 comment

  1. Great writing, Mike!

    About the Strait of Messina Bridge … this has been a long standing topic in political discussions in Italy, every few years someone pulls this out from the drawer where it normally sits and we all start talking about it again.

    Let alone the political and economical issues, from an engineering point of view, it constitutes a very complex problem with multiple aggravating factors. From the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strait_of_Messina_Bridge: “The greatest structural design problem of the bridge itself is the aerodynamic stability of its deck under wind and seismic activity. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the bridge, its actual feasibility, and its resistance to earthquakes, common in this region”

    Messina was completely destroyed by an earthquake just a hundred years ago: from Wikipedia again: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1908_Messina_earthquake : “The 1908 Messina earthquake occurred on 28 December in Sicily and Calabria, with a moment magnitude of 7.1. The epicentre was in the Strait of Messina. The cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria were almost completely destroyed and between 75,000 and 82,000 lives were lost. It was the most destructive earthquake ever to strike Europe.” Not a coincidence that there are at least 4 volcanoes (2 of them very active) within a few tens of miles radius.

    Also, if you want to use the bridge for the train traffic, it requires levels of rigidity far more important than for the normal road traffic (you do not want the rails to move around too much, do you?).

    All of this, combined with the notorius italian political instability, makes me think that this is project that might never be realized.

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