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Marsala, Sicilia 3 November 2011

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Marsala and Erice

Sicily continues rough, rocky and and beautiful around its southwest corner. After leaving a short burst of autostrade at Mazzara, we traversed a long, abandoned-seeming strip development of houses, shops, auto repair studios that led finally to the outskirts of Marsala. Almost immediately we saw signs for our hotel, Stella d'Italia, and following them led us on a merry chase that seemed like a game of hide and seek. Finally, after giving up and then finding a new string of clues, the streets came to be paved in marble, got narrower and narrower, and we arrived at the tiny parking area for the hotel. (Finding it the second time was not much easier. Nor the third.)

This place couldn't be more central -- right around the corner from the Duomo's piazza and a couple of minutes from several good restaurants. In-room wifi, no matter what the promotional materials say, is always an issue, but after one night we were moved to a room with a little windowless appendix with superb signal, and here I have been catching up.

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The next morning was sunny and still. We retrieved our car and drove out past the ferry landing for Mozia, where the bay toward Marsala rippled gently like a fairy tale lake. We decided to enjoy the good weather and head up to Erice instead of the island.  

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The shoreline north of Marsala has been the source of Sicily's wealth for millennia: specifically, the salt pans where this precious material is extracted from the sea. The methods haven't changed much. Sea water is still pumped over low dikes into the pans using wind power, and the windmills are, unlike their cousins on Crete, in good repair. Piles of finished salt are partially covered with red roofing tiles before being packaged and shipped. It all has an anachronistic feeling to it. 

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The Trapani Trap

The first syllable of this city's name says it all. The correct pronunciation lands hard on that syllable, TRA-pani, with the rest almost mumbled. (That's not the flat Amercian A sound as in TRAP, but the Ah sound of Tra-la-la, right?) We knew we wanted to circumnavigate the center to reach the gondolas we thought would take us up to the town, but ended up threading our way right through the middle of what must be the second or third worst traffic in Sicily. While I managed to keep my sense of humor almost to the end, the perversions and craziness of Sicilian driving were in full flower. Of course this was one of those times when the signage teased you, appearing to point one way just when you had irrevocably committed to going another, or, more often, simply not appearing at all. When we finally found the Trapani gondola station, it was closed. A mechanic there told us to drive on up. Up, up, up a narrow road with a dozen hairpin turns, with the sport improved by the occasional whizzing by of a resident driving, as is usual here, in the middle of the road. By the time we got to the top, we were pretty frazzled, but still willing to be delighted. 

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From the belvedere at the foot of the town, where the town walls once stood, you can easily see how far up you have come. Here you are pointed toward Marsala, with the salt pans barely visible through the haze, and Trapani just around the corner to the right.

By the time we were atop Erice's hill, the clouds, as is usual, had gathered, and a sharp wind was blowing, reminding us that we were 750 meters up (2,300 feet) in a fortress village that has resisted conquest, and nevertheless been captured repeatedly ... and yet, for whatever reason, most of its significance preserved and enhanced by each wave of conquerors.

Now Erice is a tourist mecca principally known around the world for one of its citizens, the baker Maria Grammatico. 

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In one of the invariable truths of out-of-season travel, Maria's caffe was closed this day (and quite possibly every day that isn't in high season; no one would say) but her bakery was open and chock full of delights. I couldn't resist buying a bagful of various cookies and marzipan dainties. The stylistic element that pleased me most was miniaturism. The goodies were all small and perfectly formed ... and sold by the kilogram (16€, or about $11/pound) which, considering the quality of the ingredients and the artistry involved in forming and baking each little delight, is a reasonable price. In fact, I think I better go and get one right now!

Visiting first Corrado's bakery in Noto and now Maria's in Erice, I want to remark on the phenomenon of personality tourism. In both places, small towns with thriving economies, these are nevertheless valuable magnets for exactly the kind of visitors that do the local tourist economy the most good. These products are first-rate but not necessarily world-class, and so their fame relies instead on the flackery that repeats the fame story over and over until it becomes "common knowledge." This is not a bad thing, because (when genuine) it elevates the level of artistry, but it does seem to lead to a "me too" school of travel writing that might just as well be done from a desk in Manhattan using Google and Trip Advisor. While we've fallen for it (twice now in Sicily) we have also found some "undiscovered treasures" also worth traveling to.

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Every hilltown needs its castello, but this one seems to be a joke. Picturesquely sited atop an unassailable rock, it is nevertheless exposed and isolated from its town.

For visitors at this time of year, frustration: while many of Erice's attractions have useful English signs declaring them to be open, for example, from 10 until 13 in November, they neglect to add the crucial piece of information, "except when closed." 

Not that we need to visit another Norman castello. To paraphrase Ronnie Raygun, you seen one castello, you've pretty much seen them all. This one does have a folly, what looks like a transplant from the Black Forest, but inaccessible and, sadly, falling to ruin.

As I noted before, Erice, originally Eryx, was captured but never destroyed. It was originally home of a temple of worship of Venus, and in modern times the Greek character Eryx, offspring of Aphrodite and a local king, is conflated with Eros, thereby suffusing the hill and its town with a romantic glow. Who wants to argue with that? On this grey and blustery afternoon, Rochelle and I, who are predisposed to appreciate romance, didn't really find anything special ... except Maria's cookies. I think I'll have another.

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The town also has the usual tortuous hilltown streets, and at its top you can't get far without seeing a shop of some kind. Many were closed, and those that were open presented unexceptional products, often labelled "produtti tipici" meaning local products, but premium priced. I believe the red in the glaze visible in the plates in this shop is produced by gold, and yet it is hard to believe that a monkey dish with ordinary decoration would be worth 7€.

I continue to speculate about the ecology of tourism, and particularly how it affects villages like this one. Our sense in Erice was of a profound fatigue bordering on impatience with those straggler tourists like ourselves. Why would we want to come here in November, when everyone else came in August? The fault, I think, may be in the European insistence on August vacation. It's a double-edged sword: the crowds are so thick in August that nothing can really be enjoyed, and the onslaught so intense that it wears out people who might be able to handle a less dense tourism quite gracefully.

Who is served by the prevalence of the August Vacation? Certainly not travellers or their hosts. In the US, where vacations are spread out over four or five months, I don't remember encountering the same fatigue, even though in Mendocino, as noted before, we are gladd when the tourists go away and we get our parking places back.

If we ever come back, we think we'll try coming in May.

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Dinners in Marsala have been good. We had the local dish, couscous di pesca, African inspired pasta "made by working the pasta until it becomes little balls," according to our informant, and then infusing it with a court bouillon made with at least five kinds of fish, then mixing in the deboned fish.

Last night, two outstanding salads, termed "insalatone," but something was a little off at Divino Rosso, the restaurant. On the wall, this

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Perhaps we are over-sensitive to this sentiment, having encountered it many times on this trip and on others, and having more than a little sympathy for the feeling. Especially in places where the difference between well-off tourists and not-so-well-off locals is as acute as here, where half the youth between 18 and 25 are unemployed and half of those employed do work that is well beneath their standard of education, the undercurrent of resentment should run strong. Most tourists, short-termers on demanding itineraries, have little time to notice this, and this in itself is undoubtedly an aggravation. For this sentiment to take on a life of its own, there has to be sharp and effective insulation between tourists as a mass and locals.

Because, as we discovered at the bottom of Erice's hill while wrestling with our first unmanned 24-hour gas station, as soon as the interaction becomes personal, one-to-one, people everywhere are kind and helpful. Mystified by the minimal instruction and the use of a couple of technical terms we didn't understand, we were afraid our 40€ would disappear into the machine never to be seen again and without securing any gas. A tradesman in plaster-stained clothes stopped fueling his own vehicle to help us, took the money, explained patiently (but not slowly or especially undestandably to this Italian-challenged listener) what he was doing. He made sure gas was flowing before leaving me to it and resuming his own business.

He didn't need to do that. And again and again we encounter just this level of personal, unexpected helpfulness. We would likely do the same for someone mystified and lost in California. It's just what people do for other people.

It is also worth noting that our like Renault gets 50 miles to the gallon, and is a peppy little delight to drive. AND the cheapest gas we've found, here at this self-service pump, is $8.68/gallon. 

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