Jane Keighley learns how best to enjoy the Italian island of Sicily in less than a week, from Palermo to the charming town of Trapani and beyond…
In the words of a Sicilian proverb “He who goes to Palermo without seeing Monreale leaves a donkey and comes back an ass”. As I wandered around the cathedral there I had to agree. It was built by William II to try and outdo the efforts of his grandfather Roger II – he was determined that his efforts were going to be the biggest and the best.
The shimmering mosaics show 42 bible stories, many with a humourous touch: a grumpy Eve sits on a rock watching Adam toiling away after being thrown out of Eden and Noah’s Ark is full of faces peering anxiously out. As you work your way around the cathedral the stories are instantly recognisable, and you marvel at the amazing achievements of the Greek and Byzantine craftsmen who completed it in ten years. When you finally drag yourself away from the mosaics, the cloisters and the piazza await. Find yourself a restaurant or café overlooking Palermo, order yourself a plate of pasta and a glass of wine and soak up the view.
Back down in Palermo venture off the beaten track and wander towards the waterfront. As you enter the Piazza Marina you will be amazed by the weird and wonderful trees in front of you. Enclosed in the Giardino Garibaldi these enormous Banyan trees are extraordinary. Their aerial roots dangle down, root, solidify and the branches grow longer and longer. Apart from the Banyan trees the Piazza Marina is full of history. It was the home of the Inquisition and many executions took place here.
Wander onwards and you will reach the botanical gardens, a haven of peace in the noisy hurly burly that is Palermo. It is a real tropical paradise and it is hard to believe that the nearest traffic is only feet away. It is owned by the University of Palermo and research is done here into the medicinal properties of the plants.
Exploring the Island
To wander around on foot is the best way of getting around in this city of traffic jams and mad drivers, but be careful – the inhabitants of Palermo drive fast and stop for nothing that gets in their way. But it is possible to discover many more intriguing places by doing this. The Cathedral, the Teatro Massimo, the Capella Palatina and the Catacombs dei Cappuccini are all well worth a visit and do make sure you take time to visit the Museo delle Marionette, too.
When you have had your fill of Palermo head towards Trapani. I had given myself six days to see as much as I could of Palermo and the west coast of Sicily, and I had decided that Trapani was the ideal base for the second half of my trip.
As you approach you will not fail to notice the walled mountain town of Erice towering above Trapani, but leave the journey up by cable car until you have settled yourself down in the elegant historical centre of the town on its small peninsula. If you arrive on a Sunday afternoon, as I did, the only inhabitants seem to be sleeping dogs scratching the flies away.
However, just a few hours later the atmosphere is different again as the Sunday evening passeggiata takes place. Preening young girls, families out with young children and aged grandparents wander up and down the main street time and time again.
It is the time to see and be seen; the time to exchange pleasantries with friends as wonderful smells emanate from the restaurants onto the street. Aubergine seems to be the vegetable of choice in Sicily and Pasta Trapanesi is to die for. Using the local pesto (made from almonds rather than pine nuts) it is hard not to eat it every night. However with so many other tasty dishes to try, it pays to be adventurous.
Waking up to beautiful blue skies and a day to be filled with adventures the question is where to go first. Drive down the coast towards Marsala, a town famous for its dessert wine and its place in history as the location where Garibaldi kicked off his campaign. As you drive along the coast stop for a while to gaze at the salt pans, a reminder of an industry which has flourished for hundreds of years. Small windmills that used to grind the salt dot the landscape. Most of this area has been designated as a nature reserve as the brackish lagoons are home to many different birds.
Drive on towards Marsala, an elegant and charming town full of baroque buildings. Spend a couple of hours exploring and then either treat yourself to a tasty lunch in one of the cafés, or do as I did. Find a supermercato on the road out towards Selinunte, shop as the locals do and get yourself a picnic of panini and fresh fruit. Drive to Marinella di Selinunte and eat your picnic gazing out over the beach and the shimmering blue sea. When replete with the food and the view, set off to explore the ancient ruins at Selinunte.
The ruins at Selinunte are some of the most impressive of the ancient Greek world. In its heyday the city had over 100,000 inhabitants and was one of the most powerful cities in the world. One word of advice: the site is huge and there are electric carts to hire. Do not dismiss them, thinking they are for the old and infirm. To get the most out of this magnificent site on a very hot day do make use of them to explore.
As you make your way around you can see that most of the temples lie in great heaps where they were felled by earthquakes. After a dusty but thoroughly rewarding ride around the site, go and treat yourself to a cool gelato at the nearby café.
The next day explore somewhere nearer home. Why not visit the medieval town of Erice perched 750m above sea level. The best and most exciting way of reaching it is by the Funicular. I travelled up with a man and his mountain bike who was looking forward to an exhilarating ride down. I would advise to make sure you choose a time to visit when the town is not enveloped in cloud. This is what happened to me and it was most bizarre travelling up from a baking hot Trapani to a misty Erice.
Misty or not, Erice is well worth a visit with its atmospheric streets and historic buildings. The views are amazing, taking in Trapani, the Egadi Islands and (on a good day) the distant coast of Tunisia. Wandering around the back streets, it is often possible to catch a glimpse of a flower-filled courtyard. You will eventually find the 12th-century Castello di Venere which stands on the famed ancient temple of Aphrodite. Look out in shop windows for beautiful fruits made of marzipan.
Going back for more
When you can eventually tear yourself away from Erice and return down to Trapani, it’s best to give yourself a chance to explore its lovely old quarter, which is full of baroque palazzi and beautiful churches. Wander down to the harbour with its mixture of yachts, fishing boats and ferries and then go and get yourself ready for a final evening of glorious Sicilian food and wine.
Six days is only enough to give you a brief taste of this wonderful region of Sicily, but at least it gives you a very good reason to return.