Tag Archives: Sicily

Trapani

All the major sights of interest of Trapani are concentrated in the historic quarter, and, in keeping with the luck we’d had so far on this trip, our wonderful hostel was also right in the heart, steps away from elegant baroque palazzi and stunning churches.  I like to be very selective when putting in a plug and here I will pass the name along because it was really worth it:  Albergo Messinatrapani courtyardtrapani hostelnight talent show_1A little old man greeted us weary travellers when we arrived in the early morning. He wore a plaid bathrobe, his hair was sticking out in all directions, and, shuffling along in leather slippers, he brought us to his office to check us in.  It had been quite a trial to make the reservation.  From our hotel room in Palermo, we logged into Skype on the laptop.  Armed with only a condensed translation section of our travel guide, we frantically leafed through the pages and barked out the occasional Italian word, speaking loudly and primitively into the monitor.  We hoped desperately that the elderly gentleman on the other end understood us but we had absolutely no idea whatsoever if that was the case.  No deposit, no confirmation nor credit card number was exchanged.  He just asked for a name.  Totally old school! We took a chance in going to this town with the hopes that a room would be held for us, for it was peak season after all.  As it turned out, the pensione was lovely, kinda grandma-style, and a real insight into 1950s Italy.  It shared a leafy courtyard with a more expensive B&B next door.

Our first order of business was to take a nap out on the beach in the early morning light.  After exploring the gritty city of Palermo for the last few days, we ached for more typical ‘vacation’ activities.  Something that I was enjoying very much in Sicily was the evening passeggiata (stroll) when everyone, young and old, is out and in full swing.  Following the lead of the locals, we stopped for a granita (flavoured crushed ice).  Typical flavours are almond, coffee and lemon, but we took advantage of the seasonal delicacy, gelsi (mulberry), which is only eaten from July to September.  That night, I watched a talent show on the boardwalk – animated, though completely unintelligible to me.  Encouraged by a friendly local artist to check it out, I thought I was going to see a musical performance – you know, violin, bass, maybe even a dude with an acoustic guitar – but it turned out to be what I think was a local talent show, though I question the ‘talent’ part of it…  Guess that explains the fellow I saw pacing the boardwalk earlier that day, gesturing wildly to himself while reading aloud.  Ah, but you never know with the Sicilians…

lifeguardtrapanicampari

We made a day trip to Erice, a medieval town situated 750m above sea level, on the mountain of Eryx.  When the wind is low, you can take the funicular up/down the mountainside.  The funicular’s schedule is not ‘cast in stone’ as the closely monitored weather can change at the drop of a hat.  We took the bus up to the mountaintop and strolled through the town’s picturesque alleys and courtyards.  In retrospect, it would have been cool to photograph Erice and its commanding views of the valley below either at sunrise or sunset, but we happened to go smack in midday. Seeing as we were there at lunchtime, I tried the staple pesto alla Trapanese (pesto made from fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and almonds) with busiate, a small pasta that is hand-twirled in Trapani.  I couldn’t possibly be one more day in Sicily and not have a cannoli so I bought one from a café run by Maria Grammatico, Sicily’s most famous pastry chef (excuse another plug).  An especially alert reader might have picked up on a theme here:  it is undeniable that a significant part of our trip revolved around food.

Erice IERICE II

funicular

If we’d had more time in Trapani, I would have loved to have taken a ferry to Tunis, due to its proximity to North Africa.  We certainly witnessed the Arab heritage of Sicily and Trapani is well positioned on the sea route to Tunisia. That’s ok, though.  I’ve left something for next time.

San Vito lo Capo

After 4 days in Palermo, we were ready for something else.  Since we were ultimately to fly out of Trapani, we decided to go there next.  It was a good call to stay in Trapani for not only is it lovely itself, it’s an excellent base from which to explore the whole northwest of Sicily.

Upon recommendations, Elli and I set out on a day trip to visit the seaside town of San Vito lo Capo, cradled in a valley between impressive mountains with caves, and famous for its gem of a beach.  We relished in the warm breeze, the outdoor eateries, the tremendous sandal selection and the occasional men in bikini brief swimsuits strutting down the streets.  Although the Tyrrhenian Sea was awash with tourists, I wasn’t deterred from jumping in and bobbing with the waves the first chance I got.

In the afternoon, we took a 4-hour boat excursion to see the wild coastline of Riserva dello Zingaro, Italy’s first nature reserve.  The park is best seen on foot, however the trails are long and we weren’t terribly keen on ’inspecting’ the flora nor unexpectedly coming face to face with the daunting local resident:  the rare Bonelli eagle. As far as I was concerned, appreciating its tranquil hillsides was just as good from the comfort of the boat.  Besides us two, our excursion companions were a large group of loud, friendly, generous Italians who took an instant liking to us. We stopped to swim in incredibly blue waters of the idyllic coves and bays of Scopello and Castellamare del Golfo.  The coves are protected by rock towers jutting out of the sea. Half of the boat emptied itself into the water while the others remained onboard, watching and waving.

Personally, I never miss an opportunity to swim because I’ve been a water-baby since day 1, or so my parents claim.  Valeria, the friendliest of the tour group (and who stayed onboard), had offered to take pictures with my camera of us swimming.  Not only that, to ensure that we got the most out of the experience, she tossed pieces of bread towards me and Elli, and hundreds of tiny silvery fish instantly swarmed around us, wiggling past to get to the crumbs.  If the fish had been any bigger, I may very well have jumped out of my skin!

Palermo constructions

crate walldumpsters
Besides the colourfully swarming markets, scenes of the marginal spaces of central Palermo (the old city) were what intrigued me most, as a photographer and architect.  The built environment reads as a cabinet of curiosities:  the streets’ and alleys’ crumbling façades, people operating out of the smallest of spaces, a hobbit-like man living behind a church, vendors making chicken liver sandwiches in a garage, of all places!field_o_greenssqueezedmonkey seeemptyhobbit

In contrast to the old city’s many impromptu constructions, my friend and I then set out to see a truly magnificent construction, the Cattedrale di Monreale.  From Piazza Indipendenza, we took bus 389 up the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking the fertile valley famed for its orange, olive & almond trees, to the town and commune of Monreale.  One of the finest examples of Norman architecture, the cathedral, completed in 1184, is a national monument of Italy and definitely the highlight of the town. monreale cathedral clng They say that the sumptuous interior is one of the most impressive creations of the Italian Middle Ages.  I believe it!  Almost every single surface is covered in shimmering glass mosaics depicting stories of the Old and New Testaments.  Although the mosaicists were from Sicily and Venice, a stylized influence of the Byzantines pervades their work.  If you have the chance, I highly recommend you seeing the cathedral, for, without overstating, it’s a beacon of medieval brilliance.sun worshippers

Later that night, back in the old city, we stumbled upon the modest Piazza Sant’ Andrea that, on first impression, looked to me like a theatre set.  The surrounding buildings were dark, seemingly abandoned, and scaffolding had been propped up in front of 2/3 of them.  The only light emanated from a little restaurant that spilled out into the piazza, like a beacon.  With candlelight, yellow tablecloths and parasols creating such a lovely setting, you almost forget that you are in the kind of location people warn you about and advise you to avoid like the plague.  We observed stray cats that dared to dart under the tables, seeking out generous donors.  ‘Budget’ restaurant or not, our meals were undeniably superb and it was here that I made the discovery of caponata, the masterpiece of popular Palermo dishes.

p.s.  I later came to find out that the location of that restaurant was the regular haunt of Peter Robb while he researched for the book Midnight in Sicily.scaffold dinner

When in Sicily…

The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittoria Emanuele, known famously as Quattro Canti, divides historic Palermo into four traditional quarters.  We stayed primarily in this gritty, edgy, and filthy historical center, as it contains the majority of the sights.  It’s perhaps not one’s typical destination vacation but I’m not into manicured, touristy spots – they are never as interesting.  To quote a friend’s remarks, “The city is still a real beauty, but its gems often need seeking out.”

There is lots of evidence of the ancient city’s ties with the Arab world, most visibly in the markets.  We explored the flea market Mercato del Capo, which extends through a tangle of lanes and alleyways, then the bustling street markets of Vucciria and Ballarò with their colourful fresh produce, fish, and household goods.  Weaving through the smells and yells, I ate the sweetest peach I’ve had in all my life, watched fishermen mutilate countless species of fish, and bought local herb concoctions that I secretly pray will make all my future meals delectable.palermo market We befriended vendors who proudly showed their family’s longstanding businesses through newspaper clippings, old photos, and their young sons.  Swaying sausages and carcasses, stray dogs were aplenty, and so were men.  Men everywhere.  In the evening, we’d occasionally get a glimpse from behind beaded screens into apartments’ street-level kitchens and see families seated for dinner.textilesmarket garlicmarket vendor

It’s best not to have expectations, ever.  I wasn’t expecting to see such shabby and poverty-stricken fish familyquiet marketfindingspalermo man_bluepalermo doggieneighbourhoods.  I should have remembered my only previous references to Sicily:  its troubled past linked to the notorious Mafia as well as The Golden Girls’ Sophia’s constant statements “Picture it, Sicily, 1953…..”, as a den of crime and filth, plagued by poverty.  From the walls of scaffolding, it was clear to me that plans for restoring the capital city’s old quarter (perhaps even to its former glory) are underway.  Palermo is artwork-in-progress.