Sicily is a part of Italy that is cloaked in mystery. An island conquered throughout the centuries by a myriad of different cultures, all of whom left their mark behind. Driving through this gorgeous region of Italy offers breathtaking views of rough cliffs plummeting into the sea, the warm salty air, at times fragrant with the scent of orange blossoms gave the feeling of being in a far away exotic land.
This north western part of Sicily is still steeped in traditions; the sense is that although they are part of Italy, they still feel first and foremost Sicilian. People are gregarious and outgoing, passionate as they talk about their region, the wonderful food, architecture, and beauty of their land.
Driving through the streets of the historic center of Trapani one can see how alive the city is - artisans dot the side streets with small shops; bakers, fish mongers, fruit and vegetable stands all add color and vitality.
On our visit we were welcomed by the mayor of Trapani at the Town hall; the building was an ex-prison reconverted for public use. Old jail cells are now administrative offices and atriums are used for social, cultural and art events; in one spacious room with arched ceilings we enjoyed a wonderful banquet of Sicilian specialties and mingled with the local people.
We went inland to visit a local winery. Sicily has been carefully tending its vineyards, making excellent wines from the indigenous grapes. This particular estate is run by two bright sisters, Annamaria and Clara Sala, who have brought in modern techniques and machinery to create a wine that is considered one of the new "super Sicilians." These small wineries dot the island and are definitely worth a visit.
From Trapani we headed east towards Erice, the small medieval hamlet which is referred to as "paradise between the sea and the sky" and as we drove up the winding road in our little Fiat convertible it was truly heavenly. Upon reaching the top of the mountain, we walked up to the 2,000-year-old Temple of Venus, the gateway to Erice.
This was a popular town of respite for sailors throughout the centuries; today it offers spectacular views and an atmosphere suspended in time. Famous for its marzipan, the beautifully detailed little creations formed from the almond paste and then carefully painted. They also pride themselves for the artistic ceramics and lovely hand stitched embroidered linens. Linger through the town and spend a night at the fabulous Castle Torri Pepoli.
Heading down the mountain towards Marsala, we were invited to visit the family owned tuna processing factory "Nino Castiglione." Here we were taken on a tour by the owner, who showed us all the steps involved in packaging the fish; from the tuna's arrival to the cleaning, steaming, separation of the filets, and the packaging. Of course before leaving they had prepared a delectable table with appetizers of tuna Bottarga and tuna, local bread and wine. They have a little boutique where one can purchase their product.
From there we speed off to Marsala, stopping for a private view of "Il Satiro Danzante" the mesmerizing bronze statue dating over 2,000 years. This incredible bronze statue was found off the shore by local fishermen in 1996. It now is a centerpiece in a small museum in the center of Mazara del Vallo. These beautiful ancient art works are quite common in Sicily, though not very well publicized.
Nearby the temples of Selinunte are definitely worth driving to, with breathtaking views of the ancient archeological site you will be transported back in time. I hesitate to recommend any one restaurant as it's nearly impossible to have a bad meal. The fresh seafood and the variety of dishes was just a food lover's dream. We loved dining at Le Lumie just outside Marsala.
Our last stop is Marsala, the port city made famous by Garibaldi, the man who unified Italy in the mid 1880s. Maybe even more famous is the delightful wine by the same name. We were taken on a tour in the cellars of "Florio," and were able to taste rare vintages from their private collection. We again were dazzled as they led us to a sumptuous banquet of Sicilian specialties, visually stunning and richly flavored, all accompanied by the wines from the winery.
Not to miss is a visit to the saline, white hills along the sea, dredges where the water evaporates and leaves the salt glistening under the sun until dry. I was surprised to see windmills in Sicily, but was told that it was a common method used to grind the sea salt.
Sicily is beautiful; the people are proud and welcoming; the food is complex and refined; and the landscape is a contrast between ruggedness and serene beauty. I can't wait to plan another getaway to this magnificent island.