Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An Italian Holiday -- Part 4, The West Coast of Sicily

One of the ancient temples at Selinunte, Sicily
On the advice of a well-traveled friend, we decided that our final stop in Italy would be a visit to the island of Sicily.  It was a great choice.  Sicily sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, closer to the coast of Africa than to Rome.  The island has been a popular port of call for thousands of years.  On our short holiday we only had time to explore a small part of the large island.  We chose the west side and made the town of Trapani, an old fishing port on the northwest coast, our base.  We quickly discovered that old takes on a new dimension in Sicily.  The earliest settlements on the rugged island ended their glory days more than 2500 years ago.  While I expected Sicily to be memorable for its cuisine: fresh seafood, dry, slightly effervescent wine and delicious olives, it was the ancient ruins that set the place apart for me.  Roving seafarers have been stopping off on the island and benefitting from its fertile soils since long before the first Olympics were held in Greece.  But despite the island’s long history, it isn’t wealthy or, at least in April, crowded.  A feeling of gritty survival and hard work permeates the part of the island we had the pleasure of visiting.

My favorite fountain in Trapani
Our hotel, a nineteenth century residence in the center of Trapani’s old town had been retrofitted with an elevator and modern plumbing.  The whole place had an air of faded charm.  Our room on the fourth floor included a roof top deck that overlooked the bright green dome of the church next-door and the chimneys and stone walls of the neighboring apartment buildings.  You don’t see traditional single-family houses in the old part of Trapani.  The narrow streets are lined with severe apartment buildings, typically four or five stories high with balconies that overlook the treeless streets.  It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon by the time we drove into town from the local airport, past windmills and salt flats, found the hotel hidden among the winding streets, and got settled.  We were hungry!  On the proprietor’s advice we sought out a nearby delicatessen and a small bakery, purchasing tomatoes, oranges, salami, crusty rolls, cold beer and fizzy water.  We took our lunch up to the roof top deck and collapsed gratefully onto the wicker couches.  The five of us hungrily devoured the delicious food in the bright afternoon sun.  

After lunch we set out to explore.  The old downtown streets are full of restaurants and bars, fountains and churches. A few blocks from the residence, we walked through a wrought iron gate onto a promenade that followed the boat-filled curve of the beach.  We watched two young boys, fresh from school change into wet suits and splash into the water for an afternoon of snorkeling.  I put my hand into the water.  Despite the hot sun, the water felt cold to my touch.  I was glad I wasn’t snorkeling!  At the end of the promenade, an ancient fort, almost Moorish in its architecture, protected the bay.   

We arranged to spend the next day sailing to the nearby Egadi Islands on a 40-foot catamaran, the Alien. [see website]
We walked to the nearby dock at 9 am and by 9:05 we were sailing out of the small harbor.  My only previous experience of a catamaran was on a small 16-foot Hobie Cat. 
The Alien was a whole different world and our hosts Alessandro and Isabelle were wonderful.  First stop was an open bay on the east coast of the largest of the Egadi Islands, Favignana.  During the course of the next eight hours we explored three different bays on Favignana and took a short dip in the clear turquoise water of the most remote bay.  Favignana’s coastline is very rocky, in some places steep cliffs fall precipitously to the sea, while in other areas, the coast is more gentle and filled with blooming flowers and wind swept trees.  

Our hosts prepared delicious food on board – plying us first with home made bruschetta and light sparkling white wine and then a delicious lunch of spaghetti with a rich Bolognese (meat and tomato) sauce.  Later in the afternoon, when the wind came up and we were skimming lightly across the waves, Isabelle made a fresh fruit salad and Alessandro gave us all little cups of a sweet Sicilian port wine.  They even had an espresso machine on board.  Talk about hospitality.  We lay on the net trampolines, swung on the string hammock, lounged on the back deck and generally enjoyed ourselves.  If you are ever feeling tense and need to just get the worries of the world out of your system, I can recommend lying on a net trampoline and sailing on the Mediterranean!  The experience is like no other – you lie suspended as if floating in air with the fresh salt wind in your face and the water rushing by below you. 
It is an exhilarating experience and on the Alien you don’t even have to know how to sail!  By the time we arrived back at the dock it was 6:30 in the evening.  We were relaxed, full and happy.  We hugged our hosts and wandered back to the residence for a much needed shower.  That night we planned our next adventure, a visit to the ruins of Selinunte, an ancient Greek city on the southwestern coast. 

Temple columns that never left the quarry
Early Sunday morning we left our hotel and found an open supermarket and bakery – the all day excursion called for another picnic lunch.  We stocked up on our favorites: rolls, salami, tomatoes, fruit and water, packed into the car and drove south.  First stop was the limestone quarry Cave di Cusa where giant Doric columns for the Selinunte temples had been mined more than 3000 years ago.  The road from Trapani to Cusa was lined with farms, olive trees, vineyards, and fields of hay spread across the rolling landscape.  Here and there we drove through small towns and villages where folks were out and about, all dressed in Sunday best.  The parking lot at Cusa is little more than an open field.  From there we followed a small sign to the ticket booth.  The whole area was wild and deserted, already dry despite it being late spring.  Golden grass, feathery fennel and wildflowers grew everywhere.  After buying tickets, we walked up a small path through tall grass, wondering if we were even going in the right direction.  Then down a small turn we saw two massive column sections, side by side in the ground.  We walked around them, awed by their size and the precision of their carving.  Further into the quarry, we found other limestone deposits, and the remains of other, partially carved columns, abandoned thousands of years ago when invading Carthaginians conquered Selinunte in 409 BC.

A temple in ruins 
Cave di Cusa was a good introduction to the glory that was Selinunte. Greeks from the eastern Sicilian city of Megara Hyblaeathe founded Selinunte sometime in the seventh century BC.  Although the town and its majestic temples lay in ruins from the conquerors for centuries and were further damaged by earthquakes hundreds of years later, the scale and grandeur of the ancient settlement are extraordinary.  The whole archeological park is huge and beautiful, with open views south to the sea.  We wandered around the largest re-constructed temple and into and out of the nearby temple ruins. 
We found a perfect picnic spot and rested briefly in the shade.  After lunch we walked along sandy trails that threaded through dry woods and fields to the site of the town, where another temple has been re-built.  We explored the old streets and each chose our favorite “house” although to be honest, every house had a spectacular view both of the sea and the holy temples on the eastern hill.  There is very limited knowledge about the history of Selinunte – the whole area was forgotten for centuries and its re-construction is still underway. 

Selinunte is well worth a visit.  There is a feeling of ancient neglect in the park – as you wander around the temples and among the gigantic fallen columns, you can almost feel the horror of the ancient inhabitants as they realized their holy sites and their homes were destroyed.

We left Selinunte and drove up the seacoast back to Trapani just in time to catch cocktails, dinner and the sunset.  On our last day in Sicily we visited the medieval walled town of Erice with its beautiful stone streets.  That evening we ate fresh Sicilian seafood for the last time.  I hope to return to Sicily on another holiday and visit more of its weathered, hauntingly beautiful landscape – and ideally – take another sailing trip on the lovely Alien!  In the meantime I am experiencing summer and local food in another delightful island community – the San Juan Islands – my next blog….

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