Trapani: surrounded by the sea and immersed in culture
January 1, 1970
by Laura Minafo
While it might not be worldwide known, Trapani is a small city by the sea on the west coast of Sicily. Born and bred here, I was looking at my home town with lazy eyes, noting nothing special about it; but now that I moved to study abroad my perspective has changed. Trapani is changing too: more receptive and modern, it is now welcoming fleets of tourists coming every day. It is probably thanks to that, or to the new tour guide role that I play every time my friends come to visit me, that now I see my hometown differently.
The legendary founding of the city
Like many other Italian cities, Trapani has a long history, which dates back to the Magna Grecia – Greater Greece. Being later subjected by several dominations (Romans, Byzantines, Spanish, Arabs, etc.), the city has inherited something from each one of them, becoming a potpourri of cultures. According to the classical mythology, however, the origins of the city are linked to a Greek legend. The legend has it that Hephaestus, god of the death, fell in love with Proserpina – the daughter of Demeter, who was the goddess of agriculture. Blinded by passion, Hephaestus decided to kidnap Proserpina, and take her to his kingdom in the bowels of the Earth – inside the Etna, the volcano in the east of Sicily. Demeter couldn’t find her daughter anywhere, so she went looking for Proserpina all over the Mediterranean Sea. Being Demeter the goddess of farming, she was carrying a scythe with her, which she lost during the research. The scythe fell in the sea, just beside the west coast of Sicily, turning into a spit of land which later became the city of Trapani. Indeed, the name of the town derives from Latin Drepanum, or even before from the Greek Δρέπανον, which means scythe. Such legend explains the singular shape of the city, which resembles a scythe.
One of the most charming characteristics of Trapani is its aura; the salty air of the coast and the magical atmosphere can be found only on an island. But all in all, among all the cities in Italy, or the countless cultural sites in Sicily, why should anyone prefer the little Trapani? Because Trapani can offer different kinds of entertainment, or as we say in Italy “di tutto un po'”.
In the first place, the seaside. Probably our proudest boast, the tourists are spoilt by choice: beaches or reefs, in Trapani there are both. Sicily’s west coast is famous for its crystalline water, but fascinating shores embrace the whole province. The most touristic ones are quite far from the very city of Trapani, disseminated all over the region, but as a citizen of Trapani, I can say that our seaside is remarkably beautiful as well, especially compared to other touristic cities in the north of Italy which cannot boast such clean waters.
The main beach in Trapani is San Giuliano, it is located on the north coast of the city. Being one of the main attractions in the city, the beach is kept lively and clean. It is quite a long coastline; on which it is possible to find both bathing establishments or free public beach. The public beach is mainly frequented by local kids and teenagers, which is the reason why it is so busy during summer holidays; the bathing establishments on the other hands are usually considered more suitable for families, and it is possible to rent a cabin for weeks or months, if someone is planning a long residence in the city. San Giuliano beach is busiest in daytime, especially from 10 am to 18 pm, after that time the sun starts setting, and the majority of the bathers goes for dinner. Among all the bathing establishments along the coastline, unfortunately, there’s only a few of them that organizes evening events, which are inexplicably quite unpopular in Trapani. However, there’s a couple of the establishments mentioned above that host night events with a regular cadence, and the success of these events is giving the impulse to increase the night life in Trapani’s beach.
If anyone prefers rocks to the sand, an excellent alternative could be the cove nearest to the city center, “Caletta di San Liberale“. This is a small bay which offers the unique landscape of a reef, only a few steps away from the city center. The vast panorama and the cleanliness of the water are only two of the many attractions of this area. The cove is mostly frequented by families of tourists, who like to bring their kids there to explore the seabed and go looking for crabs. Indeed, the Caletta di San Liberale can be an entertaining place for kids as well as an exciting place for a family of tourists: there it’s possible to taste the real peculiarities of Trapani’s seaside away from the chaotic crowd of the beach.
Torre di Ligny
Another feature of this cove is its closeness to one of the central Trapani’s ancient buildings, Torre di Ligny. Torre di Ligny is a defense tower erected in the XVII Century against the barbarian’s attacks. The original strategic position of the tower gives it a special allure: it is located at the very edge of the city, the culminant point of the “scythe”. That point of the coast is the juncture of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, making it the extreme west coast of Sicily. For this reason, Torre di Ligny is also known as “the tower of the two seas”. The walking path to the tower goes along Caletta di San Liberale, offering an exceptional view of the sea; and after arriving at the tower, it is possible to walk around it, on the edge of the coast, with a little bit of risk of being splashed by the waves in the windy days. It can be very romantic to look at the sun setting on the sea.
Torre di Ligny can offer more than the natural beauty of the landscape: the tower itself has been recently turned into a museum, which holds artifacts linked to Trapani’s territory, from The Paleolithic to the Middle Age, ultimately passing all the way through the Punic Wars. The entrance is not free, but the ticket price is almost symbolic: just one euro. The museum itself is quite small, but it can be an interesting cultural stop for someone who wants to immerse himself in Trapani’s ancient culture.
About the gastronomy
In the same area, it’s easy to find good restaurants or bars, due to the closeness to the city center. Tourists mainly frequent the restaurants, but the prices are not too high. There you can have the possibility to taste one of the most delicious Trapani’s typical dishes, just in front of the sea: the majority of them are fish delicacies, but our “pesto alla Trapanese” is also very popular. For those who’d prefer just a refreshing snack, walking about 200 meters from the tower there’s a beautiful pedestrian area with gelatos, in which the typical Sicilian slushy with brioche is a must (I recommend the one with figs). Besides that, personally, I think that Caffé Ligny offers the best coffee I have ever had in Trapani in twenty years.
The historic center
However, in Trapani, there is a lot more than its beautiful seaside. The heart and soul of the city are the historic center, that, as I have mentioned above, is very close both to the beach and to Torre di Ligny, just at walking distance. The historic center is lively at any time of the day, which is probably the reason why among the tourists it is such a popular choice to get an accommodation there. Indeed, From Torre di Ligny’s area to the beginning of Fardella Street (the main shopping street), there’s plenty of solutions to accommodate in the city, from B&B to comfortable hotels. The high turnout of tourists is probably what makes the center so crowded since the early morning: my favorite time for a cappuccino. At that time, it is not uncommon to see people walking in small groups with their trolleys, looking for the B&B they have booked, or hearing people sitting at the table nearby talking in English about how to organize the day. I agree that the historic center of Trapani is a good place to begin a tour of the city: food is easy to find at any time of the day, there are many historical monuments and plenty of info-points specifically for the tourists. Unfortunately, I have to say that these info-points can be disappointing for our foreign tourists: the people working there are often unable to speak English or other foreign languages, and that’s a lack that makes their service close to useless sometimes.
A walk in the historic center is the best way to dive into Trapani’s Middle Age history and culture. The first thing that may bounce at the eye of our foreign guests is usually the architecture of the streets: Medieval basolatois characteristic, similar to nowhere else. The historic center the with ancient buildings: the most typical one is the “Torre dell’Orologio”. Since the Carthaginian age, Trapani was characterized by the presence of four sightings towers and as many access doors: Torre Vecchia, Torre del Castello di Terra, Torre Pali and Torre di Porta Oscura, also known as Torre dell’Orologio. The four towers made up a quadrilateral which harbored the city inside its defensive walls. The so called “fifth tower,” Castello della Colombaia, was added during the Punic wars (today it is also known as Castello del Mare, due to its location in front of Trapani’s harbor). Torre dell’Orologio owes its name to the astronomic clock with the two quadrants of the sun and the moon. It is located in one of the hottest places in the historic center, Via Torre Arsa, which especially in summer comes alive with the people who want to live Trapani by night, both tourists and non. Trapani is a small city, at night there is not that much to do besides chilling in the bathing establishments or the center, and the latter is definitely the most attractive option. Pleasantly for the tourists in particular, since the small streets among the ancient churches and castles are often spaced by souvenirs shops, it’s easy to buy magnets or typical local products (ceramics, tiny bottles of Marsala, Limoncello, or coral jewels).
The Jesuit College
Keeping walking on the same street, together with the crowd of people enjoying the night in the city center, it will be unavoidable to stop in front of the Jesuit College, built in the XVII Century. Decorated in Baroque style, the church had been consecrated in 1705, but in 1770 the Jesuits were compelled to leave the city by the Mazara’s diocese of the time. The Jesuit College hosts now the Classic Lyceum of Trapani. None of the ex-students of the Lyceum forget the rumors about a presumed dungeon which linked the nuns’ convent with the monks’ monastery which was the Scientific Lyceum, only a few meters away. According to those rumors, in the dungeon were found many corpses of illegitimate babies, probably died at the birth.
Leaving creepy legends aside, walking towards the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, you’d get to the Cattedrale di san Lorenzo. The Cathedral is the main church in the city, central site of Trapani’s diocese, in which the most important functions take place. It is rarely open during the night, but worth to have a look inside of it if you have the chance. The building was originally part of the “palace” in which it was located the Consulate of the Genoese Nation, and it used to be the “Cappella di San Giorgio” in 1102. After being modified several times during the various periods of domination in Sicily, the church was consecrated in 1705 and obtained the title of Cathedral in 1844. Nowadays, the style of the building is, again, Baroque. Even for people who are not experts in art history, the entrance of the Cathedral shall be impressing: the massive staircase and the archway of the central nave are unique. Moreover, as you step inside the Cathedral, the frescoes on the ceiling are a credit to the whole city. Besides the numerous artistic details inside the Cathedral, typical of the Baroque style, it is possible to take a visit to the various relics held inside the Cathedral or join the religious functions that take place every day in the early morning or in the late afternoon, besides the extraordinary ones.
The Legend of Corsair Serisso
The presence of our Catholic heritage is everywhere in Trapani’s historic center, but where there’s the sacred, there’s always the profane: stories of prohibited passions and betrayed love. In the historic center of Trapani, there’s a tiny street named “Via Serisso,” whose name comes from a legendary Corsair of the Middle Age. According to the legend, after one of his incursions, the Corsair was struck by the right temper of one of his prisoners, and therefore decided to keep him as a servant. When the Corsair got back home in Trapani, the new servant and his wife fell in love together. When the moment came for the Corsair to leave again, the servant decided to go back to his country – he convinced the Corsair’s wife and a beautiful Turkish girl to rob the Corsair’s treasure and escaped to Africa with him. After arriving at the destination, the servant brought the Turkish girl to his house, and the Corsair’s wife was turned into a slave. When the Corsair Serisso came back, he couldn’t come over the dishonorable actions his wife. Therefore, he recruited a few trustworthy companions and lefts for Africa as well. After he found the servant house, he broke in with the help of the beautiful Turkish girl, got his treasure back and killed the adulterous lovers. At this point, the Turkish girl feared for his life, but the Corsair decided to go back home with her, and they both lived together in Trapani, where he married her. The legend has it that the head of the previous wife was left in plain view in front of the Corsair’s house, as proof that his honor was safe. After the head was rotted, it was substituted with a marble one, which still nowadays at the entrance of Via Serisso, together with a few lines that tell the stories of a Sicilian woman who cheated on her husband, and paid the price for her adulterous love…
Entertainment and food options
A fascinating past has left his signs in Trapani, but a lot still happens in the present. As an I mentioned before, in spite of its small size, the historic center is the most popular place to spend the night for those who want to stay in the city. Especially after the sunset, probably because of the inclement summer’s sun, the center is filled up with entertainments for his guests, being them tourists or Trapani’s citizens. The first mundane activity is the happy hour. Since around 7 pm the several bars and pubs around the center (including those in via Serisso) get ready with tables and trays full of drinks and appetizers. The food options for the happy hour are many, and vary according to the pub’s management’s choices: there’s the charcuterie platter (probably more typical of center-norther Italy), crisps and crackers, or the more typical than dietetic fish fry (definitely a must to try during a holiday in Sicily). At dinner time, anyone can find “his cup of tea” (just a way of saying, here no one drinks tea for dinner): from our pasta recipes, to our fish dishes made from the fish caught in our sea, passing through delicious meridional styled pizza: the one we make in Trapani is similar to the real Napoli’s one, thick and full (although you shouldn’t hazard asking for “uncommon condiments”, such as pineapple). Plus, the nighttime is the liveliest hour in Trapani: the presence of the crowd is guaranteed, not only because many people have dinner at quite a late time, as the meridional habits command, but also because this is the time when fleets of people converge to the center to have a drink in the open air. Indeed, some many bars and pubs organize events in Trapani’s summer nights, in many cases live music concerts, a good occasion to try some other typical products, such as a good Limoncello. If you’d prefer something more fulfilling, in Piazza Mercato del Pesce (where it used to take place the traditional fish market) there are often gastronomic events that allow tourists and non to taste other Sicilian delicacies: how t not to mention the famous arancine, or cous cous, or even the bear named “Minchia”, from a funny words game with a Sicilian dialectal imprecation. For those who’d prefer something less chaotic instead, an excellent alternative could be a walk by the coast. Just next to Piazza del Mercato del Pesce, there are the Mura di Tramontana, which were part of the ancient defensive walls of the city under the Spanish domination. In spite of the many B&B and pubs that are always more and more popular in that area, due to its soft lights it is still one of the most romantic places in the city. From there, people can enjoy one of the most charming views on the seaside, arriving at Bastione Conca, where it is possible to see the lights of the whole Trapani’s coast.
The salt pans
If the historic center is to be considered a den of typical Sicilian products, there is something more to be discovered towards the peripheries of the city: Trapani’s salt pans. Probably it is not common knowledge that Trapani’s nickname is “Città del sale e della vela,” as to say “City of the salt and wind”. The reference to the wind is due to Trapani’s position: being at the extreme coast of Sicily, the city is windy in each season of the year. It is also called the city of the salt because of the great salt production: the salt made in Trapani is widely consumed not only in Italy but even abroad. A visit to Trapani’s salt pans can be both pleasant and instructive. The location is not far from the city, but it might be necessary to go by car: you just have to take the SP21 road and then follow the directions to get to the entrance of your choice.
The salt pans of Trapani-Paceco are a reserve of the WWF, which comprehends about 1000 hectares of the coast. The reserve is a private property divided into two sections, A and B, in which the extraction of the salt takes place using the ancient traditional methods. At first sight, the view might be the most appealing thing: the panorama is stippled with windmills and occasionally with small mounts of salt, especially in the late summertime. The sunset is the best moment to go, when the sky gets colored with a broad range of shades from red to a golden yellow, making the view on the Egadi island breathtaking. If you’re lucky, you might be able to spy some migrant birds that use to stop at the salt pans, such as the pink flamingos, the great white heron or the pink seagull. The guided tour is an attraction for families, it gives some information of Trapani’s salt extraction, and the guests can even climb a mount of salt to take a picture on top of it, to be completed with the magic background of the sunset. If you chose to visit the salt pans at sunset, joining the happy hour is a can’t-miss experience: you’ll be able to enjoy every shade of the suggestive panorama, together with good food and live music at an adequate price. Worth it.
The cultural panorama
I have decided to leave the cultural events at the end of this article. The fortune of Sicily is that thanks to its long history and several cultural sites, it could finance all the government expenditures only with the incomes from the cultural sites. Unfortunately, this is not happening, and I’m not going to analyze here the organizational and political problems that took us to this point, but it is a pity that several Sicily’s treasures do not get the financial funds they would deserve.
The Pepoli Museum
It is probably because of this lack of attention that Trapani’s city museum is left almost abandoned. Has I have been repeating in this article Trapani is mostly known as a holiday destination because of its beautiful seaside, good food, and famous touristic villages nearby, but I believe that it would be a great credit to the city if we’d be able to offer more to our guests under the cultural perspective. Therefore, it is a shame in my opinion that Trapani’s Museo Pepoli is left at the sides of our touristic offer.
The Regional Museum Agostino Pepoli is located in the homonymous street, just next to the Virgin Mary Sanctum. The collection held in the museum is, in spite of his scarce popularity, quite remarkable: it includes Sicilian paintings from the Middle Age, a sculptures section, nativity displays from the Trapanese craftsmanship, jewelry pieces belonging to the Madonna di Trapani’s treasure, maioliche, and relics from the Renaissance which witness the participation of Trapani’s province to the Unification of Italy. The scarce turnout of the museum is probably due to the lack of advertisement, which makes its collection a little wasted. Sometimes the museum organizes events such as special collections: it happens to hold operas from great artists of Italian art history, such as Caravaggio (special display in 2007-2008), but also from abroad, Picasso for example (special show in winter 2015). Unfortunately, the scarcity of funds devolved to the museum damage the potential incomes: only about one month ago we had to read an article published on one of the most influential daily newspapers in Italy, La Repubblica, in which it was denounced the fact that all the collections inside the museum were exposed to the “open air”, because of a problem with the cooling system: it was a misguided attempt to keep the temperature livable in the summertime. Apparently, the air conditioning system in the museum is out of order since the Caravaggio’s display (ten years ago, as mentioned above). Who would ever agree to spend an afternoon inside a museum in such conditions? It is not a case if all the special events organized by the foundation never last later than June, although the maximum turnout of tourists is exactly in the summertime. In many other cities of artistic and historical interest in Italy, the summer touristic turnout is the golden season for museums, since the exploit of Italian cultural heritage is considered one of the main attractions. Our institutions should be supported and promoted, and Trapani’s museum Agostino Pepoli is no exception.
The Opera Season
To conclude, I want to add a positive note on the cultural scenario that Trapani can offer. It is true that sadly there are some aspects of our Trapani’s cultural scene that are neglected, but thanks to some associations that organize activities and events, highly appreciated by the locals. An emblematic example is the Luglio Musicale of Trapani, an institution created by a Trapani’s citizen, for all his fellow-citizens and for the city he loved. Since the ‘900, the Luglio Musicale offers performances of high artistic value, enhancing the mundane events in the town with beautiful events. Here to be mentioned is the Opera season: thanks to the Opera shows, held in the open theater of Villa Margherita, the Luglio Musicale keeps the link with its origins. The Opera season of 2017 has been the 69th edition, certainly a remarkable achievement, which gives credits to the quality of the offer: this year have been staged operas such as Aida, La Cenerentola, and La Bohème. For the last show on August the 8th, the show was sold out for the play out of La Bohème, as a sign of the appreciation for the shows not only by the locals but also from the tourists. The Opera shows are so crowded that the city administration often closes the streets around the Villa, which is located at the edge of the town center. Entering the main gate, the spectators are welcomed by usher that company them to their seats through an improvised red carpet, riddled with tiny candles (a very romantic walk through the huge oaks in the Villa). As the spectators are escorted to their seats, they’ll the fellow guests wearing elegant outfits: the Opera is always the Opera, and although there is no dress code required, the guests honor the occasion with their best clothes. However, it is not a must: there are also some people who prefer a more casual style. The tickets are affordable to everyone: even the best chair on the first line is never over € 40, and the quality of the performance is a certainty. Besides the talent of the performers, the thing that I have appreciated the most have probably been the subtitles in Italian and English: although the pamphlets are given for free to all the guests, it was a pleasant discovery to see an electric panel above the stage, in which the lyrics flitted along with the songs. Through the provision of an English translation, the show becomes more enjoyable also for the non-Italian tourists, who can still follow the plot. The only critic that can be made is that maybe such a panel can affect the mise-en-scene, but this is a case in which the utility comes before the aesthetics, in my opinion. Being an open theater in a Villa, due to logistic issues the auditorium is not provided with a bar inside of it, but thanks to the advantageous location of the Villa Margherita, it is extremely convenient to get something to drink at the bar just in front of the entrance. Moreover, at the end of the Opera show, some people enjoy having a walk in the historic center and comment the performance.
As I said at the beginning of this article, Trapani is just a small city by the sea, which has the fortune of having a long history, a great cultural heritage, and beautiful landscapes: not bad for a small town on Sicily’s west coast. Of course, there is even more to be seen in the province of Trapani rather than in the city itself, but I like to consider my hometown as a miniature painting: the more you’ll look at it the more fascinating details you’ll discover. Trapani is a more than a foothold in the visit of Sicily; it is a little treasure of culture. It is my hope that the city will keep renovating and improving its touristic offer, both for the development of the city and the rebirth of Sicily, which is sadly neglected nowadays. We need to enhance our beauties and strength points to build a future of prosperity for our homes and families.