Trapani is often overlooked in favour of Sicily’s capital Palermo but it is getting increasingly popular as a tourist destination. It is well served by Trapani Airport with regional flights on budget carrier Ryanair making this is an excellent base to explore western Sicily. Follow my journey to discover the cradle of civilisation that is Sicily.
What To Expect
“Mi Scuza! Non-capisco Italiano. Parla Inglese?”, is one of few Italian sentences I memorized by heart. Except this time, it was not directed at a waiter or retail assistant but instead at a group of raucous youths. These youths have never seen a foreigner in their village yet in my attempt to communicate with sign language, we transcend language and cultural barriers. With a group of loquacious youths for company, our conversation went from football, basketball to the colour of my blue contact lens (like why are my eyes blue! Or green! Perhaps both!). I admire the Italians incandescent love for life and despite the language barrier, I ended up with an invitation to a football game, an experience which reminds me how travel constantly breaks and defies stereotypes.
Understanding Sicily: Beyond Mafia and Cultural Stereotypes
One of my most vivid travel memories goes back to my one-month stay in Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily. Cultural stereotypes dictate that Sicily has a negative connotation often associated with mafia in the impoverished southern Italian region. The result of which is that danger lurks around every corner amidst crumbling infrastructure often seen in developing or third world countries. Often labeled as uncivilised, rough and aggressive, my experience with Sicilians challenged a deeply entrenched misconception and left an indelible impression on me.
How To Get to Trapani and Accommodation
For the uninitiated, Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy and the largest Mediterranean island, just off the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’, separated by the narrow Strait of Messina. It has a rich and colourful history, having been conquered by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthiginians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spanish and French that lends to the indomitable spirit of Sicilians, which depending on how you see it can be both infuriating and inspiring. The easiest way to get to Trapani is to fly into Trapani Airport, which is served by Ryanair or Alitalia. However, for more regular flights, I would suggest Palermo Airport, which is located about 35 km from Palermo, the capital city of Sicily. From Palermo Airport, there are several ways to reach Trapani – the cheapest option is direct bus shuttle (approximately 1 hour 10 minutes). Alternatively, the express shuttle sharing is costlier but offers more comfort in 8-seater minibuses from Palermo Airport to Trapani Harbour. If budget isn’t an issue, there is always the option of private car or taxi transfer. Sickle-shaped Trapani is founded by Elymians and located at the foot of Mt. Erice in Sicily where an intriguing past is reflected in a crossroad of cultures from architecture to language and cuisine. There are plenty of B&B and boutique hotel options in Trapani but for a more authentic experience, I would recommend agriturismo (a literal combination of tourism and agriculture) farmstays where visitors get to savour traditional Sicilian dishes and enjoy the rustic charm of a bygone era. Fortunately, I got to experience Sicily’s traditional culture in one of the best agriturismo amidst a beautiful working olive farm, about 10 minutes by car from Trapani city center. In all honesty, it wasn’t exactly my plan to visit Sicily but being a dog lover, I found a pet sitting gig that I couldn’t resist. Plus Sicily being one of the cheapest places to live in Europe and with authentic accommodation thrown in including the opportunity to take care of several dogs – I couldn’t possibly say no! Following a video call with a prospective host during which I was given a virtual tour of my new ‘home’, I was set for Trapani.
Highlights of Trapani
Mt. Erice (pronounced eh-ri-chey)
A medieval city on top of the legendary Eryx, which was once occupied by the Elymians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans. The easiest way to get there is by cableway, which links Trapani center with Mount Erice summit. Alternatively, you can get there by bus or car and if you love a good hike, that’s possible in about 2 hours depending on your fitness level. Perched 750 meters above sea level, the slower pace in this enchanting town is exactly what I left my hectic city life for. It offers panaromic views of Trapani center, stunning coastlines, the Egadi islands, Trapani salt pans and on a clear day, you can see as far as Tunisia. As one of the most charming towns in Sicily, there is plenty to discover in this picturesque village so I recommend spending a night if you can. I truly enjoyed walking the cobblestone alleys that wind through the town, a small square, homes and gardens and imagined what life was like in the past. No trip is complete without savouring a Sicilian tradition at famed Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, with its delicious offering of pasticcini created with recipes passed down through five centuries. The poignant story of Maria Grammatico is captured in American writer Mary Taylor Simeti’s book “Bitter Almonds” – a collection of recipes and recollections from Maria’s bitter childhood.
For a chance to experience a unique landscape, visit the ancient saltpans in Trapani, which are still used to harvest sea salt using centuries-old methods. It is believed that the Phoenicians first developed these salt pans, which boast some of Europe’s oldest salt marshes. Go at sunset for stunning photo opportunities of changing colours and its characteristic old windmills.
If you love the sea and time is limited, walk along the craggy shorelines from Trapani’s center and in 20 minutes you will reach the incredible Lido San Giuliano beach. Being close to the city means it has the advantage of easy access but if you would like to experience one of the most amazing beaches in Italy, I would recommend a trip to San Vito Lo Capo in the northwestern corner of Sicily, about 40 km away from Trapani. Flanked by mountainous scenery including the Zingaro nature reserve, it is little wonder that this seaside resort is hugely popular especially in summer. It isn’t the most convenient base for sightseeing though but getting there is easy with shuttle buses operating from Palermo Airport, Trapani Airport and Trapani Port.
Trapani is an ancient port town and those in search of genuine travel experiences will appreciate its extraordinary cultural heritage. Its charming old town is best explored on foot, given its relatively small size. Eating out in Trapani includes some typical recipes such as couscous, tuna ragu, arancini (deep fired stuffed rice ball) and cannoli, a staple of Sicilian cuisine. Cost-wise, it is also easy on your pocket (1.30 Euros for regular coffee) and you are spoilt for choice from fine dining to casual restaurants. And I never went long without a gelato treat – which is one of the best in Italy!