The mountaintop town of Erice, on the west coast of Sicily, looks medieval, but it’s much older than that. Waves of conquerors left their mark long before the Normans got there in 1167, built their fortresses and changed the name from Eryx to Monte San Giuliano. That name stuck until 1934, when it was changed to Erice.
The town stands 750 meters above the sea, and I got there by driving a narrow, winding road in fog and mist. Next time I’ll ride the funivia (cable car) from Trapani and explore Erice on foot. (The funivia is closed for 3 months in winter.) Erice’s maze-like streets were not designed for cars, and some of the lanes are so narrow you have to walk single file. Guided walking tours are available. I just wandered in the swirling fog, feeling a surreal sense of long ago. Sometimes I caught tantalizing glimpses of views that are spectacular when the weather is clear. Erice looks over the city of Trapani and the salt flats around it, the coastline, outlying islands, and the sea beyond, sometimes as far as Tunisia.
Piazza Umberto is the heart of Erice, a public square edged with shops, cafes, and the Cordici Civic Museum in the Town Hall. The museum holds artifacts from the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods and several archeological discoveries.
Erice has about 60 churches, some in ruins. A few not to miss:
Mother Church (Chiesa Matrice)
This 14th –century building, both Gothic and Romanesque, was made from stones from the Temple of Venus. It holds treasures of silver, alabaster, ivory, and silk, as well as frescoes, rose windows, a marble Renaissance altarpiece, and a 17th-century silver statue of St. Padua.
Church of St. John and Church of St. Ursula
These churches have been modified but still show their medieval beginnings and craftsmanship.
Church of St. Martin
Redone in the 17th and 18th centuries, the church has some beautifully carved wooden pieces.
My climb up to the church on the edge of the mountain peak, was worth every step. The fog lifted, and before me lay the whole panorama. The castle stands on the site of the Temple of Venus, where the goddess was worshiped long ago, and legend has it that a well on the property is where she bathed in milk. In the 12th century the Normans built a crenelated fortress on the temple ruins, and today it’s surrounded by the Balio Gardens, a park of greenery contrasting with the rugged hillside and gray stone.
Since Erice is on the coast, seafood can be found on most restaurant menus, and it’s prepared with Sicilian flair. Monte San Giuliano is one of the best restaurants, serving swordfish, tuna, calamari and other seafood fresh from regional waters, along with pasta dishes and the local favorite, couscous. The restaurant has indoor and patio seating.
One of Erice’s claims to fame is its wonderful pastries. If you like almonds you’ll love them here. One of the best pastry shops is owned by Maria Grammatico, who learned her art during her convent childhood. Her creations are much more than cookies. They include rum-filled marzipan balls, miniature fruits and animals made from almond paste, and torrone, a candy of almonds, pistachios and honey. Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood was written by Maria Grammatico with Mary Taylor Simeti. Another fine bakery is Pasticceria Michele Il Tulipano. Pastries here, made with almonds and chocolate, are beautifully decorated and can be eaten at the shop’s coffee bar. Other Erice artisans are noted for making ceramics, jewelry, and hand-made carpets, sold in dozens of shops.
This 40 room hotel has great views from the roof terrace. Rooms in the 19th-century building and annex are basic, but the amenities are modern.
Villaggio Hotel La Pineta
La Pineta has a lovely setting among pine trees. Prices are reasonable for the simple rooms. There are two bars, one with a terrace, and the restaurant serves Sicilian and traditional Italian foods.
Elimo has 21 rooms, some with sweeping views, a restaurant with a terrace, and a piano bar.
While you may not have been invited to William and Kate’s wedding, you will have an opportunity to stay in a castle. This one, first built in the 11th century and added to over the years, has three watch towers. Four-star Pepoli, set in a lush garden, is expensive and enchanting. Its seven rooms, each beautifully furnished and with stunning views, have all the modern conveniences (though there are corridors and stairways to contend with). A room in the tower wing is perfect for a romantic honeymoon. (NOTE: Torri Pepoli is closed from May 5, 2011 to December 31, 2011.)
Erice’s best-known festival takes place every summer. It’s the international Week of Medieval and Renaissance Music, drawing musicians, tourists, and music-lovers from around the world. I can’t imagine a better setting for it.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com