Some of my favorite travel experiences have been daytrips, and in Sicily nearly every day felt like a daytrip as we drove around the island, sampling a fraction of the many riches it has to offer. One day in particular that stands out to me was the day we visited the medieval hilltop town of Erice. It felt like we had been transported to a land far, far away from the beaches (and heat) that had occupied the previous few days.
A Castle in the Clouds
Located near Trapani on the northwest coast of Sicily, the star attraction in Erice is the Castello di Venere, a 12th century Norman castle that juts over the side of the mountain like a siren on the bow of a ship. Built on top of a temple to Venus, it’s long been a site of importance that’s outlasted several different civilizations (including a cult that practiced a form of sacred prostitution!). The town has had various names of the years, its current name coming from the Greek hero Eryx, and what I found particularly interesting is that it was one of several Italian cities that was renamed in the 1930s under Mussolini in honor of its ancient past.
We arrived in Erice by car, driving up the winding road of hairpin turns until we reached the parking lot near Porta Trapani (pay with coins at one of the machines near the lot by entering your license plate and selecting the amount of time). You can also take a bus from Trapani or another popular option is the funvia (cable car) that climbs nearly 2,500 feet above sea level between Trapani and Erice. The town itself is triangular in shape, with Porta Trapani at the westernmost and the castle at the easternmost point. We walked along Viale Conte Pepoli between the two until we found ourselves standing before the castle’s entrance.
It was a beautiful day to roam the sparse ruins of the interior courtyard of the ancient fortress, but what makes the castle truly impressive is that it’s often covered by a veil of low-hanging clouds. Periodically the clouds lift to reveal a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding area – as far as San Vito Lo Capo in one direction and beyond Trapani to the Egadi Islands and salt flats in the other – only to return again to envelop the stony walls of the castle. This phenomenon is so prevalent that the clouds are often referred to as the “kisses of Venus”.
Afterwards we exited the castle through the Balio gardens and explored the maze of streets (perfect for “getting lost” within the walled city), winding through quiet passages that eventually spilled onto main thoroughfares dotted with souvenir shops, restaurants and pastry shops. Erice is famous for its dolci ericini (almond sweets), and the most famous place to indulge in these treats is at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. We stopped here to take an espresso break, along with Sicilian cassata cake and an assortment of cookies, which we enjoyed under a giant fig tree that shaded the café’s secluded courtyard. The sweets were almost too sweet, but when in Sicily…
Another impressive draw for Erice (considering its small size) is that the town is saturated with around 60 or so churches, the most notable being the Duomo dell’Assunta. You can climb its accompanying bell tower with mullioned windows for another striking view above the town. If you look closely on the southern side of the church you will notice 9 crosses, which were believed to have come from the nearby temple of Venus.
On the Salt Flats
After our visit we headed to the Museo del Sale near Trapani. This family-run museum is filled with old tools to illustrate the process of salt production and also includes a worthwhile 20-minute tour that dives into the fascinating history of the region’s salt industry. Trapani accounts for 2% of Italy’s salt production thanks to the area’s ideal conditions with plenty of wind, no waves and lack of rain in the summer. There’s evidence that it’s actually the oldest salt production in Italy and perhaps even the world, dating back nearly 3,000 years to Phoenician times.
The harvest lasts 3 months out of the year from June through August, and the remainder of the year the salt pans are covered with terracotta titles to help the salt dry out. A single pan of salt makes about 1,500 tons per year and at one point salt production was such a huge part of the economy that Sicily’s “white gold” was the same price as real gold!
Afterwards we payed the 1€ fee to walk along the surrounding salt pans for an up close look at what we had just learned about. Rows of crusty salt mounds lined the pans, their rose-colored hue shimmering in the sun. There was also a little stand with various types of salt to purchase and bring home.