Sunday, March 27, 2011

Trapani and Environs

Fishing port of Trapani
The bus ride that took us from Palermo to Trapani was just over two hours long.  We thoroughly enjoyed the ride along the north coast and thru some of rural Sicily where sheep graze on the mountainsides and peasants prepare their gardens for a summer filled with fresh fruits and veggies.
Upon stepping off the bus in the city of Trapani, an older gent approached us and gently said “Bienvenutu a Trapani” (welcome to Trapani).  We were astounded that a total stranger would just approach us with such a warm, direct, unsolicited welcome.  In America, when someone approaches you this abruptly, the red flags of suspicion immediately go up. Well, he wanted nothing but to provide a sincere welcome, and disappeared as quickly as he appeared; his simple words gave us a warm feeling about our new “home.”
Our apartment is near the fishing port and markets, and the locals in this fishing town set out every morning in search of swordfish, tuna, triglia (red mullet), and calamari.  Our apartment is large with a terrific private terrace, but the people who operate the rooms are nothing like our favorite Palermitani, Angela.

Temple at Segesta

Trapani is a transportation center, and therefore a perfect home base for “day trips”.  Our first day trip was to the ancient Greek site of Segesta.  Although Segesta had a close alliance with Athens, the temple was never completed; it was OBE (overcome by events), such as the invasion of the Carthaginians.  The location was as beautiful as we have ever seen, set on a mountainside in front of another mountain and among fields of colorful yellow and purple wildflowers. 

 We spent a half day there, starting with the ruins of a medieval castle and a Roman theater located high above the temple, and then hiking down through the wildflowers to the magnificent  Parthenon-like Greek temple.  All we can say is how lucky we are that places like this still exist -- and that we get to see them!
An easy day trip to the town of Marsala just south of Trapani offered the chance to discover the wines of this famous region.  Cantine Florio (here in Sicilia, they call wineries “Cantine”) gave us a good look at a traditional Marsala winery, the first one to be Italian-owned. 
Cantine Florio
Back in the 1700’s, the Brits started the Marsala wine industry when shipments of port and sherry were disrupted by war between England and Spain.  Marsala is a specially fortified wine, meaning that hard alcohol is added to make the wine stronger than usual (about 20 % alcohol) giving the wine a longer shelf-life; hence, it travelled well for long ship voyages that often occurred in these times. 
Cantine Florio’s first business was as a pharmacy, so they always advertised their Marsala wine as “good for your health”.  During prohibition (1920’s and 30’s}, they exported LOTS of Marsala wine to the U.S. marketed under the name Marsala “tonic” – in the small museum  at the winery, we saw an actual bottle of the 18% alcohol “tonic” with a label that read “Approved by the U.S. Treasury.  Dosage:  A small glassful twice a day!”   Haaaa!  A neat workaround for prohibition times!

Winetasting with our tour guide Sara

One benefit of travelling in the off-season is that our “group tour” was just the two of us with our guide Sara.  She did an excellent job of describing the Marsala winemaking process, and of course, gave us a tasting of the delicious stuff!
Our second winery, Donnafugata, offered an interesting contrast.  Donnafugata is also an old winery, but about 15 years ago the owners decided to stop making Marsala wine and switch to more popular unfortified reds and whites.  This is definitely a forward-thinking winery with state-of-the-art equipment and brilliant marketing.  Once again, we had the guide all to ourselves -- Zane (a young woman from Latvia who is fluent in 5 languages) gave us a terrific tour through the impressive facility.  One of her 5 languages was Russian, so Frank found an opportunity here to practice his fading Russian language skills. 
Donnafugata experiments with all kinds of grapes including the Sicilian Nero d’Avolo, French grapes like cabernet sauvignon, and many grapes we had never heard of before, like damaschia, insola, catarratio, and zibibbo.  Zane gave us quite a tasting experience too:  4 whites, 3 reds, and a dessert wine.  All were excellent and intriguing (and you can look for them in the U.S.!).  Boy, that winery didn’t make any money on us with all those very generous pourings; glad we were on foot when we left for the train station.

Erice perched at top of mountain approx. 1/2 mile up

The medieval town of Erice (pronounced: air-EE-cha) sits high on a rock-like mountain that protrudes 750 meters above sea level.  We took the local bus up there, holding our breath as the bus negotiated treacherous hairpin switchbacks and steep dropoffs.  It was raining slightly, and that exacerbated the treachery, making those switchbacks slipperier than usual.  Luckily, we had a young “cool-as-a-cucumber” bus driver who must be the calmest and most confident bus driver in all of Sicily.   None of these situations bothered him a bit -- he was the ideal guy to take us up the mountain.

Castle at Erice

Erice dates back to ancient times with the usual host of local conquerors (Normans, Greeks, Romans, etc.).  The best viewpoint is a medieval castle situated on the outermost tip of this mountain perch.  A Temple to Athena once stood here, and much of the castle’s stone comes from the original temple.  The views were as sublime as the guidebooks promised.  The green valley, the craggy mountains, the busy peninsula that is our town of Trapani, and the blue Med were all magnificently displayed beneath us.
Streets of Erice

Until we reached the main souvenir street, the town appeared to be unpopulated – just us strolling the windy streets admiring the medieval stone architecture.  Eventually, we located Caffe Maria, a pretty tea shop owned by Maria Grammatico, the most famous pastry chef in Sicily. 
 We ate a light lunch (in order to save room for a sweet).  Anne selected a “Cassatine Siciliano” – a gorgeous little green dish topped with ricotta cream and candied fruit.  Inside, this candy-like dessert had a thin layer of cake, chopped almonds, and more ricotta cream (Sicilians must go thru tons of ricotta cream!).  Totally decadent. 
The delectable Cassatine Siciliano

We have some more human interest stories for you, too.  The Trapanese are also quite a fascinating bunch.   In Marsala, a young English-speaking avvocato introduced himself to us on the streets.  No, not a piece of fruit that you pick from a tree, i.e., the avocado -- although that’s what we thought we were hearing at first; an avvocato, we learned, is a lawyer (as in advocate).  Francesco, the avvocato, volunteered his help in locating our destination, after he saw us pass by him twice on some backstreet in Marsala.  These unexpected offerings are so commonplace here in Sicily, and the nicest part is that the offerors want nothing in return.  We often end up feeling guilty that we suspected a ruse, when it was just a stranger offering a gesture of kindness. And, it seems to happen so often here in Sicily.
Typical Trapanese man, his home, and his laundry
As a side note, we’ve been told that Sicily has over 100,000 lawyers (maybe a bit of an exaggeration), and that “avvocato” is the most common profession on this island.  And, the second most common profession here in Sicily is that of fisherman!
 Later, a young wine shop owner named Allessandro engaged us in conversation as we passed by; after a short period of learning a little bit about each other, he locked up his wine shop to walk us to a recommended restaurant.  When we protested, and told him not to leave his shop for us, he said, “It is not good to work too much.”  Along the way to the restaurant, Allessandro took us on a walking tour of the town, pointing out important sights that we never would have known about.  We were a little concerned that Allessandro would hit us up for some recompense for his services, and that we were going to be a threesome for lunch, but Allessandro delivered us to a wonderful  restaurant and went on his merry way – no strings attached. 
And, the day we took the bus to Erice, a man at a nearby snack shop helped direct us to the Biglietteria (the place to buy bus tickets).  Ten minutes later, after getting tickets,  as we were waiting for the bus, the man left his shop to walk over and make sure that we had our tickets and were okay, and that we understood the departure time for the bus.  We shouldn’t be so amazed anymore, but It is remarkable how well the people of Sicily continue to look out for us strangers.

Kite flying at the docks in Trapani

On our last day here in Trapani, we took a vacation from our vacation -- just taking it easy, strolling the streets of sunny Trapani for a last time, watching the kite flying event down at the port, reflecting on our stay here, and prepping for our exodus and new adventures tomorrow.

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