I’d bet good money that anyone who visits Trapani leaves with a lower heart rate. In this small port city on the northwestern coast of Sicily, there’s no rushing from one knockout sight to the next. Instead, Trapani envelops visitors in a golden haze and lulls them into lingering over everyday pleasures. From contemplating the waves over morning coffee to evening strolls in the harbor, our daily rituals proliferated so rapidly that we didn’t always get to our planned excursions. This is Sicily at its most laid-back.
Trapani’s proximity to a huge range of sights makes it a perfect base for a Sicilian vacation. The hill town of Erice looms over the city, with the ruins of ancient Greek Segesta further inland. Salt flats stretch south towards Marsala and its famous vineyards. To the north, the coastline runs past medieval San Vito, with its beaches under a dramatic mountain. Finally, the rugged paradise of the Egadi Islands is just a quick ferry ride away. (See our post on Favignana Island linked below.)
Beyond the area’s natural beauty, Trapani and its environs also invite us to experience over 3,000 years of history. Nearly every Mediterranean culture has left traces here, from pre-historic clans through Greek, Carthaginian and Roman conquerors, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and finally northern Italians during the Risorgimento. Whether it’s Phoenician retaining walls in Erice or the Baroque City Hall of Trapani, the past whispers everywhere….
History & Mythology
As elsewhere in Sicily, Trapani’s history extends back beyond written records and even myth. Around 1100 BCE, a people known as Elymians arrived in northwestern Sicily. No one knows for certain where they came from, although they would later claim to be descendants of Troy. Elymian settlements included a political capital at Segesta, a religious center at Erice, and a port on the site of modern-day Trapani.
Sicily has always been heavily agricultural, so it’s appropriate that the distinctive shape of Trapani’s harbor inspired the name Drépanon, from the Greek word for “sickle.” Eventually the settlement became associated with two myths. In the first, Hades kidnaps the maiden Persephone from the shores of a lake at Enna, in central Sicily. Persephone’s distraught mother Demeter wanders the island looking for her, dropping her sickle along the way. The rest of the story becomes an allegory for seasons and harvests.
In the second myth, the sickle belongs to Kronos, who drops it after using it to kill his father. When the Carthaginians took over western Sicily, the Greek Kronos blended with the Phoenician god Baal to become Baal Hammon. The latter in turn morphed into Saturn when the Romans seized control of the island in 241 BCE. Saturn, the god of plenty, became Trapani’s patron, and still has a statue in the center of the city.
After the Roman Empire fell apart, Trapani and the rest of Sicily endured waves of Vandal and Goth invasions. In the early ninth century, the Arabs brought stability and prosperity. Normans invaded the island in the 11th century, and Trapani served as a primary stop for Crusaders traveling to the Middle East. (More on the Normans in our post on Cefalù and Monreale.)
Like the rest of the island, Trapani’s fortunes ebbed somewhat over the following centuries under various European empires. Although its location guaranteed prominence in trade and military significance, the city still suffered from plagues, famines, and revolts. World War II brought massive bombing, some of which remains in evidence today.
Trapani’s Centro Historico
Trapani’s old city is just the right size: small enough to navigate easily on foot, but big enough to remain interesting for several days. The elongated peninsula means you’re never more than a few blocks from the sea. Rocky beaches line the northern edge, while the southern side has a long harbor with a park along one end. In the center, you’ll find Baroque architecture, sun drenched cafes, and an eclectic assortment of shops. Our favorite was an antique bookstore specializing in local history, where we picked up a vintage map of Sicily. The minimal tourists were largely Italian.
Visiting the salt flats on the coastline just south of Trapani turned out to be a highlight of our stay. Even if you have a car, we recommend going with a small group tour. The views alone – especially at sunset – merit the trip, but our guide Alessio made the place fascinating as well as stunning.
Until the advent of electricity and refrigeration, salt was one of the best ways to preserve food. The Phoenicians were the first to exploit Trapani’s proximity to the extra-salty Mediterranean, and salt harvesting became a major source of income for the region.
Alessio explained everything from the chemistry involved in different salt formations to the major role salt once played in global economics. He also walked us through the site’s museum and described the life of ancient slaves chipping away at blinding white blocks in the hot sun. The business is still family-owned, and we bought a few jars of salt to take home – rosemary, lemon, and orange. Perfect souvenir gifts.
Public transportation doesn’t go to the salt flats, but plenty of companies will take you there. Most of them also offer combo itineraries, such as the salt flats with wineries in Marsala. We opted for the sunset tour with Trapani Emotions, led by the knowledgeable and friendly Alessio Cicero. (See the company website for a full list of tours, which can be booked ahead on trip advisor.)
Erice first rose to prominence as a religious site, complementing the ancient Greek political capital at Segesta and maritime activity at Drépanon/Trapani. The settlement was first known as Eryx, after Aphrodite’s son who died in a boxing match with Hercules. Virgil’s Aenid tells of Aeneas building a temple to the goddess here. Legend also has it that Daedalus reinforced the rock wall bridge (which still remains), and created a golden beehive (long gone) dedicated to Aphrodite.
The vantage from Erice feels like Mount Olympus. I could see the gods using the mountaintop here like a summer palace, looking down on their minions while drinking ambrosia. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Africa. When we visited, the sun was just starting to sink and the sea turned into a blinding expanse of light. A Frenchman nearby kept exclaiming, “Ça brille!”
Eventually Carthage took over western Sicily, and Erice’s commanding views made it a natural military base. Later, Erice, Trapani and the Egadi Islands all hosted major battles in the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome. Ovid and Cicero both mention Erice during the Roman years, and then it disappears from history for a while.
In medieval times, Normans recognized Erice’s defensive value. Their buildings include the castle built on the site of the temple to Aphrodite/Venus, and the Chiesa Matrice (Mother Church). The latter retains its original exquisite carved-lace ceilings.
Part of the fun of going to Erice is taking the funicular from Trapani up the mountain. (Drivers can brave the hairpin roads or use the car park near the funicular station.) Hours vary according to the season, but normally run late enough to allow a view of the sunset. Staying overnight is especially atmospheric, but for extended stays, Erice’s heights are less convenient.
Practicalities & Connections
Since Trapani functions as the main transportation hub for the area, it’s also the most convenient place to stay. Our post on Favignana covers the nearby Egadi Islands.