Sunday, March 01, 2009

Italy Redux: Erice

One tends to associate different styles of towns with different regions of Italy.  Tuscany and Umbria have hill towns.  Emilia-Romana has old flat cities with cool Byzantine architecture.  Campania has colorful villages covered with bougainvillea and window boxes of rosmarina prezzemolo.  Liguria has brightly-colored stucco-ed houses in their hillside towns overlooking the sea.

So Erice seems like an anomaly, a hill town in Sicily of all places. What the tourists don't know and the travelers do is that Sicily is dotted with hill towns...Erice is just one that is more frequented due to its and and its beauty.

Erice is old.  It was once Eryx, not a Greek colony but an aboriginal people who settled western Sicily around 1100 B.C.  The early Ericeans were often conflicted when it came to political allegiances, mostly favoring Greek influences, which resulted in the city's destruction by Carthage in the first Punic war.  Not to worry, the Romans took it over and it has been continuously occupied since then.

Erice has a distinctly medieval feel.  The largest castle (the Castello di Venere) is Norman, built on the ruins of the Roman Temple of Venus.  The Castello Pepoli dates from the tenth century Arab occupation, and the streets are lined with houses that are undoubtedly from the 1400s with in-fill from 1600-1700 century buildings and churches.  Nowhere in this city will you find the ornate baroque architecture that is so predominant in southeastern Sicily.  Truly, western Sicily is barely Italian at all, having more in common with Greek and Arabic cultural forces.  This lack of ornament gives Erice a wonderful, stark feel that was lovely for us to absorb.  The cold weather meant the parking lots were empty, and we had the city to ourselves, seeing on a few other people walking around (it was Sunday) and all the houses were shuttered against the cold and wind.

The Mother Church (Chiesa Matrice) of Erice is really something.  The architecture remains mostly as it was originally constructed, a Romanesque church, but the construction suggests that one of the masons had read a magazine article about the new Gothic stuff going up farther north, so there are hints of Gothic arches and a few little details that are endearing.  Still, no huge vaults (except for the front porticle), and certainly no stained glass to speak of.

Ian and I walked around for a few hours and enjoyed the beautiful streets.  The flagstones are wonderfully symmetrical and after the rain (and snow!) they were slippery and somewhat treacherous, but we watched out footing.  The unusual amount of rain made grass grow up through the stones, which added a soft texture, and overall it was lovely.

This is the largest piazza inside the walls of the town.  It is not a huge town, easily navigated from one end to the other in ten minutes.  Note the sign that says "no parking on any of the piazza."  Note that four cars are ignoring it.

Looking back from the top of Erice (750m above sea level) eastward toward Mount Colfano and Punta del Saraceno (Saracen Point - told you this was Arab territory).

Castello di Pepoli.  Lovely castle. That said, you couldn't get me to Erice in the summer for all the cassata in Palermo.  No way.  The smaller "guest castle" was built by the Baron who owned this castle during the 18th century, and sadly has fallen into disrepair.

Getting to Erice is difficult, either by car or by foot.  Switchbacks are the norm.  One really cool thing about Erice is the view of Trapani and the salt farms, where seawater is pumped by windmills into smaller and smaller pools to allow evaporation.  Pretty cool.

In the background are the Egadi Islands, famous for the tuna harvest.

While I enjoyed Erice, the only reason I did is that it was February and 35 degrees.  The hoards of puffy white tourons complaining too loudly about the steep streets were nowhere to be seen. I'm sorry...I'm a snob, I don't enjoy being around loud people who are there to check off another city and eat from the tourist menu. I don't require these people to learn to speak Italian, but learning a few words might be helpful instead of just speaking louder.

Head for Erice between November and April, otherwise stay away. 

Respectfully submitted,


P.S.  One must visit Maria Grammatico's pastry shop, one of the best in Sicily, apparently.  We have no reason to doubt it.

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