Located on the western coast of Sicily, Trapani is a fishing and ferry port with a long history. Nowadays the town is renowned for its fine seafood and Sicilian cuisine, and makes a good base for tourists exploring this part of the island. Trapani occupies a low-lying promontory with a curving harbour which, combined with its position at Sicily’s western tip, made the town into an important hub for traders and travellers. Today the ferry port is still a base for journeys out to smaller islands like Pantelleria, to the Italian mainland, and to Tunisia. The town isn’t particularly well-known to foreign tourists, and is not one of the island’s most obvious holiday destinations.
Although not much trace is left of Trapani’s ancient history, the town was a Phoenician trading port, ideally placed for commerce with Africa, Naples and the western Mediterranean. Trapani was an important town throughout the Middle Ages, and it is the medieval phase of the town’s past which is most evident in the old town. After bombing during the Second World War, much of the town was rebuilt in the depressing style so common in Sicily. But the old town, extending westwards with sea on either side, is still worth a visit. Old palazzi, some crumbling and some grand, cluster along the promontory around the central Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
High above Trapani is the medieval hill town of Erice. The sober historic town is surrounded by defensive town walls, crowned by a castle, and dominates the surrounding area from its mountainous height of approximately 800 metres above sea level. Erice is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable: EH-richay.
Erice is in such a spectacular, naturally fortified position high above the natural harbour of Trapani, that it is not surprising that the site has been occupied for millennia. It’s perhaps not surprising either; that with the crag’s veil of shifting clouds and air of mystery it was an important sacred site. There was a temple of Venus here which outlasted the different civilisations holding sway in the area. The female divinity to which the shrine was dedicated changed slightly with each culture: Astarte for the Phoenicians, Aphrodite for the Greeks and Venus for the Romans. Fertility rites would probably have taken place on or around the temple site, at the highest point of the town.
Erice was probably founded by the Elymians, a native Sicilian people who also built the nearby town and temple of Segesta. After the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, the town was later ruled by the Arab, then the Norman rulers of Sicily. For the Arabs it was Gebel-Hamed, for the Normans and their successors Monte San Giuliano, then in the 1930s the town became one of several in Italy to be renamed under Mussolini in honour of its ancient past, and Monte San Giuliano, formerly Eryx, became Erice. Nowadays as well as Catholic churches there are also monuments to new gods on the heights of Erice: gigantic communications masts.
Erice is basically triangular in shape, with steep lanes leading up and around from the Porta Trapani gateway, where you’ll find the cable-car station (more below on transport). This is at one point of the triangle, with the main street, Vittorio Emanuele, leading straight uphill towards the town’s principal square, Piazza Umberto I. However, the most tempting way to begin is to follow the town walls from Porta Trapani around to the right to reach the Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus), at the wild back of the crags; the furthest point of the triangle. In front is a shady park, the Giardino del Balio, dotted with stone busts. There are good views from here, and a cafe with a nice panoramic terrace.
The twelfth-century Castello di Venere is on the site of Erice’s ancient temple. It’s open daily, with a small admission charge. Through a gateway and up a flight of stairs, visitors emerge into an open walled space built onto the bare rock. Signs and a guide-map indicate the traces of the different stages of the site’s history, but the most compelling sight is actually the stupendous view from the fortifications. You can see the sea, the coastline and the crags along with some of Erice’s other ruined fortifications, including the fairy-tale Toretta Pepoli, a small ‘castle’ built onto the rocks.