Western Sicily offers tastes of many civilizations that left their mark — and their cuisine’s traditions — on the island
If you don’t make it in time for this summer’s street food festival in Trapani, a Sicilian port town, which will be cooking up the likes of mixed fish fries, boiled octopus, rice balls and tripe panini, not to fret. In early fall, the beach town of San Vito Lo Capo, a short drive away, will host its annual international couscous festival. Can’t make it to that event? No worry again. It’s never difficult to find some gastronomical feast this corner of Sicily. Occasions abound here to sample the legacy of the many layers of civilizations and cultures that have made the Mediterranean island such a fascinating place.
Trapani makes for a lively, logical base for exploration of the western end of Sicily, where the influence of past Arab rulers is strongly felt in the region’s fondness for couscous, frequently made with fish, or golden raisins and pine nuts.
Indeed, the venue for Trapani’s 10th street food festival, called Stragusto (roughly translated: super-taste), is the picturesque Fish Market Piazza, which is just what it sounds: a large, bustling square filled with vendors selling fish. The food festival highlights local dishes but also those famed from other parts of the island, including from the capital, Palermo, and from Catania, Palermo’s rival in the east and especially proud of its sweets like cannoli or cassata, arguably the island’s most celebrated cake. Other sub-specialties of Sicilian cooking derive from treasured islands prepared on the many tiny islands near Sicily. The island’s wines, red and white, recently gaining in deserved popularity abroad, are perfect for washing down the nibbles.
With Trapani highlighting delectable food, visitors can do well to seek out modest-looking trattorie where locals are dining, perhaps some plain place with the TV set on showing a soccer match. Trapanese-style sauce can be so full-bodied and tasty, it’s good even without the pasta. A variation on pesto, one interpretation of this recipe features almonds, basil leaves and garlic ground together and mixed with tomatoes and grated pecorino cheese.
From Trapani’s port, ferries regularly ply the short distance to the Egadi Islands. The main island, Favignana is proud of its excellent fish restaurants. Whether on a day trip to Favignana, or during a longer stay, the island offers an opportunity to swim in coves with crystal-clear waters or to rent bikes to see the island, while stopping now and then to marvel at gardens of citrus trees and flowers, which, to protect them from frequent winds, are planted far below street level, in deep pits with tall walls built from local tufa stone. To relax, try a fresh-fruit icy granita in the island’s main square, where the friendly inhabitants love to congregate.
In the Trapani area, the drive along the sea windmills come into view. Known as the ”Via del Sale” (The Salt Road), the drive is highlighted by six-bladed windmills that are part of the environmentally protected area where flamingos congregate. Time the drive to around sunsets as you look to the west.
In Trapani, the National Pepoli Museum, once was a Carmelite convent, features beautiful cloisters. The archaeological collection includes artifacts from the ancient temples of Selinute and the nearby island of ancient Motya.
Called Mozia in Italian, Motya was a strategic Pheonecian city dating back some 2,800 years. In ancient times there was a causeway inking the tiny island to the Sicilian “mainland.” Today a short boat ride takes visitors to San Pantaleo island, where excavations, including the remains of ancient houses and gates can be seen. A museum on the island is home to some of the archaeological finds and strolling Mozia and imagining how it was in times lost is a popular excursion for tourists in western Sicily.
More renowned are two ancient Greek cities in western Sicily. Brutal rivals in ancient times, Selinus — Selinunte in modern times — and Segesta each vie for tourist attention and both are striking in their own ways.
Colonized in likely the 7th century B.C., Selinunte was the westernmost of Greek colonies, and boasting an acropolis overlooking the Mediterranean. Groups of temples make for romantic strolls, and the archaeological park isn’t usually overrun with tourists, making the atmosphere even more enchanting, although most of the temples themselves were felled by earthquakes in centuries past.
Selinunte’s secrets are still coming to light. Excavations a decade ago revealed a 6th-century paleo-Christian baptistery, where baptism was performed by immersion. Other excavations found thousands of votive figures at an ancient sanctuary.
Segesta is also striking for its location. Suddenly, as you drive down one of Sicily’s often uncrowded highways and there looming in view, atop a hill, appears a majestic, open-air ruin. Segesta is thought to have been settled some 3,000 years ago by people of mixed Trojan and Greek descent. In its years as a Hellenic city, it was a war rival of Selinus and later an ally of powerful Carthage, and still later allied itself with ancient Rome. It met its end at the hands of the Saracens, one of the many conquerors that Sicily has endured across history.
The site’s unfinished temple, with dozens of unfluted columns, is considered one of the finest existing monuments in Doric architectural style.