Off the beaten track in Sicily: the taste of its savours, the smell of its history

Most tour operators bring tourists to Cefalù, Taormina, Syracuse, or to the foot of Mount Etna. However far from the conventional routes lies the north-west of Sicily, a fascinating region with a rich culinary tradition. Mazara del Vallo, Erice and the historic city of Marsala, famous for its wine, are the main stopovers on this still little known gastronomic route.

For the traveller who has just landed at Trapani airport, recently linked to major European capitals such as Paris and Brussels, the first place to visit is Mazara del Vallo, "the Town of Peace."  The name is entirely appropriate: you can’t help but be struck by the tranquil atmosphere of this town, where over the centuries native Sicilians have been able to live in complete harmony with numerous peoples from the Phoenicians to the Normans as well as the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. Each culture has left its mark in the town’s architecture, which houses splendid baroque churches and several museums, one of which is dedicated to the famous Dancing Satyr, a splendid bronze statue discovered by local fishermen in 1998 that dates back to  somewhere between 4th and 2nd century BC.

La Sicile hors des sentiers battus

Today, Mazara del Vallo, in keeping with its hospitable traditions, is home to the largest Tunisian community in Italy. Consisting mainly of fishermen, Mazara is the country’s main fishing town which adds interest to this city that is also endowed with a fascinating Kasbah. Getting lost in the maze of narrow streets is a joyful inevitability and you end up being transported by the colours, scents and sounds of laughter from children playing barefoot in the maze of passages and side streets.

The Arab presence and culture combined with the fishing tradition throughout western Sicily has found a natural expression in the region’s culinary specialities. Be sure to taste the couscous alla trapanese, a delicious fish-based dish with seafood and vegetables that has a recipe which is adapted according to the produce available on the day. Also try the pasta alle sarde, a dish of pasta with sardines which has become a pillar of Sicilian cuisine. In Mazara you will have no trouble finding restaurants where they’ll serve you these dishes with a smile. Venturing a little further to the north, you encounter other establishments such as Trattoria del Porto, near the Trapani ferry terminal, whose warm and welcoming atmosphere complements the quality and simplicity of its cuisine.

La Sicile hors des sentiers battus

Erice, a feast for the senses

After having enjoyed these dishes that have been equally popular with kings and commoners, you’ll be ready for some less worldly delights. You can now head to the medieval town of Erice, perched on the legendary Mount Eryx (nowadays known as Monte San Giuliano) that was once dedicated to the cult of the Phoenician goddess of fertility - Astarte. Reaching the heavens has to be earned: the road is sinuous and hard to make out as you climb in the mist and amongst the acacia trees, olive trees and wild flowers. But what a glorious sight awaits you upon arrival! The view from the Villa Balio’s gardens transports you to the distant Egadi Islands and Tunisia.

Then you can enter and reflect for a moment of eternity in the Chiesa Matrice, built in 1314 and dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption or in one of the marvellous churches of San Martino, San Pietro, San Cataldo or San Domenico. Here you can embark on an adventure through a maze of staircases, cobbled alleyways and secret courtyards, and in the late afternoon, you'll hopefully find another of Erice’s mythical places. 

Erice owes some of its reputation to the dolci Ericina sweets made from almonds and candied fruit, traditionally made by novices in one of the town’s convents. This convent closed in 1975 however Maria Grammatico, who had been welcomed into the order, decided to continue its activity and her little shop on the corso Vittorio Emanuele is now regarded as one of Sicily's top brand names. Its varied sweets of different shapes and colours and have poetic names like sospiri or belli e brutti. You can take them away or eat them there with a cup of tea in the charming living room adjoining the store.

La Sicile hors des sentiers battus

A wine that has been around the world

Evening falls on Mount Eryx and  it is time to say goodbye to Maria Grammatico’s garden of delights and return to the little winding road. Heading south we now come to the coastal town of Marsala, another legendary and mystical place and its name, derived from the Arabic al-Marsa-Allah, means none other than "the haven of God." Marsala is a town of art and history, with a wealth of people, museums, religious buildings and... wine!

The history of Marsala wine began in 1773 when the English merchant John Woodhouse, sailing through the Mediterranean, sought to protect his ship from a storm and dropped anchor in the harbour of a small town on the west coast of Sicily. The bad weather forced him to extend his stay in Marsala, where he was invited to taste the local wine which at the time was known as "Perspectum." Immediately captivated by its taste and quality, Woodhouse decided to bring a whole shipload back to England and he fortified the bottles with alcohol to prevent any alteration during the journey. The success of this new wine was such that in 1796, Woodhouse moved permanently to Marsala, where he created his own production company. The wine rapidly found its place in the cellars of Buckingham Palace and on ships of the Royal Navy. Over the years, many other merchants settled there, developing the international reputation of Marsala wine, which from the 19th century was exported worldwide. In 1984, the wine received the DOC appellation label (Denominazione di origine controllata). The white grape varieties (Grillo, catarratto, etc.) produce a golden and amber wine whilst the red (Pignatello, Calabrese, etc.) produce a ruby ​​colour.

Our gourmet itinerary ends here. After a session of wine tasting in Marsala, it’s probably all the better not to hit the road immediately. Prolonging the stopover here, off the beaten track, will also give you the perfect opportunity of discovering the other religious, archaeological and gastronomic treasures to be found in this remarkable town.


The author

Philippe Gaillard

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The tourist attractions mentioned

Sant'Egidio Church -Dancing Satyr Museum
Sant'Egidio Church -Dancing Satyr Museum
Mazara del Vallo
Egadi Islands Egadi Islands
Egadi Islands
Chiesa Madre
Chiesa Madre