It’s June, wedding month extraordinaire, so in honour of Venus, the goddess that gets these things going, it’s time to visit Erice (eh-ree-chay), aka the ‘Village in the Clouds’ where she was born. For us mortals the easiest way to visit her birthplace is to stay in Trapani (trah-pah-knee) down at ground level and take the cable car up.
I’d seen evidence of the goddess’s powers at the salt flats a few kilometres south of Trapani.
And even more in Trapani, which I would have missed if it hadn’t been for the owner of the B&B I was staying in. The city hadn’t done much for me when I’d visited it years earlier. It probably didn’t help that I had got so hopelessly lost driving in the centro storico that I ended up arriving at my hotel under police escort. I tried to be diplomatic but my host, sensing my lack of enthusiasm, told me that city authorities had spent a lot of time and money cleaning it up in the last few years in the hopes of boosting tourism. I really should give it a second try.
The centro storico is not large, just a narrow peninsula formed when Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest, dropped a scythe, ‘drepanon’ in ancient Greek. At least that’s one explanation for Drepanon being the name of the early settlement. A name, which in the inextricable intertwining of fact and mythology that characterizes Sicily’s ancient history, the Arabs – after conquering the Byzantines, who had conquered the Vandals, who conquered the Romans, who conquered the Carthaginians, who had fatefully allied themselves with the Greeks – transformed into ‘Itràbinis’, which eventually morphed into the present-day Trapani. Which explains the unusual stress on the first syllable. Tra-pa-knee.
As I was saying, the historic centre of Trapani is not large, but it is a tangle of narrow, one-way streets. Absolutely charming when you’re on foot, infuriating when you’re behind the wheel. I stopped several times to ask directions – carefully choosing people I was sure were Italians, only to be met with ‘Mi displace. Non sono di qua.‘ They were Italian, but I hadn’t counted on them being tourists. In desperation, after driving round a piazza a few times – waiting for some kind of miraculous intervention from one of the locals gods? – I pulled over behind a police car and, apologizing for il disturbo – even in my frazzled state I was aware that the Sicilian police had more important things to do than give directions to lost tourists – I asked if they knew how to get to the hotel. To my amazement the officer at the wheel turned to his colleague who nodded, and then he turned back to me and announced, Le facciamo da guida! We will guide you there.
Much as I enjoyed being escorted to the hotel – they drove me right to the front door and, to my immense relief, at a speed that reflected an understanding that the straniera following them would not be up to Italian driving standards – once was enough. This time I avoided the historic centre altogether and headed for the south side of the scythe where the commercial port is located. Not that I’m a fan of commercial ports, although this is a rather lovely one, but because it’s bordered by a wide, two-way avenue lined with parking spots. And it’s only a five-minute walk from the historic centre.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the main street and social hub of Trapani’s historic centre. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it is a Zona Traffico Limitato. ZTL’s as they’re usually referred to, can be a nightmare for drivers – I unknowingly drove into one once (in Padova) and didn’t find out until weeks after I’d returned home and got a hefty fine in the mail – but any frustration they cause drivers is vastly outweighed by the important role they play in supporting and maintaining the strong, social fabric of Italy’s urban centres. I wish we had them in our cities.
The street is lined with caffès, shops and an astonishing number of churches, all done in the classic Sicilian baroque style and all much cleaned up from when I last saw them.
I had only gone partway along the corso when there was a commotion – Italians would call it movimento – in front of the city’s main church, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo Martire, Saint Lawrence the Martyr. I went over to the caffè opposite which was filled with tourists from the cruise ship – Americans by their accents – and gawked along with them at the proceedings.
It was mesmerizing – a steady stream of mortals touched by the Goddess of Love. (At least you hoped so.) I got the feeling you could spend the whole day watching the wedding parties come and go. But then you risked missing a visit to the goddess’s birthplace.
After all the hype of Erice being the birthplace of Venus, you’re in for a big letdown if you think you’re going to find any traces of the goddess or her temple.
There are a few fragments in Phoenician bearing what archeologists believe are dedications to Astarte, the Phoenician Goddess of fertility, beauty and love, as well as some to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess and a few in Latin to the Roman Venus. Which leads to the totally delightful theory that Astarte, Aphrodite and Venus were actually the transformation, metamorphosis? of a single, centuries-long tradition dedicated not to war, or conquest or power, but to fertility, beauty and love.
But that is about all that’s left of the temple. Some say it collapsed the night of Christ’s birth. Others that Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, had it destroyed, which makes the survival of other ancient temples something of a miracle. Luckily, for the most part, Christians were fine with repurposing ancient temples, as they did in the case of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, where they simply exorcised the pagan spirits, switched the front entrance to the rear and declared the structure a Basilica. Maybe Constantine, who was of course wading into unknown waters, was less confident than later Romans that exorcism provided enough protection from the temptations of paganism. My guess is that the deal breaker was the rite of ‘sacred prostitution’, in which the pagan priestesses committed themselves – soul and body – in worship.
All of which means that this is a place where you have to use your imagination. To help there are explanatory plaques, including one with a map.
One of the first things you come to is the Ponte di Dedalo. The Bridge of Daedalus, who was ordered here from Crete, where he famously designed the labyrinth that solved the problem of the Minotaur that had been terrorizing the locals. Talk about the perils of unintended consequences, by which what we really mean is NEGATIVE, unintended consequences. After the labyrinth was finished, and the Minotaur trapped inside, Daedalus himself was trapped – imprisoned in a tower – to prevent him from divulging the labyrinth’s secrets. Following which, in a tragic concatenation of more unintended consequences, he set about making wings so he and his son, Icarus, could escape. And we all know how that ended. In any event his job here in Erice was to build a drawbridge at the entrance and shore up the foundations of the temple, which, as any visitor can see, was built ridiculously close to the edge of the mountain.
Not far from the bridge, right next to the Cortile (courtyard) where the sacred prostitution rites were performed, is the Sito della Chiesa, the site of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Neve (Church of Saint Mary of the Snow) which the Normans built in the 12th century, using what was left of the temple as a handy source of building materials. There is nothing left of it either. Moving on, we come to the Pozzo di Venere (indicated by the big arrow), the ‘Well of Venus’ where, according to legend, the goddess would take ritual baths. Some prosaically-minded scholars insist it was a granary. But ‘In realtà‘ – (I am translating from the plaque nearby – except for the bit about the scholars being prosaically-minded, I added that) ‘In reality, it was a cistern to collect much-needed water.’
As I walked around, my mind started to wonder. A particularly large break in the wall reminded me of one of the things that drive me crazy when I get back home after a trip to Italy – the contrast between the nanny-state measures our government takes to protect us from our apparent innate irresponsibility and the sometimes alarmingly relaxed approach to hazards in Italy.
What doesn’t require any imagination are the views.
Just to the west of the Norman Castle, almost dangling off the side of the mountain, is a lovely little castle that looks more like the fairy tale castles in the Loire Valley than the pagan ruins and austere Norman castles I’d seen so far. It’s called La Torretta Pepoli (The Little Tower of Pepoli) and was the private study where the 19th century Count Pepoli sought refuge from the distractions and woes of everyday life, much like the French philosopher, Montaigne had done in his chateau in the south-west of France centuries earlier. Following its restoration Pepoli’s study was gifted to the village of Erice with a mandate that is becoming more and more challenging – to promote peace and integration among Mediterranean peoples.
You’d think a place haunted by the ghosts of the goddess of love would be a popular site for weddings. Sure enough, as I followed the path between Pepoli’s Tower and the dome of the church of San Giovanni, a bride came into view.
Once you’ve gone around the perimeter you’ll feel drawn to the centre, a beguiling labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys lined with shops filled with merchandise to tempt all but the most abstemious shopper.
In addition to ceramics – of varying quality – there are shops selling traditional, local delicacies. The most famous – no need to bother looking up the address, just keep a lookout for a big crowd in front of a small shop – is the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. The big draw here is frutta mortorana, an almond-based pastry that is worked, mostly by hand, into remarkably lifelike fruit that is as popular with locals and Italian tourists as with us foreign visitors, but for me, even more tantalizing is the story of how the shop came to be. In ‘Bitter Almonds’ Mary Taylor Simeti tells the compelling, tragic and yet somehow uplifting life story of Maria Grammatico, who in the early 1950’s along with her sister was sent by their impoverished mother to a cloistered orphanage in Erice. Simeti describes in vivid and often disturbing detail the Dickensian life they lived there until, at the age of 22, with no personal possessions and minimum schooling, Maria set out on her own in search of a better life. Simeti, an American, who came to Sicily as a graduation present from her mother – be careful what you give your talented, adventurous offspring as a reward for all their hard work! – married a local from Palermo and stayed. She tells her own story in ‘On Persephone’s Island.’ Definitely a good read for anyone planning to go to Sicily. Or even an armchair traveller.
The tiny hamlet also has an astonishing number of churches. Twelve of them!
I visited a few.
Finally, my stomach, to the great relief of my feet, was giving unmistakable signs that it was l’ora di pranzo. Lunch time. There was a lot of activity at La Pentolaccia, always a good sign. I had a glass of the local white on the little terrace at the entrance to the restaurant while I waited for a table. It was the perfect spot for people watching. From the bits of conversation that drifted up, almost all the passersby were Italian.
Pentolaccia (upside down on the tablecloth below) means battered, old pot. Over the years I’ve had many delicious meals that were prepared in a pentolaccia. In case you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because I was either doing a corso di cucina (cooking class) or I peeked into the kitchen.
On the way back to the cable car station at the western edge of the mountain, as far as possible from the pagan temple, there is one more site worth visiting. Even if you’ve had your fill of churches for the day.
On my first visit to Erice it had started to rain by the time I reached the Cathedral, which confusingly is also known as the Chiesa Matrice (main church), Chiesa della Santa Maria Assunta AND Il Duomo. You may get lucky as I did on my second trip and see Erice under clear blue skies, but given the altitude – 750 metres (almost 2500 ft) above sea level – like Etna after late morning, you are much more likely to encounter clouds or thick fog.
The cathedral’s austere façade reveals its origins as a fortress, commissioned in the early 1300’s by King Federico III of Aragon to defend the area against attack by the Angevins.
But more than the art at eye level it was the ceiling – a frothy concoction in pale yellows and creams – that caught my attention.