If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the island of Sicily, a region of southern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area can be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. And parts of Sicily haven’t yet been discovered by tourists. This article presents western Sicily. A companion article presents eastern Sicily. Another companion article presents Sicily’s capital, Palermo.
We’ll start our western Sicilian tour in Monteale on the Tyrrhenian Sea just west of the capital of Palermo. We’ll work our way east and south to the city of Marsala on the Mediterranean Sea, and then work our way southeast along the Mediterranean Sea to Agrigneto.
Monteale is a city of about thirty thousand inhabitants a few miles southwest of Sicily’s capital Palermo. It is best known for its Duomo (Cathedral), like so many other Sicilian churches, a product of the Norman conquest. This Cathedral was built between 1174 and 1185. According to many the Monteale Duomo is the finest example of Norman architecture in all of Sicily, and believe me there are a lot of competitors.
Would you believe that the interior of this magnificent building contains well over an acre of gold mosaics? Everywhere you look there is plenty to see, for example, the bronze doors contain over forty biblical scenes, while the north door has over forty panels of evangelists and saints. Make sure to visit the nearby cloister surrounded by beautifully decorated glass mosaics. Finish your tour on the belvedere with its magnificent view of the Conca d’Oro (Golden Conch) Valley.
The town of Erice, population under thirty thousand, is about a half mile above sea level. You’ll love its two castles, Pepoli Castle dating from Saracen (Arabic) times and Venus Castle dating from Norman times, built on what some say was the most famous Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. The city contains the remains of walls from the days of the Phoenicians and the little known Elymians, perhaps descendants of the Trojans. Erice is a center for scientific conferences. Capo San Vito is a cape about twenty five miles (forty kilometers) northeast of Erice. It claims to have the most beautiful beach in all of Italy. Every September it holds a five-day international competition for couscous, a North African semolina-based dish.
The abandoned city of Segesta, about an hour’s drive southwest of Sicily’s capital Palermo, is home to one of the best-preserved Greek Temples, built by Elymians under Greek rule around 430 B.C. Legend has it that they built the temple to impress the Athenians of their wealth in order to enlist Athens against a nearby city supported by Siracuse. Once Athen’s envoys Segesta left work on the temple stopped. The temple remains incomplete, but magnificent. Segesta also boasts the ruins of a Greek amphitheater that presents classic Greek theater (in Italian), a Norman castle, and a small church.
The city of Marsala, population approximately eighty thousand, was the major Carthaginian base in Sicily during its wars against Greece and Rome. The city name comes from Arabic for great port or Ali’s port. Marsala played an important role in Italian history as the landing point of Italian national hero Garibaldi’s one thousand red shirt combatants who fought for the reunification of Italy.
Today Marsala brings to mind the wine much loved by the British (and others) for well over two hundred years. Should you visit this city make sure to see the Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi (Baglio Anselmi Archeological Museum) with its warship and artifacts believed to date from the First Punic War in 241 B.C. You may also want to make reservations to visit the Donnafugata Winery in downtown Marsala. Yes, they do give samples. We have now reached the western tip of the island and are heading south and east.
Selinunte was the site of a Greek colony founded in the Seventh Century B. C. This colony prospered for hundreds of years until destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 B. C. Thousands of its inhabitants were slaughtered and most who weren’t killed were enslaved. The city’s seven temples were destroyed; only one has been restored but the ancient market has been excavated.
We end our tour of western Sicily at Agrigento, historic city and site of Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) arguably the finest Greek ruins outside of Greece. The classic Greek poet Pindar called it “the most beautiful city built by mortal men.” Prepare your trip carefully, summers in this part of the world are very, very hot, and while you don’t want to get sick, you don’t want to rush through the site which contains several buildings worth visiting.
Each temple in the Valle dei Templi is unique. We’ll look briefly at five of them, going from west to east. The Tempio di Castore e Polluce (Temple of Castor and Pollux) is a bit of a mess. It was reconstructed well over one hundred years ago by people who didn’t know what they were doing. They slapped together elements from diverse ruins on the site. The Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter) was never completed. At more than 330 feet (about 130 meters) long it was one of the largest Greek temples ever built. The Tempio di Ercole (Temple of Hercules) is the oldest of these temples. It was partially reconstructed over eighty years ago. The Tempio della Concordia (Temple of Concord) is said to be the best-preserved Greek temple on earth. It was converted into a Christian church in the Sixth Century and restored in the Eighteenth Century. Everything is still there except for the roof and the treasury. Not surprisingly, you are not allowed inside but you can appreciate it from a reasonable distance. The Tempio di Giunone (Temple of Juno) has an exceptional view of the valley below. You can still see traces of a fire that occurred more than twenty-four hundred years ago.
Across from the Temple of Castor and Pollux are several small temples that you may want to see as well. The Hellenistic and Roman Quarter consists of four really old streets with mosaic pavements and some Roman house foundations. Right nearby is the Museo Archeologica Regionale (Regional Archeological Museum) with lots of antiquities.
What about food? Sicily’s great food goes back as far as its beautiful buildings and ruins. Every conquest, and there were several, brought new foods to this island. Sometimes new foods such as tomatoes made their way peacefully to Sicilian tables. While it hasn’t exactly taken over, organic food has made major inroads in Sicily. Of all the Italian regions only the neighboring island of Sardinia produces more organic food. Certified Sicilian food products include olives, olive oil, cheese, tomatoes, oranges, table grapes (I prefer them fermented), and pears.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Macco (Fava Bean puree). Then try Involtini alla Siciliana (Meat Roulade stuffed with Salami and Cheese). For dessert indulge yourself with Sgrappino (Whipped Lemon Sherbert with Spumante). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Sicilian wine. Sicily is number one among Italy’s twenty regions when it comes to the acreage devoted to wine grapes and to the total annual wine production. And an independent Sicily would be the world’s seventh largest wine producer. You may be surprised to learn that only slightly more than fifty percent of Sicilian wine is red. Sicily produces nineteen DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Only about 2% of Sicilian wine carries this sometimes prestigious classification. But there are many Sicilian wines without the DOC classification, sometimes by choice.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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