Frozen in Time: The Towering Town of Erice
Perched above the western coast of Sicily in the Province of Trapani, at almost 2,500 feet above sea level is the town of Erice. Situated only one mile from the coast, it appears as though you are looking straight up to see the town. While in Trapani, the Publisher’s Tour made a journey to this ancient mountaintop town. The winding drive takes far longer to accomplish than if one could travel as the crow flies, but the ascent to Erice can also be accomplished by cable car, where, in addition to glorious views, the guests on the Publisher’s Tour found themselves in a wonderfully preserved medieval town imbued with an enormous sense of history.
Triangular in shape, the town was dedicated to the ancient god Aphrodite, also known as Venus. Originally built by the Elymians, a Bronze Age people who inhabited Sicily before the Greeks arrived, Erice, or Eryx as it was first called, was a town of importance and renown and said to have attracted mythological figures such as Hercules and Aeneas.
Not surprisingly, the town’s lofty perch provided a natural defensive position in times of conflict, but today affords unlimited views of the sea and the coast. On a cloudless day, the Egadi Islands off the coast of Trapani rise from the sea, revealing its picturesque crescent beach and salt pans lapped by the Mediterranean. To the north, the slopes of another isolated peak, Monte Cofano, seems to change colors throughout the day as the limestone slopes reflect the colors of the Tyrrhenian Sea below.
As is the case in many Sicilian towns, Erice has retained remnants of the many cultures that have invaded the island, yet throughout the ages, the essential character of the town has remained, resisting any attempt to change its true uniquely Sicilian identity.
The town was described as early as the fourth century BC by Thucydides, who wrote of the historic sea battle that took place in 406 BC between fleets of Carthage and Syracuse. Later, during the First Punic War, the town fell to the Carthaginians, where its general, Hamilcar, held the town for six years until it was restored to Roman rule in 241 BC.
Today, Erice’s narrow, winding cobbled streets and alleys cut between stone houses, churches and courtyard walls, leading to small stone piazzas. As the travelers walked the streets, each could see where the cobblestones had been worn smooth by the foot traffic of countless people. Among the most visited sites in the town are its two castles, Torretta Pepoli and Castello di Venere (Venus Castle). The latter was built by the Normans in the 12th century. The castle borrows its name from the temple of Venus Eryx that was located on the same site. Some seven centuries later, Count Agostino Pepoli had the structure restored and also created a beautiful garden, which has since become one of the symbols of the town. The Count also constructed the Torretta Pepoli, a small liberty-style villa/castle built in 1870. The building fell into disrepair during the postwar years, but now, after a long period of restoration, the Torretta is resplendent and looks as magnificent as it did when the Count used it as his personal retreat 150 years ago.
It was impossible for the travelers to miss the many different architectural styles found within the buildings in Erice, especially notable in its churches. The Sicilian art form that evolved through the Middle Ages effectively blended multiple styles and embellishments, incorporating Byzantine alongside Gothic and Romanesque. Later, Baroque was added to the interior of the most important churches, as renovations to the structures became necessary. All four of these influence s were seen in Chiesa Matrice, which dates to 1314. It was originally built by King Frederick of Aragon, but it also had a defensive purpose. From the bell tower, it was possible for the King’s soldiers to monitor the surrounding area and the plains at the foot of Mount Erice. It is the town’s cathedral and is one of sixty churches in this small town.
Erice’s culinary distinction lies in its sweets, which are also engrained in its history. In addition to its many churches, Erice was home to numerous monasteries and convents. Nuns in the convents painstakingly made marzipan and other confections to support themselves. The convents are now closed, but their legacy still exists in the town’s pastry shops that rely upon the recipes they developed. They have since passed into the hands of families who still make the confectionary in the traditional way, with marzipan fruits piled high in quaint shop windows. Handcrafted and delicious, the marzipan today serves to reinforce the beauty of a town where its charm and remote perch make the ascent seem more like a pilgrimage than a tourist stop.