High up in a mountainous area towards the west of Sicily is the beautiful and frankly magical Segesta archaeological complex. Segesta was originally founded by the Elymian people, one of the native people of Sicily. They later integrated with the Greeks, making Segesta an important Classical town. It was later ruled by the Romans, but declined in importance before being finally abandoned in around the thirteenth century.
The 5th century BC Doric temple is truly magnificent as it rises out of the landscape, its golden stone reflecting and almost radiating light on a sunny day. Though never completed (it has always been roofless) it is one of the best-preserved examples of a Greek temple, and so for the ancient history or archaeology fan, it is unmissable.
A short, albeit steep, walk from the temple takes you to the Greek (and later Roman) theatre, a open amphitheatre where in the summer Greek plays are staged. There is a shuttle bus up the hill, but the views are so stunning that if you can manage it, walk! It is set on top of a stunning mountain plateau and you can see for miles over the valleys below.
As the site of an ancient and important town which was only abandoned in the Middle Ages, Segesta also boasts the archaeological remains of many other times and cultures. There are the ruins of a Norman castle, a small church and a mosque.
Erice, known to its Elymian founders and later to the Greeks, as Eryx, sits at 751 meters (2500 feet) on Monte San Giuliani overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare and the city of Trapani, on Sicily's western coast. The views, to use a much travestied phrase, are utterly spectacular!
In the summer months, Erice, whose overall shape is an equilateral triangle is hot hot hot, but during winter, the town can become shrouded in disorienting and dreamlike fogs. Beautiful in either case.
Erice's history closely follows that of Trapani, so we need not take time to revisit the subject again. So, let's take a look around and discover what there is to be experienced in the here and now, with some reference to origins when necessary.
To get to Erice from Trapani, take the cable car (and rouse your heart), or drive up the via Vito Carvini. At the Porta Trapani you will encounter the Duomo (Cathedral), the Chiesa Matrice, built between 1313 and 1332, beside which sits a striking campanile (bell tower). The cathedral, with a Gothic arch door, large rose window, two rows of mullioned windows and crowned by merlons, is is largely of the Gothic style. A "porch" with a quartet of ogival arches was added in 1426. The Gothic interior, with three aisles, is equally impressive.
Unlike Trapani which was rebuilt after World War II bombings destroyed much of the city, Erice retains a wonderful medieval ambiance, with a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, a number of old churches, 60 or so in fact, including the original Orthodox Church of Saint John the Baptist, the Church of the Madonna, and the Church of Saint Ursula, mostly built in the 15th century, and various public buildings and private villi.
At the center of town, in the center of the equilateral triangle which it comprises, is the Church of St. Peter and adjacent monastery. The complex also houses the E. Majorana Centre for Culture and Science. Every year, important scientific conferences organized by Antonio Zichichi are held in Erice.
Museum goers should make time for a visit to the Cordici Civic Museum in Piazza Umberto I where a number of artifacts from Phoenecian, Greek, Carthiginian and Roman times are on display.
The ruin of the Greek Temple of Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) was allegedly founded by Aeneas, but that of course, is more mythology than history. It was known throughout the ancient Mediterranean world for its beauty and because it was home to a notorious Venus cult whose practices spread far and wide.
In the north eastern part of the town you will find walls built by the Elymians and Phoenecians over 3,000 years ago. Overlooking the city are the Castello Pepoli, built in the days of the Saracens, and the Castello di Venere (Venus again), built, to make a point no doubt, by the Normans on top of another Temple of Venus. Surrounding the Castello di Venere, built in the 12th Century, and the Torri di Ballo are the sweet and quiet public gardens, the Giardiani del Ballo. Climb the castle ramparts or tower and on a clear day you will see Monte Cofano, the city of Trapani and the nearby Egadi Islands, and perhaps Pantelleria or Cap Bon, which is in Tunisia about 170 km away.
One can not visit Erice for less than a few hours, so it is likely that lunch or dinner, or both, are in the offing. There are a number of good restaurants in the town, but look for one that serves up the area specialties, fish and cous cous.
We can not leave Erice without making a solid recommendation for one last delightful turn: literary and culinary fans, particularly those blessed with a sweet tooth, will love Pasticceria Grammatico, with its amazing and molto artistico pastries. The shop is owned by Maria Grammatico, and ex-nun whose life story was told in the book Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti.
By Jesse Andrews, October 15th, 2005