If you don’t have a car or don’t want to rent one, getting to Erice, this medieval city high above Trapani, is not easy.
Information on trains and buses is scant, whether in person or on the Internet and the schedules set for the locals, a fact that was confirmed to us again and again for other places we wanted to get to, maybe because October is getting to be outside the tourist season.
From Palermo you must first get to Trapani on the Northwest Coast of Sicily then find your way to Erice. The train to Trapani takes 3 hours (with either a train or a bus transfer). The bus (from the Segesta company, taken from Politeama square) takes two hours. In Trapani, I’d found out we needed to disembark at the autostazione near the train station. Good thing I asked the bus driver. He let us off on the corner then pointed us in a somewhat vague direction that led us to the train station (where, perversely, they don’t sell any other tickets than the train, and most of the time the biglietteria is closed) and a small bar indicating “bus tickets,” with no indication for what type (perversely again, return tickets to Palermo cannot be bought there and, when directed to the right place, it was closed). Upon request, the man at the cash confirmed that, indeed, we could buy bus tickets for Erice.
Trapani also has a “funivia” (cable car) going to the top to Erice but I couldn’t find any indication of how to get there (there are no signs in town that I could see, certainly not from the train station) and the distance is too great to walk. And, of course, there were no taxis on the horizon. After more than a half hour wait, the bus arrives, late. It goes through Trapani and starts climbing toward Valderice, the small town at the foot of the 700m mountain where Erice is perched.
The road is one hairpin curve after another and we marvel at the skill of the driver. Going up, he drives at least 40-50km an hour and barely slows into the curves. The view is amazing (the hillside parapet is very low) and sometimes we seem to hang above the valley, as if we were in a plane. The day is brilliantly clear and you can see very far. On the horizon there are other mountains, even higher, that remind us Sicily is a country of peaks and more peaks.
When we arrive at Erice, we notice right away the drop in temperature. We left 26C in Trapani for about 22C on the mountain. The wind is also strong and chilly.
Erice, perched on Monte Giuliano has its origins around the Goddess Venus Erycina, where a temple was first erected and onto which the castello was built (one section of which is called after her name to remember her role is the establishment of this stronghold). The city has preserved its medieval character with its thick walls, its stone roads, its houses with decorated portals and ornate balconies, and its many churches fronted by large piazzas. Cleverly, the townspeople have converted many of these churches into cultural centers or museums, thus preserving their history instead of letting them crumble due to lack of funds.
The Chiesa Matrice is one of the most important sites of the town and was the first church built there, dating from the 1100s. Although its interior was renovated many times and very little remains of the original, the outside, with its campanile separate from the church proper is as it was.
Walking through Erice, the sense of fortifications is strengthened. It is a maze of small streets, often leading to dead-ends, some so narrow only one person can pass through at a time. We could easily see invaders walking in there in single file and being massacred coming out at the other end.
I’ve already mentioned the light, but it’s worth doing so again. It is so brilliant here, perhaps due to the altitude, and every building, every wall reflects it and its almost blinding, even when we look down at Trapani and its salt flats. A bit further out to sea we can see the Egadi Islands and can almost glimpse the coast of Tunisia.
Although the city is axed toward tourism, they has succeeded in avoiding tacky and kitsch. The restaurants and local shops and integrated into the architecture and do not clash with the period. People here are kind and smiling and very helpful.
We’re also reminded that, as old as these buildings are, there are still “real” people living in Erice. Instead of taking the usual route directly into the center of town, we started walking along the fortified walls, a quiet road that not only gave us a better idea of the city’s fortifications but also of how regular people live when we could peek into their yards.
We made our way through the back to the quartiere spagnolo, which offer amazing vistas of the valley, to the castello, where a wedding cortège was just coming out, further proof that this is a living town and not just a piece of history.
A charming town that allowed us to plunge into a medieval atmosphere for a few hours.