A FAIRY-TALE VIEW
Once upon a time, in a picturesque village perched on an impassable hill, there was an enchanted castle, shrouded in a veil of mist and mystery, which hid a princess or, rather, a goddess... We could go on evoking dragons and blue princes, knights in shining armour, wizards and magic, and the imagination would never cease to suggest fairy tale or One Thousand and One Nights plots. You too, try to take a look at Erice, and suddenly the desire and the instinct to tell a fairy tale will ignite in you, to live a fantastic adventure, to imagine... And maybe, who knows, you might be able to get closer to reality, the historical one, if there is truly one.
Indeed, Erice not only evokes legends but tells them within its history, in the plots that see it as the protagonist of the myth and at the same time of the historical roots of Sicily. A history that saw Erice as the home of the Trojans of Homer and Virgil, of the Arabs and the liberating Normans, of the most beautiful of goddesses and the strongest of giants.
But Erice also tells the history of ordinary men who, despite lacking the strength of giants and the powers of the gods, have the pride, courage and heart of Sicilians. These men have managed to build one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
One of Erice´s icons is its defensive bastion, the Castle of Venus, which stands on the cliff that borders the town and dates back to Norman times. It was built between the XII and XIII centuries over the remains of a primitive temple dedicated to the cult of the goddess Venus. Its favourable position allowed it to prevent every enemy attack from land or sea, giving Erice a considerable strategic advantage.Nothing can hide in the view from the castle walls, neither the plain of Trapani nor the coast of Bonagia to the north and Marsala to the south. Neither Monte Cofano and the strip of land around Cape San Vito nor the splendid Egadi Islands. Neither, when visibility conditions allow it, Mazara del Vallo and the islands of Ustica and Pantelleria on the horizon. In short, a clearly privileged spot.
Pastry-making in Sicily has its roots in the Arab period, but it reaches its maximum expression in the monasteries, remaining intact to the current day. We are not talking about cannoli, cassataor the most traditional baroque sweets, but real gems, confectionery treasures unknown to most people. This tradition has been maintained only in places that have always hosted convents.
Erice had five of them and can therefore be considered one of the most important convent pastry-making centres on the island.Pastry-making art flourished here for centuries. The most important production took place in two convents, those of San Carlo and Santa Teresa.In the kitchens, the cloistered nuns prepared sweets and biscuits from local raw materials: almonds, honey, ricotta cheese, cedar and figs.The recipes, jealously guarded, were prepared on the occasion of events scheduled in the liturgical calendar and were characterised by a strong iconographic connotation and by floral themes in refined coloured glazed decorations.
These delicacies were once sold to customers on the turning lathe, the only system by which the cloistered nuns could interact with the outside world. Today they reign in the windows of Mrs Maria Grammatico´s patisserie.It is thanks to her, who spent her childhood in the convent of San Carlo, that these sweets have become world famous in recent years.Indeed, she stole (a primitive kind of industrial espionage!) some of the convent´s recipes, making them available to everyone and taking them away from the cloister´s secrecy.
Almonds are the main ingredient. They are used to make chocolates with the most varied names, ugly but tasty, meringues, sweets with cedar preserves and liqueur, real masterpieces.Today as yesterday,the liturgical calendar dictates the timing of the dessert preparation: during Easter, an almond sheep-shaped paste is prepared;for the 2nd of November, Frutti Martorana(marzipan) and dried fig-filled biscuits; on June 30th, the so-called St. Peter’s keys (real dough and jam).The dried sponge cakes, tricottior mustazzoli,made with flour and honey, typically flavoured with cloves, are also interesting.
Finally, a place of honour is reserved for the Genovesi, the most recent of the above preparations and one of Erice´s most popular specialities.Genoveseis the smooth union of shortcrust pastry and custard. Always try it warm, freshly baked.
Address: Via Vittorio Emanuele, 14
TRADITION AT YOUR FEET
There is a sacred ritual in the art of weaving, condensed in the respect for slowness.One only needs to look at the meticulous work carried out by the carpet weavers of Erice to understand the precision required in the use of an extremely ancient technique. Nowadays, it is preserved and handed down by just two craftsmen who have a strong family tradition.They are Francesca Vario and Sergio La Sala, both of whom have a workshop in Erice.
Carpet processing consists of slow and patient handwork. The weaving is done on ancient double-row weaving looms.The practice consists of interlacing two groups of threads, inside which a cotton band is inserted to form the weft of the carpet. Almost every family had in Erice a loom within each courtyard. The original intention was to recycle household textile waste to give it a new form and use. Old disused cloth was cut into strips. When a certain amount was available, the loom was set to work to weave carpets, originally plain and unadorned.
The decorative purpose was not the main one. Women in Erice covered the floors of their houses with carpets rather to retain heat and prevent it from dispersing during the harsh Ericean winters.
The succession of geometric forms and the static nature of the images derive from the fact that the two-heddle loom does not allow for much movement.The colours are created by inserting bands of different colours. The white threads that make up the final fringe are called warp.The carpet has a dark background, so the white of the dentino(i.e., the jagged, irregular outline of the design) is often combined with a brightly coloured central part to create a stark contrast.
Nowadays, recycling fabrics from the textile industries is the only way in which Erice weavers can work with coloured fabrics. In the case of Sergio La Sala, sourcing is done by a northern company, which deals with the collection and refining of fabrics.He handles his fabrics with the ability of one who, in the act of weaving, exhumes from time to time the archaic link between slowness and memory.He moulds carpets with his hands using humble fabrics that exude tradition and innovation.
Via Gian Filippo Guarnotti, 42
There are countless corners and details to take pictures of.Wandering through the old town centre of Erice one walks along the picturesque cobbled streets: from the oldest ones consisting only of small cobblestones, to the XIX century ones designed by the engineer Girolamo Varjo and consisting of polished hexagonal slabs framing the stones.The rows of slabs are sometimes made thicker to facilitate the passage of wheeled vehicles.The characteristic vanedde, narrow alleyways, were created for defensive purposes and to contain the strength of the winds.
But the cortileis the most distinctive element in the urban landscape. Its origin in the Mediterranean region is to be found in the Roman house´s peristilium, the Arab court or the Spanish courtyard.
This communal space, often belonging to several families linked by kinship ties, contains the entrance doors, windows and balconies. They bring light and fresh air into the interior rooms. Almost always a staircase leads to the first-floor gallery, with a railing of tufa blocks arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Large corbels support the slabs of the balconies, which usually have an entrance door underneath. Two elements that characterise the area emerge among the plants and flowers, the cultivation of which the ladies of Erice are lovingly devoted to. One is the well, sometimes dug into the rock, and the other is the laundry sink for hand-washing clothes, carved out of a single block of stone. The façade of a house with a courtyard is generally simple, with a predominance of full parts over empty parts. Doors, windows and balconies open mainly on the inside, to ensure the home privacy and the family life intimacy.
Domestic noise rarely reaches the streets. This structure creates a different atmosphere from the typical "southern" context. In fact, in Erice it is difficult to find children playing in the street, clothes hanging from the ropes stretched between external balconies or people sitting and chatting outside the front door. The echo of family life does not reach the outside world; it is filtered by a space that defends it from other people´s eyes. The succession of colours, carnations and peculiar ornaments create a contrast with the greyer atmosphere outside. The fascination of these places is based on these details.
On your walk, you may be lucky enough to find an open doorway and sneak in to discover those beautiful corners. The Antico Borgo, a small tourist apartment complex, gives you the chance to take a nice picture in its courtyard... always open!
Via Gian Filippo Guarnotti, 12
SCIENCE AT STREET LEVEL
Ancient and mighty walls, towers, churches, bell towers, monasteries, cobbled streets, alleys and courtyards adorned with flowers, ceramics and multicoloured carpets displayed in the shops, create a welcoming atmosphere, marked by the slow rhythms of other times.Academics from all over the world work in this setting for a science at the service of humanity and peace, meeting regularly at the "Ettore Majorana" Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture. It was founded in Erice in 1963 by Antonino Zichichi of Trapani and honoured, thirty years later, with the visit of Pope John Paul II.
The prestigious institution is named after an outstanding Italian physicist. Born in Catania in 1906, Ettore Majorana´s open-mindedness and exceptional contributions to theoretical physics led Enrico Fermi to make the following statement:"There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but don´t go very far. There are also people of the first order, who make great discoveries, fundamental to the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Ettore Majorana was one of them.”
Every year since 1963, the authors of new discoveries and inventions come to Erice. 85 of them were awarded the Nobel Prize after their participation in the Ettore Majorana Schools and 49 were already Nobel Prize winners when they started participating in the centre´s activities.These world-leading scientists teach students from all over the world who are eager to receive the latest knowledge directly from the words of their authors.
The Centre is now part of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics and funds the International School of Subnuclear Physics. During the Cold War, scientists from the United States and the Soviet Union met here.
The first nucleus of a new laboratory called ILSEAT (International Laboratory for Scientific Engineering and Advanced Technology) to study planetary emergencies, such as the ozone hole or the greenhouse effect, was also founded in Erice.To date, it also includes 128 schools covering all fields of modern scientific research. The Centre is located in the historic centre, where four restored monasteries (one of which was the Sicilian Viceroy´s residence during the 14thand 15th centuries) offer a suitable environment for high intellectual endeavour.These ancient buildings now bear the names of great scientists and strong supporters of the "Ettore Majorana" Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture.
The convent of San Francesco is now the Eugene P. Wigner Institute with the Enrico Fermi classroom; the convent of San Domenico is now the Patrick M.S. Blackett Institute with the Paul A.M. Dirac and Daniel Chalonge classrooms;the convent of San Rocco is now the Isidor I. Rabi Institute with the Richard P. Feynman classroom, the Seismic Pole, the first world network of seismometers (1981), the Directorate and the Secretariat of the Centre;and the Cyclops is now the Victor F. Weisskopf Institute with the John S. Bell and Richard H. Dalitz classrooms.
Via Gian Filippo Guarnotti, 26
BELLS UP TO HEAVEN
To arrive at Erice from Trapani visitors must climb up along a steep, winding road.From the summit you can enjoy a wide panoramic view, but nothing compared to the top of the mother church´s bell tower.It is located on the left as soon as you cross Porta Trapani, the main entrance to the historic centre.
The Matrice, the mother church, was built in the early decades of the 14thcentury.The merlon crowning that adorns the façade is a reminder that the Royal Duomo, dedicated to the Assumption, was built by the will of a sovereign, King Frederick III of Aragon.It was consecrated for worship in 1339 and ultimately completed in 1372.
Originally, according to tradition, the site where the sacred building was erectedwas the same as the one of the chapel of the Virgin of the Assumption. It was the first Christian building erected in Erice in the 4thcentury AD, at the behest of Emperor Constantine.After a collapse of the srtructre, restoration work began in 1852, radically changing the interior to the current neo-Gothic style, while the exterior façade remained as it was.
The bell tower, an impressive viewpoint which features can be clearly seen from afar, grants the opportunity to climb even higher.It was built as a watchtower in 1290 by order of King Frederick III of Aragon, before the construction of the church. The tower is separated from the church and it is 26 metres high.Together, the two bodies delimit two sides of the cemetery, which consists of a raised floor connected by a staircase to the roadway.The whole system of spaces, rich and well-structured, lends monumentality to the ensemble.
Inside the tower, the three barrel-vaulted rooms were the Inquisition prison for many centuries. The magnificent view from above ranges from the green spaces to the urbanised valley...Even the aerials of the research centre dedicated to Ettore Majorana, a poke in the eye or a necessary evil depending on one´ s point of view.
The temptation to toll the bells is strong despite a sign expressly forbidding it. Better to turn around and embrace the rooftops of the city with your eyes.But you will have to climb 110 steps...visitors will not regret it!
A LIGHTHOUSE FOR PEACE
Perched 750 metres above sea level, under the medieval towers of the Balio garden, the Torretta Pepoli is the headquarters of the "Permanent Observatory of Peace", also nicknamed the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean".
The curious building is the result of an extraordinary artistic sensibility demonstrated by the person who wanted it to be built, planned and realised:the erudite patron and aesthete Agostino Pepoli.
In 1870, the aristocrat from Trapani conceived his own personal refuge immersed in silence, a place for meditation, but also for receiving friends and nurturing dialogue for men of genius and with artistic and literary acumen.
The structure is divided into four levels and consists of small rooms, vertiginous windows and steep staircases, following the Modern Style guidelines.
The architectural complex is the harmonious result of different geometric forms: a parallelepipedtopped by two squared towers, a cube corresponding to the entrance, and a cylinder crowned with merlons.The latter, completely covered with stained-glass windows, is decorated with black and white ceramic tiles that recall the heraldic count´s family coat of arms.
Torretta Pepoli is much more than a simple small tower. It is an architectural structure that, within the sharp rocks of the mountain, smiles at the sea and stands out for its elegance.
The close connection between the natural element, the rock, and the building itself is evident, and reveals a sensibility that recalls the classical Greek architecture.
Thanks to thorough refurbishment and restauration, the tower has been returned to its former splendour. That restoration has brought out its square but sinuous lines and its marble-like appearance, which emphasises its graceful monumental stance.
It is a place of mystery, enchantment and historical memory that is linked to the very identity of Erice. It projects the visitor into a dimension oscillating between myth and legend.Today the building houses an interactive museum. Through the use of digital technologies and Count Pepoli´s narrating voice, it is possible to relive the culture, traditions and history of the people who made a significant mark on Erice.
The recording booth is equipped with an efficient internet system that allows heads of state and governments from all over the world, but also young people and passing visitors, to declare commitments and intentions to promote peace in the Mediterranean.
The "Peace Observatory´s" task is carried out through intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Its main focus is on current international and Mediterranean problems, with the aim of seeking future peace and integration opportunities. All this through a cooperation process involving the different cultures and religions in the Mediterranean.
Consequently, the visitor can a small jewel in pleasant contrast between the nostalgic atmosphere that embraces the imposing walls and the more daring languages of contemporaneity. Visitors will also find this small jewel that has been forgotten for too long and has been brought back to life today. However, now it is able to offer a sensory and almost unique experience.
Nowadays, in a beautiful contrast in between the nostalgic atmosphere that envelops the imposing walls and the adventurous languages carved on them, visitors can find a small jewel that has been forgotten for too long in time. Today however, revitalised and ready for visitors to enjoy an unique sensory experience. Address: Largo Castello
MORE THAN STONES
Erice offers several ideas for unique walks through history and nature that can generate strong impressions.Visiting the medieval village, with its cobbled streets and numerous bell towers rising up to the sky.It is also possible to immerse oneself in the green lung that crowns the top of the mountain that once belonged to the goddess Venus. It is a true corner of paradise, with its quietness and aura of mystery that impregnates every corner in this enchanted place.
A real dip into the past, amidst the grandeur of the ancient walls, where the many myths and legends of the past and the breath of the ancient forest still echo.
The route starts practically at the entrance of the town, near Porta Trapani, right in front of theMatrice, the imposing and marvellous cathedral of Erice with its bell tower that offers a unique panoramic view.The route follows the ancient walls inside the historic centre, walking along Via Rabata and arriving at Porta Carmine.
It is a truly unique route, which alternates immersions in the green of centuries-old trees and the grey of the millenary wall, which winds along a 600-metre-long path. The limestone wall was built in the 8thcentury BC by the Elimi, a people with an unknown origin.Later, in the 6thcentury BC, it was reinforced by the Phoenicians and, after renovations in Roman times, it was completed by the Normans.
The limestone blocks from the Elymian period that form the base, left in their natural state, stand out for their size. On top of them there are rows of well-squared ashlars, similar to each other, from the Phoenician-Punic period.On the upper levels, the construction continues with other medieval rows of small, irregularly shaped stones bound together with mortar. They are defined as cyclopean because of their gigantic dimensions.The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that Daedalus was the first builder of these walls.
Along the wall there are several posterns, small gates that were used as emergency exits or for food supplies, six of which are still well preserved.Letters of the Punic alphabet are engraved upon one of them: ´Beth´ for home, ´Ain´ for eye, ´Phe´ for mouth.The presence of these letters confirms, from a chronological point of view, the Phoenician intervention and could refer to the following message:"Walls have eyes to watch the enemy, a mouth to eat him in case of aggression and are the safe home for the inhabitants".
Erice´s position has made it a meeting and confrontation point for many peoples: Elemi, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normans with their respective cultures and political, religious, architectural and technological traditions.The ancient walls are a perfect synthesis of this mixed cultural matrix.The foundations are very deep, in some places more than two metres. Some of the blocks still bear mysterious Punic letters, the meaning of which has been the subject of various hypotheses.Over the centuries, the construction phases have seen continuous re-constructions and overlaps.That is why it is difficult to understand the construction technique and the actual chronology. Following its perimeter is like a journey through history.
STILLNESS AMONG ELVES
The Balio, the charming public garden of Erice, can be considered a true natural monument due to its incomparable landscape and environmental beauty. Time seems to stand still here. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere seems to transport the visitor back in time, giving free room to the imagination to chase stories and magical creatures.
The name Balio derives from the ancient fortress, built in Norman times as the residence of the Balivo. He was the magistrate who, by royal appointment, represented the local authority, administering civil and criminal justice and collecting taxes.But let´s go back in time to learn a little more about the history of this wonderful and acclaimed place.
In the second half of the XIX century, the young Agostino Pepoli, a noble sponsor and patron descended from the Bolognese family of Sieri Pepoli, arrived in Erice.Having fallen in love with the city, he was saddened to see many places and monuments in bad condition and abandoned, so he could not remain inert and impassive in view of all this.Inspired by his natural generosity, characteristic of his family, he did not hesitate to invest his money in the construction of important and magnificent public works, deciding to appeal to the local authorities in order to do something about it.On November 29th 1871, he sent a letter to the mayor of Erice in which he expressed his desire to restore the space next to the Castle of Venus to its former splendour.The contract was signed in 1872 and the following year the works began, directed by Pepoli himself and executed by local workforce.The count´s intention was to transform this immense property into an English garden lined with pine, walnut, almond and other fruit trees, and anything else that could take root on these steep slopes. The result... astonishing!
The Balio contains several panoramic points with flowerbeds surrounded by thick hedges of secular box and typical Mediterranean scrub species. On the south side, embrace Trapani, the salt marshes, the Egadi islands, the Stagnone lagoon and the coast of Marsala. On the opposite side they overlook the summit of Mount Cofano and the Zingaro Mountains.The garden, with the turret built by Pepoli on the northwest side of the castle cliff, are considered symbols of Erice.
Piazza San Giovanni
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