On the hour-long drive across western Sicily from the airport at Palermo to the old wine port of Marsala, the fields are of waving grain, the sea is the Mediterranean, and the small road we turn off on takes us to an ancient Greek temple.
Western Sicily is historically Mafia territory, but there is nothing in the scenery that reminds me of Michael Corleone’s movie trip back here, except for the stack of paperback editions of The Godfather sandwiched between T-shirts and bottled water at a tourist stand outside the temple. Nowadays, the region is quite peaceful and visitor-friendly. As one guidebook cheerfully puts it, the Mafia may still kill people here, just not tourists.
Western Sicily is indeed a delightful place to spend a week or a few days exploring Sicilian cuisine, living the seashore resort life, visiting world-class wineries, exploring Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, poking around medieval towns and even taking day trips to smaller islands just off coast.
Marsala is a wine town steeped in history. It was first put on the culinary map by the British, a thirsty group if there ever was one. The English developed wine industries in several countries, then named their drinks after the geographic origins—Bordeaux, Madeira, Sherry (Jerez), Port (Oporto) and Hock (Hochheim). Marsala’s turn came in 1753 when John Woodhouse set up camp and started the wine business that still exists today, although in diminished form: Madeira sweet and dry fortified wines. If you cook, you probably have a bottle of Marsala
aging in your pantry.
The fortified wine business has shrunk during the past 50 years—there are abandoned warehouses along part of the waterfront—but the table wine industry has flourished, getting worldwide recognition since the turn of this century.
As Marsala is on the westernmost part of the huge island, it is also where invaders through the centuries often came ashore. In modern times, that means by Garibaldi in 1860 in his march to unify Italy and by the Americans during World War II, when they bombarded the city before coming ashore during the invasion of southern Europe.
Marsala as headquarters
The Hotel Carmine is a small, modern hotel with a central location at the edge of the main walking and shopping venue and a couple of blocks away from the Mediterranean. There are a couple dozen restaurants nearby, especially along the main walking thoroughfare, Via XI Maggio, where outdoor restaurants flourish.
As this is Sicily, seafood reigns. Specialties include busiate alla trapanese con aragosta, a lobster and pasta dish; bottarga, compressed tuna eggs that can be shaved or grated on everything from eggs to pasta; coucous from locally grown semolina; prawns; eggplant parmigiana;
panelle, fried or baked chickpea fritters often purchased from street vendors as a snack, and anything with a marsala sauce.
The salt pans a few miles away between Marsala and Trapani is a must-see food venue. Vast lagoons are pumped full of sea water using ancient windmills that are also necessary to grind the collected salt. Visitors can view everything close up; photo ops of the lagoons and windmills when the sun is setting can be spectacular.
There are many wineries to visit in the city and the nearby countryside, but if your time or interest is limited, go to the Florio winery for
traditional Marsala and Donnafugata for table wines. Donnafugata is a tradition-based but thoroughly modern winery whose bottles are available once you return to the states. Their wine tour is informative, and you can sample wines from local grape varieties such Nero d’Avola, Grillo and Cattarratto while nibbling local appetizers.
Antiquities and medieval towns
The archaeological museum Baglio Anselmi, housed in two old wine warehouses, features a famous Punic warship and is within walking distance of the hotel, as are the Madre d’Marsala church and fascinating city gates that survived the American bombing.
Nearby is Segesta, an ancient town built by the Trojans and still not totally excavated. Another must-see is the medieval town of Erice, with its 14th-century duomo, on a precipice overlooking the sea.
The two most prominent resorts are the Blu Hotels’ Giardino di Costanza at Mazara dell Vallo on the coast southeast of Marsala and Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort, also along the same coast at Agrigento. This one is sports oriented with its own golf course.
Sicilians like to escape to the more-intimate Egadi Islands, visible from the Marsala shoreline and accessible by ferry—ideal for daytripping. You can explore, soak up the sun at the beaches or go scuba diving, especially at Favignana.
More distant but just a few minutes by plane from the airport at Trapani lies Pantelleria, just off the coast of Africa. There are three reasons to go there: to experience its ancient mix of cultures and its stunning scenery with Irish look-alike stone walls; to see where the marvelous passito, a natural dessert wine made from raisins, is made; and to hang out at its small resort, Club Levante, that clings to a craggy cliff with fabulous views and excellent cuisine.
Going and Coming
The roads are well maintained and well marked if you’re renting a car. The most flights to Rome and other major cities are from Palermo, but there is also the small airport at Trapani, which has flights that connect directly with Rome. Western Sicily will make you an offer you simply can’t refuse.