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The Wondrous West: Western Sicily’s Highlights

Segesta Greek Temple in Sicily | Reasons to visit Sicily

From the vibrant bazaar-like markets of Palermo to the white sandy beach of San Vito Lo Capo, we explore the wondrous wild west of Sicily.

Eastern Sicily often steals the spotlight, with its grand Baroque architecture in Catania, the beautiful panoramic vistas of Taormina and the mysteriousness of Mount Etna.

While Sicily doesn’t appear to be particularly large on the world map, when you visit, you can easily forget your on an island, let alone the largest island in the Mediterranean. At 25,711 square kilometers (9,927 square miles) Sicily is only slightly larger than Wales in the United Kingdom. There is more to see in Wales than Cardiff and Snowdonia, and the same applies to Sicily. So this year we threw caution to the wind and set out to explore Western Sicily, an area often left out of traveler’s itineraries, and an area that even Leo and his family (native Sicilians) had never been to before.

Western Sicily has opened up a lot over the past few years, especially since the introduction of cheap direct flights to Trapani and Palermo from London. Travelers seeking to escape the crowds will find solitude in Western Sicily, with an array of culture, history, and cuisine that differs greatly from the East. Sicily’s close proximity to Africa is felt more strongly in the west, with Moorish influences seen not only in Arab-Norman churches in the region’s capital of Palermo but in the local food and throughout Sicilian cuisine.

There is much to see and do (and eat) in Western Sicily, and during our week in the region, we barely touched the surface, but here are a few of our top experiences and highlights:

SCOPELLO- Sicily’s best-kept secret

Tonnara Scopello Sicily

If avoiding tourist hot spots is your priority, then the tiny fishing hamlet of Scopello should be high on your list of places to visit in Sicily. This ancient village can be found in Sicily’s northwest corner on a peninsula famous for its idyllic beaches. While the town itself doesn’t have many drawing points, most visitors who come to Scopello come to see its inimitable nature and picturesque hamlet set against a backdrop of craggy rocks and cliffs.

Beach lovers will enjoy bathing in the warm crystal clear waters of which this area of Sicily is famous for. Along with the stunning rocky stacks that rise out of the sea, Scopello’s bay is picture postcard perfect. There is also a historic tuna fishery (“La Tonnara di Scopello“). The fishermen have long gone and the tonnara remains now as bed and breakfast and fascinating reminder of the strong links Scopello has with the sea and the historic fishermen’s village further up the hill.

RISERVA NATURALE DELLO ZINGARO

Situated west of Castellammare del Golfo the rugged coastline lies the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, a wonderful unspoiled nature reserve that runs for 7km from Scopello to near San Vito Lo Capo. Overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Lo Zingaro is home to some fascinating fauna and fauna as well as some fantastic bird life and protected animals. Choose a hiking trail and enjoy breath-taking viewpoints over mountain tops, secluded beaches, and crystal clear waters. If you’re lucky you may even spot eagles, peregrine falcons, and kestrels circling above.

Note: We were unable to visit the reserve during our visit due to summer forest fires so if you are traveling to the area in the summer, this is something you should look out for.

SAN VITO LO CAPO

No need to travel to the Caribbean for a tropical holiday, for San Vito lo Capo’s three-kilometer white-sandy beach and its transparent warm waters are just as good. This stunning beach is one of the most famous in all of Sicily and is often found plastered across marketing materials for the region. Located at the base of Mount Cofano, the town comes to life during the summer as one of the most visited beach resorts in Italy. While its beach is its most famous feature, many people also come to San Vito lo Capo to try its famous Cous Cous. The dish is so famous here that an annual cous cous festival is held every year in September!

What is Cous Cous?

Cous Cous – small steamed balls of semolina which arrived here from North Africa (maybe due to the Sirocco wind?) served with succulent fish soups, vegetables or various meats.  San Vito is the seat of the Couscous Fest an international festival dedicated to this dish and to the meeting of different cultures.

ERICE

View over Erice from the Chiesa Matrice Bell Tower

Perched on top of Monte San Giuliano, Erice is one of the most picturesque towns in Sicily. Towering over Trapani at the height of 750 meters, this charming ancient town has preserved its medieval character, with some impressive city walls and beautiful (but slippery) stone paved streets framed by stone houses and numerous churches. Getting to Erice is half the fun, either by the winding mountain road by car or by cable car – but start early. Ascend the mountain too late in the day, and the town becomes engulfed in clouds and you won’t be able to enjoy the stunning view over the bay and Egadi Islands below.

Top sights include the Castello Pepoli e Venere, a Norman built castle built over the ruins of an ancient ruin of the Temple of Venus Erycina. You may also want to visit the Chiesa Matrice (Erice’s Duomo), known for its breath-taking white interior and elaborate vaulted ceiling carvings. Make sure you save time to climb the tower and enjoy the view over Erice’s rooftops, but time it right – or you’ll be deafened by the hourly ringing of the tower bells.

MARSALA

Built on the ruins of the ancient Punic village of Lilybaeum, Marsala is one of Sicily’s most pleasant baroque towns. Many know of its sweet dessert wines, but few are aware of its charming town and even less visit it. Its present-day name derives from the Arabic name, Mars’Allah (God’s Port in Arabic). A clue in the name reminds us of how important this strategically placed town was in the past. However, at the end of the eighteenth century, a visit from an Englishman named John Woodhouse would change the history of Marsala forever. Having discovered the delicious wine, the Englishman from Liverpool began exporting the fortified wine to England. And this, this was the beginning of the infamous Marsala wine.

Visit Marsala today and you’ll find a relaxed city, paved in gleaming marble and dotted with some beautiful Baroque architecture. Spend time here wandering the pedestrian-friendly old town or take a tour of one of the wineries – we recommend the Florio cellars. You may also want to stop by the piazza in front of the Duomo (Cathedral), which is dedicated to St. Thomas Becket (see – wine isn’t the only English connection!).

SEGESTA

Segesta Greek Temple in Sicily | Reasons to visit Sicily

Outside of Greece, Sicily has some of the best preserved Greek archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. Most visitors to the island head to Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, but Western Sicily is home to numerous Greek remains with Segesta being one of the top sights. Located an hour from Trapani and Palermo, Segesta is an ancient abandoned city with much to explore. As you approach Segesta from the highway the first thing you’ll spot are the 36 magnificent columns of the Doric Temple. Built in the 5th century BC, it miraculously survived numerous ravages and millennia of invasions.

There is also a rather spectacular Greek theatre. Dating back to around the 4th Century BC it has one of the best backdrops of any Greek theatre we have ever seen. While little remains of the stage, you can walk freely around the semicircle where you can sit and admire the view over the valley and out to sea.

TOP TIP: There is a bus that takes you from the Temple to the Theatre. For those who have trouble walking, take the bus. The walk up is approximately 20-25 minutes and in the heat of July/August, about halfway up you’ll begin to wish you’d paid the extra few euros for the bus. Trust us! We walked!

PALERMO

Capella Palatina in Palermo Sicily, one of the city’s top sights and a definite must see!

Palermo, located on the north coast of Sicily is the island’s capital and one of the most diverse and enthralling cities we have ever visited in Italy. It is a raw and rugged city full of history and cultural sights waiting to be discovered. Unlike other Italian cities, you have to really search for Palermo’s top sights, which aren’t immediately obvious as you walk around its buzzing streets and soak-style markets. The main street (Corso Vittorio Emanuele) will be the main navigational street for many tourists, as most of the top sights can be found just off this main street. We suggest arriving early and heading straight to the Capella Palatina located next to the Porta Nuova (Main Gate Entrance). From there it is an easy stroll to Palermo’s Cathedral. Continue down the main street and you’ll eventually reach the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) marking the beginning of Palermo’s historical district.

TOP TIP: Parking in Palermo is very difficult and can waste a lot of your time if you’re visiting as a day trip. Good places to find free parking are near Piazza Marina or Foro Italico (but avoid Saturdays). Alternatively, there are numerous car parks around the city (we suggest Piazza Ungheria for €1.50 Euro per hour) or finding a blue lined parking space for €1 an hour.

MONREALE

Exterior of Monreale Cathedral Sicily Italy

With its hilltop location, the small historic town of Monreale (from the Latin “Mons Regalis” literally ‘Royal Mountain’) is the perfect place to head for a short day trip from Palermo. Its panoramic views over Palermo and the Conca D’Oro (Golden Valley) alone, make this place worth visiting but its Duomo (Cathedral) will surely impress. Highly recognized as one of the world’s most stunning architectural treasures. the cathedral is the greatest Normal building in all of Sicily and more than just your “average church”. The highlight of the cathedral is the incredible Byzantine mosaic work that covers over 68,000 square feet of the interior. We urge you to not rush your visit here. Stand in the apse, above the altar, and admire the craftsmanship that went into creating the image of Christ Pantocrator, draped in a blue robe, his hand raised in blessing. You may also want to venture up to the roof terrace for views over the beautiful cloister and a sweeping panorama of the valley. When you are finished admiring the Duomo, the town of Monreale is a delight to wander around especially at dusk, when the place comes to life.

SELINUNTE

Similiar to Agrigento and Segesta, Selinunte is one of Sicily’s top archeological sites. Situated on the south-western corner of Sicily, these isolated ruins have withstood the test of time and have laid abandoned for most of their history. Beautifully located high above the sea, Selinunte is one of the supreme examples of Phoenician and Greek culture and a must visit for anyone interested in Greek history. The archeological site is huge and requires most of the day to visit all of the temples and ruins. There is a small electric ‘train’ which runs around the site, so if you have mobility problems or a rushed schedule, this might be worth paying for, although it’s much more enjoyable to wander around the site at your own pace and find moments of solitude among the ruins.

Top Tip: Selinunte is free for EU visitors over 65 or under 18, and reduced for 18-25-year-olds. ID is required as proof of age.

TRAPANI

Trapani City Center Western Sicily

Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Trapani

Gateway to the Egadi Islands and a hub for many who come to explore Western Sicily, Trapani is an impressive city that was once one of the most important towns in the region. In ancient times, Trapani was the main port for the hilltop town of Erice, and in the 1700s it was an important spot for tuna fishing. Centuries later the city still relies on major tuna exports as well as coral and salt. In fact, for many tourists, the nearby salt marshes are among one of the main reasons to visit Trapani.

The regions long periods of sunshine and impermeable lands made the marshes very productive for salt exports. Today you’ll see vast saltpans dotted with picturesque red-roofed windmills, that were once used to pump seawater. At Nubia, there’s a museum with a restored windmill, (Salt March Museum) and in the summer you can still watch workers in wellies and sunhats harvesting the salt with wheelbarrows.

Venture into the city center and you’ll find a range of beautiful Baroque and Renaissance architecture and grand buildings that were lovingly restored after much of the city was damaged in World War 2.

TOP TIP: Avoid the heat of midday and either visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Visit in the morning and you can then take the cable car to Erice from Via Capua, 4, 91016 Casa Santa TP, Italy

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Samantha Hussey Barbagallo
Samantha Hussey Barbagallo

What started out as a temporary job in a travel agency, Samantha has now traveled to over 29 countries and worked for some of the most prestigious tour operators in the UK. Since moving to Prague, the Czech Republic in 2013, she now blogs full time at The Wandering Wanderluster, sharing her discoveries in Prague and her journeys and adventures to off the beaten path destinations. IG: @wanderingwanderluster and her blog: www.TheWanderingWanderluster.com

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