The city of Trapani is an important port and administrative centre on the west coast of Sicily. This extremely beautiful corner of the island is the area where nature is abundant and still well preserved. The city is also a starting point for travelling back to Magna Graecia, for exploring the kisses of Venus, or just for hopping on a hydrofoil and going to the little known.
T R A P A N I
The region of Trapani is not only about nature but it is rich in history as well. The foundation of the city is connected with two legends. The first says that Saturn eviscerated his father – Uranus who was the God of the Sky, with a sickle. Namely that sickle fell down from his hands into the sea, turning into the strip of land and curve-shaped harbour where the Elymians founded Trapani. The newly born settlement served as the port of their nearby town of Eryx situated on il Monte San Giuliano. By the way a statue of Saturn still stands on one of the squares in the city centre.
As to the second legend, it goes like this. The ancient city of Trapani stems from Goddess Demeter’s sickle which fell down from her hands while she was desperately looking for her beloved daughter Persephone who was kidnapped by Hades. When the Goddess’s sickle fell down, a new settlement was created and it was named Drepana or Drépanon (actually, the Greek “drépanon” means “sickle”). Moreover, her instrument separated the Tyrrhenian Sea from the Mediterranean and their meeting point is namely the peninsula where the Ancient Greeks established their town of Drépanon. That’s why today’s Trapani is often nicknamed as “the City of Two Seas”.
Later the town went into the hands of the Phoenicians and Romans and played a role of a significant naval base owing to its strategic location. The town flourished much a center for the production of salt, tuna, and coral under the Arab dominations. As a matter of fact, mattanza was introduced by the Arabs during their rule in Sicily in the 9th century and their techniques of fishing became too popular on the island. Trapani was invaded by the Normans of Roger I in the 11th century. It was used as one of most important ports and harbours in the Mediterranean Sea during the Crusades between the 11th and 16th centuries. As for relatively new history, unfortunately, the city suffered heavy bombing attacks during the World War II.
Nowadays, the city of Trapani, which possesses much North African atmosphere, is a very inviting tourist hub due to the airport that is served mainly by European low-cost airlines. Its mild climate, natural beauty and turquoise, crystal clear water seduce thousands of tourists who come here to enjoy the historic and religious heritage of the city, exquisite local cuisine, the amazingly blue sea and beaches, and the company of good–hearted and extremely hospitable trapanesi. Yes, I can assure you that locals are really very hospitable and my friends from Trapani made my vacation so pleasant and exciting some time ago. They introduced their marvellous city to me and there wasn’t a single corner left in Trapani which we didn’t visit it together.
Our tour started with the holy buildings in Trapani including numerous cathedrals, basilicas, chapels and shrines. One of the them is La chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio (or the Church of the Souls in the Purgatory) which was erected in 1868. The Church guards the so-called Group of the Famous Mysteries of Trapani. This group consists of twenty 18th century life-sized sculptures carved in wood and cloth. They illustrate the various stages of the Passion of Christ. The Church is also much famous for its procession of the Mysteries during the Holy week. The Procession of the Mysteries of the Sacred Groups is held on Good Friday every year and it lasts for 24 hours. It starts with the sound of drums at sharp 2pm and all believers, spectators and tourists alike take a long way behind the twenty wooden statues carried on shoulders through the winding narrow streets in the historic centre. All this is accompanied by a choir and candles while onlookers throw down flower petals from the balconies.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence the Martyr is il Duomo di Trapani (the Trapani Cathedral). It was built in the 14th century and after that it underwent several modifications and restorations, the last one having been made by architects Bonaventura Certo and Giovanni Biagio at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. Nowadays il Duomo still keeps the imposing baroque façade with porch while the holy building houses a Crucifixion attributed to Anthony Van Dyck.
There is no doubt that the major and most important holy monument of the city of Trapani is the Shrine of Annunziata which was built in the 15th century and completely finished in the 17th century. Actually, the construction of the sanctuary started in the 14th century when the amazing rose window and portal were made. The bell tower was added in 1650. The Shrine of Annunziata contains several chapels such as the tuff Chapel of Fishers which is richly decorated and the 16th century Chapel of Sailors. But for sure, the most celebrated and loveliest of them all is the Chapel of the Madonna. The statue of the Madonna with Child (also known as the “Madonna of Trapani”) is located under a baldachin supported by eight polychromatic marble columns on the main altar. It is Nino Pisano’s work and the Madonna of Trapani is greatly worshipped and venerated by i trapanesi.
Then comes the architectural complex consisting of the Church of Jesus (or also known as Church of the College of Jesuits), the College and the Jesuit House. Since the Society of Jesus had a custom to commission a project and construction of holy buildings to architects from the Order, they entrusted it to Sicilian monk and master-builder Natale Masuccio from Messina who actually, had already designed several other Jesuit buildings throughout the island as well as in Malta.
The architect made a project according to which the Church and the College were designed as one building while the Jesuit House was a separate one because of the existence of a road. Unfortunately, the presence of the road made difficult and almost impossible the construction of the apses of the Church. That’s why the road was closed and terminated in 1606 and one large single complex was created – the Church and the adjacent College and House of the Jesuits. The Church contains a marble statue of Maria Immacolata on the main altar. On the other hand, you enjoy a wooden crucifix and painting of St Francis Xavier. The sacristy (the church room where priests prepare for a service, and where various worshipped things are kept) with the massive wooden wardrobe is worth a visit as well.
Another renowned church in Trapani is la Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi (or the Church of St. Francis of Assisi). Its tiled dome is well seen and visible from almost every part of the city and the port. The church was erected in 1272 and Franciscan friar Angelo da Rieti worked on its initial design. Later, in 16-17th centuries, the church and the adjacent convent were re-built by Bonaventura Certo while the convent gate was Giovanni Biagio Amico’s work.
A very interesting is the St Liberal Church which is situated just in front of the Tower of Ligny, on a pier of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Looking at it ouside, it doesn’t seem to be a religious building. The tuff edifice was built by local corallari (coral fisherman) in a close proximity to the rocks in the early 17th century. They dedicated it to their patron – St. Liberale (or Liberante), for having made a huge find of corals with the help of their saint. And what happened exactly? A local coral fisherman from Trapani was thrown on the Tunisian coast. Unfortunately, soon after that he was captured and killed very close to the place where St. Liberale had been martyred for not giving up on his faith in Christ. On the very same day, other corallari from the city made that huge find of corals and they were sure it had happened with the help of their Saint. They turned back to Trapani and placed the whole precious cargo at the place where the St Liberal Church would be erected. The latter has always been a place of dedication to all local fishermen, who organize festivities in their Saint’s honour.
As I said above, the St Liberal Church is situated just in front of the Tower of Ligny. The tower is situated in the westernmost corner of Trapani. Actually, it is this narrow strip of land (part of the sickle) which formed the ancient town. This is also the exact place where the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas say “Hi” to one another. As to the tower itself with its four watchtowers, it used to be a defensive fortification protecting the city from North-African corsairs. It was Carlos De Grunembergh’s design and it was built in 1671 (in the period of Spanish domination in Sicily.
Nowadays the Tower of Ligny is completely restored and it’s the unique and emblematic landmark of the city of Trapani. It houses a tiny museum with a collection of archaeological finds from the sea and the Trapani area. Once you climb up to its top, you will be left breathless by the spectacular views from the Cape San Vito to Erice and Marsala. When you turn to the other side, the rocks that divide the Tyrrhenian from the Mediterranean Sea will leave only unforgettable memories of this place. You will see the silhouettes of le isole Egadi to the west. As to the views of the city Trapani, they will seduce you and will make you dive into its Old Town once again.
Principally, the Old Town of Trapani could be divided in three neighbourhoods – Casalicchio, “di mezzo” and il Palazzo.
Casalicchio is the oldest district. It was formed near the harbour and the St Peter Church including la Giudecca. I will open a bracket here. La Giudecca is the old Jewish quarter where the Jews lived. Here you can enjoy the magnificent 16th century Giudecca Palazzo which belonged to the Ciambra family. It was constructed in plateresque style (this was a very popular architectural style in Spain and Sicily in the late 15th and early 16th centuries). Today the palace is partially destroyed but it still remains one of Jewish buildings with great importance on the Island of Sicily. The bracket closed.
Casalicchio used to be the residential complex where both the Jews and Arabs lived together. The most enchanting part of the neighbourhood is the maze of narrow winding streets which are dotted by old Mediterranean style houses. The latter are characterized by inner courtyards. This type of courtyard resembles ancient Roman peristyles or Arab style courtyards. This inner part of the Mediterranean house was the place where all relations of a community flourished. The access to such courtyards was well-marked by an arch leading to a narrow entrance with no doors called a “skifa”. There was either a vault above or a wooden covering, decorated with Arab motifs. Once you reach the inner place, you find various tanks of water (wells or sinks) for washing hands before taking the flight of steps leading to the upper floor
“Di mezzo” is the second neighbourhood situated between the oldest one and il Palazzo. Definitely, it is the architectural hub of remains of buildings in Gothic style which was preferred by the Chiaramonte and other mighty Sicilian families. While walking around, surely, you stumble upon extremely beautiful two- or three- mullioned windows. The third neighbourhood, il Palazzo, is the relatively newest district in the Old Town. It was created and developed according to the urban reorganization plan of King James of Aragon at the end of the 13th century. Trapani was extended at that time by filling in marshy areas to the west and then by building elegant edifices (most probably all those splendid palaces gave the name to the district).
When you are in a Trapani, a must visit is the Pepoli National Museum which is considered one of the most important museums on the whole island. It’s housed within the premises of the ex convent of the Annunciation. The floor offers an exhibition of paintings while the second one is mainly dedicated to coral with its necklaces, bracelets, crosses and nativity figurines made from it. All of them have been made by artisans from Trapani.
Now it’s high time for a walk pleasant walk along the promenade mixed with bathing in the crystal clear, some-shade-of-blue sea waters. So, start your stroll from la Piazza del mercato del pesce (the former fish market which is a semicircular portico with rounded arches with a fountain of Venus in the middle) along the old city’s walls (built by King James of Aragon in the 13th century, and later reinforced and enlarged by the Emperor Charles V) to the Conca bastion. This is really the best place where you can enjoy the most beautiful and exciting views of the city of Trapani and the seas.
Our short trip to Trapani will finish with the Castle of Colombaia or also known as Il Castello di mare (the Castle of the Sea). This is an undisputed historic monument nei pressi di (close to) the port of Trapani. The only way to reach the fortification with the 32-metre tower is by sea. So, don’t miss your chance to take a boat and visit Colombaia because that visit will turn you back directly to the 13th century BC when the small islet of Combaiai was inhabited by the Trojan refugees of the town. 🙂