Pass the salt, please.
Really now...where would we be without salt?? Considered a necessary condiment in our day and age, its value rivaled gold in pre-refrigeration days. The history of salt as a religious, commercial, and monetary element is fascinating! However, I'll spare you the reading unless you choose....but this little article is worth its salt (ahem) to any fellow factoid nerds.
Here's the story of our salty encounter in Trapani...
The trajectory for this day took us due west to the coastal areas of Trapani, a broad expanse of flat, marshy terra cradled by the Mediterranean and her high salinity. History abounds here, like in most of Italy, but uniquely so due to the importance this area once held (and still holds, just in smaller proportion) as a major producer of sea salt. Add to that the once strategic location of the harbor, and these salt flats have historically been a valuable peace of real estate.
Trapani's belly also nurtures several salt mines, but there is an indisputable quality found in good sea salt, and the culinary demand remains strong.
Fortunately, the historic significance and value of the age-old production methods have been recognized and preserved through a 1995 act that created The Nature Reserve Saline di Trapani & Paceco; thus, some 2,400 acres of wetlands, including the salt pans, are off-limits to destruction or development. Bravo, il governmento Italiano!
In addition to preserving the salt pans, the reserve plays host to an array of migratory birds who traverse the ocean to and from Africa. What a treat it would be to hang out there during migration season!
Scholars say the salt marshes of Tranpani were initially established by the Phoenicians some hundreds of years ago B.C. when this area was a Phonic stronghold. Yes, they rigidly enforced teaching reading with phonics over rote learning for their young salt workers...
Just kidding...sorry...couldn't resist. But on a side note, a little research did uncover that there is no relation between the Phoenicians and phonics. Blame the Greeks for that one. Okay...on with our story.
The still-intact methods of filling these salt pans with sea water, closing them off via windmill powered pumps (which are no longer in use but maintained for historical significance) to set up evaporation, and collecting the "first bloom" salt fills the rhythm of the months between March and September. The intense Sicilian sun coupled with fiery African winds envelope these flats, creating the perfect combination for efficient evaporation. And the result? A damp, delightful, mineral rich sea salt born from clean Sicilian waters, unaltered from its glorious natural state. Bellissimo!
The week's crystal clear skies slipped on a blue-gray cloak this day, and the timing couldn't have been better. We were treated to quiet, introspective strolls along the flats; piles of moist, chunky salt rose up like enormous ant hills, their white trumpeted in contrast with the silvery skies.
We watched a salt dike grow as the gaping mouth of a modern excavator bit off huge portions and unceremoniously dumped them on a conveyor belt, while human hands eased and spread and assisted their formation.
As I wandered, my eyes were drawn to copious amounts of what appeared to be time-worn chips of terra cotta peppering (salting??) the ground. I couldn't imagine the origin of these: Fragmented remains of Roman dwellings plundered by the Normans? Washed up scraps of the ancient Phoenician ruins haunting the island just off shore?
I later learned from our visit to the Salt Museum that terra cotta roof tiles are used to cover the salt mounds as they dry, blanketing them from debris and loss. Not quite as romantic as my imagination would prefer, but quite practical, nonetheless.
And of course, a little handful of these chips went home with me for some future artsy-crafty project.
We meandered through the small but well apportioned museum that served as guardian to artifacts and photos of the old ways of salt production. On-demand tours were available, but Marty and I decided to float on the periphery of one being given in Italian, then translated to German. Sal and Winnie befriended the nice English speaking lady at the entrance, so they managed a sort of private mini-tour, enjoyably so.
Time to venture on to the town of Trapani; we brushed the salty dirt from our shoes as we squeezed into the car. The drive out lead us past rows of drying salt mounds -- I couldn't resist sneaking a taste from my just-purchased bag of damp, fresh salt as I watched the white flash by.
We lucked into easy parking spaces, then set foot to ground in the center of Trapani. Originally established during the Bronze Age (aka: a really long time ago) by the Elymians and called Drepanon, the township served as a major port of commerce for nearby Erice. Somewhere around 260 B.C., Carthage laid claim to Trapani and designated her sickle shaped bay a strategic naval base.
The Romans decided that was not cool, and in 241 B.C. they made that very clear, flattening the thriving city under their dusty Roman sandals.
It wasn't until the 800's when Arab rule overtook Sicily that the town began a resurgence of life and prosperity. Since that time, Trapani has repetitively undulated from great affluence to wretched destitution. Yet as with most things Italian, vitality and survival are reinvented and woven beautifully into the fabric of ancient influence.
We sauntered through the streets of Trapani after a simple lunch at a sidewalk cafe. The feel here was unique -- buildings seemed taller and more elegant; broad streets welcomed brisk sea breeze; an almost astute, formal personality permeated the air.
I later learned that Trapani was severely damaged during the ravages of WW II; thus, a lot of what we experienced was most likely rebuilt upon ancient foundations, possibly explaining that less-worn persona.
A passeggiata dopo pranzo (walk after lunch) lead us to the overlook of the sea, and of course -- gelato! Seriously, it's not a day in Italy if you don't down at least one heaping serving of the delicacy!
Satisfied bellies beckoned for one more afternoon requirement, which we found just across the cobbled street: a shot of fresh-pulled espresso before our return journey to Castellamare del Golfo.
It was our last collective evening; thus, a nice dinner together was agreed upon. Of course, that means around the proper meal hour of 8:30, leaving Marty and I time to freshen up a bit, then head out on a search for a bottle or two of the incredible Nero d'Avola wine we'd had the previous day.
We came across one wine shop and had a lively conversation in Italian with the proprietor. He wasn't quite sure of the label we were looking for but suggested another nearby vender. We thanked him and made our exit, cradling a bottle of a Nero he'd recommended, as well as one of the sweet amber-hued wine known as Malvasia.
Score! The wine shop Mr. Proprietor directed us to had the coveted wine; too bad we could only haul 2 bottles of this Sicilian nectar home. Allowing for one more stop at a little grocer for some food items, we pack-muled back through the narrow walkways to the awaiting enchantment of the harbor.
Opened Malvasia and expectant glasses in hand, we gathered with Sal and Winnie on the hotel deck. A pastel painted sky provided the perfect backdrop as we offered a toast to friends, adventure, and beautiful Sicily.
With a most pleasant happy hour under our belts, Marty and I decided to take a walk to the nearby duomo, a landmark we wanted to see but had not yet managed. Nightfall made for an almost eerily quiet walk; the passigiata was over, yet diners were not out in force. The last steely grays of light hesitantly paused over the horizon, seeming to tuck the harbor in for sound sleep.
We wound our way up through neighborhood streets, privy to the sounds of everyday life: friends visiting in door stoops, tired children making their way home, cooking aromas wafting through open windows.
Accurate signage lead us to a small, unassuming piazza where two young boys circled on bikes as an elderly gent watched. A young woman seated on the church stoop chattered on her cell phone in animated tones as we entered the Romanesque ll Doumo di Santa Rita, the Cathedral of St. Rita.
We held audience inside alone, except of course for the hundreds of years of prayers, joyous events, earthly goodbyes, passionate thanksgivings, and wrenching pleas that layered the walls, floors, and lavish roof of this house of God. When in one of these old, old places with no other soul around, there is an undeniable and different spiritual essence that is a privilege, to me, to partake in. I believe God can be found wherever one seeks Him, but possibly it's the ability to see, touch, hear, and even smell the continuum of humankind's need for God so vividly, enriched by sensual elements, that makes the experience remarkable.
Despite numerous googles, I was not able to uncover much history about this quietly elegant place. I did learn, however, that a grand, costumed procession is held each summer in honor of St Rita, a woman of the 1400's who has quite an interesting story of peacemaking and forgiveness. What a thrill it would be to witness that event!
We couldn't tarry long in the duomo; 8:30 was approaching fast. A brisk, downhill walk lead us to the harbor and reunion with our friends.
This delightful day was cherry-topped with a fantastic dinner, not only via incredible food, but more so with celebration of the companionship this trip had blessed us with. It was a deliciously satisfying evening in every way.
Buon appetito e un brindisi a buoni amici!
Paula A. Reynolds
Lover of travel and life's many other blessings!