Monday, May 17, 2010

Italian journey, 10: Tràpani

Monday, May 17—

YESTERDAY WE PICKED UP our little Panda and drove by way of Monreale to Tràpani, a town I've always wanted to see, at the northwest corner of Sicily. After the noise and crowds of Palermo it's a pleasant respite. Our hotel, comfortable and old-fashioned (and cheap), is in the heart of the old town, whose streets are laid out in a grid but are narrow, faced with 18th-century buildings all the same height and mostly with marvelous façades, and are generally devoid of traffic.

The wider streets in the heart of the old city are in fact entirely devoid of vehicular traffic. What a pleasure to walk about in a city dedicated to its human inhabitants! Everything is calmer, quieter, cleaner. The sounds are those of human voices for the most part; the scents those of comestibles. Even time seems returned to a human scale: there's plenty of it, or at least there's enough of it; one doesn't feel rushed, or that one's missing something for attending to something else.

Today, though, we drove out of town for much of the day, first to the old hill town Erice, then to Segesta. Erice was dedicated, three millennia or so ago, to Venus, or Aphrodite, or Astarte, whomever you prefer: the goddess of love, born from the sea, from the blood, some say, of the genitals Zeus sickled from his father in a fit of pique. (The sickle became the spit on which Tràpani stands.)

Erice may have been a spiritual site in the past, but it does not currently seem so to me: recent domination by one of the late Roman cults, still much practiced in Italy, has insisted on stamping the town with churches dedicated to this saint and that; the only remnants of pagan times are the names of bars and hotels, Venere this, Ulysses that. I like the town for what it is, though, very much a tourist town, full of souvenir stands, ceramics shops, little patisseries and cafés, and a fine ruin of a fort on one corner, and fine views out over the landscape.

But if Erice has lost much sense of antiquity, Segesta has it in, um, spades. We cheated and rode a bus up from the entrance to the forum atop the hill, where we saw a number of archaeologists patiently scratching the dirt with their trowels. One fellow walked past with an electronic device suitable for finding car keys buried at the beach: when I asked if he'd found anything, No, he said, There's lots of walls, not much metal.

Erice is noted for its Greek theater, which would have seated about 4,000, with a marvelous view of the gulf to the north. It was apparently an extensive city in its day, 2500 years ago: first a local tribe's, then Greek, then Roman, then Swabian and Norman, then Muslim, then back to the pastoral folk who lived here during the Dark Ages. There's no telling how big the town was, or how many layers it may have.

The other noteworthy site in Erice is the unfinished Greek temple, huge and beautiful, isolated on a hillside outside of what would have been town. No one seems to know why it was built, or rather begun; perhaps, the most ingenious commentators say, to decoy the Greeks into thinking they'd be welcome here, in the hopes of laying an ambush. It would have been a colossal undertaking requiring all sorts of labor, but the ancients had ways of approaching such tasks.

I'm not sure we were wise to visit Paestum before coming to Sicily. Beautiful as the Segesta temple is, there's something disturbing about it; it's too detached from any human activity. Seeing it in the distance has the effect of a Chirico painting, a little mournful, a little disturbing. The quiet streets of Tràpani, contemporary though they be, have a reassuring tranquility that connects to the ruined ones of Paestum; Segesta is, for me, at least today, too much of an enigma. But a beautiful one.

Photos of Tràpani, Erice, Segesta and environs can be seen on this webpage. Notes on our meals during this trip can be found, as always, at Eating Every Day; photos of Campania can be seen at this webpage; photos of Palermo can be seen here.

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