Saline dello STAGNONE
The road from Trapani to Marsala skirts round the edge of the lagoon and the island of Mozia (see MOZIA) providing fine views of the local saltworks: panels of mirror-like water, held by thin strips of earth, synchronise to form an irregular and multicoloured scene. In places, the profile of a windmill may be discerned, a reminder of times past when they provided the main means of pumping the water and grinding the salt. The sight is even more striking in summer when the salt is ready to be collected: then, the pinkish hues of the concentrated saline contained in the outer pans vie with those towards the centre of a deeper colour, while the innermost, now dry, sparkle in the sunshine.
Since 1984, Sicily’s largest lagoon (2000 ha) has been designated a nature reserve of special interest – Riserva Naturale Orientata. This area extends into the sea, and includes the section of coastline between Punta Alga and Capo San Teodoro. The water here is shallow and very salty, the ideal conditions for saltworks to be set up all along the coast and on Isola Longa, where it soon became the main industry; many of these have since dwindled into disuse.
The lagoon harbours four islands: Isola Longa is the largest, Santa Maria is covered in vegetation, San Pantaleo is the most important and Schola, a tiny islet with a few roofless houses that give it an eerie air of decadence.
The most common plant species to thrive here include the Aleppo pine, dwarf palm, bamboo (Isola Grande), sea marigold (Calendula maritima) which, in Europe, grows only here and in Spain, glasswort or sea samphire (with fleshy branches), sea scilla with its star-like white flowers, the sea
lily and the sea rush. The islands are also populated with a multitude of bird species, namely the lark, goldfinch, magpie, Kentish plover, tawny pipit and Sardinian warbler – to mention but a few.
The waters of the Stagnone (which literally means large pool) provide fertile habitats for a broad variety of under-water flora and fauna: sea anemones, murex – collected by the Phoenicians so as to extract a valuable purple dye used for colouring textiles, and over 40 different kinds of fish: sea bass, gilthead, white bream and sole. The seabed also supports colonies of the Poseidonia Oceanica, a ribbon-leafed seaweed which grows in clusters and produces flowers not unlike an ear of wheat from its centre. This plant is fast becoming a menace to others, spreading itself through the Mediterranean like wild-fire: its contribution, however, is to thrive in polluted and slightly stagnant conditions; it stabilises the seabed, oxygenates the water and provides a source of nutrients for other species, thereby playing a role similar to that of the forests on land.
Ancient origins – The coastal area between Trapani and Marsala came to be exploited back in the time of the Phoenicians who, realising the extremely favourable conditions available, set about building basins in which to collect salt: this valuable commodity they then exported all over the Mediterranean. So this otherwise barren stretch of land came to be systematically worked: from the shallow water, the searing temperatures and arid winds (which also facilitates evaporation of course) was born a tough, but beneficial industry to produce the precious element, so vital to the survival of man. One of the foremost and fundamental properties of salt is its ability to preserve food, a quality with which the earliest peoples were familiar, using it to treat perishables for the lean winter months or simply during transportation. After the Phoenicians, however, there are no reliable references to the saltpans around Trapani until the Norman era when Frederick Il himself alludes to them in the Constitutions of Menfi, making them a crown monopoly. From this date on, the rise in status of the port of Trapani may be tracked fairly easily. The economic success of the saltpans, meanwhile, show that major fluctuations in output shadowed the rise and fall in fortunes
of the territory as it succumbed to various external events beyond its control. War, epidemic, transitions of government from one dominion to another influenced the production and trading of
salt just as it would any other field. On the whole, the area was profitable, as was the commercial activity itself, and that is why it has continued, albeit with fits and starts, until the present day. The salt is still being extracted, although the methods used (and the effort expended) have changed as processes have become mechanised. The picturesque windmills that characterise the landscape are no longer employed and the back-breaking demands on the manual workers have been minimised.
VIA DEL SALE
Approx 29 km excursion between Trapani and Marsala along the SP 21: allow a whole day to include a visit to the Island of Mozia.
Trapani – See TRAPANI,
From Trapani, follow the coast road (SP 21) to Marsala which provides a succession of fine views over the saltpans of Trapani and those at Stagnone. The first stop is Nubia.
Nubia – The headquarters of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (138 Via Garibaldi) manages the Riserva Naturale Salma di Trapani e Paceco, a saltwater nature reserve habitat where 170 species of bird – resident and migratory – have been recorded. Indeed, it is not unusual to see migrating flamingos, storks, cranes and herons.
Museo del Sale – A small, yet highly interesting salt museum has been set up in a 300-year old saltworkers house: it recounts the different stages involved in collecting salt from the saltpans and displays various specialist tools adapted for its extraction and its harvest including mill gearing, windmill vanes, cog wheels, spikes and sprockets. Additional information about the methods and practices are further clarified by means of explanatory boards and photographs of saltworkers
Le saline – The saltworks in front of the museum successfully explain how and why the different saltpans interact, as well as describing the successive phases in the cultivation and extraction of the crystallised salt. An appropriated canal supplements the two large basins on the outer edge of the complex known as the fridde (a corruption of ‘freddo’ meaning cold) because of the temperature of the incoming water. The Mulino Americano (literally the American mill) located between these two basins uses an Archimedes’ screw contraption (of a type displayed in the museum) to transfer water into the vasu cultivu, where it blends with the yeast-like residue of the previous crop. The greater the saline concentration (measured in Baum), interestingly enough, the warmer the water. From here, the water is drained to the ruffiana an intermediary stage between the vasu and the caure. where the water temperature is considerably warmer and the salinity attains 23 Baum. Next in line comes the sintino where the high concentration of salt and the high temperature combine to lend a pinkish tinge to the solution: and so begin the last stages in the process. The water now passes into the salting pans or caseddri, where layers of pure salt crystals are allowed to form (27-28 Baum) in preparation for harvest twice a year, usually around mid-July and mid-August. The conical piles of sand, aligned the length of the arione, are left open to the elements to be rinsed through by the rain, before being covered with “Roman” tiles for protection from heavy downpours and dirt.
From Nubia, return to the main road and continue towards the Stagnone Lagoon, where the most spectacular saltpans are located. A sign indicates the way to the Ettore e Infersa saltworks.
Working windmill – This 16C (or so) windmill, once indispensable for grinding salt, survives today solely because of the love and attention vested upon it by its owners (Saline Ettore e Infersa); presently restored to working order, it demonstrates what is involved and inspires a romantic fascination in the practises of yore in the young minds of modern generations.
The Dutch windmill comprises a conical building, capped with a conical roof, and six trapezoid vanes consisting of cloth sails attached to wooden frames that catch the wind and propel a system of mechanical gears. Inside the building, a complex system of interconnected cogs and wheels, shafts and stays allow the circular roof (and, hence, the sails) to be orientated according to the direction of the wind and so exploit the natural resource to grind the salt (as in this case) or to pump water (if the windmill is situated between two pans). Should the mill be required to pump water, the gearing is harnessed to an Archimedes’ screw.
The sails can rotate at a speed of 20km per hour and generate a power equivalent to 120 horsepower (30/40 HP are required to activate the grinder in the ground floor rooms alone).
Mozia (Motya) – See MOZIA
The coast road picks its way to Marsala along a most pleasant route, which can be particularly spectacular at sunset.
Marsala – See MARSALA.