Marsala nestles on the headland which continues to bear the town’s ancient name, Lilybaeum (from Lily meaning water and beum referring to the Eubei, its pre-Phoenician inhabitants). The settlement is presumed to have been founded in 397 BC by the Phoenicians who fled from Motya following their defeat by the Syracusans. Its name in current use probably derives from the Arabic Marsah el Ali, meaning port of Ali, which would indicate that it has been a sea town of considerable importance since its early history. Later, the harbour witnessed one of the most important events in the history of Sicily: the landing of Garibaldi’s Thousand in Sicily.
The ethnic diversity (including a large Tunisian minority), the harbour and the city’s web of narrow streets combine to suggest that the visitor has been inadvertently catapulted into some African town.
Marsala becomes progressively more animated in the period leading up to Easter: celebrations begin with a Maundy Thursday procession (the eve of Good Friday) when the Stations of the Cross are re-enacted in the streets of the town centre by local men and women in the different roles involved in the Passion. In the evening, the Crucifixion and Resurrection are also re-enacted.
Thanks ... thousand
Early May 1860: accompanied by one thousand volunteers dressed in red shirts, Garibaldi set sail from Quarto (near Genoa) bound for Sicily. Their mission was to overthrow the Bourbon government and liberate the Kingdom of the Two SiciIies. On 11 May, the two ships – the Lombardo and the Piemonte – moored at Marsala. The Mille (one thousand) made their way inland, winning their first battle at Calatafimi: this opened up the way to Palermo. As the campaign progressed, the band was swollen by new volunteers so that by the time they reached the Straits of Messina, their number exceeded 20000. In less than two months, Sicily had been liberated from Bourbon government. The expedition continued to sweep through the rest of the kingdom until, following a plebiscite, the island was admitted on 21 October to the nucleus of northern states
(Piedmont, Lombardy, Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Sardinia) that later were to unify to form the Kingdom of ltaly.
The centre of Marsala radiates from Piazza della Repubblica, where the Cathedral and
Palazzo Senatorio, completed in the 18C and known as the Loggia, are located. The main thoroughfare leading from the piazza is the Corso Xl Maggio, the old Decumanus Maximus of the Roman town, lined as ever with splendid buildings. Perpendicular to the principal axis, Via Garibaldi leads southwards to Porta Garibaldi on the edge of town, running past the Town Hall, a former Spanish military barracks, on the way. The area behind is brought noisily to life each morning by a bustling fish market. The 17C Chiesa del Collegio, nestling among a series of fine
18C buildings line Via Rapisardi, the northern extension of Via Garibaldi.
Cattedrale – The cathedral with its tufa front decked with statues was built during the Norman occupation, but extensively remodelled in the 18C. Inside, it contains a number of works by the Gaginis: most notably a fine icon by Antonello Gagini and Berrettaro (north apse), and a delicate Madonna by Domenico Gagini from 1490 (south transept). Above this, hangs a good Renaissance painting by Antonello Riggio depicting the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple.
Museo degli Arazzi – The entrance to this museum housed in rooms behind the cathedral is in Via Garraffa. The collection comprises eight large 16C Flemish tapestries relating scenes from the war waged by Titus against the Jews. Vivid colours and a strong sense of composition determine the central panel as well as the borders of flowers, fruit and allegorical figures. The sixth tapestry, illustrating a violent fight, manages to convey a great sense of movement and action.
Museo Archeologico di Baglio Anselmi – This archeological museum is accommodated inside a former wine warehouse designed by Basile. Pride of place is given to the remains of a Punic ship (3C BC) recovered in 1969 near the island of Motya. This probably consisted of a liburna, a type of fast warship (35m long) used and lost at the end of the First Punic War, in the Battle of the Egadi (241 BC). The detailed analysis of these fragments have provided valuable
information on the ship-building methods practised by the Phoenicians using pre-fabricated units
marked with letters. Furthermore, the metal-alloy nails used for assembling the hold have proven to be quite remarkable: after more than 2,000 years under water, they show no sign whatsoever of deterioration.
The museum also displays important artefacts relating to the historic evolution of Marsala and its surrounding area from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. Among the most interesting cases, are those devoted to Motya and to various examples of finely crafted Hellenistic jewellery found off Capo Boeo.
Insula di Capo Boeo – At the end of Viale Vittorio Emanuele, right on the tip of the headland, are situated the remains of three Roman insulae. Almost the whole of one is taken up by a large villa, built in imperial times (3C BC), complete with its own private set of baths. Fragments of the mosaics floors are still in evidence, as are a number of the small pillars (suspensoria) used to support the floor, thereby enabling hot air to circulate through the cavity. The roads of access to the area were paved with white stone from Trapani. A little further on stands the Church of San Giovanni Fuori le Mura, built around the Sibyl of Lilybaeum’s legendary grotto.
The sweet nectar of Marsala
History – 1770: a violent storm forced a British ship to take shelter in the harbour of Marsala. A certain merchant by the name of John Woodhouse disembarked and went into town to sample the Marsala wine in one of the humble taverns. Although more accustomed to the liqueur wines of Spain and Portugal, his palate immediately detected their similarity prompting him to risk dispatching a considerable consignment of wine (blended wine alcohol so as to better withstand the journey) to his native land to sound out the market. The response being positive, the merchant set up his own company in Marsala. A little later, a second English merchant landed in town: Ben Ingham, a great connoisseur of fortified wines. With his intervention, the quality of the wine was gradually improved using carefully selected blends of different, improved, grape varieties. His business passed into the hands of his nephews the Whitakers. In 1833, the entrepreneur Vincenzo Florio, a Calabrese by birth and Palermitano by adoption, bought up great swathes of land between the two largest established Marsala producers and set to making his own vintage with even more exclusive range of grape. At the end of the 19C, several more wine growers joined the competition including Pellegrino (1880). After the turn of the century, Florio bought out Ingham and Woodhouse, and retained the two labels. Florio in turn succumbed to a take over by a conglomeration of other producers; again the famous, well-established, labels continued to be made and marketed.
Marsala wine – Marsala is registered as a D.O.C. wine (a State-designated label of controlled quality); this means that production is restricted to an exclusive area around Trapani, and a collection of additional vineyards in the provinces of Agrigento and Palermo. Only grape varieties with a high natural sugar content are used to make Marsala: these, once pressed, are left to ferment. and/or caramelise, before being blended with ethyl alcohol to produce the different types and flavours of Marsala.
Relative to the sugar content, Marsala may be categorised as dry, semi-dry or sweet. Its main denomination, however, is relative to the length of time it is left to mature: Marsala Fine (1 year), Superiore (2 years), Superiore Riserva (4 years), Vergine (5 years) and Vergine Riserva (10 years). Dry Marsala is usually served as a refreshing aperitif (below 10°C) while the sweeter forms are drunk as a dessert wine (no more than 18°C).
Florio – A tour of this long-established winery provides the opportunity of comparing old techniques and installations with the new. The huge wine-cellars (cantine) themselves are somewhat close and stuffy; the environment is carefully maintained at a constant temperature of 18°C by means of tufa walls (insulation), a tiled roof (aeration) and sand on the floor (temperature control and humidity). Perhaps the most interesting part of the process, however, is the explanation relating to the Soleras Method to which the wine is conditioned by the pyramid arrangement of oak barrels. This practice, imported from Spain, is used to age the wine: the young wine is added at the top, this is then allowed to percolate gently down through tne interconnected barrels as the older, matured vintage is drawn off from the bottom tier of casks. This ensures that the wine is perfectly blended and remains of a consistent high quality.
The winery also has a small museum where the requisite equipment and tools are displayed.
Pellegrino – This is another of the large producers: besides Marsala they also make Passito and Moscato di Pantelleria. Five wonderful Sicilian carts decorated in the 19C with historical scenes are to be admired at the entrance. Another memento of times past is the grille which once segregated the bottles on which custom duties were to be levied, subject to inspection.
Marco De Bartoli – 292 Contrada Samperi. This producer, situated in the Samperi district, is responsible for one of the best Marsalas, achieved by traditionai methods.