Erice – about 32,000 inhabitants – occupies a memorably beautiful site. Developed as a
Phoenician and Hellenistic town, it sits at a height of 751m, perched on the mountain of the same
name, covering a triangular plateau with a glorious view over the sea. Enclosed within defensible bastions and walls, the town is a veritable labyrinth of little cobbled streets and passages wide enough to accommodate one person at a time.
The houses, packed one upon another, each have their own charming, carefully-tended, inner courtyard that can be guarded from the gaze of neighbours or passing gentry, and so allows family life to take its daily course in absolute privacy.
In Antiquity, Erice was famous for its temple where in succession, the Phoenicians worshipped Astarte, the Greeks venerated Aphrodite and the Romans celebrated Venus. Mount Eryx served as a point of reference for sailors, who, in time, adopted Venus as their protector. At night, a large fire would be lit within the sacred precinct and used as a guiding beacon. Venus Erycina became so famous that a temple was dedicated to her in Rome, meanwhile, her cult spread throughout the Mediterranean.
Erice, like Janus, is two faced: there is the bright, sunny face that smiles during the long hot summer days, when light floods its tiny streets and distant views extend over the valley and far out to sea; there is also the mask of winter when, shrouded in mist, the town seems to hark back to its mythical origins, leaving the visitor with a feeling of unease and the impression of a place removed from time and reality. Enveloped by its medieval atmosphere, cool mountain air, beautiful pine woods, pervading silence, combined with its rich local craft traditions, make Erice a highly popular destination for tourists.
Between myth and legend – The history of Erice is lost among local folklore and superstition. The name is the one given by Eryx, the mythical hero and king of the Elimi, to the mountain upon which the temple to his mother, Venus Erycina (later associated with the cult of Aphrodite), was built. The origins of the town are also linked with Aeneas, who also had a claim on the Elimian king’s mother. In Virgil’s narrative, Aeneas came ashore at the foot of the mountain to perform the funeral of his father Anchises. Having lost several ships in a fire, he was forced to abandon there a number of his companions, who set about founding the town.
Another major mythological figure associated with Erice is Heracles. The hero is alleged to have landed in this part of Sicily on his way back to Greece, having stolen the cattle of Geryon (one of the legendary Twelve Labours); during his stay he was forced to kill the Elimian king after he tried to steal the cattle from him. Notwithstanding this, Heracles decided to leave the rule of the kingdom in the hands of the Elimi, with the warning that one of his descendants, Dorieus, would later take over as ruler.
A leap into the past
Sweet dreams – Those wishing to experience the pleasure of sleeping in a historical building can do so at Baglio Santa Croce, in Valederice just below Erice, a 17C farmhouse that has been transformed into a hotel, but yet retaining its original fabric. Peace and seclusion are assured by the fine terraced gardens.
Access – Both the two roads that wind up to the town afford superb views across the plain and out to sea (the one on the north side, overlooking Monte Cofano, is easier). The little town takes the shape of a perfect equilateral triangle, whose symbolism has provoked mystery and endless argument: hemmed in by the Castello di Venere (south-eastern axis) and the Chiesa Madre (south-western side). Exactly in the centre of the triangle is the Church of St. Peter with its adjacent monastery that now houses the E. Majorana Centre for Culture and Science. An intricate maze of
narrow streets, each cobbled with rectangular stones, provides unexpected glimpses of churches and monasteries, of which there are over 60, scattered through the town. It is advisable to park at Porta Trapani.
Chiesa Matrice – The town’s main church is situated near Porta di Trapani, one of the entrances to the town. Built in the 14C, principally using stone from the Temple of Venus, its massive form and merlon-topped walls suggest it was intended as a church-fortress. The façade is graced with a fine rose-window (replicating the original), that is now partly concealed by the Gothic porch that was added a century later. Inside, fashioned in Neo-Gothic, sits a fine marble altarpiece from the Renaissance.
Bell-tower – The lonely tower to the left of the church was originally intended as a watchtower. The first level has simple narrow slits, while the upper section is graced with fine two-light Chiaramonte-style windows. The top is crenellated with Ghibelline merlons.
Museo Cordici – Accommodated inside the town hall is the local museum which collects together various archeological finds, statuary and paintings. Notable exhibits include Antonello Gagini’s sculpture of the Annunciation (1525) and, on the first floor, beyond the library containing manuscripts and early books, a small marble head of a woman, modelled on a Greek original.
A little further along, on the right of the piazza, is Via Cordici which leads into the picturesque Piazza San Domenico, lined on one side by a street of the same name and on the other by elegant palazzi.
Giardino del Ballo – The lovely public gardens are arranged around the Castello di Venere and the Torri di Ballo which were built by the Normans as a forward defence for the castle. The towers and gardens are named after the Norman governor (Baiulo) who once lived on this site. The glorious view embraces Monte Cofano, Trapani, the Egadi Islands and, on a particularly clear day, Pantelleria and, possibly, Cap Bon some 170km away in Tunisia.
Castello di Venere – The 12C Venus’ Castle is appended to the very tip of the mountain, looking out over the sea and the plain below; although the present building is Norman, the site itself has a more ancient history. Indeed, it was once occupied by a temple dedicated to Venus Erycina, who became completely associated with Aphrodite especially after a temple was dedicated to her in Rome (217 BC) when she gained popularity. By the time the Normans were in occupation the temple was in ruins, and so it was decided that the area should be cleared to make way for a fortress surrounded by great walls: the complex was designed to exploit the strategic nature of the site and have the added protection of forward defences in the form of towers (Torri del Ballo) that would
once have been accessible from the castle by a drawbridge. Its defensibility was further emphasised by the machicolations above the entrance; note the coat of arms of Charles V of Spain and the rather attractive two-light window. This provides a perfect viewpoint from which to survey Trapani and the Egadi lslands to the southwest and, to the north, the towers, the Pepoli turret (down below), San Giovanni, Monte Cofano, the coast around Bonagia and, if the weather is fine, the island of Ustica.
Elimo-punic Walls – A mighty wall was built by the Elimini (8C-6C BC) around the north-eastern flank of the town – the only section open to possible attack. Massive blocks characterise the lowest and most ancient stone courses which were built up through successive ages with smaller components. The skyline was punctuated with lookout towers, steep stairways provided access to the chemin-de-ronde, while small openings allowed residents to come and go freely and for supplies to be imported. The best-preserved stretch of walls runs along Via dell’Addolorata, from Porta Carmine to Porta Spada.
Santa Orsola – This church, built in 1413, preserves its original Gothic rib vaulting down the nave. It is here that the 18C Mystery figures are kept when not being processed around the town on Good Friday before the Easter celebrations.
Quartiere Spagnolo – From the top of the so-calted Spanish Quarter building, initiated in the 17C but never completed, there is a marvellous view over the bay of Monte Cofano and the area beyond, and down towards the tuna fishery at Bonagìa.
IN THE VICINITY
Tonnara dl Bonagìa – Approx 13km to the north. Drive down to Valderice and continue towards Tonnara (from the main Valderice road, turn left at the super-market). At Bonagìa, follow signs for the Tonnara (tuna fishery) while looking out for its distinctive tower. The tuna fishery, set up in the 17C, was once a simple self-contained village: clustered around a large central courtyard were the fishermens houses, facilities for cleaning and processing the tuna, the boathouse (now a conference centre, although two examples of fishing-boats remain) and a small chapel where the tuna fishermen used to assemble before going out to sea. The Saracen tower, intended for use in defending the place, now houses the Museo della Tonnara, a small museum displaying the tools and equipment required in building and repairing boats, fishing and the initial stages implemented in sorting and processing the fish. On the second floor, a scale model shows the long corridors of
net that the tuna must enter before reaching the last chamber made of very strong twine, known as the camera della morte (death chamber). It was here that the cruel mattanza (the kill or slaughter) took place. Today, the tuna fishery accommodates a large hotel complex.