Sicily, Real and Imagined
On the coast of this legendary island, the author lets her imagination go
By Cathie Arquilla
Imagined I start with the beach: I’ve been on a transatlantic flight and I just landed in Palermo, Sicily. Arriving very early in the morning, I head straight to the village of Bonagia, where I plan to nurse my jetlag by spending two days in this small fishing village, famous for its tuna catch and cannery. I spend it in the company of a handsome fellow at the Tonnara De Bonagia hotel.
Real My guide is Giacomo Incarbona, owner and operator of Elite Island tours, an outfit that specializes in tours of the Trapani region (where my imagined vacation takes place). He has wavy silver hair, a winning smile, and handsome physic. He’s wearing a light khaki sport coat, slim cream pants and Italian loafers. I think I’m mostly attracted to him because of the loafers (no socks), but it could be his smile too.
Elite Island tours will make plans to accommodate whatever you’d like to do in Trapani, customizing a trip to your liking, and this includes managing accommodations as well. Giacomo is personally available to be your guide! The plan is for Giacomo to take us up the coast to the village of Bonagia. There is a cool hotel there that was once a tuna factory.
Still Real We get into Giacomo's car, three travel writers chatting. When Giacomo turns the key in the ignition … nothing. The car won’t start, it has a dead battery, the result of the lights being left on. It’s happened to us all. Giacomo’s response; no problem “We have a B plane, you always have a B plane. B plane every, “ leaving off the word, time.
This became a running mantra amongst our little group and I’m still using it stateside. B plane every…
(Imagined, REALLY, JUST PRETEND, AND IN GOOD FUN) Giacomo becomes my lover. Not because of his good looks, but because he is totally unfazed by what could have wrecked a perfectly good day on any vacation. Indeed, he makes a B plane, by calling his friend who swiftly arrives with B car.
Real Once Giacomo’s colleague arrives with another car we pile in for a coastal drive to Tonnara de Bonagia hotel (where I spend the first two nights of my imagined vacation). On the way he tells us about his apartment on the island of Marettimo. He says he uses it to, “get away from everything.” He also explains that there is a community of “older people,” I’m thinking retirees, that have homes there from Monterey CA.
Being from California I wanted to know more… Doing an easy Google search I find out that in the early to middle part of the last century, many fishermen from Marettimo immigrated to Monterey to find fish, and hopefully their fortunes too. As years went by, the Marettimari in Monterey outgrew that of Marettimo itself. Fast forward– many descendants of these early fishermen have moved to, or have a second home, on the Island.
It’s not uncommon to find some of these old-timers in coffee shops in Monterey speaking the Sicilian dialect of Marettimo. Marettimo is among an archipelago of Islands off the coast of Trapani called the Egadi Islands. Because it is the furthest west or out to sea, it is considered the most remote – a throwback in time. Yes, in my imagined vacation, I would like Giacomo to take me to his island home.
Coastline, Trapani and the Village of Bonagia
The drive along the coast to Bonagia is a hodgepodge of industry, apartments, beaches and hotels. Some of the buildings look like above ground bunkers, but then every so often there is a nice beach, little resort or residence. There was some conversation about what the Italian government might be doing to better the landscape. Giacomo said it was up to private industry.
Unfortunately, rumors still abound that getting things done in Sicily is not easy and requires “greased palms.” Giacomo didn’t mention this, but he did say that, “South Italy is not taken seriously. The government doesn’t help us. It is up to the private citizen to make it happen.”
We arrive. Bonagia was once a village of fisherman and tuna fishing was their first economy. Hotel Tonnara de Bonagia is a 15-year old resort that was once a tuna canning factory. It celebrates this heritage with a little tuna museum on the top of its ramparts. There, amongst other things, you can see a miniature maze of the nets used to woo the tuna to their demise. It looks like a mousetrap for fish.
The resort itself is simple. I would call it factory chic. It’s contemporary, but not overly groovy, a sometimes folly of reimagined properties– they lose their functionality in trying to be too cool. Views from the suite windows of the little fishing bay and the sea beyond are lovely. Rooms are decorated in a friendly Mediterranean style, not super chic, but welcoming.
Imagined I lie under an umbrella by the pool at the Tonnara hotel. I’m already tan and of course I’ve prepped by body for swimsuit wearing by taking barre classes for the last eight weeks. (Wait a minute, this is a fantasy, I don’t have to exercise!) I sip procecco.
Real The pool is situated just behind a clay colored, rocky, cactus-strewn beach. The view to my right, as I look out to sea, is of a large, sweeping bay. Mt. Cafano, is the last bit of land I see in that direction. It looks like a gigantic hunchback who stuck his head under water. Behind me, way up on the mountain is the ancient town of Erice.
I’m wishing I could take the time to linger poolside and enjoy the tuna crostini the hotel has graciously prepared.
Instead I wolf it down in the back seat of Giacomo’s car, olive oil seeping down my wrists.
Imagined: Erice Dreaming
Now that I’m on La Dolce Vita time, it’s time for a little culture. I go to the ancient city of Erice. It sits at the top of the mountain that was the backdrop to my sunbathing. I get there by cable car. Giacomo and I take in spectacular views of Trapani as we ascend.
Real Erice is the Sicily you dream of– cobbled winding streets, the width of a mid-size SUV, no jacked up Starbuck moms hauling down these streets in their Suburbans. It hosts stores with olive oil, peppers in olive oil, tomatoes in olive oil, and more mysterious yet tantalizing things in…olive oil.
More stores with pastas and marzipan, ceramic and candies, beckon. One could easily devote a full day to wondering the shops of Erice. I buy earrings made of silver thread with crystals woven in from a little shop with a long name called Giardino dei Punti Antichi de Rindinella Francesca that is scooped out of a stone wall. A lovely young lady who speaks as little English as do Italian (not much) helps me with my selection.
I thought later, we actually did speak the same language, that of ohs and awes and pretty fancy things.
Still Real, Al Fresco Lunch, Erice
We lunch at Monte San Giuliano out on a covered terrace overlooking the sea. I literally catch my breath as I approach the dining area. It’s tucked down an alley through an archway, and behind a wall or iron fence or both.
There is a shock of pink-red flowers leading up a staircase to the ladies room, but make a right instead and you’re taken by surprise as the open-air patio presents itself. Long tables are set with yellow tablecloths. I’m hungry and delighted. I think I even giggle.
I get to sit next to Giacomo! The starter is grilled calamari and it smells like basil and olive oil and…campfire. Before drinking, I’ve got a heady feeling from the wine. Perhaps it’s the combination of the senses being pumped–the smell of fresh sea air, stone walls covered in bright green leaves, the sound of birds, and do I hear waves? Everything is from the Mediterranean and probably the bay of Trapani below. We are served cous cous topped by a fish called gallinella.
I generously douse my plate with fish broth, available from a ceramic carafes set here and there on the table. The dish has hints of Arabia; a nod to one-time conquerors of the Island. Matteo Giurlando is the chef. He is both handsome and talented, and he seems happy in his occupation, but maybe that is my own interpretation of someone who works in this storybook setting.
Imagined Erice is so lovely, I’ve decided to stay the night.
This will give my lover and me plenty of time to explore this most ancient walled city in Sicily. With over sixty churches, gothic to baroque palazzos, museums, gardens and micro industries to explore, we’ll be plenty busy, doing all that, or nothing at all.
Real Erice was a fortress in Roman and Arab times, but before that the Normans built Castello de Venere (Venus Castle) ostensibly on the sight of a pagan temple dedicated to Aphrodite. As free sex was the order of the day, priestesses are said to have entertained sailors at will. Venus Castle is your entre to Erice.
It looks right out of "Game of Thrones" and it sets the stage for the whole place. There are views in every direction, but at one point our guide points out the fishing village of Bonagia (I pretend stayed there last night) and San Vito Lo Capo, Trapani’s most prestigious sea-side resort town.
Trapani by Night
Imagined The next day after breakfast and lunch in Erice, we head back to the historic center of Trapani to experience some city living, Trapani style. Sunset at Torre di Ligny- a watch tower at the end of a pier, at the end of a slip of land, that juts out into the sea, at the confluence of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian sea – is beyond Romantic, with a capitol R. (Add accordion music or strings in your head.)
Real Torre de Ligny was once a watch tower with light artillery built by the Spanish for protection against Moorish pirates. Today it is a romantic esplanade with spectacular views of the sea and coastline. Spending several days in Trapani, it becomes very apparent that the history of Sicily is beyond complicated. As the biggest island, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, it has had numerous conquerors throughout its history, from all different directions.
These conquering influences are what contribute to Sicily’s uniqueness, making its art, culture, food and beauty a hybrid of the best sort.
Both Real and Imagined
Trapani by night welcomes me. I wander off by myself. The city has a relaxed hum. I’m inspired seeing my first love after travel, fashion, in windows up and down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
It is a beautiful night, the weather, soft and warm. The inhabitants are relishing in their city by the sea. Baroque facades marry well with cool cafes. There is something about the light, brandy colored and glowing, that makes me feel calm and relaxed, romantic and sexy.
As a guest of the Italian National Tourist Board, Sicily, my pace was very quick, so I didn’t have the time to linger at the places I’ve written about. This, Both Real and Imagined story, gave me the opportunity to do just that, linger, in my mind, and on the page!
Tips for Trapani Travelers
Donnafugata winery has a wonderful tour and tasting
Duca De Salaparuta Florio winetasting – Marsala wine is not just for cooking.
Saline Ettore e Infersa, a place to taste salts and see views– windmills set against salt, sand, sea and sky. Learn about traditional salt production in Sicily.
Get the Al Quattro Pepi salt.
Museo Pepoli, a contemporary art museum that was once a convent, includes a prized collection of elaborate inlaid gems. What gives the jewelry a sense of place is its renowned coral collection– coral, from the bay of Trapini.
Stay and eat:
Duca di Castelmonte, For five generations the Curatolo family has lived on, and harvested the land that is this agriturismo today.
For the past 18 years, Castelmonte has been a hotel run by Toto Curatolo, who could be a stand-in for the movie star Sanley Tucci. This family-run Sicilian farmstead-hotel is as authentic and fresh as the ricotta they make everyday!
FH Hotel Crystal, Trapani, modern efficient hotel, good location Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa, Spectacular luxury resort in Ragusa.
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