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Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

Seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, atop the mountain of San Giuliano and overlooking the city of Trapani sits the medieval town of Erice, or as it is pronounced in Sicily, “Air-reach-ay”.

For nearly 3,000 years this unique place has inspired man to contemplate the deeper meaning of life and his/her relationship with the gods.

We had read other travellers accounts of their pilgrimage to Erice, and their recollections of their experiences here placed this mystical spot firmly near the top of the ‘must-do’ list for Sicily.

Our travels around Sicily had so far been confined to the coasts and this was our first foray up into the mountains that crowd much of Sicily’s interior.  We hoped to see beautiful churches, ancient buildings, mountainous landscapes and to sample some of the local delicacies while we were there.  We were not disappointed.

Our short journey from our last stopping place near Capo San Vito was unremarkable until we saw San Giuliano, the mountaintop partly shrouded in mist, with the Erice perched on top and clinging on tightly.  Betsy happily climbed the steep road to the summit, regularly dodging buses on tight hairpin bends.

We pulled up outside the ancient Spada Gate, parked up beside the other campers and immediately poked our noses inside the town walls.   The wide path directly to our right sloped steeply alongside the ancient walls which were originally constructed around 800 BC.

Steep road inside Erice’s 800 BC  walls
Directly ahead was a flatter path leading to a church and beyond.  We pulled our noses back in and took in our wider surroundings.  The view from our lofty parking spot was over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and the lush countryside we had traversed that day.  The parking area was fringed with a profusion of yellow, orange and blue wildflowers and the only sound was the wind rustling the trees which towered over the lichen covered stone walls behind us.

This is what we absolutely love about the motorhoming lifestyle – being able to park and sleep beside absolutely unique and astounding landmarks and sites, where all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a room.

Betsy’s view from Erice

Betsy’s view from Erice

We couldn’t help ourselves and just had to have a quick looksie around the area while it was still reasonably light and warmish.

At this altitude the wind certainly had a bit more bite so we took some warmer clothing just in case.  Unloaded the bikes and we were off through the Spada Gate only to meet a small on-coming truck – how the hell was he going to fit through there???  Somehow, he made it with a couple of centimetres on either side of his wing mirrors.  He had clearly done that before.

It seems that everywhere in this village there is a unique story to tell and the gory story of the Spada Gate (Gate of the Sword) was the massacre of the French Angevins in 1282, who were occupying Erice during the Sicilian Vespers Wars. We made it through un-massacred fortunately.

The track went steeply upwards and was obviously not made for bikes, (not even ebikes like ours) and included some gravel and rough paths.  But we made it safely onto the streets of what is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  The first thing that struck me was how they have built the roads.  The stones are laid in an eye-catching geometric pattern which combined with the grass growing up through the cracks created a very attractive effect.  Four long stones are chamfered at both ends and butted up to each other to form a square, which is then infilled with other stones to make a solid road.  The result is not just aesthetically pleasing but also robust as nearly all of the roads are in good condition despite having to cope with modern traffic.

The Stone Lattice of Erice’s Roads

The Road and Wall of the Royal Cathedral

This same technique was used for both the larger roads and smaller footpaths and perfectly complimented the local stone buildings.

Erice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily and can be reached by private car, bus, taxi or via cable car from nearby Trapani.  In the summer it is usually heaving with tourists but on this pleasant autumn evening the crowds were nearly non-existent.

No-one can visit Erice without popping into some of the nearly 60 churches of historical value.  Why so many churches you may ask?  Well, it seems that the site has been occupied since at least 800 BC, conquered and resettled by many cultures and virtually everyone has considered Erice to be a special, sacred place.  Therefore, every civilisation left traces of their unique religious heritage in the form of history, ruins, churches and traditions, which we can still appreciate today.

We made great progress around the town, ever thankful for the convenience and ease afforded to us by our ebikes and came across the Chiesa San Martino.  This is one of the most impressive of all the churches, built in the 1600’s on the site of a 14th-century Gothic church.  We wanted to get a head start on our sightseeing so we purchased the discounted tickets for seeing eight of the best buildings, only to find out that two were closed – ever mindful of getting the best value for money, I was a little dismayed to lose 25% of the discount before we even started.

You would think that after having visited dozens of churches, cathedrals and mosques in Italy, Greece and Turkey over the last ten months, it would all become a bit old for us – the ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church), but no, we still had our breath taken away regularly.

One of these occasions was previously at the Monreale Cathedral and today was another epic one.

The majesty, the elegance, the lightness and the opulence just grabs hold of your bottom jaw and wrenches it as open as it can possibly go.  Many churches are darkened and you have to look hard to see their hidden treasures but San Martino is white and light grey, delicate stuccos, bright frescos, mottled columns and intricately inlaid marble altars, floors and bannisters.  Best of all, we were totally alone in this treasure to enjoy the solitude and to marvel at the workmanship and quality of the restoration work.

San Martino Church Interior

San Martino Church

San Martino Church Ceiling

Still buzzing from our experience, we wandered down the steep decline of Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Monastari de San Salvatore, which to be honest was a bit of a let-down after our last high, as it was completely unrestored, and many rooms were closed off.  There were however the original ovens (in use until relatively recently) used by the monks to bake bread and the local speciality, sweets.

Original Monastery Ovens

By this time, it was starting to cool down and the wind was whistling through the narrow streets like a herd of screaming banshees so we high tailed back to Betsy for dinner and bed.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we were blessed with a lovely sunset and we couldn’t wait to get started tomorrow and see what else Erice had to offer us.

The sun sets over Erice (and Betsy)

The next day thwarted the weather forecast and dawned misty and cool instead of bright and sunny.  Apparently, Erice makes up its own mind about its weather and tends to like hiding in the clouds.  Probably to keep up that mystical appearance.  Tendrils of mist wafted around Betsy and blocked out the view below and the peak above.  This didn’t seem like good ‘cycling-around-Erice’ weather so we rested up and waited for the clouds to clear.  Once the sun was shining we cycled around the road to the main gate of Porta Trapani, which was close to two buildings on our hit list; Duomo Dell’Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption), otherwise known as the “Royal Cathedral” and the Bell Tower beside the church.

The Bell Tower was a little freaky to climb up inside and is no place for anyone who is claustrophobic as with a ducked head you climb the tiny staircase that wraps around the inside walls.  We both managed to navigate our way to the top.

This was originally built as a watchtower to look out for enemies so the view from the top was spectacular as expected.  From the town and salt marshes of Trapani with the cable car stretching to Erice, to the inland pastures and mountains and over the roofs of the township, everything could be seen for miles around.

The view over the town roofs from the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) Bell Tower

If entering Chiesa San Martino was a ‘wow’ moment, then the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) was at least as big a ‘Wow’ and maybe even a little wowier (is that even a word??).  How can they have made each of these churches so different inside?  They are similar in how they are laid out but so varied in the details that each appears entirely unique.  What stood out here initially was the ceiling of the Gothic arches, which was an amazingly detailed lattice of cream stucco, originating from restoration work in the mid-1800’s.  Each nave and apse held new treasures to exclaim over and photograph.

Royal Cathedral Interior

On our day went, with the visiting of buildings only briefly interrupted by a quick sidestep into a bakery for a selection of local sweets and pastries, one of which was so loaded with alcohol we weren’t sure we should be riding our bikes afterwards.

After lunch, we rode around to the 12th-century Norman Castle of Erice or the Venus Castle, so called because it is built on top of an ancient Temple to the Goddess of Fertility.  The castle is not large but still looks spectacular perched high on the walls and surrounded by clouds of spring wildflowers.  Inside there is not a lot to see however again the outlook is out of this world and you could image the pagans carrying on their fertility rites here a couple of thousands of years ago (well what you can imagine will depend on your imagination eh?).

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

The View from Venus Castle

Meandering further around the outskirts we found the twin medieval towers of the Torri dal Balio and stunning panoramic views over the sea and landscape.  Looking down you can see the Torretta Pepoli, which is a small quaint castle built in 1870 that is now a place for quiet reflection.

Panoramic from the Torri  dal Balio

The Torretta Pepoli and Venus Castle

The Torretta Pepoli – 19th Century Castle

The Church of Saint Giuliano was our last church stop in Erice and was a little understated compared with what we had seen previously – I guess they can’t all be just outright amazing.  The plain white interior still exhibited nice stucco features.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

Of particular interest were the Easter (Pasqua) religious displays which are carried through the village during the Easter parades.  We were there just in time as someone turned up and started removing them while we were looking at them.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

We ended our time in Erice with a final cycle through the steep streets and around the central square then back to Betsy, where we slept a second night before continuing on our way towards Marsala.

The overall impression I had of Erice is a sense of the very long and continuous relationship between man and God that has existed in this place.  While other towns in Sicily have been sacked, burned or toppled by earthquakes (often all three), Erice has consistently displayed the reverence and devotion to faith of whomever has occupied her.  As far as I can see there is no sign of that changing any time soon.