In Erice, Italy, a world of mist and stone
ERICE, Italy — "You don't come here to see sights, you come here to be here," I was told by one native of this walled town that crowns an isolated mountain 2,400 feet above the port city of Trapani in northwestern Sicily. I was well into my week's stay by then, but even days earlier, as the switchback road with its heart-stopping drop-offs first carried me upward, I began to sense that Erice would stand distinct from the surrounding countryside of intense heat and sun, olive groves and vineyards. I was ascending toward a cool, gray, mist-shrouded world.
During my stay, the town's singular perch, which once provided a natural defensive position for the island's numerous occupiers — Greeks, Cathaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, and Normans among them — afforded me unlimited vistas of seas and the other Sicily below. The light was always changing over Trapani to the west and south, its crescent beach and salt pans lapped by the Mediterranean. To the north the limestone slopes of another isolated peak, Monte Cofano, sometimes ran red, then blue, then ochre, its colors reflected in the Tyrrhenian Sea below.
I came to think of those views outward, with their sense of space and air — at least when the mist rose — as one Erice. When I turned my back on the perimeter walls I entered another: an Erice cowled in stone. Narrow, winding cobbled streets and alleys cut between stone houses, churches, and courtyard walls gave onto small stone squares. Streets paved with unpatterned stones had gutters made of cascades of small cobbles smooth as riverstones. The stones on wider streets were figured in squares, or set with runs of oblong slabs that served as wheel tracks. Steep alleyways were broken by shallow stone steps cut into them. No dust or litter anywhere. The stones seemed to be polished by centuries of foot traffic.
The best advance advice I received was to bring sturdy shoes, for during my days there I often walked until my kneecaps ached. Still, I never seemed to tire of the stone. The patterns of the cobbles, and the small things that broke up the stone — a curtained window, a pot of succulents, a green door, a brass knocker — helped me find my way better than any map. I was happiest when I allowed myself to get lost in the streets, trying out alleys, winding and turning until I came across something familiar.
In July and August the streets can be thick with tourists and summer people — many Trapanesi come here to escape the intense heat of summer down below, but by mid-September, when I was here, they are gone. Frequently I had the streets near the edges of town almost to myself. I felt as if the Ericeans were in hiding, for I saw more suggestions of habitation — laundry drying on a clothesline, a lean cat feeding on a plate of spaghetti — than people. Only when I walked into the heart of town, in the streets radiating from the central Piazza Umberto, where the majority of the restaurants, stores, and cafes can be found, did I encounter much of a bustle. Yet even there, since cars are restricted throughout, several dogs always slept on the street outside the butcher shop.
I found quiet, too, in Erice's numerous churches. One $6.50 ticket will gain you entrance to many of them, including the duomo near the Norman castle along the periphery. But it's the small churches that held my attention: San Carlo with its yellow and green tile floor; San Martino with its wooden statues and frescos . I lingered longest at San Juliano in the center, at the town's highest point. Its luminous white plaster interior created a feeling of expansiveness.
When I mentioned how calm the church felt to the woman taking tickets at the entrance, she rolled her eyes and chuckled. I could see she'd had a long day, short on visitors perhaps, and I realized the quiet of the town was more complex for her than for me. By January there are fewer than 300 residents on top of the mountain, and some restaurants close for the month.
The town's atmosphere may be coolly distinct — often 10 degrees cooler than the valley — but Erice shares the signature food of the rest of Trapani province: dishes infused with fruity olive oil, and pasta tossed with pesto trapanese (basil, tomatoes, garlic, and almonds). The menus are dominated by fish: octopus salad, stuffed sardines, swordfish grilled or rolled and stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and currants.
Erice's culinary distinction lies in its pastries, which are tied to its history. A town dominated by churches was also dominated by monasteries and convents, and the nuns in the convents painstakingly made marzipan and other confections to support themselves. In war-ravaged mid-20th-century Sicily, Italian writer Carlo Levi recalled making a purchase at a convent: "We . . . expressed our wishes to a dim shade behind the double grates . . . without a word being spoken, the pastries, delicate green and pink and lavender and azure flowers, appeared in the turn wheel and we left money in their place."
The convents are now closed, and many of their buildings are incorporated into the more modern town, though the proprietor of the pastry shop in the center, the eponymous Pasticceria Grammatico Maria, learned her craft from the nuns of San Carlo Convent. She spent part of her childhood in its orphanage. Her shop, with its abundant displays of pastries, cookies, and marzipan fruits piled high, is utterly appealing to the eye and suggests something of the transformation of the town — and Sicily — since the grim postwar years of want.
It seems fitting that the more somber perimeter of the town would have a pastry shop of its own. On my last afternoon in Erice I turned down a narrow side street and into the courtyard of Pasticceria San Carlo. As I parted the beaded curtains and tentatively entered the shadowy room, one of the bakers emerged from a back room and served the two priests who'd entered just ahead of me. They had plenty of time for talk as I mulled over a small case containing sample pastries before settling on a pastry cream wrapped in pastry, which I carried to a small limestone outcrop in the courtyard.
Amid stone and beneath a clear sky I took in a final quiet moment in a town that would begin to seem unreal even the next day as I descended down the switchbacks into the sun-scorched country of the other Sicily.
Jane Brox can be reached at janebrox.com.