In 1968, the hillside town of Gibellina was devastated by a 6.1-scale earthquake. Somewhat like the residents of Noto, who befell a similar fate, the town decided to abandon the ruins and start from scratch in a location which was close by, and hopefully more stable. Between 1985 and 1989, an Italian artist named Alberto Burri used the old city’s ruins as the canvas for his most audacious work of modern sculpture. The resulting concrete cemetery is a bold piece of art, a comment on death, and a moving tribute to the devastated city.
Segesta was founded high upon Mount Barbaro by the Elymian people, one of three Bronze Age cultures that flourished in Sicily before the arrival of overseas powers. Eventually, though, the foreigners came knocking and, after a doomed alliance with Carthage, Segesta attached its fortunes to Athens. The Romans and Arabs also took possession of Segesta, but the city was abandoned completely at some point during the Middle Ages. This desertion allowed Segesta’s ruins to survive relatively untouched, shielded from the destructive march of history.
During our day trip to Sicily’s northwestern extreme, we only had a couple hours to explore Trapani. That’s not nearly enough time to do justice to this city of 70,000, but it was winter. Days are shorter, and we also had Erice to get to. So we confined ourselves to Trapani’s historic center, which begins as the city branches off from the island and becomes a narrow strip of land jutting into the sea.
Sicily is a large island and, although we’d love to explore every city, village, hill and coastline, there’s no way we’d ever be able to in just 91 days. But some cities are close enough to Palermo to serve as easy day trips. Trapani and its hilltop neighbor Erice are two such towns, just a couple hours away, and we hopped on an early morning bus to check them out.
In the 18th century, the elite of Palermo chose Bagheria as the place to escape city life and erect their villas. These remain into the present day, and give the town of 55,000 a peculiar feel. Gorgeous Baroque and Neoclassical villas with poetic names like Palagonia, Spedalotto and Serradifalco are spotted throughout the town, hidden among ugly newer constructions thrown together in the post-war years.
If you don’t want your jaw to smack painfully against the ground, you’d do well to wear a tight chin strap when visiting the Cathedral of Monreale. During our tour, my mouth was wide open, rivulets of drool escaping my gaping jowl. But I didn’t care, and I doubt anyone was paying attention. To be inside the Monreale’s cathedral and concentrate on anything other than its shimmering beauty is nearly impossible.
On any visit to Palermo, a day trip to the town of Monreale is essential for a few reasons. Its magnificent cathedral is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved examples of Norman architecture. And the view obtained over Palermo’s valley is incredible. Just a handful of miles from the city, Monreale couldn’t be easier to reach and would be worth the journey just for a walk through its picturesque, sleepy mountain streets.