For Italophiles, Sicily is one of the most fascinating places in the country, virtually its own little microcosm of life. The medieval hilltop town of Erice embraces a vast depth of history and culture within its fortified walls, and its spectacular position overlooking the harbour of Trapani makes it one of the loveliest places on Sicily’s western coast.
The wonderful diversity of Erice’s heritage is what makes it so appealing to travellers looking to do more than simply scratch the surface of Sicily’s storied past. The relics and cultural remnants of that rich history are the very reason the town features on the itinerary of our “Sicily Off the Beaten Path” tour. The tour is one I highly recommend to anyone looking to unlock the authentic heart and soul of Sicily – for me, Erice is definitely the key.
Erice has played an intriguing role in the history of Sicily since its founding – probably by the Elymians, who were also responsible for establishing nearby Segesta. The name Erice is a derivation of the mythical son of Aphrodite and Butes, Eryx, but the town has had numerous names over the years. While the Norman Monte San Giuliano was used for many centuries, in the 1930s the town was renamed under Mussolini’s rule to honour the ancient past and from Eryx came Erice.
Over the millennia, the town has passed through the hands of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans and served as an important sacred site for those numerous peoples that made the island home.
Castello di Venere
The twelfth-century Castello di Venere stands on the site of the town’s ancient Roman temple, which was dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Even when the temple was destroyed and replaced by a fortress, the sacred significance of the site never waned. Bitter power battles were waged by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthagians and Romans for control of the site and, with the arrival of Christianity, the Temple of Virgin Mary was constructed in its place.
When the Normans ruled the region, they built an imposing castle surrounded by mighty battlements from the stones of the ruined temple. It is this incarnation that stands today, including the medieval Balio Towers, which, while once connected the castle by a drawbridge, are now separated. As well as exploring the scattered ruins that remain from the Temple of Venus, visitors can wander the tranquil terraced Balio Gardens and take in views over Trapani that, for my money, are some of the best in Sicily.
The Boundary Walls
The Phoenicians built the massive defensive boundary walls that encircled the town in the eighth century BC. Interspersed by three Norman gates, with towers at each, in many places the walls are very well preserved, allowing you to appreciate the sheer size of the blocks from which they are constructed. I think the best place to conceptualise the scale of the walls is on the section between Porta Carmine and Porta Spada, near the church dell’Addolorata.
The Beautiful Town Centre
Taking a stroll through the charming streets of the town centre is a history lesson in itself. The diverse influences of the region are evident in the architecture of the buildings and numerous lovely churches. The main one, the Chiesa Madre, is constructed from the stones of the ancient temple. While it was built in the fourteenth century, the striking nineteenth-century neo-Gothic interiors are a bit of a surprise. I highly recommend a trip up the adjacent bell tower (if you have the energy) for the fabulous far-reaching views.
There are several other notable churches, including the Chiesa di San Giulio and Chiesa di san Martino that make for a worthwhile visit. However, I think the best way to get an insight into local life is to stop for coffee in the centrally-located Piazza Umberto I, and simply watch the world go by.
The Cordici Museum
For those looking to delve a little further into the cache of archaeological finds from the region, the Cordici Museum in Piazza Umberto houses an excellent collection that includes a small marble head of Aphrodite. The museum’s displays also contain important paintings, statues, coins, manuscripts, marble and other objects of antiquity unearthed around the town.
Feel the Gentle Kiss of Venus
There are those who believe the goddess Venus remains a force to be reckoned with in Erice. Often the entire town is enshrouded in low cloud and mists, which obscure the stunning views that are enjoyed on clear, cloudless days. Locals call these damp, lingering mists the “kisses of Venus”, a notion that quite appeals to my romantic side.
Eat Like a Local in Erice
The itinerary on our Sicily Off the Beaten Track Tour sees you in Erice with some free time for lunch. Getting to know a destination through its food is one of my absolute travel pleasures, and there are plenty of choices here to introduce you to some genuine Sicilian culinary traditions.
The town’s most famous delicacies are the almond pastries and cakes you’ll see displayed in the windows of the pasticcerie. This is one time I most certainly don’t recommend window shopping! They’re truly melt-in-your-mouth delicious and I dare you to stop at one.
There are plenty of small cafes and bars dotted throughout the medieval streets of the town catering for tourists, but if you’re looking for something a little more authentic I recommend finding a café in Piazza Umberto and trying their daily specials. For some super views as a side dish, the café in the grounds of the Castello di Venere is one of my favourite places to enjoy lunch.