Coming from the elevated section of the motorway that connects it to Palermo, Mazara del Vallo suddenly fills the horizon. An expanse of tuff houses overlooking the sea and dotted with palm trees, araucarias and large cactus plants, in one of the most extreme corners of the Italian territory: on the other side of the Sicilian channel, just 145 kilometers away, there is Africa.
Mazara del Vallo, which for the locals is called only Mazara, is one of the most important fishing ports in the Mediterranean, has about 50 thousand inhabitants and is in the province of Trapani. Known for the crystal clear waters of its beaches, including that of the Capo Feto nature reserve, it has never exercised the same tourist attraction as other Sicilian cities, especially out of season.
The history of this Phoenician-founded port covers an arc of exceptional breadth that has seen very different civilizations alternate including those of Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards.
This gives it a unique cultural stratification, which today, while the fishing sector undergoes an inexorable decline, is pushing it to seek a new identity as a tourist destination and frontier land.
3 pm: seafarers.
To discover Mazara you have to start with the activity that for centuries the Mazara people have been engaged in from generation to generation: fishing. It starts from via Mozia, on the point where it crosses the Màzaro river and from which you can enjoy one of the views that best describe this city: the course of the river, gently curving towards the sea, is framed by modest but fascinating tuff constructions. and by fishing boats of various sizes docked on both sides. There is no shade of green and the walls of the houses are eaten by the salt: for those who do not live in Sicily it is an exotic landscape, which could be that of a Middle Eastern city. Going down the left side of the river, in the early afternoon we witness the abbanniata, when the smaller fishing boats return to the port and auction off the catch of the day directly on the quay. The master of ceremonies is the abbanniaturi, who collects the offers and assigns the batch of fish to the highest bidder. Watching over this noisy and ancient tradition is the statue of San Vito, patron saint of the city, which controls the entrance to the port and protects the sailors.
The Kasbah tells the integration between Sicilians and North Africans, which here is a thousand-year history
4 pm: cannoli and granita.
Continuing along the river you reach the sea and it’s time for a snack: in the pastry shops along the seafront you can find cannoli, cassata, granitas that can be savored on the tables overlooking the beach. But for those who are ready to extend the tour, it is recommended to go towards Piazza Matteotti as far as the #doppiozero pastry shop, where Giuseppe and Gianni, colleagues in the kitchen and couple in life, offer an updated and experimental version of all the typical Sicilian sweets.
5 pm: Instagram moment.
The promenade along the seafront leads to the small church of San Vito a Mare, a building a few meters from the shore that is striking for its evocative simplicity. Built in 1776, at the point where according to legend the young St. Vitus embarked for Rome, this church is worth a visit at sunset and is the joy of those who love to share their travel photos.
8 pm: fish-based dinner.
If, as is likely, you have left the abbey empty-handed, the solution is to look for the catch of the day in one of the many fish restaurants in Mazara. In the area of the fish market there is the Ancient fishing village, an institution, where fresh fish instead of on the menu is ordered directly from a table next to the kitchen. The sea will decide the dinner, even if the famous red prawn of Mazara never fails.
10 am: Arab Sicily.
The Kasbah is the Saracen heart of the city. Starting from Porta Palermo, the district branches off into a tangle of alleys and courtyards dating back to the era of Arab rule. Almost completely abandoned by the Mazara people, especially after the 1981 earthquake, the Kasbah had become an uninhabited and degraded area. In recent years, however, it has been repopulated by the Tunisian community and re-evaluated with a series of public interventions that today make it one of the main attractions of Mazara. The Kasbah tells the integration between Sicilians and North Africans, which here is a thousand-year history. Painted ceramic signs mark some places – such as the alley of the wind, the alley where “even when a leaf does not move” the wind never stops blowing – while the shutters of the vacant shops are decorated with murals by local artists.
1 pm: octopus couscous.
To translate the interesting meeting between Mazara and the Maghreb at the table, a lunch at Habibi’s is needed. Managed by the young people of the Terre senza frontiere agricultural cooperative, originally from various countries of the Mediterranean basin, this new simple restaurant with a limited menu offers one of the best couscous in the city, available with fish, as tradition dictates in Trapani, but also with octopus, with dried fruit or in the typical version with lamb.
3 pm: little-known baroque.
Before leaving the Kasbah, a visit to the church of San Francesco, in the square to which it gives its name, is mandatory. The unadorned and almost anonymous exterior makes the entrance to the church even more surprising, when the eyes of visitors are dazzled by an almost unmanageable mass of sculptures, bas-reliefs, frescoes and gilded stuccos of this almost unknown Sicilian Baroque jewel.
4 pm: a dip in Magna Graecia.
For the rest of the afternoon we leave the chaos of the city behind to reach Selinunte, the largest archaeological site in Europe half an hour away from Mazara. Less known than the valley of the temples of Agrigento, and therefore also less crowded, this area includes, in addition to the acropolis, a spectacular variety of temples, colonnades and necropolis of the homonymous Greek colony of the seventh century BC. In autumn, the majestic temple of Hera, surrounded by the tall grass of a silent field overlooking the sea, makes the visitor believe that he is the first to discover it.
Ore 20: the busiate.
For dinner you have to taste the busiate, the typical local fresh pasta in the shape of an elongated fusillo. At the Bettola the chef Pietro Sardo offers them seasoned with the catch of the day and accompanied by a choice of over two hundred Sicilian wines. After dinner, an evening walk in the center is a good opportunity to enjoy the elegant Piazza della Repubblica, the tuff “living room” of the city, overlooked by the Norman cathedral of the Holy Savior and the bishop’s seminary, with its imposing portico eleven arches.
10 am: at the bottom of the sea.
The first stop of the morning is the Garibaldi theater, yet another hidden treasure of Mazara. Almost devoid of a facade and external decorations, this small but unmissable wooden theater – it has only 99 seats – was built during the riots of 1848 as a place to entertain the people. It is entirely made with the wood of disused fishing boats and finely decorated in the style of Sicilian carts. As a tribute to the sailors to whom it is dedicated, the theater is in the shape of a hull. After this visit it is time to go and admire the most precious object present in Mazara: the dancing satyr. This magnificent bronze statue of Greek art, found in the Sicilian channel in 1998 by the fishing boat Capitan Ciccio, is attributed to the Praxiteles school. The satyr, portrayed in the moment of the ecstasy of the orgiastic dance in honor of Dionysius, is kept in the sparse museum to which he gives his name and can often be observed in solitude as rarely happens in front of masterpieces of this magnitude. Leaving the museum, if the door is open, it is worth taking a look at the ruins of Sant’Ignazio: of this baroque church that collapsed in 1933, only the perimeter of walls decorated and covered with ivy remains. Above there is only the sky.
1 pm: simple flavor.
For a quick meal before leaving, the advice is to taste the pieces of the Sicilian rotisserie: the Mangogna arancine, in via Crispi, are at the top of the list. Leaving the city one has the impression of having discovered a diamond in the rough, which does not strike her beauty in the face but lets it leak out without any hurry.
Where to sleep
Mazara del Vallo
Meliaresort historic houses
A stone’s throw from the Kasbah, this hotel is housed in a medieval building and offers rooms decorated in perfect Sicilian style.
To the goldfish
Beachfront holiday homes at a modest price, whose real attraction is the excellent fish restaurant of the same name to which they are connected.
This recently opened b & b has comfortable rooms, furnished in an elegant and minimalist way, with a wide view of the sea.