Sunday, May 1, 2011


Bonagia, Sicily

Tonnare de Bonagia: the buildings around the tower.
I didn’t actually appreciate that in Western Sicily I’d be staying in an old tuna fishery - but I told you Sicily was surprising. In a small (very small) place near Trapani, named Bonagia, there was once a traditional tuna fishing village called a tonnare. There used to be tonnares all along the coast here, where fishing families lived clustered around the sheds for processing tuna, rooms where the families lived, and of course a small chapel, making and mending nets and baskets. The tonnare in Bonagia has been turned into a hotel, with the buildings centred around a paved courtyard. The dining room and bar now occupy what was the tuna processing building. You sleep where the villagers used to live, and the chapel is still there. Outside the arched entrance with big old doors is...the sea. And the boats, and the current crop of local fishermen, who live in regular houses now, along the crescent of the small bay with its tangily-perfumed fringe of dried seaweed.

tuna with goat's cheese
Until not very long ago (and maybe still, though I didn’t hear anyone admit it) the tuna was fished here in the traditional manner, called the mattanza. The tuna were ‘herded’ between the mainland and a close-lying island, into a fixed net system, surrounded by the boats, and killed with spears and hauled out of the water by the brute strength of the fishermen alone. The sea became very bloody and the killing frenzy looks rather terrible (there is a gory wall painting in the breakfast room at the Tonnare de Bonagia). But in fact it is said to be a very selective method of fishing, resulting in sustainable stocks. Stories are told in Bonagia today of individual tuna weighing in at 700 kilos in the past, but now they reach only (a still respectable) 400 kilos. Dire mutterings are heard about the Japanese fishermen nabbing the best tuna on its migration from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

The tonnare is a nice place to stay, and the walls breathe a lot of history. The choice of what to have for dinner is also fairly clearly taken care of: tonno (tuna), of course. You might like to read about The Last Tonnara.

Canoli and coffee "Before"
If Trapani and its district are known for tuna, Marsala is known guessed it, marsala. Large swathes of Western Sicily are covered in grape vines, where they’re not covered in olive trees, and the wine produced is gorgeously light and quaffable. The story of marsala, once the king of aperitifs in the 19th century, is rather patchy. Over-production and lack of attention to quality in the early twentieth century saw it relegated to cooking wine. But – and I knew you’d want me to check – I can report that the quality is back up where it should be, and this is a delicious aperitif style wine which goes excellently with Sicilian sweets. Nowhere near as sweet as a ‘sticky’ dessert wine. You can drink it with your 11 am canoli!

Canoli and marsala "After"

Ancient windmill. The green way.

Out on the roads between Trapani and Marsala is another ancient crop: salt. In the great salt pans of this area, salt is garnered from the sea by the age old method of evaporation. Sea water is let into large ‘pans’, becoming ever-shallower as the salinity increases, until once a year the natural sea salt is left, to be gathered (back-breakingly under the summer sun) and left to dry for six months under terracotta tiles. The pumping and grinding operations are powered by windmills – well, today there is some help from electricity, but you can see windmills silhouetted across the landscape. Originally they used nothing but wind power and an Archimedes’ Screw [see blog post on Siracusa!]. The salt was, and could still be, gathered with no modern fuel at all.

The salt pans of Nubia, near Trapani.
Erice: very nice once they let you in.
Bonagia, Marsala and Trapani are coastal towns – Trapani actually boasts a respectable sandy beach. But high on a beetling ridge behind them sits a tiny medieval town called Erice. It is said to have been settled by the Phoenicians around the 8th century BC, and to have housed the castles and garrisons of just about every occupier of Sicily ever since. But today the tourists have a bit more trouble getting in – operating in front of a bevy of ‘BENVENUTI A ERICE!’ signs is a ferocious lady parking officer, who will NOT let you park in a completely empty parking lot, on a holiday weekend, with car-sized painted parking spots, even if you buy a ticket. According to the uniformed señora, this is a parking lot for autobus only. So *** off.

Still, if you do manage to find a parking spot – it has to be on the edge of town, because Erice itself is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets, some barely wide enough for two people to walk – you will be delighted with the town. It has a rather lovely (reconstructed) Royal Church with beginnings going back to the 11th century. It has nuns in a cloister who bake and sell almond pastries. It has friendly locals who make great granita and will sell you some marsala. It has tiny pedestrian byways where you can walk completely alone (except for whoever is behind those ajar shutters up there). It has a castle and legends galore and views in all directions. There’s the Tonnare de Bonagia down by the sea, recognisable by its square Norman tower. Time to go home and eat more fish. Almond pastries and marsala for dessert.

Convent-made pastries

They have it all in Erice.

View from Erice to Bonagia and San Vito lo Capo
(that impressive cape in the distance). 

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