On Day Two of our Sicilian adventure, we linger at the western tip the island to explore the small coastal towns of Marsala and Mazara del Vallo. Originally settled by the Phoenician over 2,500 years ago, their unique character has been shaped the diverse cultures that have succeeded them throughout the centuries.These days, Marsala is mainly known internationally for its fortified Marsala wine. But its present name, derived from the Arabic “Marsa Allah” (Port of God) gives an idea of how strategically important the town once was.
First known as Lilibeo, it was settled in 396 BC by the Phoenician survivors of the lagoon island of Motya, which had been razed the previous year by Dionysus I of Syracuse, and soon grew into a prosperous fortified port. It became Lilybaeum when it was conquered by the Romans in 241BC, and remained a tributary city of Rome until the Empire started falling apart. Next came the Vandals, (440 AD) followed by the Byzantines (535) and the Arabs (827). Then from the end of the 11th century onward, the area was conquered successively by Norman, Angevin and Aragonese troops. Though it all, Marsala remained a thriving trading center – until the 16th century when Emperor Charles V blocked its harbor to stop the forays of Saracen pirates. Today’s Marsala is a sleepy sun-drenched small town that has retained the shaded piazzas and streets lined with the stately buildings of its Baroque heydays.
Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi
At the edge of the old town, a well-preserved ancient Baglio (winery complex fortified around a vast central courtyard) holds Marsala’s main attraction: the partially reconstructed remains of a Carthaginian liburna (warship) sunk off the nearby Egadi Islands during the First Punic War and discovered in 1969. Displayed alongside objects from its cargo, the ship’s bare bones provide the only remaining physical evidence of the Phoenicians’ seafaring superiority in the 3rd century BC, offering a glimpse of a civilisation extinguished by the Romans. Among the objects found on board the ship and displayed here are ropes, cooking pots, corks from amphorae, a brush, a sailor’s wooden button and even a stash of cannabis. In an adjacent room, the impressive wreck of a Roman merchant vessel dating to the 3rd or 4th century AD is also displayed. A third room showcases other regional archaeological artefacts including a superb marble statue known as La venere di lilybaeum (The Venus of Lilybaeum) and some mosaics from the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.
Mazara del Vallo
Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the south, the city of Mazara del Vallo, founded as a Phoenician outpost in the 9th century BC, evolved through the familiar tide of invaders that shaped the history of Sicily. It prospered as a port facility for the nearby Greek city of Selinunte, but it is under the Arabs that it realized its full potential. Located barely 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Tunisian coast, it flourished not only in its traditional maritime and commercial activities, but also as a major political and cultural centre second only to Palermo. The North African influence permeates the streets of Mazara to this day, especially noticeable in the warren of narrow alleys of the historic Casbah, where a sizable community of Tunisian descent lives and works to this days.
Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore
In the center of the city, the Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore (of the Holy Savior) is uniquely evocative of the cultural journey of Mazara. Originally built by the Normans in the 11th century on a site where a mosque previously stood, it evolved over the century into a harmonious mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The adjoining Bishop’s Palace with its distinctive two-tiered arched Baroque facade is connected to the western transept of the Cathedral by a high Tocchetto (arched bridge covered by a loggia).
Il Satiro Danzante
But the jewel in Mazara’s crown can found an easy 5-minute walk away in the deconsecrated shell of the Chiesa de Sant’Egidio (Church of Saint Egidio), repurposed as the Museo del Satiro Danzante (Museum of the Dancing Satyr). The museum revolves around its central exhibit, a magnificent overlife-size bronze statue known as the Dancing Satyr, hauled from the depths of the Mediterranean by local fishermen in the late 1990s.
This rare original casting from the Hellenistic era (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) depicts a bacchanalian satyr in mid-leap, dancing wildly, arms outstretched, back arched, hair swinging with the movement of his head. The facture is highly refined, with the white of his eyes rendered in alabaster inlays. Although two millennia in the depths have taken their toll and the arms are well as one of the legs where not recovered, the power of the work remains intact, and in itself would warrant a visit to Mazara.
Good to Know
- Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights from most major cities in Western Europe as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city. From there Marsala is an easy 125-kilometer highway drive west. Mazara del Vallo is located 25 kilometers south of Marsala via SS115. Driving time can vary from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic.
- Visiting — Marsala: Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi, Lungomare Boeo 30, Marsala (TP) is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Mazara del Vallo: Museo del Satiro Danzante, Piazza Plebiscito, Mazara Del Vallo, is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.