Erice-Medieval Stone Village
Discovering Sicily

Erice – a living memory of Medieval Past with deep roots in ancient civilizations is perched on the top of lonely Monte San Giuliano next to another famous touristic center - Trapani. 

History of Erice

       Most likely, the first settlements in what is known today as Erice were established already in pre-historic times by mysterious Elymian people. 

Historians seem to agree that Elymians were descendants of Trojans escaping from their motherland after devastating conquest by Greeks led by Agamemnon in 12th century BC. Unfortunately, so far there is no “hard-evidence” proving this theory. The truth is that the earliest surviving evidence of human presence in Erice is some 800 meters long fragment of Punic fortifications from roughly 8th-6th century BC. In fact, Carthaginians established there a strong and very prosperous foothold. Eryx (name used by Greeks) was also known as a center of veneration of Phoenician goddess of fertility – Astarte.

Erice: Map of the Medieval Town

Mt. Erice (San Giuliano) seen from the outskirts of Trapani (note that like the site of mythological Greek gods the Mt. Olympus, Monte San Giuliano is also mostly covered by clouds)  

Castle of Venus - steep mountain's slopes offered ideal place for the fortress...

         The brutal end of prosperity was brought to Eryx during the Punic Wars. However, while the destruction of the ancient city was devastating, its fame did not fade away. As the matter of fact once Romans adopted the cult of Astarte to their needs and erected the temple dedicated to their goddess of love – Venus, Erice became famous across the ancient Mediterranean world. The temples of Venus Erycina (Venus of Erice) were even built in Rome. While politely it could be said that “fertility rituals” have been taking place at the open-air site, in more strait words, the sanctuary of Venus Erycina could be described as a site of ritual prostitution, where young “priestesses” were serving brave sailors.  May be it’s shocking but it should not be surprising given the fact that all `three ancient goddesses interchangeably worshiped at Erice: Astarte, Aphrodite and Venus were personifications of Beauty, Love, Fertility and Seduction.  Needless to say that the ancient world was openly embracing these concepts….

Some of the oldest parts of the city - Punic defensive walls

And one of the latest additions into Medieval Past - Castle Pepoli

Balio Towers

     Despite its highly strategic location and fame, Eryx was slowly disappearing from the maps of the ancient world. This process was accelerated following the disintegration and collapse of the Roman Imperium. 

       Several hundred years later the mountain was conquered by Arabs and re-named as Gebel al Hamid (Mountain of Hamid). However only in 12th century with the arrival of Normans, Erice as it was then called - reclaimed its past power and prestige. Its strategic location with natural defensive lines thanks to steep mountain slopes and rocky cliffs as well as clear views on surrounding land and sea led Norman kings to establish there a military fortress. On the highest point of the mountain at its cliffy edge they built what is known today as a Venus Castle. Unfortunately, during construction works all traces left by previous inhabitants of Eryx (including Roman Temples) were destroyed.

Normans also gave the mountain the new name - Monte San Giuliano (Mount St. Julian), it lasted until 1934 when the mountain got back its original name – Mount Erice. 

Typical cobblestone street

Via Nuncio Nasi

Entrance door

Erice - decorative fragments of the house's facade

An old window....

 The city of Erice quickly spread around the fortress benefiting the safety offered by the military garrison. The best indication of Erice’s medieval prosperity is the fact, that at the peak the city included few tens of churches, monasteries and convents. It was an incredible concentration of religious sites given the fact that the top of the mountain offered very limited space. 

     At the end of the 19th century, maybe as a sign of time, Erice started losing its strategic value to the nearby Trapani. Expanding around the busy harbor at the head of the narrow peninsula stretching out into the Tyrrhenian sea, Trapani became a major commercial center largely overshadowing its “ageing” ancient neighbor. 

Church San Giovanni

Church San Giulianno

Church of St. Francis

Church San Domenico

     Today, Erice started to live its second life taking advantage of its “touristically” strategic location and medieval ambiance. Located at about 2,500 ft (751 m) above the sea level it offers spectacular views on the surrounding land and sea. In cloudless days – views on Mount Cofano embracing a beautifully bluish bay with crescent sandy beach, hilly landscape of Capo San Vito, islands of Egadi Archipelago rising at the horizon from the Tyrrhenian Sea, vast swaths of salt marshes dotted by windmills towards Marsala and obviously views on old Trapani are truly captivating.

Interestingly, the Erice Mountain creates a local “micro-climate” zone so even in sunny days, the upper part of the mountain is usually covered by a mixture of drifting clouds and fog. Amazingly however, even when Erice is enveloped in fog and layers of clouds, here and there you can still see large stretches of the coastline and surrounding valleys taking the sunbath …. 

What to see in Erice?

     If you expect to see there countless churches (yes, there are), castles, palaces and museums then it may be is not the place for you. Erice is not much about individual sites to visit (although definitely there are some to explore more in details). It is rather the place to be, place to feel, place to breathe an air filled with medieval ambiance, place to listen to the resonating remote past….. 

The time at the top of the mountain runs at its own pace and certainly has very different meaning.  To say the truth – the time in Erice “got frozen” quite long time ago.  Massive structures of old, today mostly empty churches, imposing towers, “aristocratic houses”, impressive ruins of an old fortress and remains of fortifications – all connected by a web of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets open to visitors the fascinating world reminiscent of medieval times. It’s an open-air museum filled with an air of mystery, a place where legends and myths are hiding behind each corner, where each stone has some story to tell …..

Indeed many houses in their walls contain recycled stones that once upon the time were part of Elymian , Carthaginian and Roman defensive structure and temples… 

View from Erice on the Mt. Cofano and surrounding coastal area

View from the Balio Garden on the old road leading to Erice

View from the road to Erice on Trapani and Egadi Islands

      The “picture” of Erice at first may be a bit deceiving – even palaces are somehow “dwarfed” versions of what we usually expect to see. Many houses do not have windows on their street-side facades. But that is all for practical reasons; the old city was built not only to provide protection from enemies but also from strong winds. Unfortunately, we cannot see what is hidden behind the walls – beautiful courtyards with flowers, plants, climbing wines and evergreen trees. For inhabitants, they give much needed intimate space and at the same time protection from “intruders”.

 This arrangement may be also a legacy of Arabian culture, where the “life” is lived inside of the walls rather than like in the western culture (especially these days) – exposed “from the inside-out”….

      Visitors familiar with Italian cities may be also surprised by the lack of usual clutter of hanging laundry lines and litter along the streets. At first – it’s quite shocking, a feeling of something missing, but certainly it’s not a “frozen-in-time” medieval practice.  Most likely it is an effect of an administrative order to keep this Medieval Pearl clean. But it also reflects the fact that these days Erice is inhabited by no more than hundred families….. . 

      Winter time (with temperatures still well above the freezing point) Erice with its few hundreds of permanent inhabitants is a ghost town. You can freely wander along the streets and listen to the past. Venus Castle, local museum and most churches (with the exception of the Mother Church) are closed. 

The situation dramatically changes during the hot season (May – September) when the city is packed with tourists. Although it still preserves the medieval appearance, its ambiance is overshadowed by colorful crowds, music, outbursts of joy, ongoing festivities and usually “shady” souvenirs shops.  It is still a place of fantasy, but this time mixed with the reality of the modern world.

Balio Garden 

Walking path in the Balio Garden

      The local climate and higher altitude results in temperatures lower by some 15 to 20 Fo (around 10 Co) compared to these at the sea level. In hot summer days this is a convincing argument for some inhabitants of Trapani and nearby valleys to escape the sun-scorched land and find relief in Erice increasing the crowds. That is why the winter may be still the best time for personal “encounter” with Erice.  

Unfortunately, this enchanting medieval cityscape is “polluted” by huge communication masts rising right next to the old town. Because not much can be done about it, the best suggested approach is to ignore them! 

How to get there? Either Cable Car from Trapani, or...

 by road (winding, good quality and usually covered by fog....)

OK, now you know how to get there, on the next page you will find what to see, however your visit to Erice wouldn't be complete without stopping at cafe-bar, restaurant or souvenir shop so here are some ideas:

This one is located next to the Balio Garden (as a bonus you will have scenic views from the terrace)

Restaurant LA Prima Dea: 

Inviting sign on the wall  (above) and charming interior (below)

Souvenir Shop in the center of Erice (note that souvenirs can be also in a "liquid form"

After this short introduction to Erice let's start the walking tour along the city's narrow, winding cobblestone streets:

--> Top Sites to see in Erice  or

Go back to --> Trapani Walking Tour

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