Standing atop the mountain fortress of Erice, it comes as no surprise to learn that you are closer to north Africa than to the Italian mainland. The broad plain below, scattered with white, flat-roofed houses, could be Tunisia’s northern coastline. It stretches down past Trapani to Marsala, called Mars el-Allah (God’s harbour) by Sicily’s medieval Arab emirs. In Trapani’s old town, a tangle of streets crowded onto a finger of land, there are other signs: the geometric patterns on the rose window in the 14th-century church of Sant’Agostino are unmistakably Islamic; restaurants serve the regional speciality, cùscusu – couscous.
Here the distinction between land and sea blurs: tiny islands, lagoons and promontories are laced together by a filigree of stone causeways. Hot Saharan winds and shallow waters are put to work to produce Trapani’s white gold: salt. It is a landscape of dazzling brightness and breathless calm. The saline (salt pans), which reflect the sky, are edged with pyramids of white salt and studded with windmills. These man-made wetlands are a protected habitat, home to over 200 species of birds, including pink flamingos.
If you head towards Marsala you come to a broad lagoon. In the middle of it floats Mozia. First settled by the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC, this little island became one of the most powerful cities in Sicily. Abandoned by 300BC, its remains were discovered in the 19th century by Joseph Whitaker, an Anglo-Italian marsala magnate. Go there to poke around the archaeological site but also visit the museum to see one of the most exquisite examples of ancient Greek sculpture, the Mozia Charioteer. The victorious youth’s tunic clings to his flanks as if with sweat and his chest seems still to heave with the effort of the race. Crossing back to the shore at the end of the day, join the locals as they cool off with an aperitivo, watching the setting sun turning the sky, sea and salt pans to flame.