Mazara del Vallo, in the province of Trapani, succeeds in summing up the character and history of an entire island: it proudly shows the world its splendid historic centre, the Casbah where Islamic philosophers and men of letters, judges and merchants walked.
The Casbah, an ancient Arab quarter, is home to many houses in the typical style of the period and is criss-crossed by an endless series of small passageways. The neighbourhood is inhabited by a large Tunisian community, which helps to maintain the overall style of the district with tiles and other decorative elements on the facades of the houses.
Inside the Casbah, there are many restaurants and typical taverns offering traditional city dishes, starting with fish couscous. The flavours and smells wafting through the narrow streets of the Casbah are those of a thousand-year-old tradition that has never been interrupted in Mazara del Vallo, one of the cities in southern Italy closest to Africa.
The city’s cathedral, the Basilica Cattedrale, was built by the Normans around the year 1000 and features a unique style that is a mix of Romanesque, Greek and Baroque.
The town encompasses centuries of history: rows of palm trees and the port alternate with monuments of enormous value, regal architecture and fine examples of Sicilian Baroque. Within its walls are ancient churches, which used to be mosques and before that places of worship.
A regal style, majestic with the portal facing the sea and surmounted by a sculptural representation of Santiago El Matamoros: Saint James of Compostela armed with a sword and riding a horse trampling a Muslim under his hooves. Note the splendid Norman churches of Madonna delle Giummare and San Nicolò Regale and the Baroque Church of San Francesco.
The Basilica Cattedrale del Santissimo Salvatore (“Cathedral of The Holy Saviour”) overlooks another symbol of the city, Piazza della Repubblica, which is surrounded by the most important buildings. The magnificent Palazzo del Seminario with the Diocesan Museum inside, which with its two floors of eleven arches gives the square its unmistakable appearance, the Town Hall and the Bishop’s Palace, connected to the western transept of the Cathedral by the Tocchetto, a small loggia on an arched bridge.
During the summer, the square is filled with tables and a festive and entertaining atmosphere. And the fine weather in these parts lasts almost all year round!
Between the Town Hall and the Seminary is one of the many narrow streets of the old town, Via XX Settembre, which ends in Piazza Plebiscito with the ruins of the Jesuit Church of St Ignatius; founded in 1701, it has an oval layout with eight pairs of Tuscan columns, six side altars and a central high altar with a large dome and twin bell towers, which collapsed in December 1933. Adjacent and connected to it is the monumental structure of the Jesuit College, with its imposing Baroque façade with a round arch and two telamons supporting the entablature on either side. Inside, there is a courtyard surrounded by a portico with round arches resting on Tuscan columns. Today the College houses the Library, Historical Archive and Civic Museum.
Not to be missed, on the seafront, is the Church of San Vito, the patron saint of the city.
Just opposite the College is the Church of Sant’Egidio, which houses a museum dedicated to one of the most important legacies of classical Greek art: the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr.
The statue was brought back to the surface on the night of 4–5 March 1998, fished out by the fishing boat “Capitan Ciccio” at a depth of 500 metres between Pantelleria and Capo Bon, Tunisia. The year before, the leg had been fished out of the same area. After lengthy restoration work at the High Institute for Conservation and Restoration in Rome, the highly evocative statue has been on display in the Museum of the Dancing Satyr since 12 July 2003. The museum also houses other finds from the Strait of Sicily (minor bronzes, pottery, etc.).
Smaller but no less historic is Piazza Mokarta, famous for its Norman arch, the only ruin of the castle built by Roger II. And now the interior of the De Santi-Lombardo house-museum.
Mazara is also one of the most important and well-known fishing ports in the Mediterranean, the base for a fleet of around 300 large deep-sea fishing boats and over 3,000 crew members. A large part of the economy is linked to fishing, making it an attraction for those in search of excellent products. Many of the port’s restaurants have excellent fish, first and foremost the prized Gambero Rosso di Mazara red shrimp.
Mazara is also a city of hospitality, now internationally recognised as an example of integration, where foreigners (primarily the large Tunisian community) are perfectly integrated into the social fabric.
But here we also find some of the most beautiful beaches in Sicily, surfing, diving and underwater fishing.
We bring this trip to a close with the Integral Nature Reserve Preola Lake and Gorghi Tondi. This location features several species of flora, such as wild orchids, daisies and anemones, and fauna, with the population of the Sicilian pond turtle.