Travelling from Trapani to Agrigento or vice versa, you run the risk of being distracted by the sea and missing this place which is considered the jewel of the Sicani region.
Take the Sambuca di Sicilia exit and after a few hills, there it is: an immense basin of vineyards, Lake Arancio, Monte Genuardo and, in the middle, the village with its few thousand inhabitants.
It was originally Zabut, from the Arabic name of the ancient castle given to it by Emir Al-Zabut, "the splendid", a name transmitted to the conquered lands.
Other theories on the origin of the name refer to the Greek musical instrument, the sambuca, similar to a small harp, which could be a reference to the historic centre’s urban layout; alternatively, alternatively, it’s thought the name might derive from the sambuco plant (elderberry), which is common in the valley below the town.
Entering the maze of Saracen alleys and is to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of long ago.
The village’s urban development is in two parts: the Arab one “inside the walls”, an arrangement of closely-packed residences built around the Fortezza di Zabut until the end of 16th century, and the 16 to 17th-century part “outside the walls”, with the Palazzo Comunale joining the two together.
Start your itinerary with the 19th-century Teatro L´Idea in the lower part of Corso Umberto I.
Along the Corso, the buildings of the nobility, indicated by sandstone façades and arches connecting the main streets to their courtyards, alternate with places of worship, of which there are thirteen. Halfway along there’s thus the Palazzo Di Leo, the Palazzo di Oddo and the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, with a rich Chiaramonte-inspired doorway in white stone.
On the other side there’s the Chiesa della Concezione with its magnificent doorway with Chiaramonte-style pointed arches which came from the Chiesa di San Nicolò of the ancient village of Adragna. You can see some interesting 18th-century sculptures inside it.
Your walk takes you past the buildings of the nobility, the Palazzo Rollo, with its courtyard and stairway with loggia, Palazzo Giacone, containing a double private courtyard and a Catalan staircase, and the imposing Palazzo Fiore. Palazzo Campisi is from the second half of the 1800s.
The Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria is one of the oldest, with Baroque architecture enhanced by stucco, allegorical statues, spiral columns, crests and coats of arms, and a floor of glazed tiles from the majolica factories of nearby Burgio..
Further along there’s the Casino dei Marchesi Beccadelli, with its sinuous Baroque-shaped balcony and a courtyard reminiscent of the Catalan ones imported during Spanish rule. The building is part of a larger complex which also includes the 16th-century Chiesa dei Santi Rocco e Sebastiano, the tower and the hospital.
Finally, visit the Chiesa del Carmine with its aristocratic family burials, its wooden and marble statues of Sant’Anna from the mid-1600s, and the Madonna dell ‘Udienza from the mid-1500s attributed to Gagini.
Back on the Corso there’s the 19th-century Palazzo Ciaccio and the beautiful façade of the Chiesa del Purgatorio (1631), now the Museo d’Arte Sacra.
From the 18th-century Palazzo Oddo o dell’Arpa, the site of the town hall, the streets become more densely packed and tangled with irregular open spaces: this is the Arab quarter, in the ancient heart of Sambuca, created from seven Saracen alleys. To the left of the piazza there’s Palazzo Amodei, with its unique courtyard, just before the Chiesa di San Michele, which houses the 1596 statue of San Giorgio by the Lo Cascio brothers.
The castle tower dates back to the end of the 16th century and was later transformed into the Palazzo Panitteri; the main floor of this building is now the site of the archaeological museum.
Once on Piazza Navarro, you’re back in the dense network of narrow streets of the Arab quarter: a Kasbah with one- or two-storey houses with external stairs and roofs of Sicilian roof tiles. These Arab passages contain the purrere, the ancient tuff quarries of the underground city.
This quarter also holds the Chiesa del Rosario, which has a courtyard from 1752 and a wooden main door with sculpted tiles. At the top of the hill, there’s also the Chiesa Matrice, which has been closed to worship since 1968, after the earthquake in Belice. It nonetheless tells the story of the place’s construction, from the grouting of the stones to the decoration of the tower: first Arab castle, then fortified palace, and then, finally, palatine chapel.
Before leaving, taste the famous vastedda bread from the Valle del Belice, the stretched-curd cheese, the local country cuisine with the local wine and the minni di virgini pastries.
These last are the village’s own speciality: minni di virgini are the gastronomic symbol of Sambuca di Sicilia. In English, it translates as “the breasts of the Virgin Mary” but, far from being disrespectful, they owe their name to a nun, Suor Virginia Casale di Rocca Menna, of the Collegio di Maria. In 1725, the Marchesa di Sambuca asked her to create an unusual and innovative dessert for the wedding of her only son Pietro.
Suor Virginia was inspired by the hills she could see from the window of her room and thus prepared a dessert in the form of a hill with a filling of ricotta cream, chocolate and sugar and covered with icing.
The area is also renowned for its wine production which, over the centuries, has always played an important role in its economy, right up to the present day with the planting of new vines.
Less than a hundred kilometres away you can visit the Cretto di Burri, a piece of contemporary land art created by the artist Alberto Burri in the old town of Gibellina.
If you’d prefer hiking routes instead, there’s the nearby Riserva Naturale Orientata di Monte Genuardo.