When I was a kid, the only pictures of windmills I ever saw were from Holland. I thought that windmills only existed in Holland and were only there to make the countryside look pretty. They were connected to wooden shoes and tulips and canals in my head and their functionality never occurred to me. I grew up in a mainly Dutch neighbourhood and was used to seeing windmills on plates, as salt and pepper shakers, in pictures on the walls in most of the houses up and down the street. It was a huge surprise to me when, at 12, I read the book The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart, to discover that not only were there windmills in other places – Greece to be specific, but they actually had a purpose (other than to look pretty and to hide the captive in Mary Stewart’s book) – to mill grain.
Growing up on the west coast, I had never seen a real windmill, but I had seen lots of lighthouses. Lighthouses have a mystique to anyone who lives near the sea – they represent safety and steadfastness and strength. I think that windmills caught my attention because they are so similar in shape to the lighthouse – it gave them their own mystique that, for me, has never gone away. So, when I discovered that there were windmills in Sicily and only about an hour and a half from our house, I knew that a road trip was in the stars.
Trapani is a lovely corner of Sicily that is often overlooked in the tourist rush for more famous sites on the east coast: Taormina, Syracuse and Ortigia, Catania, Mount Etna. Certainly these are beautiful and fascinating places, but the west coast of the island has much to offer too. Trapani sits on the western shore that slides slowly and gradually out into the sea. Some of the oldest salt marshes in Europe lay where Trapani dips her toes into the Strait of Sicily at the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. For hundreds of years, Trapani has been producing sea salt with it’s own unique and subtle flavour derived from the trace elements found in that area. It makes Trapani’s sea salt particularly good with fish and with the couscous for which Trapani is famous.
Most of the salt pans lie between Trapani and Marsala and with the two most active areas of production at Nubia (just south of Trapani) and Stagnone (just north of Marsala). It is well worth the drive to visit these as not only will you get a glimpse of the past, but Stagnone is now a 2000 hectare marine nature reserve and is full of wildlife (Riserva Naturale Orientata).
To visit the salt pans I recommend starting at Trapani and following the 29 km Via del Sale (SP 21) south to Marsala. There is enough to see and do to make this a whole day adventure. As you drive south, if you can, it is worth the occasional stop to photograph the incredible views, however, knowing Sicilian roads, and, more importantly, Sicilian drivers, you have to be very sure of where you are stopping to do it safely. I don’t recommend stopping on a curve or getting out on the driver’s side. Ever. Sicilian drivers are seriously crazy.
Assuming you either don’t stop, or survive your attempts to stop and take pictures, you will arrive at Nubia. Even though Nubia is a small town, it hosts the headquarters for the Worldwide Fund For Nature, which manages the Riserva Naturale Orientata. There is also the Museo del Sale, or Salt Museum. All right, I can hear you now, ‘Salt Museum?’ you are saying. ‘Really? How interesting can that be?’ In fact it is quite interesting. It is small, but what I enjoyed about it is that it has been set up in a 300 year old saltworker’s house. It explains everything you ever wanted to know about salt production (while probably not terribly high on your ‘List of Things I Always Wanted to Know’ it is interesting, really) and so much that more that had never occurred to you before that, in spite of your somewhat probable misgivings, I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy this brief stop.
Outside the museum is le saline, or the saltworks. There is a large sign (also in English) that explains the salt works, the nature reserve and the wildlife.
Once you leave Nubia, continue south towards Masala until you find the Stagnone Lagoon. This is where you can get the best pictures of the saltpans. If you watch carefully, you will find the sign that shows the way to the Saline Ettore e Infersa or the Ettore and Infersa saltworks. Here you will find one of the very few working windmills left in Sicily. Almost all saltworks have updated their equipment so that saltworkers no longer have to endure the backbreaking work of the past. It is only because the owners of Saline Ettore e Infersa have, with love and pride in the history of their life’s work, restored the roughly 16th century windmill that we are able to get this glimpse into the past.
To finish off your day, you continue on into Marsala, and take a boat ride out to the island of Mozia. I have to admit that we did not make the excursion to Mozia last time, however we were told by our friend and contractor, Scott, that it is one of the loveliest of the small islands off the coast of Sicily. I think that this summer, we will revisit the Via del Sale and make time for the boat trip to Mozia. I’m sure it will be worth another post.
If you want to find out more about the saltpans, check out these websites, which were very helpful to me as I put this post together.