Let everyone else breeze through Trapani and Erice on their way to other Sicilian destinations. You know better and are going to stick around to explore the quiet charms of these seaside towns.
TRAPANI, Sicily – Most people pass through Trapani on their way to somewhere else; the port is the regular departure point for the Aegadian Islands, as well as the Siremar midnight ferry to Pantelleria, my favorite place on earth. When one of the super-huge cruise ships pulls in, everyone comes out to raise their eyebrows, unimpressed by the floating behemoth. It's worth staying a while, though, and enjoying a laid-back town almost everyone else overlooks.
You can get to Trapani by boat, train, or bus, but you'll probably arrive at the harbor either way. If it's hot and you're lugging baggage, your first stop should definitely be one of the port-side gelato shops. I picked one at random and it was nothing fancy, but it served limone e basilico sorbetto, which is officially the most refreshing thing on the planet. After gelato, if you're not in a hurry, just pick a side street and start exploring. There's plenty to see, though nothing by way of the usual tourist stops. The normal things are the attraction here: all the old buildings going otherwise unnoticed, the way the clusters of mosaic flowers and lions' heads adorn walls on back streets riddled with rust and grafitti.
I picked Albergo Moderno based entirely on price — €30 a night for a single — but ended up quite charmed by it. It's just a cobblestone block from the port, on a side street right off Trapani's main drag. The website is a 1990s time warp, and the English-language bit has been "under construction" for at least two years now, but a helpful Italian-speaking friend got through on the phone. Nothing's fancy but everything's clean. The mismatched art and furniture are in turn surreal and endearing, and the internal courtyard is exactly the sort of shaded hideaway you need to properly enjoy your Campari and soda. The patient staff at the front desk put up with my wretched attempts at Italian, and the serenity of a somewhat spartan room to call my own felt entirely luxurious compared to my previous Sicilian hostel misadventures.
If you walk just a block or two in the other direction, you're at the water again, but on this side it's less port and more rocky beaches and ridiculously gorgeous views. The walls are packed with lovelorn graffiti. If you wander about there late on a summer weekend night, you might find a band of teenagers playing Dylan covers by the waterfront and attracting a large crowd of post-dinner promenaders.
I was in Sicily during the bombing of Libya, which is just across the sea. I knew that there was loads of UK military activity going on in Libya at the time — it was in the papers every morning, and you'd hear people talking about it in the cafés. I got distracted from the band when I saw a mysterious van pull up by the waterfront at 1 a.m. and four airmen in RAF jumpsuits jump out, sling duffle bags over their shoulders, and jog through the crowd. I tried to follow them, but they were too speedy. The surreal thing was that no one but me reacted at all. The cover band kept playing, and all along the street everyone continued chatting and eating as though nothing weird had happened. Perhaps British airmen jogging through the streets in the dead of night is a regular occurrence in Trapani.
On a mountain looking down on Trapani is the town of Erice. I had first heard about it from an American friend who years ago was exploring Sicily alone and met a stranger on a train. She offered him one of her cookies; they went up to visit Erice together before sailing over to his homeland, Pantelleria, where they now live with their tiny daughter. Erice is well worth a visit even if you don't have a friend with a spectacularly romantic tale to tell. The cable car ride up is exceptional if you're into island views and spying on people diving into their swimming pools. If you're not so keen, you can take the short and cheap bus ride up from the port.
If you've arrived on a whim with no particular plans, you can easily spend a day or two getting happily lost in Erice. If you like medieval churches, there are dozens. If you're after jaw-dropping views to impress your Instagram followers, this is the place. If you prefer staggering from café to café and eating insanely unhealthy food, you're in luck: Sicily isn't the place to go on a diet. There's something about the altitude (I'm trying desperately to create some sort of scientific reasoning here) that makes every single cream-stuffed pastry in Erice feel justified. There's no shortage of cafés, and I made it my mission to eat something decadent at every one. Don't believe anyone who tells you that you can't live on arancini al burro, cannoli, and sfogliatelle alone. You can, and it's glorious.
I spent at least an hour stalking a hetrochromial cat who was stalking a lizard through medieval alleys. This was followed by the slightly bizarre experience of me being stalked in turn by a seemingly harmless but persistent elderly man until I doubled back around the war memorial and gave him the slip.
The big draw in Erice is supposed to be the restored Norman castle towers. They're nice, but I'm English, and my Norman castle loyalty lies with the Tower of London (although we don't have the ruins of a Roman temple to Venus in ours), so I wasn't especially impressed. Until I was about to leave and noticed the decrepit but unimaginably picturesque Torretta Pepoli down below. The castle is perched on a seemingly unreachable outcrop over the wall surrounded by pines, jutting out from the mountainside and lodging itself directly in my subconscious. I had dreams about it afterwards.
You can stay the night up in Erice, but I was moving on, so I took the cable car back down. If you get off the bus early and cross over Via Dante Alighieri, which curves photogenically around the coast and is lined with pastel facades that look ridiculously beautiful at sunset, you can pull off your shoes and stroll the rest of the way back to the old town through the turquoise Mediterranean.