Marsala is situated on the westernmost promontory of Sicily. There once was the ancient Carthaginian city of Lilibeo, “looking towards Livia”, of which the ruins remain. Of course, you can’t see Libya from Marsala, but on a clear day you can see the outline of the northern coast of Africa.
In 241 BC Lilibeo was conquered by the Romans and became an important commercial center of the Mediterranean. The city prospered and grew rich, and the nobles built magnificent villas. In the V century Marsala was sacked by the Vandals, the following centuries painted in darkness and buried in darkness. Trade resumed in the Arab-Berber period in the eighth century, contributing to the revival of the city, which was now called Marsa ‘Alī, i.e. “Port of Ali”. Although there are two other versions: Marsa ‘āliyy – Great Port and Marsa Allāh – Port of Allah. Later the name of the city was transformed into the modern one – Marsala. The port and the city grew and developed according to the Arab model. At the end of the 11th century the Normans came to power, who were later replaced by the Swabian dynasty, the Anjou and the Aragonese.
On May 11, 1860, Garibaldi and his famous Thousand landed off the coast of Marsala. The kingdom of both Sicilies was defeated, its territory was annexed by the kingdom of Sardinia, and then it became part of a united Italy.
But Marsala has another, parallel history associated with the production of the wine of the same name . All the changes in urban life in Marsala have always come from the sea, and so it was at the end of the 18th century. The Englishman John Woodhouse came to Marsala and “perfected” the wine that the local peasants had been making for centuries. At that time, the wine was called in perpetuum, because the barrels filled with wine were constantly being poured with wine from a new harvest, so the winemaking cycle never stopped. This drink was not suited to long transport, Woodhouse began adding strong alcohol to the wine to stabilize it. The wine, later named Marsala, was excellent. Even Admiral Nelson was among Woodhouse’s regular customers. Barrels of wine were shipped by sea to England. Woodhouse’s example was soon followed by other wineries. The Marsala economy began to flourish. To this day the wine industry plays an important role and there are many farms around the city that are open to the public.
Fountain of Wine. Marsala
To the north of Marsala is a salt mine, the famous windmills which are found there have become a trademark of the town.
Salt mining . Marsala
Modern Marsala is a large and densely populated town. The historical center of Marsala was formed in the Middle Ages and most of the attractions of the city are concentrated here. The city was delineated by a wall from which four bastions have survived on the corners of via Colocasio, via G. A. Omodei/via Amendola, via E. Alagna no. 65, via Sibilla. The main street of the city is via XI Maggio, which begins from Piazza Matteotti and ends at the ancient entrance to the city – Porta Nuova.
We walk from piazza Matteotti along via XI Maggio, which is named after the landing of Garibaldi in Marsala. The street leads to the cathedral, named after St. Tommaso of Canterbury. It is the largest church in Marsala. It was built around 1176, during the Norman period.
St. Tommaso was Archbishop of Canterbury, he was assassinated in 1170 in the cathedral and canonized three years later. The worship of the English saint occurred because of the close relations between Sicily and England. The cathedral acquired its present appearance in the seventeenth century, and the facade was not completely finished until 1956. The imposing building stretches for 80 meters in length, 36 meters in width and rises 25 meters upwards. The main style is Baroque, but classical elements are also present. Under the dome are statues of four saints – John the Baptist, St. Tommaso, St. Leone and St. George the Victorious. Inside, the cathedral consists of three naves made of tufa. Its walls contain a marble baptismal font of the XVII century, numerous canvases and icons and a wooden crucifix of the XV century.
On the left side of the cathedral is the church of St. Giuseppe, which was built in the XVI century. The central facade overlooks via XI Maggio. The inside of the church is a single nave, the interior is decorated in the Baroque style, rich in decorations and gilding.
On the other side of the cathedral is Palace VII of April which was built in the fifteenth century to house the town council. Its name reflects the date of 7 April 1860 when a popular uprising against the current government paved the way for the expedition of the Garibaldi thousand. After numerous reconstructions and restorations there is nothing left of the ancient palace, except for the façade.
We turn to via Garibaldi, which runs along the cathedral. Here you’ll find lots of cute bars and cafes where you can sample local wines, typical foods and sweets. At the end of Garibaldi Gate, we’ll take the first turn on the right in via Abele Damiani. Here we find the museum of tapestry and, in a little square with a fountain, we reach the beautiful Chiesa del Purgatorio (Purgatory Church). It is now dedicated to Santa Cecilia. The church was completely renovated in 1669 and its facade is richly decorated. Inside there are seventeenth century frescoes and bas-reliefs. The most valuable work is considered to be the marble Madonna, made in an oval by the famous sculptor Giuliano Mancino in the 16th century.
Church of Purgatory. Marsala
Return to via Garibaldi and continue our itinerary to the Garibaldi Gate, through which on May 11th 1860 the Garibaldi family entered the city.
On the left is the Church of Our Lady of the Virgin Mary, built in the XVII century. It was built after the miracle of July 14, 1691. During the night, bad weather broke out and a young rider saw a shelter under the entrance gate of the city and decided to ask for protection from the statue of the Madonna set in a niche. As soon as he dismounted, lightning struck the very spot where the rider had been only seconds before, killing the horse but causing no harm to the young man. Seeing this miracle, the people decided to erect a church, installing a statue of the Madonna there. The temple is made in the neoclassical style. Above the entrance is a pierced heart, which is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statue of the Madonna preserved in the church was made in 1768-1790 by an unknown artist.
Church of the Virgin Mary. Marsala
On the other side of the gate is the fish market , where you can buy fresh fish and seafood depending on the season, as well as many other things. In general, Marsala is famous for its red tuna, and it is definitely worth trying it, for example, to buy a couple of steaks and fry each side for 5 minutes in a heated pan.
Market in Marsala
We walk along via Rubino, which starts from the church, then we turn right on via S. Lorenzo, which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful street of the city. We turn right in via S. Lorenzo which, changing its name to via Curatolo, leads to the well known via XI Maggio. The view immediately reaches the facade of St. Peter’s Church, adorned with a splendid rose window. The church belonged to the monastery of the same name, which now houses the library and the city museum. The monastery was founded by Benedictine monks in 595. In the XIII century, when the Dominicans arrived in Marsala, the monastery was expanded and dedicated to St. Peter. For many years the monastery was neglected, in 1998 it was restored and given to the city.
Church of St. Peter. Marsala
The square tower houses an observatory and offers a view of the historic city center, especially beautiful in the setting sun. On the via Correale is the entrance to the monastery courtyard, which hosts various performances and exhibitions. The city museum consists of three sections: the Risorgimento, the archaeological and the folk traditions. It is possible to visit the monastery complex from Tuesday to Saturday from 9 to 13 and from 16 to 20, on Sundays and holidays from 9 to 13 and from 16.30 to 19.30. On Monday it is closed.
Continuing along Via XI Maggio towards the sea. There are stores and cafes along the street and locals and tourists love to stroll along it. The street is also called Cassaro .
At Palazzo Fici and Palazzo Burgio we cross the New Gate into the grand square.
We turn left into viale Isonzo and we reach the seafront, which leads to the archaeological museum. The most interesting and even unique specimen is the Carthaginian ship that was found in 1969. It is the only Carthaginian ship in the world! Although, to be honest, not much has survived, but thanks to the reconstruction you can get an idea of what it was like.
Marsala was the ancient Punic city of Lilibey, founded by the Carthaginians. Lilibey had a favorable geographical position: it was surrounded on three sides by the sea. The city was fortified by the powerful walls and towers inside which the Carthaginian troops and fleet were placed. During the First Punic War Lilibey became one of the main theaters of military operations in Sicily. On March 10, 241 BC, the decisive naval battle unfolded between the Carthaginian and Roman fleets near the Aegatian Islands, which ended not only the Punic War, but also Carthaginian domination of Sicily. Many Carthaginian ships sank, one of them preserved to this day, thanks to the seaweed that covered the ship, excluding air access. The ship was an important testimony to the construction of the Carthaginians’ floating craft.
Also in the museum is an ancient Roman statue of Venus, made of marble. It dates from the second half of the II century. Unfortunately, the head and feet are missing. Her height is 118 cm.
In the museum area is the Church of San Giovanni Battista (Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista), also called the grotto of the Sibyl. The Sibyl was a soothsayer and there were quite a few of them in the ancient world. The most famous was considered to be the Cum Sibyl, who lived in Campania. We wrote about her here. In Marsala in a deep cave lived the Sibyl of Lilibeo. On the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, women would come to the cave to ask advice from the soothsayer. There were underground springs in the grotto, and later a legend was born that whoever drank of this water would receive the gift of prophecy. At the time of the first Christians, the water spring was used as a baptismal font. In 1555, the church of St. John the Baptist was built on the site. In the XVII century in the grotto made the steps. A Latin cross carved in stone was preserved on the ceiling. The walls of the cave were covered with frescoes and the floor is paved with mosaics, of which there are fragments.
Museum address: Via Lungomare.
Wineries to visit:
The wineries of Marsala
The historic Cantine Florio (Via Vincenzo Florio 1, www.duca.it/cantineflorio/) and Pellegrino (Lungomare Salinella 10, www.carlopellegrino.it) are not far from the center of Marsala (can be reached on foot). By the way, the part of Pellegrino that is open to the public is in an archaeological area, where they hold very beautiful aperitifs with a view of the sea.
Antique carts in the Pellegrino Museum
Donnafugata is a large farm which can also be reached on foot.
Marco De Bartoli (www.marcodebartoli.com, Contrada Fornara Samperi, 292, Marsala) is a family farm producing the best marsalas as well as excellent dry wines. It is worth coming here to understand and taste the real wine of Marsala, as well as to learn the history of local winemaking, which began long before the arrival of the British.
Fodera’ (C/da Giardinello, 154, Marsala, www.vinifodera.com) is a small family winery that produces very good dry wines.
Salt mining in Sicily (between Trapani and Marsala) Between Trapani and Marsala is one of the most beautiful and unusual places in Sicily, the salt mines, where sea salt is extracted by the old, traditional method. The area is characterized by beautiful landscapes woven of pools of colorful water that are crossed by canals, complemented by windmills and snow-white salt glistening in the sun.