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Erice is a sizable town found in north-west Sicily near Trapani where it has been an important regional centre for at least 2000 years. Erice occupies a hilltop position about 750 meters above the sea. It has splendid views over the sea and surrounding countryside.
You can get a cable car (funivia) from the outskirts of Trapani up to Erice and enjoy the tremendous views along the way.
A visit to Erice can start with the cyclopean walls that surround the town. These ancient walls date back to the Elymians, but were later rearranged by the Phoenicians, Romans and even by the Normans. The walls incorporate towers and three gates.
There are two castles in Erice. The Venus castle and the Pepolic castle. The Venus Castle was built during the Norman period on the site of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to Venus. Inside the castle even today you can see a well where, according to legend, Venus bathed in milk.
The castle was always considered important for the military control of the territory, a role it retained until the 16th century. In the early 1800s, with the reform of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies the castle became the property of the municipality.
The castle offers excellent views over the countryside and you can make the most of these at the cafe outside with its panoramic terrace.
Pepoli castle also has commanding views and is now a hotel.
Mother Church of Erice
Another important site in Erice is the gothic style Mother Church, of which construction probably began in 1312 for Frederick II of Aragon (1272-1337) using material from the ruins of the pagan temple of Venus.
At the heart of the church a museum displays the treasure of the church and contains 70 precious works of silverware, jewellery, alabaster, ivory, painting, sculpture, coral and gold and silk embroidery from the period between the 14th and 19th centuries.
Also in the church the first altar on the right has a 17th century painting of Saint Isidore by Orazio Ferraro da Giuliana (1622) and the statue in the third Chapel of the “Madonna Assunta” by Domenico Gagini (1420-1492) is also interesting.
Next to the church is the bell tower, also known as the Tower of King Frederick, 28 meters high and built at the end of the 13th century on the ruins of a previous watchtower.
Erice has many churches and many are worth a visit. It is possible to get a combined ticket for the entrance to all the churches as they are not free to enter. The three main ones are perhaps the church of San Martino, the church of San Giuliano and the church of Saint John the Baptist.
The current Church of San Martino, built for Count Roger, dates back to 1339 but the original church here was probably built by the Normans in the 12th century. This small gothic style church was then demolished and rebuilt in the second half of the 17th century and the subject of further interventions during the 18th century and to the present.
The baroque church contains a bust of “San Martino” and carvings of “souls in Purgatory”. The interior is predominantly white with elegant black lines.
On the highest point of the Mount, the Church of San Giuliano was built in 1076 by Count Ruggero to thank the Saint for his intervention during a siege by the Muslims.
The church has a renaissance portal, a bell tower (accessible from the sacristy, added in 1770) and a roof pagoda - the two parts form a pleasant ensemble with the dome of the Church.
Entering the church, on the right you can see the original baptismal font, placed on the octagonal stairs of Libyan marble and realised by Leonardo Crivaglia in 1718. There is also a fresco of the 'Saints Jesuits and heart of Jesus' and, in the chapel of St. Giuliano, a wooden statue by Pietro Orlando (17th century).
The Church of Saint John the Baptist is the widest in Erice. Although now mainly used for cultural events, it still contains some of the most valuable works of sacred art to be found in Erice. At the bottom of the apse there is a statue of Saint John the Baptist, dated 1539 and by Antonio Gagini from a family of sculptors who introduced the Renaissance style to Sicily.
Arts and tradition in Erice
Artistic traditions are deep-rooted in Erice and include iron working, a craft which between the 16th and 17th centuries constituted one of the most influential guilds in the town, and of which the consul was usually the eldest of the Cetino family.
That is why in the town some ancient artefacts of wrought iron can still be seen in the palaces, churches and monuments such as the gate which closes the chapel of the Church of San Giovanni Battista, a work of rare technical perfection by maestro Carlo Cetino (19th century).
Woodworking, ceramics and carpet-making are also important traditions. The ancient carpets of Erice are characterized by intertwining of colourful cloth over a light background with the colours forming shapes, Arabesque lines and sinuous geometric designs.
The traditional cuisine has always been passed through generations and communities in the area. Especially important historically were the large lunch rituals celebrated in honour of the goddess Ericina, involving not only the priestesses but also many pilgrims.
See also history of Erice.
Places to visit nearby
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.