What do Wine, Salt and an English Martyr have in common?

Marsala, on the westernmost point of Sicily!

Marsala, being a major strategic town on Sicily’s west coast, became a major base when the Spanish conquered Italy. It has a very southern-Spanish feel. The houses have exciting balconies that reminded me of the beautiful ones you see in Seville.

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Marsala Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Thomas a Beckett. Before his murder in Canterbury Cathedral, he spent years living in Sicily during his exile, and was adored by the Sicilians. The first statue erected after his death was – and still is – in Palermo Cathedral.

The Normans of Sicily built a church on this site in his honour but it seems to have been cursed because it just kept falling down.

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The Spanish decided to start from scratch and build a cathedral instead. A major part of the financing was donated by rich citizens, but the bad luck continued. Why did the place keep getting knocked down? The latest “unfortunate architectural incident” was bombing in WW2 and they still haven’t finished repairing it from that.

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The Marsala area was home not only to Marsala fortified wine – invented by wealthy English businessman John Woodhouse – but also to many refineries which farmed salt from the sea.

John Woodhouse – has he had a tipple yet?

 

Its perfect grape-growing soil and potential for making sea salt meant it was one of the first areas of Sicily to be built up and to develop these industries, under the hands of the Phoenicians from modern-day Tunisia many centuries before Christ.

When the sea water evaporates, salt crystals remain.

 

You enter Marsala via a splendid Renaissance gateway called the Porta Nuova with the town crest above it. This eagle looks a lot like the town crest of Palermo….

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The sea is ever-present, and you see it at the end of he street many a time as you wander about.

The Baroque churches are many and remarkable. This is the church of the bleeding heart.

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Whilst this is the church of purgatory.

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Notice the dead straight, broad roads – a major characteristic of Baroque towns in Sicily and a reaction against the tiny, twisting medieval alleyways. How did those clever baroque town planners know their descendents would invent motor cars and not want their wing mirrors knocked off?

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There were some beautiful gardens overlooking the sea where the locals liked to walk about for their indispensable Italian passeggiata at 6pm.

For the younger generation, the purpose of this is to show off your new clothes and flirt with the opposite sex. For the older folk, the idea is to get your digestive system stimulated before dinner.

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And of course, you have to  walk up and down the main drag looking out for people you know.

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If you cannot find anyone, a sunset over the sea is just as satisfying.

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16 thoughts on “What do Wine, Salt and an English Martyr have in common?

  1. Marsala was also the entry point for the Arabic conquest of Sicily. That is the reason why it was called “Marsa Allah” = Allah’s port. They just did it like the Carthaginians, 1000 years ago. I learned that many Sicilian towns still have Arabic name. All “Cal(a)ta-whatever” towns are named after Arabic Qual’at = castle.

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  2. This is the town of origin of my maternal Nonna, Antonietta. I will escort a small group to Sicily in May and included a day in Marsala to take in the salt flats and the fascinating history. Thank you for putting the spotlight on this area which often goes unnoticed.

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  3. definitely makes me want to add Marsala to the list of places we must go to when we go to Sicily. And makes me realise that I must be of the “older generation” now.

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  4. We spent 2 weeks in Sicilia last September, and loved every minute. We did visit the salt marshes, and then departed for Favignana where we enjoyed seeing the museum to the tuna industry and just enjoying the passagiata at night in that lovely isola. I regret that we did not spend more time in Marsala after reading this post. We did spend a lovely week in the Baroque region and seeing the Greek ruins (Agrigento etc) as we drove towards the west. The driving at times, despite a “new and updated Garmin GPS card”, was frustrating at best and harrowing at other times. One needs an additional eye (kind of like a cyclops) honed only on the faded tiles that indicate street names!!!!

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    1. Ah, it’s not just “used in cooking” though: you can salvage just about any horribly gone-wrong meal by sloshing Marsala wine all over it.
      Though it’s only the British who cook with it. The Sicilians glug it back by the glassful. It’s not dry enough for most English people’s taste but it does have a very nice raisiny taste if you appreciate dessert wines.

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  5. “Marsala” is also the 2015 emerging “color of the year”, chosen by the Pantone Company, who are the self-appointed color experts in the USA (and maybe elsewhere?) It is sort of a brown-red, like clay. Sicily was mentioned in the announcement of the color. Pantone sells its color prognostications to furniture, design, fabric, etc. makers. Apparently they are all supposed to collude so the stuff you will buy in shops will match or blend well with other trendy colors. This is why in some years every shop you walk into suddenly has racks of orange clothing while the housewares store is offering an orange frying pan. Otherwise it would just be color-chaos, right?

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    1. So are Pantone the people I should blame for THE YEAR OF THE PURPLE which made Sicily so damn purple-ugly I could hardly venture out of my house for the sight of the invading purple army in purple polyester sweaters, purple crash helmets and riding on purple scooters?

      There was even a whole pizzeria in my village with its ENTIRE facade painted intense purple and with purple flowers in pots outside it. They began to struggle financially – goodness knows why!! :-O

      I suppose the color “Marsala” sounds less painful on the eye. Perhaps they could decorate their forecourt with massive stacks of bottles of that lovely booze and draw the punters in that way?

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