Located at their furthest some 20 kilometres to the south of Trapani, the salt flats are undeniably an area of scenic beauty. The tranquil waters and the light shimmering on the saline lagoons, punctuated by Quixotesque windmills, deliver a scene of pastoral beauty. The small cones of salt gathered from the evaporated trenches seem to represent a simpler time, before an industrial age was capable of ripping mountains of any raw material from our fragile earth.
In fact, the area does have a long history, with the Quixotic reference above being appropriate. Miguel de Cervantes, the creator of the foolhardy Man of La Mancha passed this way in the latter part of the sixteenth century and recorded it in one of his Exemplary Novels, ‘El amante liberal’, often rendered into English as ‘The Generous Lover’. In this snippet, the story’s protagonist picks up his tale of love and betrayal: ‘… Leonisa and her parents, Cornelio and his, accompanied by all their relations and servants had gone to enjoy themselves in Ascanio’s garden, close to the sea shore on the road to the salt pits’.
The history of salt extraction goes back even further, to the days of the Romans, Phoenicians and Greeks, but sadly this bucolic seascape hides some morbid secrets, with little of the joy felt by the families enjoying themselves in Ascanio’s aristocratic backyard. The process of getting salt from the sea was a painful procedure, even with the medieval addition of the windmills. Manual labour was core to the practice.
The writer, Leonardo Sciascia, more than hints at the difficulties when he talks of salt production in the Parrochie di Regalpetra (completely retitled in translation as Salt in the Wound). He calls it the ‘red ulcer of poverty’ and it’s not difficult to see why: shifting quantities of abrasive crystals under the full blast of a drying sun, in an environment specifically designed to desiccate and evaporate is bound to lead to a whole raft of health issues, ulcers and salt dust intake being just two of them.
A small museum nearer Trapani tells the story of extraction. The implements on display show the tell-tale signs of corrosion and wear – the iron cogs on the wheels and Archimedes screws have seen much salt pass across their surfaces. Teams of twenty labourers worked in the final “caseddari”, the pans where the salt was removed into the “munzidduna”, the iconic mound which was then covered with terracotta tiles to keep the dust and dirt off. Cane baskets were used to carry the salt, a job now done by conveyor belts.
Although the area has a timeless natural atmosphere, it is a territory thoroughly worked by man. The maze of “tanks” form a complicated network, linked by channels that serve to drain one pan into another, thereby refining the evaporation process from the largest initial pan. In the mid-nineteenth century, the British naval officer, Edward Boid, wrote about the flats, noting that the product was a ‘lucrative article of exportation at Trapani’. Where there was exportation to be explored, the British were never far behind. Although the barons of Marsala and sulphur never ventured so whole-heartedly into salt, they certainly dabbled.
The island’s salt found its way to Scandinavia and North America, no doubt being reimported in more than one delicacy – the most obvious being that bastion of Mediterranean cuisine, baccalà or salt cod. Mark Kurlansky, who wrote the fascinating text, Salt, and appropriately enough also, Cod, calls these Sicilian flats one of the oldest areas of production in the world. He also mentions the Phoenicians salting their tuna fish. The Phoenician connection inevitably leads us to the island of Mozia, sometimes referred to as San Pantaleo, a very impressive stone’s throw from the Trapanese coastline.
Mozia hides the second secret history belonging to these beautiful shores. The island is almost circular and there is every reason to believe that it was a walled and extensive settlement back in the fifth century BC. The Carthaginians, who ruled these Siculo-Phoenician locations, were in no hurry to cede ground owing to Mozia’s commercial and defensive success. It was Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, who decided to lay siege to the Motyans, a task made more difficult by the locals who pulled up their metaphorical drawbridge – destroying the causeway connecting them to the mainland.
Dionysius ordered the use of catapults, one of the first instances of their employment in battle. Once the Greeks had surmounted the walls and the hand to hand combat was over, retribution was swift and brutal; the populace was put to the sword. This was a victor’s justice and all the more incomprehensible when you consider that the Greeks liked to preach to the Carthaginians about stopping their gruesome habit of sacrificing babies.
Mozia has a Tophet or scared precinct, still visible on the northern coast between the walls and the sea. The researcher, Sabatino Moscati, defines such spaces as ‘unroofed sacred areas which were enclosed by means of walls and in which were placed urns containing the calcinated remains of children and small animals’. Evidence seems to point to the practice of ritual child sacrifice in the name of the Cult of Molek, a terrible task seemingly approved by the parents.
The area so sent shivers down the spine of Montalbano’s Livia that the couple beat a hasty retreat from Mozia whilst on an excursion during the Commissario’s investigations into the mystery of the terracotta dog. Perhaps the most frightening literary evocation of the cult comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where he captures the horror of the moment: ‘First Moloch, horrid King besmear’d with blood / Of human sacrifice, and parents tears, / Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud, / Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire / To his grim idol…’.
Setting aside the bull-headed Molek (Moloch) and the centuries of salt-laden toil, the area is now a very pleasant place to visit. The lagoons have provided a splendid habitat for many migratory birds and the nature of the landscape has produced some unusual flora, especially those plants that favour the saline conditions, notably the Cynomorium coccineum or Malta Mushroom, which lacks any chlorophyll. Even the remaining salt production relies on pumps and belts to ease the load of the workers. The only incongruous note we would strike concerns its use as a popular backdrop for Sicilian wedding photos. The picturesque occasionally hides a past too cruel to celebrate on such a happy occasion. Then again, maybe these life-affirming moments will help to lay a few ghosts to rest.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains.’
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.
They are both available worldwide. Click the covers below to view them on Amazon:-