With the largest fishing fleet in Italy, a world famous Dancing Satyr netted from the sea, a labyrinthine North African Kasbah in the town centre and some delightful architecture, Mazara del Vallo offers a fascinating mix of culture, history, ethnicity and art.
Mazara del Vallo (spelt Mazzara until the Second World War) was founded in the 9th century BC by the Phoenicians, who used it as a strategic emporium for their trans-Mediterranean trading interests. Floating along on the familiar tide of Sicilian history, Mazara soon became part of Magna Graecia, when it served as a port for nearby Selinunte, and then to the Romans, during whose dominance, in the 3rd century AD, the town's most famous son, San Vito, was born.
In 1998, Captain Francesco Adragna and his crew set out on their regular nightly trip, heading to their preferred fishing grounds off the coast of western Sicily, and while pulling up one of the nets, the crew got the surprise of their lives: rising out of the sea, head first, was a remarkable, 7-foot tall bronze statue of a dancing satyr.
Mazara's historic quarter is a labyrinth of narrow streets, sprinkled with magnificent baroque and Norman-period buildings. It's small enough that you won't ever really get lost, and the dilapidated old buildings give it a rugged charm.
Museo del Satiro Danzante
The jewel in Mazara's crown, this museum revolves around its central exhibit, a bronze statue known as the Satiro danzante (Dancing Satyr), hauled from the watery depths by local fishermen in the late 1990s. The sculpture depicts a bacchanalian satyr dancing wildly like a whirling dervish, arms outstretched, head flung back, the centrifugal force evident in his flowing hair. Originally, the statue would have been used in Dionysian processions; today it commands its own form of no-less-passionate worship here.
Piazza della Repubblica
Mazara's central piazza is an attractive space edged by elegant buildings, including the Cattedrale del San Salvatore, the two-storey Seminario dei Chierici (dating from 1710) and, on the opposite side of the square, the 18th-century Seminario Vescovile, with its impressive 11-arched portico. Unfortunately, the 1970s office tower on the western side of the square is a visual affront of the highest order.
At the northwest corner of the historic centre, this multicultural maze of narrow streets was once the heart of the Saracen city. The main thoroughfare was Via Bagno, which still has its hammam (public baths). Today the area is rundown but interesting, in large part because it retains a strong Arab connection through the Tunisian immigrants who now live here.
Cattedrale del San Salvatore
With its glistening cluster of emerald-green, ceramic-tiled domes, the cathedral is an imposing sight. Originally dating to the 11th century, it was completely rebuilt in baroque style in the 17th century. Over the portal is a 16th-century relief of Count Roger trampling a Saracen. Inside, you'll find a heavily ornamented altar featuring the Transfiguration, surrounded by a bevy of statues by Domenico and Antonello Gagini, and stucco work by Antonio Ferraro. In the chapel to the right of the altar is a rare 13th-century painted cross.
Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio
This early 18th-century church collapsed in the 1930s, but its roofless remains make a photogenic detour, with their circular colonnade of twin columns backed by a vine-draped stone wall.