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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

Salt Flats of Western Sicily

Do you ever wonder why people originally settled in specific locations? What is it about that spot that made the first settlers think that it would be a great place to stay and form a community? I wonder about that often! Traveling to Sicily I gained a great understanding of why the Greeks settled the eastern and southern coasts of Sicily. But I also gained an appreciation of why the Phoenicians settled along Sicily's western coast. Two insights about Sicily's western coast are that it is very windy AND it lies in the path of the migration of bluefin tuna! So how do those insights relate to settling? Ahhhh, the essence of this blog!

Part of my trip to Sicily, I spent on the island's west coast, specifically in the towns of Trapani and Marsala, as well as the island of Mozia. This was an area that historically was settled by the Phoenicians beginning about the 10th/9th century BC. The area gets a lot of sunshine and is very windy creating an ideal environment for the production of sea salt. Beautiful windmills are still seen throughout the region. The seafaring Phoenicians were skilled at catching blue-finned tuna which, seeking warmer waters to spawn, migrated right past western Sicily on their journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Hence, the Phoenicians savvily capitalized on this combination of sun, wind, and fish. They established tuna fisheries on the western coast of Sicily, and also salt works to cure their catch. Catching, salting, and curing fish was a major trade of the Phoenicians and big business along Sicily's western coastline. Their most prized fish from the area was the salted bluefin tuna.

Today the many large fisheries along Sicily's coastline have closed. Massive commercial fishing ships now track, net, and intercept most of the bluefin tuna well before they ever reach the coast of Sicily. Salted fish is no longer common in the area, although some fresh tuna is still caught by local fishermen. Salt production, on the other hand, remains prevalent. Salt flats are numerous along the western Sicilian coastline and can be seen and toured in Trapani and Marsala. I toured a salt flat in Trapani and it was not only fascinating but beautiful.

What is there to see at a Salt Flat?

The salt flats consist of multiple, shallow, stepped, clay-bottom pools that originate from diked-off seawater. The shallow pools, with added sunshine, heat, and wind, allow for evaporation of the water resulting in an increase in its salinity. Once the saline level of the water reaches a certain amount, it gets pumped with the Archimede's screw to a higher and shallower pool. Historically, windmills produced the energy to drive the pump, now, of course, the pumps have electric motors. Over time, the water gradually progresses through multiple pools. With each progression, the color of the remaining water changes. It becomes pinker and pinker as the salt content increases. The pink color is imparted from beta carotene produced by algae which manage to survive in highly salinated water. (Interestingly, micro-shrimp can also survive in such salinated water. The micro-shrimp eat the algae and then flamingos eat the micro-shrimp, causing flamingos to take on a pink color!) The final pools of the salt flats have salinity nearly as high as the Dead Sea, which is high enough for one to float in.

The salt is harvested annually, in early fall, before the rainy season starts. In Trapani, they still harvest the salt manually both by skimming the surface and scooping it out with buckets. The very fine salt crystals first skimmed off of the surface of the water in July are most valuable and are called fiore di sale, or better known by its Fench name fleur de sel. The salt crystals that are manually scooped from the bottom of the pools, later in the season, are composed of larger, coarser crystals. Those are either sold as coarse salt or can be ground down to a finer composition. Historically, windmills were also used to grind the salt. Salt harvesting is brutal seasonal work. Consider the working environment of hot temperatures, full sun with its added reflection off of the crystals, no shade, transferring of heavy buckets of wet salt to a conveyor belt, and feeling burning sensations along any cuts or nicks in the skin. After it is harvested, the salt is piled alongside the pools to allow for drying. Due to manual harvesting of the salt, as opposed to excavator harvesting, the crystals stay clean and don't need to be further processed or purified. During drying, the salt mounds are covered with terracotta tiles to keep them clean and protect them from rain. The salt is then packaged for sale according to fine and coarse distributions. Any salt that gets dirty is sold as street salt for winter road management.

This configuration of a series of shallow evaporation pools, still in use today, was actually introduced by the Arabs between the 6th and 9th centuries AD. Whereas the Phoenicians first produced salt along Sicily's coast either by boiling seawater trapped in the island's many marshes or by waiting for water to evaporate from solely ONE pool. The Museo del Sale, which I visited in Trapani is a family-owned and managed salt flat which has been producing salt for many generations. The salt pans, there, date to the 1400s.

Another salt flat one can visit and tour is located in Marsala, called Saline della Laguna. It is perched right where the boats depart to the nearby, small island of Mozia. That salt flat is a bit more touristy and the tours offer less of a personal touch but is super convenient if going to Mozia.

What else is there to do along Sicily's western coastline?

As windy as the region is, windsurfing, parasailing, and kite surfing, are very popular activities, particularly in the nearby bay at the end of Isola Lunga. We easily saw a hundred kites in the air while visiting Mozia. The region around the salt flats is a protected nature reserve full of migratory bird species from Africa. Aside from flamingos, you may see herons, egrets, and cormorants when bird-watching. Beautiful beaches are also prominent throughout the area. Visiting neighboring islands like Mozia, Favignana, and Egadi islands are fun excursions to do. The Phoenicians (Carthaginians) left their indelible "footprints" on those islands, that even the Romans couldn't fully erase. You can read about their history, see some Phoenician ruins, and marvel at numerous relics from that past. Lastly, Marsala wine tasting is another enjoyable experience to have when in the region. It opened my palate to appreciate the elegant pairing of Marsala wine with pecorino cheese! We tasted Marsala wines at a fantastic wine bar in Trapani, called Enoteca Versi di Rosso.

All in all,

The western coast of Sicily is great to explore, as it has a different flavor from the rest of the island. Its unique microclimate, its nature reserves, and its Phoenician, rather than Greek, ancient history offer a disparate perspective of Sicily! Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the westward-facing coastline hosts the most spectacular sunsets! That, alone, is worth a visit.

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