Today we invaded Marsala, traveling in the footsteps of Garibaldi.
As I wrote about in my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, Garibaldi is the Italian version of Washington. Just like Washington, Garibaldi led a group of volunteers to victory over the professional army of one of the world powers at that time.
Well, not exactly in his footsteps. We approached Marsala from the south on Bicycles, whereas Garibaldi came from the north by sea. We also were far from an army of one thousand. We will discuss Garibaldi more in a bit later, but except for these differences, our incursion into Marsala was identical.
In all seriousness, there are days on a bike that captures the essence of why you ride. This was one of them for me. The day was bright and clear with the wind at my back. We rode through meticulously groomed olive groves on roads that were free of debris, something unusual for Sicily. We could see the city of Marsala ahead of us as we rode along the coast. It jutted out into the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean.
Marsala is another one of those places that is evidence of Sicily’s diverse history. Throughout this trip, we have seen the remnants of Greece, but Marsala’s origin is actually Phoenician. Way back in 397 BCE, the Phoenician colony of Motya on the island of San Pantaleo off the west coast of Sicily was razed by Dionysius, the Syracusan tyrant. Those that survived relocated to the mainland establishing the town of Lilybaeum which roughly translated means “the town that looks like Libya”.
As we have seen with so many Sicilian cities and towns, the fortunes of the city rose and fell over the centuries. Of course, it was ruled by Rome then, after the fall of the empire, suffered at the hands of the Vandals and raided by pirates. The town’s prospects continued to decline until the eighth century with the arrival of the Arab Berbers who gave the city new life, and a new name. Named for the width of the harbor, it was given the name Marsa Allah, “God’s Harbor”.
When we arrived in the city, we grabbed a couple of arancini for a quick mid-afternoon snack. One of the many appealing aspects of Sicily is Sicilian street food. As you walk along the streets of any Italian city there is a large variety of choices for anyone hoping to grab a snack. Most often, especially when cycling, I will opt for an arancino. I have written about these in the past, but the shop we found in Marsala near our hotel that day really stood out from the rest. Most of the time we would select from a display case and the shop keeper would zap them in the microwave for a minute before handing it over. Not this place. They listed the daily varieties of arancini on a chalkboard from which we ordered. Then, they made them fresh, serving them so hot I could hardly hold it. These alone were almost worth the trip to Marsala.
Whenever someone returns from Italy, they rave about the food. Of course its Italian food, so what’s not to like. However, what makes Italian food especially delicious is the freshness of the food. American restaurants, especially the corporate chains, serve premade manufactured food substitutes. Whenever I have eaten in Italy, you could tell the food was fresh and local. This was the case with the arancini that day in Marsala. You could tell that the rice was cooked that day, breaded shortly before eating, and fried only after they had been ordered. This was real food.
If you say Marsala to most people the first that comes to mind is the wine. So, that evening we, prior to dinner we visited a local winery. Marsala wine is a fortified wine most commonly used in cooking. Some even mistake marsala as a wine exclusively for cooking. Recently, when discussing my taste for marsala with a friend they were surprised that I simply drank it. I think of it as something like a port or Sherry, a little sweet kiss at the end of a great meal, or simply with a bit of chocolate at the end of a long day. While there are varieties of marsala that are drier, I do prefer the sweeter style.
So this is how I ended my day. After a delicious meal, I had a little marsala with a bit of chocolate. Turning in the evening, I anticipated the next day, our last day cycling Sicily.