Trapani and Salt from the Sea

by Heidi Obermeyer


One thing that is always a good idea while you’re on vacation is renting a bike. There is not much that is more satisfying than getting sort of sweaty while seeing the sights, especially if it comes with a basket. In Sicily, Morgan and I took a day trip to Trapani- about an hour away from Palermo– to expand our Sicilian horizons. We had a half plan to eat some cous-cous (Morgs did, but I got a seafood pasta dish instead) and maybe check out a beach if there was one. Instead of lazing about, we decided that a thrilling idea would be to go see where the wonderful people of Trapani have been making salt from seawater pretty much since the dawn of time. When we made this decision, we were under the impression that going to see the salt pans (as a quick google search has just taught me that they are called, versus “salt flats”, which I had been calling them) was a hip, cool thing to do. In fact, the nice young lady at the tourist information center (who actually pointed us to the tasty lunch mentioned above) answered our questions about visiting the salt pans readily, as though it was a perfectly normal thing to go stare at a few inches of extra-salty water in this part of the country.

Maybe we should have been concerned when she gave us her cell phone number in case we were going to take the bus and got stuck (because the bus back into town wouldn’t stop unless someone wanted to get off at the stop we were going to need), or perhaps a flag should have been raised when she casually commented that most people made the 5 km trip by car. Either way, we were set on having a biking adventure (at least, I was set on having a biking adventure, and Morgs was coming along for the ride) and we saddled ourselves up on two creaky old mountain bikes for just 4 euros a piece. Undeterred by a crooked pedal and some questionably attached baskets, we set off for the salt pans, unaware of the sunny and lengthly journey we were about to embark on.

Our hip and youthful tourist helper had said, with a note of pride in her voice, that there was a path specifically for bikes along our route and that it would be no problem to bike to the pans and the accompanying museum. Indeed, there was a bike path- but one that had certainly seen better days, and whose cracked and dirty surface provided its own obstacles as we attempted to ignore the cars whizzing by us under the midday sun. As we pedaled deeper and deeper into the countryside surrounding Trapani, we did indeed find informational plaques about the salt pans, but what we did not find was a single other person out on a bike or on a mission to see them like we were. It was actually quite fun to see the rural part of Sicily- we pasted olive groves and vineyards along our way, as well as a cute donkey and numerous, seemingly unending stretches of shallow, tepid salt water.

By the time we got to the Salt Museum (just about the only thing to do in the teeny tiny village-like area that we had pedaled out to) we were pretty tired but happy to have gotten to the main attraction of the day. We then spent about a half an hour with some older Swiss people being entertained by a blue-eyed Sicilian who explained in some very-broken-but-well-mimed English the history of salt production in the area. Turns out that they actually used a lot of cool tools to gather sea salt back in the day- giant wooden windmills to grind up the salt, Archimedes screws to slowly-but-surely pump water into the various ponds, and huge numbers of workers who slaved away under a hot sun and over reflective (and sometimes, tragically, blinding) layers of salt to coax the valuable substance out of the seawater.

On our bike ride home, we stopped by a lonely grocery store to pick up a liter of water, half of which we downed standing in the parking lot. The industrial parks were went through on our way back into town kind of reminded me of a post-apocalyptic world- devoid of humans and slightly scorched (although this time by the sun, not by laser guns or some other futuristic method of destruction). Our efforts were rewarded with heaping amounts of gelato and a nice walk along the Mediteranean, which never ceases to amaze with its variety of blues. At the end of the day we caught the bus back to Palermo just in time by frantically waving down the bus driver, and enjoyed the ride back in a vehicle that didn’t involve pedals or questionable gear shifts.