I went to Trapani to find Homer. Or rather, to walk along the lungomare where the Odyssey was written.
With Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey on my kindle, I strained to see the landmarks that both he and Robert Graves had stated as evidence. A woman wrote the Odyssey, said Butler, and she wrote it from Trapani.
The Trapanesi are understandably keen on this theory. Like all of the Sicilans I’ve met they were quick to spot me as a stranger (not too difficult) and start up a friendly chat about where I was from, what am I doing in Sicily, why did I come to their town and, of course, what on earth I was doing on my own.
Would you ask a total stranger what they were up to in your town? I’ve never met a Sicilian who didn’t ask me this, an almost childlike question and one I found totally endearing. Why was I in Trapani? What the heck was I doing?
Homer, I always answered, Omero. I’m looking for Homer, stai cercando Omero .. (I told you my Italian is rudimentary) and I would be shown the rock in the harbour which was once the Phaeacian vessel carrying Ulysses back to Ithaca. Did I remember that ship was turned to stone Vi ricordate? You remember? Look at that enormous rock! So I looked at the rock and shouted my gratitude. I’ve never met so many people in one place who could gossip about the Odyssey.
Trapani’s name comes from the Greek drepanon, meaning a sickle, and here you can see where Demeter dropped her sickle thus creating these two promontories which protect the natural harbour. The sickle is clearly visible in this photo taken from Erice.
So there are two harbours in Trapani, deep water harbours, and the reason why this little place was such an important centre from the Bronze Age on to the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Saracens and everyone else who came after. Trapani was conquered by the Normans in 1077 and played a leading role in the Crusades as one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s still an important port.
Trapani really is beautiful. I stayed in the old town, centro storico, with its narrow cobblestone pedestrian-only streets, amusing myself taking photos of the thoroughly medieval character of these winding lanes. And those churches!
There’s a terrific fish market, lots of tiny bars, some smart shops, heaps of booksellers and plenty of seats in the piazze for the older Trapani residents to sit and read the newspaper. I took full advantage of those seats and the opportunity to chat away. In rudimentary Italian.
Every Sicilian I’ve ever spoken to here has responded instantly, with one of those stunning Sicilian smiles, to my poorly-grammared overtures. They have all, each and everyone of them, opened up a lengthy conversation, speaking slowly to me, encouraging my attempts and inevitably pointing at objects to name them in Italian. A nation of charmers.
But where do the cauliflower croquettes come in?
I was served lots of meals in those tiny bars of Trapani, dishes which, I was told, were typically Trapanese. Cuscus and more cuscus, tuna and more tuna, a local version of gazpacho and polpette di cavolfiore.
P.S You don’t have to include the fennel seeds and you can bake the polpette instead of frying