If you asked me to name one of the Mediterranean’s most important fishing ports, I couldn’t even guess the country.
Even if you said, “It has the largest fishing fleet in Italy,” I might not guess Sicily.
If you added a clue, “It’s 200 kilometres from Tunisia,” maybe, but I wouldn’t know the city.
If you gave me a last hint,”It’s one of the most Arab-influenced cities in Sicily with a kasbah in the town centre,” I still wouldn’t know.
So how did we find Mazara del Vallo—one of the most delightful places we visited during our three weeks in Sicily? After a tangential online search turned up a marvellous apartment and I said, “We have to stay at Mirabilia Arab House.”
Don’t rely on your GPS to find Mirabilia Arab House!
Even though Franco gave us explicit directions, we might still be driving if I hadn’t recognized him (from a website photo), standing on the corner waving as Magellan drove toward Via Pescatori, another of the many pipe-cleaner streets in the kasbah.
Franco and his wife Fina have decorated the apartment—which belonged to his grandmother and was his birthplace!—with Arabic panache and flamboyance.
The living room—”The Room of Wonders”—is a stunner with its two Majlis sofas, a daybed and extraordinary wall paintings. Franco explained that Manuela Marascia, who created the artwork, modelled them on a room in Palermo. The seven lines and number seven on the lucerns on the vaults are based on a nineteenth-century prayer in the Islamic occult world. Franco says the Syriac and Arabic letters make no logical sense, hence their magical, meditative quality. The room also comes with a compass (to find the direction for Mecca) and a prayer rug.
Unlike the totally vacant fridges of Airbnbs today, not a lone ketchup bottle in sight, Franco and Fina’s fridge contained milk, jam, condiments. Arabic décor unifies the four-room apartment, even extending to the pattern on the dishes, bath towels and bed lamps. Knowing guests might like to play dress-up, Arabic costumes are on hand, too.
Mazara del Vallo is in the province of Trapani in southwestern Sicily. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 9thcentury BC, the usual groups of invaders of invaders followed: the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines. Arab rule, which began in 827, was a glorious time for Mazara del Vallo, catapulting it to the centre of maritime, commercial and cultural importance—second only to Palermo.
It became the landing point for ships from Africa and a leading town in the Mediterranean for exporting the area’s wealth of goods, especially tuna, salt, sugar and silk. Mazaresi Al Idrisi (1099-1165), described his town under Arab rule:
beautiful, superb and unbeatable (…) It has strong and high walls, very pretty houses, wide streets and markets filled with commodities and products, sumptuous bathrooms and large shops, as well as vegetable and flower gardens with beautiful plants.
In more recent history, Tunisians began immigrating in the 1970s when Mazara del Vallo had a shortage of fishermen. They settled in the ancient Arab kasbah and began restoring and embellishing the facades with majolica. The city’s mayor is championing Meghrebian influences and prioritizing restoration of the kasbah and seafront.
Although Mazara del Vallo has a population of 52,000, even today with more migrants from North Africa, less than 15% of its people are Tunisians. Yet the local mosque is one of the few in Italy where the call to prayer happens five times a day with the traditional song of the muezzin.
You expect to see a lot of monumental churches in every city in Sicily, but not an attendant at every one as in Mazara del Vallo. Ditto for old men sitting and smoking in town squares; here they relax with chicha bubble pipes and decks of cards.
As you would expect, there’s a great fish market and fish with couscous, an Arab speciality, is the primary feature in local gastronomy. At Franco’s recommendation, we had dinner at Eyem Zemen, a delicious tagine with wild-fennel couscous accompanied by a punishingly horrid wine, both arriving after a long wait, the waiter engrossed in a dramatic cell-phone conversation. We loved it.
You wouldn’t expect to see modern street art in such a small city. Yet we discovered more here than anywhere else in Sicily.
Mirabilia, Latin for “marvels,” “miracles.” Staying at Mirabilia Arab House is a marvellous place to enlarge your understanding of why Sicily, for most everyone who travels there, is the utmost in dolce vita.
Ignoti, Stefania. “The ‘red prawn war’: How trauma gripped a Sicilian fishing town.” Aljazeera, March 16, 2021. Selling at 50 Euros a kilo, Mazara del Vallo’s signature product and official symbol—red prawns—have been a delicacy for decades. “But since the start of a territorial dispute in the Central Mediterranean, the town’s livelihood has hung in the balance…”