The Ancestral Towns

March 31, 2018

My grandparents were born in the small towns of Partanna and Santa Ninfa, emigrating to the US in 1914-15.  I am the first time on the US side anyone has visited these places.   The two are in the province of Trapanni between the cities of Trapanni and Marsala but inland, and in an agricultural zone that today produces mostly grapes and olives.  The area was inhabited by the Greeks, and not far from these towns there are some fine examples of Greek temples, which I will show in a subsequent post. 


Partanna is by far the more interesting, having a palace, some ruins and a great view to share. It is on a hill some 400 meters above sea level and 50 kilometers from the coast.   Here it is on the approach with our excellent Canon zoom.  



Vinyard on the outskirts of Partanna


Today there are about 10,000 inhabitants.  Its most notable architectural feature is the Castell Grifeo, now the Museo Regionale di Preistoria del Belice.  The castle dates back at least to 1453 and perhaps to 1400.  It contains mostly items excavated locally at a site called Contrada Stretto.  Per their website the  “Skull Drilled,” discovered in the Contrada Stretto, dates to the early bronze age, 3500-2000 BCE.  The skull has a large hole, drilled while the person was alive.  It is evident that the subject survived.  This “magical-surgical” procedure was probably used to cure mental illnesses.  There is also an 18th century fresco showing King Roger II, a Norman nobleman, defeating the Arabs near Mazara.  Later Roger and his soldiers liberated Sicily from the Arabs.  Mazara is not far from Partanna.  We passed nearby today.


Via Palermo, Partanna


The family name is Palermo, of course I can not be totally certain if this street is named for the family or the city, but nearly every town in Sicily has a via Palermo.



This church, The Church of Purgatory, is a mere facade.  The Grifeo family built it in 1722.



The damage ocurred during an earthquake in 1968.  Also damaged was the Church of San Francisco, although the clock tower survived and it still in use.  San Francisco dates from around 1500, while the tower was added in 1650. 


We are in Partanna on a Sunday and not a creature is stirring.  We could not even find a restaurant for lunch, so we drove the 6km to Santa Ninfa only to find the same situation, although luckily we ran across an open bar.  He had some tasty if floppy small round pizzas and arancini, rice balls, that in this joint are stuffed with beef in one and ham in another.  They roll them in corn flour and drop them into a hot oil.  The white wine was quite good.  It was a men’s only place today, watching soccer on tv while a few had something to drink. 


Santa Ninfa was founded in 1605.  Largely rebuilt after the devastating 1968 earthquake, its appearance is largely modern.  Today there are 5000 inhabitants and like Partanna is surrounded by farms, also mostly producing olives and grapes judging by what we saw on the way from that town.  There is a huge olive oil silo on the edge of town, a towering witness to the efforts of farmers and their employees. 


There are several regional DOP’s (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) for wine in this areaAlcamo, Delia Nivolelli , Delia Nivolelli, Erice, Marsala, Menfi, Moscato di Pantelleria or Passito di Pantelleria or Pantelleria, Salaparuta There are more DOP’s in this region than anywhere else in Sicily, if not all of Italy.  Judging by the size of the fields we drove through I am not at all surprised.  And no wonder I like the stuff!  It’s in the genes.


Judging by what we saw in the area, their fast food is pizza, like most everywhere in Italy, arancini (rice balls), fries, and something called panelle or paneddi, which are flat panels just 1/8″ thick.   They are made water and chickpea flour cooked into a porridge (like polenta), and then cooled until firm, cut into pieces, and fried in olive oil.   They are sometimes served in bread or roll.


Finally, this story.  In Valencia I happened to meet another American about a year ago.  His name is Jim.  One of us said, “My grandparents were born in Sicily.”


“No kidding, mine too.”


“Really!  What a coincidence!  My grandfather was born in Partanna.” 


“You don’t say.  Mine too!.”   


In addition to this coincidence, we live just five minutes from one another.  


3 thoughts on “The Ancestral Towns”

  1. Great report. Great pics. Hopefully you will go back in mid-week when there are some live humans walking about.

  2. I’m always enjoying your art, your travels and your blog. Your living such great experiences. I’m still waiting to semi retire.

    Enjoy the ride of life!


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