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Marsala is a coastal town in western Sicily, close to Trapani Airport. The town has ancient origins and some fine exhibits in its archaeological museum. It makes a practical base for a holiday, as it has a couple of good hotels, public transport connections to the other principal sights in this part of Sicily, and ferry services to the Egadi Islands.
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As a tourist destination, Marsala suffers through the proximity of a number of better-known sites nearby such as Greek Selinunte and busy Trapani. However, it is a pleasant historic town in its own right, and both the nearby site of Mozia and Marsala's own archaeological museum are important destinations for those with an interest in history.
When I visited Marsala, the extensive archaeological zone on its headland was closed off for redevelopment. If this work finishes and the area is tidied up and presented to tourists, it should be a fascinating place to visit, given the many layers of history here, and the valuable finds from the area.
Things to see
The heart of Marsala is the piazza in front of the town's Duomo, which is dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket. This square, called Piazza della Repubblica or Piazza Loggia, is a pleasant place for a promenade or refreshments at the cafe opposite the cathedral. The Duomo has had an unlucky career, being rebuilt several times on its original Norman foundations. After a seventeenth-century reconstruction, the building collapsed in the nineteenth century, was restored, then was severely damaged again in Second World War bombing.
The final touches were put to the facade in the 1950s. You'll see other restorations of historic buildings in Marsala, many carried out recently. A few buildings have been re-interpreted with a bold modernist style setting off their surviving original features, to mixed success.
Look out for the fabulous lion's head over the gateway through which Garibaldi led his men, now called the Porta Garibaldi. Other fine palazzi and ornate balconies dot the long narrow streets of the town centre. One of the most elegant buildings is the town hall, alongside the Duomo.
Visitors interested in the local wine will find various bars and enoteche (wine bars/shops) where Marsala can be sampled and purchased. Look out for the world 'baglio', used for the local cellars and HQs of wine production. Several of these can be visited, and for drivers, the area has created a 'wine-road' for tourists, the Strada del Vino Marsala, connecting wine-producers who offer guided tours and tastings. Note that Marsala is strong stuff.
In addition to the important archaeological museum, described below, Marsala also has a couple of other museums: the Museo Civico and the Museo degli Arazzi Fiamminghi, a museum containing some sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries.
One of the most important things to see in Marsala is the Punic ship (nave punica) preserved in the Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi on Lungomare Boeo (also known as the Museo della Nave Punica). To the untrained eye, there does not seem to be a great deal left of the ship other than planking, but this has been enough to allow archaeologists to learn a great deal about ancient ships and naval warfare. For the everyday visitor, rather more accessible are the remains of the ship's contents, giving an insight into the conditions for the 68-strong crew of oarsmen, who appear to have eaten extremely well, and chewed cannabis leaves as they rowed. On show in a glass case are various small items found among the wreckage, from a spat-out olive stone to bits of rope. The museum is situated on the seafront, out on Marsala's headland, alongside the currently inaccessible archaeological zone.
In addition to the ship, the museum's two halls also contain other finds from the surrounding area, including the island of Mozia. Items of interest include some exquisite jewellery, a large collection of shell-encrusted amphorae, photos of an early dig on San Pantaleo/Mozia and a fine, headless marble statue of Venus found close to the church of San Giovanni Battista, in the archaeological area near the museum.
Marsala travel and transport
Marsala is on a railway line which snakes around from Palermo and finishes in Trapani, a twenty-five-minute journey from Marsala. There are regional trains running every hour or two on this route, but note they don't run late into the evening. The railway station is about fifteen minutes' walk from the centre of town.
For local transport around Marsala, there is a bus station in Piazza del Popolo, a short walk from the Duomo. Buses to Mozia stop here; you can buy tickets at a news-stand inside the bus station building.
Marsala is very convenient for Trapani Airport. A bus company called Salemi runs services from Marsala to Palermo, Mazara and Castelvetrano. Fast services between Palermo and Marsala also stop at Trapani Airport (Aeroporto Birgi). This airport service runs several times a day, with timetables varying according to the time of year and day of the week - see links panel for the timetable. The airport - Marsala journey takes 45 minutes.