Beyond the oleanders and colour-washed villas of the approach road it is the very fag-end of Sicily, shaped like the handle and blade of a sickle (Greek drepanon, hence Trapani) – the implement the harvest goddess Demeter threw down in despair when she saw Pluto carrying off her daughter Persephone to the underworld, according to myth. This sickle of a seaport is a graveyard of old boats, a jigsaw puzzle of steps, alleyways, dirty washing, horsemeat butchers and rats: a promontory of mudflats washed by two Mediterranean seas yet never clean. You would despair of Sicily among the tenements of old Trapani, so airless and unhygienic, were it not for the warmth and cheerfulness of the people, their ignorance of gloom and misery, their capacity for extracting enjoyment out of simple pleasures. One night you might see a sword-swallower, the next a Jehovah’s Witness rally (the maritime communities favour the evangelical faiths), the next a blind accordionist playing Bellini and Verdi like an angel – and the next feel a small earthquake.
In the many churches and few palazzi there is only one notable work, Andrea della Robbia’s enamelled Madonna in Santa Maria del Gesu. Trapani has its smart façade, of course. It is south of the all-pedestrian hub along the quays for the island ferries − only ten minutes from the mudflats, but the sleek white palaces of the shipping offices and the sleek white ferry boats and hydrofoils seem a world away in space and time.