You’ll have a tough time finding Grotta Mangiapane, but you’ll know it when you see it, for the Grotta Mangiapane (or “Mangiapane Cave” for non-Italian speakers) contains a secret. The cave, 18 km northwest of Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, is home to an ancient village that has remained untouched for nearly seventy years. Today, the village functions as an open-air museum, where visitors can step back in time to see what Italian life was like in the golden days of yore.
The history of the cave isn’t quite set in stone (ba-dum tshh), but carvings found on the cave’s wall suggest it may have been settled during the Paleolithic era, nearly 10,000 years ago. Its recent history is much more clear. The village was named after the Mangiapane family, who lived in the village from the early 1800’s until around the 1950’s. In fact, it is thanks to a remaining Mangiapane family member that the village exists at all. After it was abandoned in the middle of the 20th century, it appeared the village would face a slow but terminal decline, and would ultimately be consigned to history. But a group of passionate local volunteers consulted with the Mangiapane family member and preserved the site precisely as it was.
A visit to Mangiapane starts well before you reach the stone and earth covered houses, stores, and places of worship of the village. You’ll first be confronted by the magnificent cave itself, which rises eighty metres into the sky. When you reach the village, you’re able to wander at will around the site, which stretches from the area at the base of the cave to seventy metres inside. There, you’ll find worksites, homes, and the original furniture and tools therein.
We know this phrase gets bandied around a lot, but the Mangiapane Cave really isn’t your usual travel destination. There are few signs telling you where it is and no coaches to shuttle you to and from your hotel. On any given day, it may look abandoned, true to its real state, possibly devoid of tourism officials and definitely devoid of the fast food chains and souvenir shops found at most tourist spots. There’s also a good chance you’ll have to get by in your broken Italian, because it’s unlikely there’ll be anybody there able to speak English. But then, would you want it any other way? This is the real deal – a chance to not just see Sicily as it once was, but experience it, too, without the comforts and expectations of 21st century hospitality. That, along with the sheer magnificence of the site, is what makes the Mangiapane Cave so special.