Sitting like a balcony over the gulf of Castellammare, Balestrate is called 'the last town" in the province of Palermo. The Balestrate Beach natural reserve straddles the provincial line with Trapani. Resting in a deep curve between two promontories gives the gulf a protected position, and it's location between Trapani and Palermo puts the town in a strategic point for touring and seeing many of northwest Sicily's gems. Castellammare del Golfo, Erice, Marsala, Partinico and more are worth visiting. Balestrate is 40 kilometers from the island's regional capital (Palermo) and is well connected by autostrada, trains and ferries.

The city is known for its seven-mile long stretch of golden sand beaches with a port right in the middle. The main part of town sits up above, and beaches reach out in both directions. The town has a year-round population of about 6,200 people, but it swells to about 25,000 (or more!) in the summer. That means the summer months bring tons of events and activities, exhibits and festas, shows and concerts.

Just behind Balestrate are pine woods, vineyards, olive groves and citrus farms. Besides farming products, the town maintains its fishing traditions, and of course tourism as industries.

Interestingly, it had been called Sicciara for centuries, until it changed in 1819. A royal decree approved the name choice in 1820, selected because of a (possible) historical footnote. It is said that King Federico II was so taken by the seaside locale, he laid claim to it by shooting an arrow from his royal bow. The word for bow in Italian is "balestra."

In the center of town is the rectangular Piazza Evola, anchored by the church of Sant'Anna. It's a gathering space with trees and benches, outlined with cafes. At the end opposite the church is Via Madonna del Ponte, a prime shopping street that also bears excellent gelaterias, restaurants, stores and services. Via della Repubblica descends to the beaches towards the east as well as the port, and there is a true balcony overlooking the sea in via della Segesta at the intersection with Madonna del Ponte. It's a beautiful spot for the sunset. Getting to the westerly beaches is more involved, but worth the effort for the fine sand and shallow crystal water, appreciated by families with kids. (The beaches are free to the east, called Forgia, and popular with the townspeople.)

Around town, don't miss the churches, in particular the Church of Sant'Anna, which is the primary church in town, in Piazza Evola. Also of note is the Santuary of the Madonna del Ponte, reached by a ceramics-embellished staircase, located near the remains of an ancient Roman bridge, hence its name. It is on the hill outside of town. There are festas throughout the year, so be sure to check the calendar of events to see if they'll coincide with your visit.

Photo: from PalermoToday

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