Sicily Invites Exploration
Sicily invites exploration on so many fronts — cuisine, art, architecture, archaeology — all reflecting settlers and conquerors who left their mark, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Baroque-era rulers, among them.
But the Mediterranean island also begs you to stay put, slow down, swim in crystalline seas, savor a fresh-fruit homemade granita (a refreshingly cool cafe treat in summer), shop for the fish or vegetables you will have for your dinner that night while strolling vibrant markets alongside friendly locals.
Even allowing two weeks for the ”classic” tour of Italy can leave you wanting more.
So, consider a ”sampler” of Sicily, one of its enchanting, charming islands of its coast, with all the charms Sicily itself has to offer, from panoramic sunsets, history at your fingertips and meals made from what just came out of the sea or garden down the block that morning.
Favignana, an island in the Egadi archipelago nine miles off western Sicily’s coast, is small enough to let you bike around it or circumnavigate it in a local fishermen’s gaily-painted wooden boat in a morning. But it is also varied enough to offer exquisite dining, seaside choices ranging from sandy coves to cliff-side perches, some of the best scuba-diving in southern Italy and dramatic history dating back millennia.
Easily reached by ferry or hydrofoil from Trapani, a sleepy port town where seafood couscous dishes express both the bounty of nature and the legacy of former rulers, Favignana seduces visitors above all with its simple rhythms.
Perhaps enjoy some Sicilian biscotti made in the local bakery and a coffee in a cafe in the morning in the island’s principal piazza where, after only a couple of days, you feel like you have met all the few thousand islanders, since so much daily life — and night life — happens there. Or pedal a rental bike to a cove where you can wade it seems forever before it’s deep enough to swim. Or take a stroll to peek down into islanders’ gardens — down, because, to shield flowers and citrus trees and vegetables from the warm wind known as the favonio that blows across the island, they cultivate plants below street level in areas carved out of the hauntingly wind-carved tuff.
Centuries before you might consider a trip there, some of the ancient world’s most powerful civilizations set their sights on Favignana, too. Phoenician merchants brought ceramic pottery to the island to barter. But Favignana was the backdrop for one of the most celebrated and fiercest naval clashes, the Battle of the Egadis, in 241 A.D., part of the 1st Punic War, which saw the ancient Romans defeat the Carthaginians. So bloody was the battle that a popular spot along the coast, ”Cala Rossa,” or Red Cove, supposedly takes its name from the bloodstained waters of that clash.
While Favagnana’s peaceful now, and the Mediterranean sea that surrounds it ranges in huge from rich sapphire blue to emerald green to Caribbean-like turquoise, a much more recent practice attracting visitors, also turned its waters blood red.
The island’s red-fleshed bluefin tuna — so choice that floating Japanese fish processing plants sail to Favignana to buy the largest specimens if they haven’t caught the tunas before they can reach Favignana for sushi — was legend in even in prehistoric times.
In a sea grotto of Levanzo, Favignana’s smaller neighbor in the archipelago, visitors can see 2,000-year-old wall paintings including depicting tunas.
In more recent centuries, tuna fishing and processing in a fish factory dominated Favignana’s economy. Every late spring, usually in May but sometimes June, local fishermen known as “tonnaroti,” gathered before dawn near the port to catch bluefish, some weighing hundreds of pounds, in a bloody, impressive ritual known as the ”mattanza,” or slaughter.
It is not a scene for those with weak stomachs. The fishermen chant in local dialect begging God to help them find save ports and calm seas. Their leader is known as a ”rais,” a honorary title often handed down from generation to generation on the island and dating back more than a millennium when Arab conquerors fished in Sicily’s waters. The rais calls out: “may 4,000 tunas enter this night” into their nets.
By a series of maneuvers, fishing nets set deep in the water are brought in closer and closer together, essentially forcing the tunas to run a maze until they are trapped in a four-sided net with bottom, their “death chamber,” as it’s called on the island. The “tonnaroti” start harpooning and hoisting their catch, fish blood turning the waters a crimson color.
For years tourists came for weekends, hoping to catch the spectacle. But over-fishing in deeper seas and pollution have been blamed for a steady dwindling of tunas, and a decade ago, some springs passed without even one ”mattanza.” A year ago, the ritual was revived for the sake of tourists, with the tunas captured, but then released to the sea.
Tuna reminders are all over the island. Menus feature pasta sauce made with fresh tuna and tomatoes, raw tuna is sliced for antipasti, and the fish couscous of two sisters who ran what for decades was just about the only lodging on the island drew diners from ”mainland” Sicily.
Another pasta dish is made with dried tuna roe, known as bottarga, which make for a pungent-tasting sauce.
But it’s not all tuna on the menu. Sword fish joins tuna on the grill or becomes part of pasta sauce or fish stews. For non-fish-lovers, locally caught vegetables top pasta and take their place on the grills, too.
Reminders of how dependent the island’s economy had long been on tuna abound. What was once the Florio factory, constructed in 1859 by a Genovese,and later passed to the Florio family, is a cavernous structure that dominates the stretch of coast near town. The Villa Florio, named for the family, rises elegantly, three stories high, is a town landmark.
But much of the architecture iconic to Favignana consists of stark, chalky-white tower like structures, the remains of tufo quarries that furnished building material not only for the Egadi islands, but much of western Sicily. But while the tufo-dotted landscape can seem stark, suddenly between the outcropping you can spy a slice of inviting, sparkling blue sea.
Early visitors knew how to build on the island. What survived of an ancient Roman building, possibly a defense structure erected in the first or second centuries, stands near a nameless church built in the 12th or 13th centuries.
Because of its mild, dry climate, Favignana is fine to visit in spring, summer or fall, with water often warm enough to swim in in early autumn, too.