Riserva Naturale di VENDICARI
The Vendicari Nature Reserve was created in 1984, but did not become operational until 1989. It consists of a narrow strip of marshy coastline covering 574ha and provides a rare, and now completely protected habitat for migratory species and a highly peculiar kind of sand-loving Mediterranean vegetation. The large stretch of swamp, a hostile environment in many ways because of high salinity levels, has evolved a very unusual ecosystem which continues to attract vast numbers of birds passing through the area on migration.
During the autumn months, it is common to see a variety of waders: grey heron, little egret, white and black stork, greater flamingo. Later lesser black-backed, slender-billed and audouin's gulls regularly winter in the area. Between November and March, when the level of the water rises, the swamps attract many species of wintering duck, including teal, shoveler, pintail, mallard, tufted duck, pochard and red-crested pochard. Among the few species to breed here, there are black-winged stilt (white body, black wings, long red legs) – adopted as the emblem of Vendicari, as well as Kentish plover, little tern, reed warbler and little bittern.
The reserve is open throughout the year; the best time of day for bird-watching is the early morning or late afternoon. Needless to say, binoculars are vital. The track briefly skirts the edge of the Pantano Grande before leading off towards the so-called Torre Sveva, actually erected in the 15C by Peter of Aragon, and the chimney that rises from among the ruins of the tonnara (tuna-
fishery) which functioned until the Second World War. Nearby, set back against the rocks where the waves break over the shore, sit the vestiges of a Hellenistic fish-processing plant: the tanks were used to steep the excess fish before salting them (tarichos) or using the by-products to make garum or fishpaste by breaking down the fish gut and off-cuts in sea-water – a highly lucrative commodity that was traded right across the Mediterranean from Phoenician to Roman times.
As regards the flora of the area, Vendicari consists essentially of rock and sand: the rocky subsoil mainly found in the north of the reserve, near Pantano Piccolo, supports garrigue-type vegetation with cushions of thyme and thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum). Near Pantano Roveto, on the other hand, where sand predominates, sand-loving perennials grow among the maquis plants such as prickly juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus) and rosemary.
The extreme southeastern tip of Sicily consists of a headland with a lighthouse: to sea, it marks the point at which the Ionian Sea meets the Canale di Sicilia. The local tuna fishery flourished during the course of this century, and continues to be owned by the Baron of Belmonte, who, only in 1994, took part in a calata when the fishermen go out to lay the nets far catching tuna.
The complex comprises canning works albeit now unused, where the tuna was put into tins, a house for the Rais – the quarter-master responsible for overseeing the mattanza (the killing of the tuna) and a family residence for the owner himself. A splendid view stretches across the water to the open horizon: a seascape which changes tirelessly at the whim of the elements.
A natural channel separates the islet of Capo Passero from the mainland; this can prove to be an especially strategic place to lay nets when the tuna are running. The islet, meanwhile, has been subject to a campulsorily purchase so that the colony of dwarf palms growing there might be protected; this has forced the fish-rearing tanks that were there to be jettisoned at sea, and has decimated tuna fishing in the area; as a result, the place is no longer the centre of activity it used
Portopalo di Capo Passero – This comprises the small picturesque archetypal fishing-village. Naturally, the hub of activity is the harbour where, between noon and 2pm, the fishing-boats return and the quays suddenly throng with curious old men and busy housewives come to purchase the fresh catch straight from the sea.
A curious fact about the mattanza
During the catch, the fishermen used to signal the number of tuna netted in the various Chambers: a white flag was flown when there were ten; a red one meant there were 20; a white one for 30; a red and white one to signal 40, and so on. If they were unable to estimate the number of fish, they used to wave a sailor’s jacket on top of an oar, a gesture known as u' cappottu, which meant “we can’t count them any more, there are too many".