The three islands that form a mini-archipelago off Trapani are called Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo; they count some 4,600 inhabitants. All three are blessed with lovely coastlines immersed in glorious crystal-clear water. The islands which are known to have been inhabited
since prehistoric times (indeed, it is thought that Levanzo and Favignana formed part of the main island of Sicily in the Palaeolithic times), witnessed a very important event in Antiquity: for
it was in these waters that the treaty sealing an end to the First Punic War (241 BC) was signed, whereby Carthage assigned Sicily to the Roman Empire.
The island is often referred to as La Farfalla on account of its shape which has been likened to a butterfly a-flutter over the blue sea. Its proper name is in fact derived from favonio, the prevalent local wind, although in Antiquity, it was known as Aegusa. In more recent times, the fortunes of the island have been inextricably linked with the Florio family (see MARSALA) after they invested in a tuna fishery here, down by the harbour, where a prominent tower still marks the skyline. In times past, tuna fishing, and the mattanza (the traditional, but cruel ritual of killing the tuna trapped in the nets known as the camera della morte) comprised the principal means of earning a livelihood on the island.
Favignana covers an area of about 20sqm. The west “wing” is dominated by Montagna Grossa which, despite its name, rises to a mere 302m. The eastern part of the island, on the other hand, is flatter and harbours the island’s main town. The jagged coastline is interrupted, here and there, with short stretches of sandy beach.
Cave di tufo – Beside tuna fishing, tufa quarrying at one time provided the island with a second principal source of employment and income. Once cut, the blocks were transported elsewhere in Sicily and exported to North Africa. These quarries, a characteristic feature of the island’s eastern flank, give the landscape a disturbing quality, as if great chunks had been bitten out of the hillside by some large square-jawed monster, leaving great gaping rectangular, stepped cavities. These are often overgrown with bushes, sometimes – alas – used as rubbish tips, or otherwise – luckily – transformed into secret small gardens, sheltered from the marauding winds. Near the sea, along the east coast, some of the old quarries have been partly flooded by waves let in by a landslip. Where it penetrates, the sea leaves small geometric pools of water. The most spectacular quarries are those grouped around Scalo Cavallo, Cala Rossa and Bue Marino.
Favignana città – The main town of the island, indeed of the archipelago, is built around a small port that nestles in a large bay. On the skyline, perched up on its very own hill, sits the Fort of Santa Caterina (now under militaty control) which began life as an ancient Saracen warning station; this was rebuilt by the Norman King Roger II, and subsequently enlarged before serving as a prison under Bourbon rule (1794-1860).
Down by the seafront, Favignana boasts two buildings endowed by the Florio family, a wealthy dynasty involved in the production and export of Marsala wine before it developed any financial interests in tuna fishing. These comprise the Palazzo Florio, built in 1876, which is set back from the harbour, and, at the opposite end of the bay on the right, the great tonnara or tuna fishery, now abandoned (plans are afoot to completely redevelop the old buildings to provide a multipurpose complex with a variety of facilities).
The little town centres around two piazzas: Piazza Europa and Piazza Madrice which are linked by the main street, where the evening “constitution” or passeggiata (stroll) is enacted each evening. On the northeastern edge of town nestles the district of San Nicola (behind the cemetery) which preserves vestiges of the past: there is no access to this area, however, as long as it remains
Bathing and beaches – There are two main beaches: a small sandy bay south of the town in Cala Azzurra, and, still in the southern part but a little west of this, lies the broad beach called the Lido Burrone. For those without their own means of transport, there is an hourly bus service. The rocky bays are more exciting and thrilling, notably Cala Rossa and Cala del Bue Marino nearby. What makes these spots especially unusual is the fact that they were once tufa quarries; deep in the grottoes where the roof has not fallen in, tunnel a network of long dark and mysterious passages that can be explored by torchlight.
The other half of the island harbours such lovely bays as the Cala Rotonda, Cala Grande and Punta Ferro, which doubles as a popular area for diving.
The caves – The west side of the mountain slopes down into the sea, forming a number of evocative caves and grottoes. Each summer morning, when the sea is becalmed, the local harbour fishermen vie with each other to whisk visitors off to see the most picturesque: Grotta Azzurra (so-called because of the colour of the water), Grotta dei Sospiri (the Grotto of Sighs which sounds its laments in winter), and Grotta degli Innamorati (Lovers’ Grotto), so named because of two identical rocks standing side by side deep against the back wall.
Access Several hydrofoil and ferry services (especially during the summer) operate every day out of Trapani (20min by hydrofoil to Favignana). For informaton contact: Siremar 0923-540515 or Alilauro 0923-24073.
In the summer, a hydrofoil service plies Trapani, Favignana, Ustica and Naples before returning the same way (Favignana-Naples approx 6hr). Ustica Lines tel 081-7612515.
Tourist information – Two offices provide information: Consorzio Turistico Egadi, Largo Marina 14, Favignana, 0923-922121 and the Pro Loco in Piazza Madrice 0923-921647. The Pro Loco arranges guided tours of the tuna fishery and other excursions that change annually. These offices also act as points of reference for the other two islands in the archipelago, Levanzo
Places to stay – In addition to traditional hotels, various numbers of rooms may be rented (contact the Pro Loco for names and addresses); there is also a wonderful camp-site surrounded by vegetation called the Camping Village Egadi.
Places to eat – The best restaurant on the island is the Egadi, run by two sisters who serve traditional dishes based on tuna and swordfish.
Moped and bicycles – The two most convenient ways of exploring the island are by byke or moped: cycling is especially popular beacause the island is so flat, thus requiring no great effort. To hire one, make your way into town, any of the shops will be happy to assist.
Diving and snorkeling – Those who like to explore the undewater scene will find a profusion of flora and fauna below the surface. The best places are probably Punta Marsala, Secca del Toro, the submerged cave between Cala Rotonda and Scoglio Corrente, and the rocks off Punta Fanfalo and Punta Ferro.
What to take home? – The most popular locally-made goodies available on Favignana are of the edible kind: bottarga (dired tuna-fish roe) and bresaola (cured) or smoked tuna and swordfish. These local specialities will remind you of the feasts of fish which doubtless enhanced your evenings on the islands.
The tiny Levanzo (pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable) has a surface area of 6 sqm, and is bristled with hills. The tallest, Pizzo dei Monaco (278m), tumbles its jaggedly rocky skirts down into the sea; the most beautiful part being a section of the southwest coast.
Only one road bisects the island from south to north, making it a veritable haven of peace and serenity, beloved by nature-lovers and those who seek solitude and rhythms set by the breaking waves or by the sound of ones own feet on the stones.
The northern part of the island consists of a succession of sheer drops, rocky outcrops and secluded little creeks. Between Levanzo and the coast of Sicily lie two minute islets: Maraone and Formica (on which there are the remains of an old tuna fishery).
Cala Dogana – The only hamlet on Levanzo overlooks a bay of the clearest water on the south side of the island. From here, a well-kept path snakes its way to the bays that open out along the southwestern coast, each tightly embracing its very own miniature pebbled beach, as far as the Faraglione (a large rock).
Grotta del Genovese – Accessible on foot (approx 2hr there and back), by jeep and then on foot along a steep slope, or by sea. Discovered in 1949, this excavated hollow in the side of a tall cliff bears traces of prehistoric man. Vestiges of wall-painting have been identified as dating from the Upper Palaeolithic era, while the incised drawings may be from the Neolithic period. The graffiti drawings, completed at a time when the island was still attached to the island of Sicily, represent a bison and a deer of the most pleasing proportions, elegance and foreshortening.
The charcoal and animal fat paintings represent early attempts at fishing (both tuna and dolphins are discernible), animal husbandry (a woman leads a cow with a halter) and ritual images of men dancing and women with wide hips. These paintings are compatible with the Franco-Cantabrian cave paintings of Lascaux in southwest France and Altamira in Spain.
The complex and ritual method of catching tuna fish follows – or rather used to follow – very precise rules, timings and strictly disciplined practices established by the Rais, the head of the tuna fishermen and, at one time also the head of the village: a sort of shaman who specified when it should begin and what procedure should be followed. The methods by which the tuna used to be hunted and killed date back to ancient times, indeed possibly even to the Phoenicians, although, it was not until the islands came under Arab domination that the most fundamental elements of the “rite” that underpin the fishing practises of today were firmly established. For the Mattanza is a ritual it is in its own right, complete with propitiatory and superstitious songs (the scialome), concluding in a cruel struggle with these powerful creatures at very close quarters. The outcome, however, is always a foregone conclusion and rarely, if ever, in the tuna’s favour. In late spring, the tuna collect in great shoals off the west coast of Sicily where the conditions are conducive to breeding. The fishing boats put out to sea to lay the nets in a long corridor which the tuna are forced to follow. The last nets are dropped like barriers to form antechambers that will prevent too many fish from being gathered in a single unit, thus averting the risk of the nets being torn and the fish escaping. Beyond these antechambers is laid the camera della morte, an enclosure provided by tougher netting and often closed along the bottom. When an appropriate number of fish are deemed to be trapped in the chamber, Rais orders the mattanza to begin. And so the killing of the fish is initiated: what is cruel is that, by now, the fish are exhausted after trying vainly fo find a means of escape and panicked after being injured by inevitably knocking into others of their own kind crowded together. One by one they are speared or hooked and heaved aboard.
The term mattanza comes from the Spanish word matar, to kill, which derives from the Latin mactare, meaning to glorify or immolate.
A steep rocky mountain with great limestone cliffs plunging down into the sea define this, the most remote island of the Egadi group. Its doors open only for the more curious visitors arriving at its tiny harbour knowing that there are no hotels there. The only accommodation available is that offered by local fishermen and that consists of rented rooms (for addresses, contact the Pro Loco in Favignana).
At the foot of the mountain, nestles the hamlet of Marettimo, a compact collection of square white houses and terraces collected together around the miniature harbour. Behind the Scalo Nuovo (the main landing-stage) stands the Scalo Vecchio reserved far the local fishermen. To one side, extends Punta Troia, topped with ruins from a Spanish castle (17C) that served as a prison until 1844. A series of rugged paths (manageable even astride a donkey) lead inland uphill to higher ground where Mother Nature, remote and wild, can provide companionship in contemplating the glorious views out over the sea.
Boat trip around the Island – Down in the harbour, many a local fisherman will volunteer himself and his boat to provide excursions to the numerous caves that nestle among the precipitous cliffs along the coast. The most striking include the Grotta del Cammello in which shelters a small pebble beach, Grotta del Tuono (Cave of Thunder), Grotta Perciata and, most notable of all, the Grotta del Presepio likened to a Nativity scene because of the rocks it contains fashioned and crafted by the wind and the waves.