Travel

Indulging in an Italy the world has yet to discover

Terra-cotta rooftops of a former tuna cannery that’s now a museum on Favignana are seen from a mountain trail.
Terra-cotta rooftops of a former tuna cannery that’s now a museum on Favignana are seen from a mountain trail. THE WASHINGTON POST

The waiter delivers our bottle of chilled Grillo with aplomb. We sip slowly, gazing at the canyons of an abandoned-quarry-turned-upscale-hotel. And then he reappears, serving caprese salad, bruschetta with various olive tapenades and warmed spicy chips.

“No, no,” we say, “We didn’t order these.”

“Madam,” he replies, “they come with the wine.”

Of course they do. In the Egadi Islands, such unexpected delights are part of the terrain.

In the tourist-trammeled idyll called Italy, the islands are an anomaly — off the beaten track, without bus tours or hawkers, flung into land and sea as ancient as it is unpretentious, and as elite as it is rugged. Yachts flow here in the summer, avoiding the rocky beaches where families in sturdy water shoes spread bright towels.

The Egadi Archipelago (Favignana, Marettimo, Levanzo, and the uninhabited Formica and Maraone), off Sicily’s northwest coast, is one of the largest marine preserves in Europe — meaning fish in breathtaking abundance. It’s a sun-scorched territory I have traveled to for 30 years, since my parents went rogue and relocated here. I pointedly journey in May-June or September-October, low seasons of magnificent isolation.

With three teens in tow, my husband and I fly into Palermo, board a reserved Siciltranfert van and ride for an hour through olive groves and grain fields to Trapani, where the funicular soars to the medieval town of Erice and provides a glorious panorama of the Egadis’ flanks dipping into the indigo sea. Fast hydrofoils and slow, car-ferrying ships go back and forth between the islands daily.

GETTING REACQUAINTED

Morning, and we’re off to Favignana. Largest of the islands at only 7.6 square miles, it’s called “butterfly on the sea” because of its aerial-view shape. Monte Santa Caterina’s bulk swells nearly 1,000 feet skyward from flat ground.

Twenty minutes later, we disembark among fishermen noisily hawking the morning’s catch. I insist on a reconnaissance of the pedestrianized town and its lace-curtained Santa Anna neighborhood. Supermarkets have sprouted. I beeline to the half-day produce market behind Piazza Europa. It still brims with plump candy-sweet tomatoes, garlic strands, piles of eggplant, the morning’s eggs, juicy yellow melon.

“No basil?”

“Not for you!” the vendor winks, whipping a bundle, magicianlike, from a bucket at his feet.

Next, scrumptious pane giallo (yellow bread) from Piazza Madrice’s bakery, cans of registered local tonno rosso (bluefin tuna), Donnafugata wine and briny capers from La Casa del Tonno. Prices are marked; no need to haggle. A shopkeeper chases a client who forgot her receipt; everyone watches.

During this week of World Cup play, our teens convert stares into grins and invitations by blurting “Vai Azzurri!” (the national soccer team cheer) or “Salve!” (for “Heya!”). Little English is spoken, but story-gathering is locally revered. Everyone improvises to communicate.

When I’m startled by the proliferation of souvenir shops, Roberto Cossa, one of the Favignana’s original hoteliers, chides me: “Sicily is being launched. All to the good. Yet the old, slow wonder of living has not been erased here.”

That evening’s walk reveals tasteful boutiques: il Mare, KoiKoiKoi. Memijo sells hand-screened Colori del Sole beach cloths. They’re part of the 21st century’s Addiopizzo (Goodbye Graft) movement promoting Mafia-free products. Their slogan: Critical consumption. There’s also a crammed fish tackle shop selling T-shirts, which the owner painstakingly brushes and folds, proffering them like sheaves of gold.

A trip to the hardware store for a cheap plastic colander is no simple transaction; it devolves into a heated debate between husband and wife. Drawers fly open, sprouting multiple handwritten ledgers, before the right invoice is lifted victoriously. So much fandango, but I’m moved by the ardent honesty in getting my colander price absolutely right.

The scuttlebutt is that since the Prada family purchased a villa in Favignana, and two more on Levanzo, the Egadi are poised to break into international consciousness. May they retain their tender inefficiencies.

Over dinner at Le Bettola, a favorite slow-food haunt, we develop a protocol that endures. As curious as we are famished, we filch from each other’s plates: Spaghetti with tuna roe bottarga! Linguine with fried sardines! Curly busiate in a mound of orange-lipped mussels! Grilled swordfish!

Out of town, we eat at La Playa, run by the Lombardi family on a beach notable for its sunsets. Dinners start late and last long. Sicily’s coastline lights up across the water. In the deep, dark center of the Mediterranean, the Milky Way blasts, supreme.

EXPLORING BEACHES

In the morning we review wind conditions for the calmest beach. Oh, the blessed cooling wind and the challenge it poses, ruling which bays are too choppy to dock at or dive into on any given day. Cala Rossa wins. Favignana divides those who cotton to sandy, child-friendly, more crowded bays (Lido Burrone, Praia, Cala Azzurra and Playa) and those enticed by wilder rocky coves (Bue Marino, Pirreca, Previto, Calamoni and Cala Rotonda).

With Levanzo pinioned on the horizon, Cala Rossa’s vast turquoise bay shimmers below cliffs carved by eons of sea and centuries of human labor. Favignana’s high-quality sandstone quarries have long been a bedrock of the economy.

A brutal, if precise, labor by hand divided men into diggers, movers and cart transporters. Their instruments not only carved Cala Rossa, they built the islands’ cubist homes. We clamber down a path, navigate boulders in required water shoes and plunge into the cerulean sea. Mask and snorkel reveal competing schools of darting fish.

Sun- and salt-fatigued, we still can’t resist sidetracking, pulling over to examine Favignana’s famed Giardini Ipogei. The defunct open-air quarries have been resurrected into lush, wind-protected gardens with grape vines and rosemary; olive, almond, lemon and fig trees; violet bougainvillea and wild caper bushes spilling white flowers. Cycle about and they’re everywhere.

Some days the boys split; other days we share adventures. Together, we undertake the zigzag path up Monte Santa Caterina to the abandoned fort, once a Saracen then a Norman lookout and finally a brutal Bourbon prison for patriots of Italy’s unification. Below, the town shrinks into a white crescent.

To the west, the lavender mainland rises through summer haze; the island Levanzo is a blue-black triangle due north; the spine of mountainous Marettimo rears to the east.

Another highlight is the boys’ “baptismal” scuba dive off Punta Longa’s peninsula, guided by dive master and world traveler Ivan Roveri. “From a diver’s point of view, it’s one of the most beautiful spots in the entire Mediterranean,” he says of the islands, “but it’s the altogether of the place that works.”

The Egadi have been blessed and betrayed by the sea; for millennia, residents were sustained by thousands of bluefin tuna that triangulate the islands on their seasonal run, prompting fishermen to slaughter them in what’s called mattanza. The abundant tuna eventually led to the establishment of the most prolific tuna cannery in the Mediterranean.

This story lives on in the beautifully restored Ex-Stabilimento Florio ethnographic museum. Lucrezia, our guide, leads us through the 19th and 20th centuries, under the rule of the progressive Florio family: “Vincenzo Florio is credited with being the first to preserve fish in olive oil rather than dried in salt.”

We tour the complex matrix of netting cages, fish preparation areas, cauldrons and canning tables. “No part of a tuna was ever wasted. It’s our a sea pig!,” our guide notes proudly.

As Natale Castiglione’s boat speeds past barren gray cliffs, I realize that time has paled my memory of tiniest Levanzo’s prized Paleolithic and Neolithic remains. We moor at the ascent to the cave where, in 1949, rabbit hunters led a visiting student to a stunning discovery. Eight of us semi-crawl into the spotlighted chamber. It’s breathtaking.

Reproductions can’t do justice to the refined single-stroke Neolithic incisions of a mare turning her head toward her foal, the heft of a fast-pounding bull and the keenly alert deer. Or the somehow modernist Paleolithic paintings’ stark symbolism: Women are depicted as headless wine jugs, males dangle a sure fifth limb.

The town offers two hotels and few stores. Sheep and goats graze on Levanzo’s largely harsh terrain. After a dip at a pebbly cove, I meander into the dry interior, high above the Mediterranean, skirting thistles, prehistoric-looking shrubs and dozing goats.

We’re on a hydrofoil, headed for a half-day tour of Marettimo’s grottos: the turquoise Way of the Ox, booming Thunder Grotto, stalactite-filled Camel’s Grotto and others.

At Cala Manione, we can’t get our snorkeling gear on fast enough as a fisherman points at fish such as occhiate (to be boiled with lemon) and arricioli (to be roasted with tomatoes), and mentions that last week a pod of dolphins commandeered the bay. Later, we gorge at the restaurant Il Veliero with its sign boasting in Italian: “We cook what we fish.”

Hikers and naturalists relish Marettimo’s extensive trails — upward to Punta Troia’s promontory or downward to Cala Bianca or Cala Nera, and others. For about 25 dollars, donkeys transport visitors along the trails.

We opt to go on foot to the ruins of a Roman garrison by a tiny Byzantine church. Marettimo was considered sacred by the Greeks, became a port of call between Carthage and Rome, and later supplied falcons captured for Emperor Frederick II’s pleasure.

Two hours on the Carcaredda trail, we encounter no one else through dense pine forest, rigorous inclines and dizzying descents. We wonder how Marettimo’s trees don’t slide into the sea.

Going to the Egadi Islands

Getting there: From Palermo, Sicily, group taxis are available to Trapani (www.siciltransfert.it; $40 per person), and the Trapani-Favignana hydrofoil makes the trip approximately every 40 minutes (www.usticalines.it/en/default.asp, $11-$21).

Information: www.welcometoegadi.it/index.php?langen

WHERE TO STAY

Cas’almare, Strada Comunale Frascia, Favignana; 011-39-092-392-1085; www.casalmarefavignana.com/en/. Elegantly minimalist boutique hotel. Doubles from $310.

Il Nido del Pellegrino, Contrada Grosso, Favignana; 011-39-335-684-0029; www.nidodelpellegrino.it/?langen. Situated between dramatic cliffs and the sea, with glorious views. Doubles from $230.

WHERE TO EAT

Sotto Sale, Via Garibaldi 7, Favignana; 011-39-320-843-2916; Fresh, upscale Sicilian nouvelle cuisine. Open evenings only. Entrees start at $21.

La Playa, Via Costiera di Mezzogiorno 22, Favignana; 011-39-092-392-1070; Seafood repasts on the beach. Entrees from $15.

Il Veliero, Corso Umberto 22, Marettimo; 011-39-092-392-3274. Seafront wood terrace with a daily menu that depends on fish catch. Beloved by locals. Entrees from $15.

WHAT TO DO

Noleggio Plaia, Via Florio 4/5, Favignana; 011-39-092-392-1839; www.favignana.com/noleggioplaia. Rent a bike for $7-$10 a day, a moped for $20 a day.

Ex-Stabilimento Florio Museum, Via Amendola 91023, Favignana; 011-39-092-392-5443; www.egadivacanze.it. English tours offered. Tour days and hours vary. $5, 18 and younger free.

Progetto Atlantide Diving Center, Porticciolo Punta Lunga 91023, Favignana; 011-39-347-517-8338; progettoatlantide.com. Diving tours start at $65. All scuba equipment provided.

Levanzo’s Port, Via Calvario 91100, Levanzo; 011-39-092-392-4032; www.grottadelgenovese.it. Tour to Grotta del Genovese. $29 with a reservation. It’s best to get the first tour at 10:30 a.m.

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