Ancient mythology and the ghosts of a now-dormant fishing industry bring the mystical Egadi islands alive, writes Sillvia Marchetti
‘Forget what you’ve learnt at school about the Odyssey, this is where it really took place: Italy’s Egadi islands, not Greece. Odysseus lived here – and Homer, by the way, wasn’t a man, but a local woman poet, Nausicaa’.
I stare, speechless, at Salvatore as we tour Marettimo isle – the wildest of this pristine Sicilian archipelago, unknown even to most Italians – in his fishing boat. I’m spellbound by the labyrinthine purple and pink sea-grottos, home to monk seals, and the tall mountain peaks jutting out of the emerald-green water.
The scent of thyme in the air is almost intoxicating. Marettimo’s ancient Greek name is Hiera, meaning ‘sacred island’, and it is believed to be the real Ithaca, Odysseus’ home. Such alternative reading was offered by English writer Samuel Butler, who visited in the late 19th Century in search of inspiration. You can relax on a white bench beneath Butler’s balcony, from which he admired the big blue.
There’s only one quaint village, frozen in time, made of white-washed lowcut dwellings with blue balconies and windows, and an abandoned spooky fortress rising atop a precipice. A primitive fear of the sea gods pervades the island; prayers in local dialect are written on walls and doors to keep storms at bay. The sea-bed is dotted with ancient shipwrecks: the bloody Punic wars took place in these waters. Forget modern comforts. There are no hotels, just two bars and three restaurants.
I stay at Marettimo Residence, a cluster of cozy, no-frills apartments that blend in with the natural surroundings. Owner Fulvio boasts you can easily bump into deer, mouflon and wild boar. A morning swim after breakfast is the best way to start the day. Paths lead down to the pebble shore and solitary inlets, dotted with altars and chapels built by Byzantine monks.
At dawn, fishermen sell their catch at the port: ‘minnole’, delicious little fish, are more precious than oysters. The eggs, sprinkled on homemade busiane short pasta, are a delicacy for the finest of palates. The isle that conquers my heart, though, is Levanzo, the tiniest of all three, and the closest to mainland Sicily. The white fishing village overlooks fluorescent waters dotted with boats and dinghies.
The only hotel is Albergo Paradiso. The steep path to the entrance is a killer, but the sea-view and the restaurant are worth climbing for. Specialty dishes include minnole fish omelette and ‘Florio Pasta’ with sardines fried in bread crumbs, pine nuts, raisins and wild fennel. I sleep with my window open: at dawn, it looks as if the sea is washing into my room, and at night the sparkling moon is my bed lamp.
Bar Arcobaleno makes delicious ricotta-stuffed cannoli and cassatine cupcakes. One day, starving after an hour of swimming at Cala Fredda inlet, I stop by for a quick lunch and am served an entire grilled octopus with pink pepper and orange peels, its round head bouncing in the air. The great thing about Levanzo is that you can walk to all beaches and don’t need a boat. As I stroll across the village, old men sitting at front porches say ‘buongiorno’, then go back to staring at the sea.
The top spot to bathe is the Faraglioni pebble beach. The sea stacks are said to be the rocks the angry Polyphemus – the one-eyed giant cyclops blinded by Odysseus – threw at the Greek hero’s fleeing ship. The stretch of water between the stacks and the shore is nasty, but locals have found a great way to exploit it: swimming against the strong current, as if it were a natural jacuzzi.
Favignana, the main island, is a 30 -minute ferry ride from Levanzo. The ambience is inarguably ‘fishy’; the past glories of the grand tuna-trapping factory haunt every spot. Tuna is still king, even if not killed anymore in these waters. The factory has been turned into a museum, displaying original boats, but every restaurant here serves hundreds of tuna dishes: be it grilled, fried, T-bone tuna steaks, carpaccio, or tuna meatballs and pasta.
I stay at I Pretti Resort, a restyled sardine storehouse. The designer suites overlook an exotic garden where breakfast is served. The view stretches all the way to Marettimo. Shaped like a butterfly, Favignana is also renowned for its exotic stone gardens. The once flourishing stoneextracting industry has left white-grey canyons in the landscape that have been turned into elegant green spots. The shores are lined with abandoned quarries where locals like to sunbathe naked, hidden behind the huge rocks.
As I sail around the isle on a dinghy, the man-cut cliffs look like natural scars that only the power of the sea and wind could ever make. The most spectacular is Cala Rossa. It’s clear, turquoise tropical water clashes with the smooth white stones sliding into the sea. According to local lore – supported by Butler’s theory – this is where Odysseus was bewitched by the gorgeous nymph Calypso.
She used her charm to keep the hero in her grottolair, making love for days on end. ‘When the tonnara and the quarries were shut – ciao ciao – they took our soul away. They killed us,’ complains local bartender Mauro, as he serves me a plate full of tuna ham. But there’s been a rebirth. Well, at least the people of Favignana have learnt how to best exploit such unique, fishy heritage.
Marettimo Residence, Marettimo marettimoresidence.it Albergo Paradiso, Levanzo albergoparadiso.eu I Pretti Resort, Favignana iprettiresort.it
This piece was first published in the Spear’s 500 Travel Guide 2019