I brought with me a little sachet of salt, a time-honored remedy to ward off evil spirits, when visiting two Medieval borghi on La Riviera dei Fiori...
Today the sun-kissed island of Favignana off the northwest coast of Sicily is popular with tourists from across the globe, but in August, 1943 it had visitors of another kind – U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division who arrived on a fishing boat chartered for $3 in nearby Trapani.
Ready for a fight, they instead found the pleasant sounds of water lapping against the rocks and gulls overhead. With no opposition they made their way inland and eventually found an Italian colonel emerging from a farmhouse. Through interpreters they learned he was willing to surrender his garrison of 437 men and three large guns trained on the port of Trapani 20 miles distant.
But according to a written account by military historian William B. Breuer there was still a matter of honor to settle. The colonel would not hand over his men, weapons and ceremonial sword to a soldier of lesser rank.
Returning to Trapani, they consulted with the legendary commander of the corps, Gen. Matthew Bunker Ridgway.
“Hell, I’ll go,” said the general, strapping on his .45 Colt sidearm. With his men in tow, he returned to the same fisherman who again ferried U.S. soldiers to the island. Relieved at the Ridgway’s insignia of rank, the Italian colonel handed over his command.
Favignana then turned decidedly peaceful, returning to the timeless rhythms of the seasons and sea. Some gun emplacements and pillboxes can still be found on the rocky island, but it would be a number of years before the next strong structures were built and they would serve a much more peaceful purpose – helping supply the Bluefin tuna for which the region is still renowned.
Appearing as a stark stone iceberg piercing the azure Mediterranean, the island like the rest of Sicily has long heard the sounds of war. But through the centuries it also heard the toil of quarrymen, the so-called pirriaturi, whose hard labor and skills forged impressive caves built with the Favignana stone already famous in Roman times. The entire island is dotted with the geometry of disused quarries that resemble Arab gardens, some of them today home to luxury restaurants and tourist operations such as the Cave Bianche Hotel.
Favignana and the even smaller island of Levanzo feature some remarkable rock art and cave shelters that date back to around 10,000 B.C.
The Miuccia Prada house hides among the crumbling stone ruins and gnarled olive trees of Levanzo with a breathtaking vista once awash with Roman triremes and Carthaginian boats. Not far from the sandy beaches, a decisive naval engagement stripped Carthage of its title Queen of the Seas. In 241 B.C. it was the site of the Roman victory that ended the First Punic War, a watershed event recorded by the ancient historian Polybius. The waters are still rich in artifacts from the famous battle. In recent years remnants of 12 bronze warship rams along with bronze helmets and armor, and widely scattered amphora, have been found. Research is continuing.
Staying overnight in Favignana you can listen to the turtle-doves sing.
Other songs called cialome are sung by tuna fishermen, the tonnaroti. Prayers and blessings resounded across the island in the 19th and 20th centuries, before, during and after the mattanza, or Sicilian tuna fishing harvest:
“Jesu Cristu cu li Santi/ E lu Santu Sarvaturi/Criasti i pisci ammari/Li tunni e li tunnari/U prumettiri e nun mancari (…)”.
Favignana is also a comune that includes the three islands of Favignana itself, Levanzo and Marettimo, the furthest of the Aegadian Islands from Trapani. Few tourists make it to Marettimo to see the gorgeous grottos and cluster of white houses with blue windows on a promontory facing two harbors. Time seems irrelevant to the fewer than 500 residents who have always been fishermen.
Since the time of the Bourbons, the most dangerous prisoners were sent to a prison on Favignana built around an ancient Norman fort. During the 1960s and ’70s, Red Brigade terrorists were housed in the maximum security facility, but today it is home to a handful of less-dangerous internees.
Naturally, the local cuisine is rich in seafood. Taste the busiate with tuna sauce, the spaghetti with limpets and end with cassatine and cassatelle desserts. Bottarga, a salted, cured fish roe, and wine from the grapes of Favignana are also favorites.
In ancient times Favignana was called Aegusa, meaning Goat Island in Greek. The modern name is derived from favonio, warm west wind.
How to get there:
Daily flights to Trapani, accessible by two-hour ferry ride from Trapani.