Favignana, Sicily

 

Sicily is ripe with incidental adventures. Letting them happen was part of what made our trip wonderful. And Favignana was the butterfly-shaped island that brought that into Sicilian-water clarity.

We knew Favignana had nice beaches, and the best ways to see the island was biking (the wings of the butterfly are flat, with a hump of a mountain in the middle).  But our two youngest are not street-ready when it comes to two-wheeling. Neither am I, if I am to be perfectly frank. We figured we'd pay a fisherman to take us around the island, or would figure out a group-excursion type bike situation once we arrived. We didn't give it much thought. If we had, we'd have remembered that Keith and I were functioning about about 50%. Not enough to bike with extra weight of non-biking children.

Once we landed, it became clear that the fisherman option was not a viable option. There were no fisherman standing around waiting to take a breathing impaired family around the island. The only fishermen we saw were standing on the dock, selling their wares. Kind of like a line of lemonade stands, only with fish. One fisherman had an ape bed filled with octopuses. When I noted that they were alive, he laughed and started poking them to make them puff. A strange sight—a truck with about 10 octopuses, just waiting there, mad. Other trucks had one kind of fish or another. Clearly, just what they caught that morning.

We wandered a bit, trying to get a sense of what we should do. Finally, we popped into a bike and scooter rental to ask advice, and the man said that the water was too choppy for touring in fishing boats, and he suggested that we rent the jeep that was sitting outside his shop. A jeep! That sounded fun. And kind of amusing that we now had 3 rental cars in our name. We hopped in, and surprised the children by allowing them to sit in the way back. They joyfully tumbled in, and lodged a bag of Sicilian cherries between them. I didn't ask what they did with the cherry pits, and perhaps you shouldn't either. But I do know it was high hilarity back there.

We knew nothing about the beaches, so decided to just drive until we saw something promising. It didn't take long. A rocky outcropping with a tide pool the size of a swimming pool. We pulled over (no parking lots, just park where you can—and with so few people on the roads, this was not complicated), and jumped out, eager to investigate.

What did we see? Nothing more interesting than you might see at a very basic aquarium, but everything was fascinating just by its novelty along the rocky shoreline, in the clearest water we'd ever seen. We visited four beaches on Favignana, driving by stylized brochure map and stopping by instinct. And we saw a strange purple jellyfish, an anemone, many urchins, many crabs, an overprotective seagull, odd leavings that looked like hundreds of plastic films, aquatic plants, and silvery fish. But the tug of searching, exploring, wading, propelled us further into a sense of high adventure. The jeep probably helped.

We stopped for lunch at a bar that advertised paninis. We figured they couldn't be good, but we just needed fuel to keep moving, and our options outside of the central town of Favignana were scarce. Imagine our surprise when we found arancini (fried balls of rice), both pea with ragú and ham with mozzarella. And tuna sandwiches with fresh tomato on seedy bread. With a beer for Keith and Fanta and cold tea for the rest of us, it felt like haute cuisine, after the appetite stimulant of sea air and enthusiasm. Our later stop for gelato and granita was less thrilling, but still a welcome respite.

We visited one sandy beach, which was the only one that encouraged actual wading in the water (the rocky ones would necessitate diving in). Wading became jumping, and jumping became swimming for our younger two. Gabe doesn't actually swim, but likes to pretend he does, but Siena took her dog paddle out into the distance. Which was really just waist high, but seeing her far out in the turquoise water made me realize with a start that she has now swum off the toe of the boot and skied off the top of the boot. Lucky girl.

Our last beach was the most intriguing. The ground was a continuous, jagged rock. Like melted and cooled and windswept lava. Teetering on it was less fun for Nicolas than exploring the surrounding rocky peaks, and he climbed to the top of an overhanging summit before returning to us with the revelation that the slopes are covered with wild thyme, and so every step he took released the heady scent of herb.

We walked along one of the arms of the bay, towards curious caves. We'd noticed similar strange, vertical caves on our walk from the jeep. They seemed filled with gardens, and maybe lean-tos? These along the water were devoid of the color of plant life and habitation, but they did present other curiosities.

Strange faces on the corners. A statue that looked Greek in a pile of stones on the water. Odd writing carved into the rock. Figures also carved into the rock. Were these ancient, some sort of labyrinth cave system decorated by the wandering Phoenicians that first settled Sicily? Or instead the work of drunken teenagers, whiling away the time while they cooked their carciofi over a fire (as we saw the remnants of in several of the caves)? Old or new? Serious history or mocking said history? Or maybe…both? We wandered and marveled and ran our hands over the carvings, while the surf rushed in just beyond.

Where the caves met the sea, there were depressions, kind of like old foundations. A series of connected, shallow, square shaped pools. The children poked at crabs and investigated alien looking aquatic plants while I mostly just contemplated the shifting color of the water, and the oddity of the caves at my back. This was actually our second time tromping through what seemed like ocean-side ruins. An old tuna fishery? A lighthouse? This whole island felt like a mystery.

Once back in Trapani, we researched the caves and found that they were quarries, dating back to Phoenician times, still in use during the Punic wars, then stalled for more than a thousand years before experiencing at renewal of interest in tufo (compressed volcanic ash, which explains the impression it left on our feet) in the 1700's. Maybe Rennaisance architects realized how valuable the light stone was. In any case, tufo is mined in perfectly square blocks, hence the vertical, almost cathedral like appearance of the quarries. Now abandoned, many of the quarries have been turned into gardens, to grow delicate plants that have a hard time tolerating the island wind, like pomegranates.

Favignana defied any expectations we might have had for a jewel of an Italian island. Sparsely populated, no villas, no spas, no promenades, no souvenirs (besides tuna). Instead, Favignana is a simple, genuine, wild little island. With a vibrant town center that feels strangely like any small Italian town. Kids riding bikes, old men chatting in chairs. People really live on this island. I had wondered on my way off the ferry who was buying the fisherman's wares. I mean, I'd love to buy an octopus, but what would I do with it? I realize that my fellow ferry riders were only partially tourists. Many must have been returning home, happy to pick up a few freshly caught fish to grill for lunch.

Our uninformed approach to our visit to Favignana made for a constant feeling of discovery. It did mean that we missed some attractions I only read about later—the fortress at the top of the mountain (that must be reached on foot, so frankly we probably would have skipped this anyway, despite its promise of crumbling terraces and fabulous views), the quarry turned garden that one can tour, a shop in the warren of village back streets that sells Sicilian pastries, and perhaps a cove with the bluest water. And as we traveled about, sometimes it would niggle my brain that perhaps we weren't doing it "right", were we visiting the best places, would we find out later that we missed something wonderful? And then the wind would lift my hair, and my children shouting at the sight of a patch of turquoise water would lift my heart, and Keith's radiant smile would lift my spirit and I'd think, "Really, what could be more?" Just living it, that is the best. If we'd known more about the island ahead of time, sure, maybe we'd have known about more opportunities. And maybe we still would have been amazed by what does seem to be the Phoenician writing we saw in the cave. But trying to resolve the mystery of the caves (hideout during Punic wars? Pre-Roman Pacman?) over a tuna dinner, at a restaurant suggested by the tuna monger, was definitely part of the day's fun. If we'd known ahead of time, we'd have expected it. Getting caught off guard was absolutely a huge part of the fun.

And getting caught off guard was a consistent state of affairs in Sicily. Partly because of Sicily, itself, which is endlessly surprising, and partly because we just didn't have the energy to plan ahead. Not having all the answers means being surprised. Not having the answers means feeling curious. Not having the answers means connecting with the tuna monger.

Lesson learned.