Favignana, Sicily

Favignana: The challenging paradise

Favignana, Sicily

This post was originally published on September 15, 2018 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you.

It’s not for you if you like your vacations to be mindlessly relaxing, full of kilometres of uninterrupted golden sand and no-effort beach days that’ll take you from your room to the water in a few easy steps. It’s not for you if you’re looking for lush green landscapes dotted with impressive villas or sleek five-star hotels with sea-view infinity pools, or if you’re after the dramatic cliffside luxury of Capri or the postcard-perfect multi-layered colours of Procida.

As far as islands go, Favignana is particular. It makes an imposing first impression; a steep-sided mountain with a castle perched dramatically on top looms over the port where the ferries from Trapani and Marsala come and go, and at its base is a massive old tonnara, brick smokestacks reaching towards the sky, testament to the island’s long history as a tuna fishery.

The port itself feels frenetic – at any given moment, cars loading onto one of the ferries cross paths with foot traffic from the hydrofoils, a group of old men sit on plastic chairs outside of a busy coffee bar, smoking and chatting and shouting out greetings to passing friends, and a couple of fisherman sell the day’s catch across from the bar while rows of brightly-coloured wooden fishing boats bob in the background. Bikes and motorini weave their way through everything and park anywhere; two town policemen stand at the entrance to the port, but their presence seems to be more symbolic than practical.

Then there’s the town, spreading out from the port: low, blocky sand-coloured buildings that look like they’d fit in just as well in North Africa as they do here, on a Sicilian island. The town is not picturesque in a postcard kind of way – but then again, it is. You just have to let it work its magic.

Take a stroll down one of the town’s buzzing main streets – lined with restaurants, bars, and shops selling local specialties – in the early evening, as the sun paints everything gold before it slides behind the mountain, and try not to fall in love with it. The next morning, fall for it even more as you pass an old man selling vegetables out of the back of a battered green Ape and another selling cactus fruit, carefully de-spined, by the side of the road as you make your way to the bakery. Buy a brioche filled with – no, nearly exploding with – pistachio cream, and eat it on a bench by the sea.

And then you slather yourself in copious amounts of sunscreen, get on your bike – you’ll have rented a bike, of course, because it’s the best and also the most fun way to get around here – and head off towards the beach. Except that “the beach” is a bit of a deceptive term on Favignana. There are a couple of actual, sandy beaches on the island – one of them right on the edge of town overlooking the port; the best one about fifteen minutes away by bike if you’re pedalling at a relaxed, vacation-appropriate pace (ten if you’re feeling a bit guilty about the blob of pistachio cream that you ate for breakfast). It’s called Lido Burrone, and it’s got powder-fine white sand that almost looks pink where the waves curl in, limpid water in shades of perfect turquoise, and the possibility to rent a sun bed for the day.

Keep pedalling. You can come back here later. Follow the road as it curves along the coast; scruffy fields studded with prickly pear cacti and the occasional blocky house to one side, rocky outcroppings and the sea along the other. At certain points, you’ll spot clusters of bikes and motorini parked haphazardly off the edge of the road – that’s how you recognize the best places to swim, which, for the most part, tend to look so intimidating from afar that you almost certainly wouldn’t stop on your own.

The island’s residents and more hard-core visitors might spread out their towels on the rough rocks and find a place to wedge in their beach umbrella. You probably don’t want to do that. Save your sunbathing for Lido Burrone, where you can stretch out in the sun without a chunk of rock poking into the small of your back. Instead, pick your way gingerly over the rocks (you’re going to want something a bit sturdier than flip-flops here, if you’re not interested in tearing your feet to shreds), find a way to get yourself into the water with minimal bruising, and then… ah. This is why you came to Favignana.

The best places to swim are all concentrated around the eastern part of the island, interconnected by dusty, mostly-unpaved roads that meander their way through a strangely pitted terrain that looks like it’s been chipped away by a hammer and chisel. In a way, that’s exactly what happened – until relatively recently, the island was mined for its tufo stone, the ground transformed into a series of pits and tunnels, Escher-esque staircases dropping off into nothingness and fingers of rock pointing towards the sky.

Now the quarries are partially grown over, their hard corners softened by prickly pear cacti and caper bushes or transformed into lush, private sunken gardens. It’s these quarries that make some of Favignana’s coastline so interesting; both Cala Rossa and Bue Marino, the two most spectacular swimming spots, require near-acrobatic manoeuvres around imposing stone blocks in order to get in and out of the water.

It’s worth it though. You came here for that this, for the chance to swim in water so clear and so intensely turquoise that it looks like it’s been lit from underneath with neon lights or Photoshopped into blatantly exaggerated saturation in real life; that you have to scale a slanting stone staircase so narrow and precarious that handholds have been carved into the rock face in order to actually get into the water is a minor detail. This is just what you do on Favignana.

When you’ve swam until you’re thoroughly steeped in salt water, haul yourself back up the precarious staircase. Right at the top, in a low-slung tent of questionable hygiene, is where you’ll find the best food on the island. Inside, tomatoes bob around in big metal bowls of tepid water before being slashed open on a stained cutting board. The tomatoes are slapped onto sesame-crusted, oil-drizzled bread, copious amounts of anchovies are scattered over top, and a handful each of capers and basil are added. The sandwich – it’s called Pane Cunzato, and it’s a Favignanese specialty – is like a brick. Don’t think too hard. Just eat it. It tastes like sunshine and salt and earth, and at this moment, it just might be the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

The next day, explore the other side of the island, the part that begins after you bike through the tunnel that takes you under the mountain with the castle on it. There’s less here – some houses, some cows, vegetable gardens and a vineyard, but not much else. It’s beautiful, though, and there are more spots to swim; more rocks to scramble over on the way to the sea, more intensely turquoise, perfectly transparent water afterwards to convince you that it’s worth it.

And it is worth it. A few days on this island are better than the best spa for melting away stress and tension. Within twenty-four hours you will be sunburned, despite your most diligent applications of SPF 30. You will be chaffed from biking in your bikini (you start off fully-clothed, but after seeing everyone else whizzing around in nothing but swimsuits you throw caution and modesty to the wind), your hair will be salt-encrusted and wild, and your shins will be battered from all those rocky entrances into the sea.

But you’ll feel relaxed. And happy – like you’ve managed to grasp onto a piece of pure summer – and exhilarated. How can you feel anything but exhilarated when you’re bouncing on a bike down a dusty lane, a castle towering overhead as you pedal through an almost surreal landscape towards a perfect crescent of the most enticing, inviting, electrically blue water you’ve ever seen?

Favignana is definitely not for everyone – but you just might fall head-over-heels in love with it.

The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you. Read more…