Chilling out on an Italian island

by Mary.Novakovich

Peace and calm await on Marettimo, the most remote of Sicily’s Egadi Islands, where Africa is closer than Europe

“Before you catch the hydrofoil, try some of this.” Our guide, Fabio, had ushered us into an unassuming little café on the waterfront at Trapani, western Sicily’s most important port. He put a selection of tiny pizzas and what looked like scotch eggs into a bag for us. The scotch eggs were, in fact, arancini, fried balls of risotto rice with a nice culinary surprise in the middle, usually mozzarella or porcini. They were the perfect snack to devour while sitting on the hydrofoil that took people from the port to the islands that made up the Egadi archipelago. Our stop was Marettimo, the westernmost and the last one before you hit Tunisia.
I thought the hydrofoil had carried on to Africa when we docked in Marettimo village: the tiny harbour is surrounded by low white houses whose bright blue shutters and doors give it a distinctly Tunisian look. It’s the only village on the island, where there is one road, a handful of cars and a few dozen families. There’s no hotel as such, only the Marettimo Residence, a cluster of white houses with private terraces flanked by trellises covered with bougainvillaea. It’s set within an attractive jumble of gardens facing the sea, sheltered by a steep hill. The village has a few restaurants and cafés, as well as a single shop with a vegetable stall outside. If you’re looking for the back of beyond, you’ve pretty much found it here.
There’s a simple routine to staying in Marettimo: go for a nice long walk in the morning, anything from a strenuous climb to the island’s peak at Monte Falcone (686m) to a stroll to one of the coves not far from the harbour. If you’re organised, you could have made yourself a packed lunch to eat in the midst of a forest of Aleppo pines, or by the ruins of a Roman house or Byzantine chapel overlooking the sea. Or, better yet, by Punto Troia’s imposing fortress, which was left behind by the Normans, one of Sicily’s numerous conquerors over the centuries. The food for the lunch will have been bought amid much gossip and chatter in the shop, where a simple request for ham and cheese turns into a leisurely conversation about exactly where the cheese comes from and which is the best for your panino.
By the time you’ve returned to the village, it’s time for a mid-afternoon coffee in the tiny village square. The same small children who were riding their bikes near the harbour in the morning have moved to the square, their every movement casually tracked by the villagers who act as unofficial guardians to all and sundry. In contrast to the energy of the children, you feel yourself slowing down to an agreeably slow pace, idly wondering how it can take so long to drink an espresso. Then it’s back to the apartment, where sun loungers on the terrace and something resembling a pleasant catatonic state await. If you’re there in the summer months, Fausto, the owner, will have opened the small swimming pool in the gardens. If you insist on being more energetic, then find Marcello in the harbour, who will take you out in his boat to go diving. Or ask anyone with a boat in the harbour if they will give you a tour of the island. They will say yes.
Before you know it, it’s evening, and time to bring out the olives and wine you bought from the village shop and have an aperitivo on your terrace while watching the light play on the deep blue of the Mediterranean. If you don’t fancy cooking, then it doesn’t really matter which of the restaurants you choose in the village. All serve delicious Sicilian dishes, such as pasta with sardines or with cuttlefish ink, in simple surroundings.
Once a week, Fausto hosts a mass get-together for his guests in the communal dining room. “We’re roasting a suckling pig,” he announced proudly. “I hope you can come.” We could hardly wait. Wine flowed easily amid the guests, most of whom were regular visitors from Britain and Germany. “Do you have to tell people about this place?” asked a middle-aged Englishmen. “We’d rather you didn’t.”