In the realm of Sicily's fisher king

For a few weeks each year, visitors pack the Egadi islands off Sicily's west coast. They come to see a bloody tuna slaughter directed by the 'rais', or leader of men. Lee Marshall reports

I SLEPT through my first earthquake on Favignana. I could have kicked myself. I probably did. But at half past two in the morning it obviously takes more than a risible four on the Richter scale to wake me up.

Favignana is the largest of the Egadi islands, three underpopulated outcrops off the west coast of Sicily. Life on this sleepy island is a bit like waiting for a bus, only worse. Nothing happens for a year, and then three talking points come along in the space of 24 hours: mattanza, earthquake, mattanza. Straddling the seismic disturbance was the bringing in of the tuna catch, part of the bloody, annual slaughter that has put Favignana on the map.

As dawn broke, a gaggle of expectant tourists gathered on the quayside: it was rumoured the tuna fishermen were going out again, to make up for the debacle of the day before. The rumour was difficult to confirm. The fishermen huddled in groups, sizing up what they took to be American tourists and talking in low voices about the bump in the night. Swinging lampshades, tilting mirrors, a daughter who ran out of the house in her nightgown...

The omens this morning weren't any better. Dark clouds loomed menacingly over Monte Santa Caterina, with its shell of a fortress dominating the bay. The tuna catch of the day before had been as risible as the earthquake: a mere 26 silver-blue beasts. This was an embarrassment to the fishermen, an affront to their collective dignity. It had made them gloomy and irritable for the rest of the day, and was almost certainly the main cause of the seismic event.

Since the tuna were assuredly there, a mile offshore in the tonnara - the netted rectangle of open sea first marked out by Arab colonists in the 10th century - the fishermen were determined to prove their worth today. That's why they were giving the swirling clouds and the lightning flashes such dark looks. The rais - the haughty fisher king of the island, the leader of men - was giving nothing away; so we stood and waited, and the americani - who turned out to be a group of Swiss Italians - started taking photographs of each other.

Only when the ice-hulk came into view, pulled by a tugboat, were we sure the mattanza would go ahead. The vascello del ghiaccio is the rusty iron boat that serves as a temporary coolbox for the fish on their way to the cannery at Trapani, on the Sicilian mainland, where they are dissected and filleted by Japanese experts. Japan is the main market for the highly prized bluefin tuna caught here in the Mediterranean; top-quality cuts can sell for $500 (pounds 300) a kilo.

Watching hundreds of tuna being dragged out of the water with boathooks while the sea turns red around them isn't everyone's idea of a tourist attraction. But judging by the number of people who flock to Favignana from mid-May to early June each year, the brief tuna season, it holds a certain macabre fascination.

Many are regulars, like Gi Martorana, a photographer who has not missed a mattanza in eight years. "Sometimes it's like Wimbledon," he said, "with crowds packed in on three sides, people cheering, journalists jostling for position." Unlike Wimbledon, it is probably not to be recommended as family entertainment; though on the day I was there, Golding's Lord of the Flies theory was vindicated yet again: the few minors present were enjoying every bloodthirsty minute. One 10-year-old got so carried away he almost fell in the water.

The mattanza, after all, is no bullfight; unacceptable though it may be to some, market forces squeeze these sleek panthers of the sea into small, round supermarket tins and this, claim the fishermen of Favignana, is as humane a way as any of getting them there. Unlike dragnet fishing, or the quaint Japanese method of throwing sticks of dynamite into the sea from helicopters, it is dolphin-friendly. The fishermen wouldn't take the risk of letting people watch unless they were sure of this. But the mattanza isn't exactly a teddy bear's picnic.

The awful fascination of the catch has a lot to do with the sheer size of these splendid fish: the largest adults are over 3m long and can weigh more than 500kg (half a ton). They thrash for life in the water, silver- blue bellies exposed to view. Their soft underparts have the trans-lucent sheen of mother-of-pearl and are covered in strange markings, like Aztec runways.

In the final stages, the fishermen stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the side of the ice-hulk, pulling up the net, forcing the fish closer to the surface. Through sheer arm-power they drag their boat in to close the square of the camera di morte, or death chamber. Without any apparent signal, one of the oldest fishermen breaks into song; he is answered in full-throated chorus by the others. "Lina, Lina..." they sing, Lina being the tonno or tuna, the most beautiful fish in the sea, who becomes identified with the most beautiful girl on the island, soon to be married. The melodic line is Arabic, as are so many terms associated with the mattanza.

Immobile on his musciara - a solid, brightly painted vessel built at the end of the last century - the rais scrutinises the water and shouts orders to his men over their song. The first black shape appears under the water, and soon the square is full of tuna, circling like caged tigers.

After that, everything happens very quickly. Flailing tails soak unwary tourists and put paid to brand-new video cameras. Boathooks sink into silver gills and flesh, staining it red. Six pairs of arms strain to land the largest specimens; when the tuna finally slithers over the side, the men dodge to avoid the razor-sharp tails. And all the time the rais stands on his boat in the middle of the seething cauldron, shouting, criticising, pointing out fish that have been missed.

If this all sounds like an appaling waste of fishy life, take heart. The mattanza is dying out. In the last century there were close to a hundred tonnare around the Sicilian coast, where the tuna come each year to breed. Now Favignana is the only one left, and the catch is getting smaller every year. A plaque inside the island's abandoned tuna cannery commemorates a single mattanza of 10,000 tuna: today a catch of 500 is exceptional. Pollution and the drag- fishing of baby tuna (and anything else that happens to be in the way) elsewhere in the Mediterranean have taken their toll, and the rais fears this year's mattanza may be the last.

If it is, the Pensione Egadi will say goodbye to the anthropologists, the marine biologists and the film crews who have always kept Maria Guccione on her feet during the early holiday season. If the rais is the eminence grise of the island, Signora Guccione is its muse. She runs the pensione and the Michelin-star restaurant attached, where tuna in various forms is the star turn (for those who have never tried tuna sperm fritters, the Egadi offers a unique opportunity).

The formidable Signora oversees various projects and committees, like a benevolent headmistress. With other islanders, she was involved in a four-year battle against Italian oil giants Agip, who were prospecting in the area. "They wanted to put seven oil-wells in the sea around the island," she recalls with horror. "On the day they started to anchor the first one, a Force Eight gale rooted it up. That gave us the impetus we needed to get ourselves organised in time to block the development."

Away from its namesake port and only town, Favignana is a scruffy chess board of abandoned fields that assail the nose with scents of mint, rosemary and capers. Over the last 20 years, faster ferries and hydrofoils have reduced the time it takes to reach the mainland: the busy port of Trapani is now only half an hour away. This was a mixed blessing: it boosted tourism just as it killed off the island's rural economy. Cheap fruit and vegetables from the mainland put the island's farmers out of work.

Tourism is the only way forward, says Maria Guccione. She'd like the pretty centro storico of Favignana town to be a discreet hotel-village. "The slowness of the authorities to promote tourism on the Egadi islands has been a blessing in disguise," she says. "We have the chance to start again from scratch, to develop small-scale, quality tourism with a personal touch which islands like Majorca can no longer provide."

If this is true of Favignana, it is even more so of Levanzo and Marettimo, the other two islands in the Egadi group. Tiny Levanzo has a population of just 200, one hotel and one tourist attraction - the extraordinary prehistoric paintings and graffiti in a cave called the Grotta del Genovese. Far- flung Marettimo supports some 80 hardy souls. It has no hotel: the islanders put up those who make it this far in their own homes. There is nothing to see except wild mountain scenery, a ruined castle, crystal-clear sea and a shoreline that is among the most breathtaking in the Mediterranean. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Alitalia (0171-602 7111) offers flights to Palermo from London, via Milan or Rome, from pounds 327 return. Campus Travel (0171-730 3402) has the same flight available to students only for pounds 224. From Palermo it takes two hours 15 minutes by train, or one hour 30 minutes by coach, to reach the port of Trapani. From there, ferries and hydrofoils run regularly between the Egadi islands: Levanzo, Favignana and Marettimo. Journey times by hydrofoil are approximately 15 minutes to Levanzo, 25 minutes to Favignana and an hour to Maret-timo. Ferries are less frequent and take about twice as long.

STAYING THERE: On Favignana, the Pensione Egadi, Via Cristoforo Colombo 17 (001 39 923 921232) is open, with its restaurant, from April to November. Other reliable places to eat fish include El Pescador in Piazza Europa (closed Wednesdays). On Levanzo, the two-star hotel Pensione dei Fenici on Via Calvario (001 39 923 924083) is the grandest the island can offer; the simpler and cheaper Paradiso (001 39 923 924080) is further down the same street. Both have restaurants. Marettimo has no hotel but four restaurants in season. Il Pirata, on the quayside, is a good bet.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254).

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