When the tide turns

The tuna-fishing tradition of the Egadi islands may be under threat, but their beauty will still be a bait for tourists, says James Palmer

I didn't witness a killing on Favignana. Many people do. In fact, most of those who visit the largest of the three Egadi islands off the west coast of Sicily come for a massacre. For a negotiable price, they hop onto boats with the local fishermen for a front-row seat at the bloody
mattanza - or slaughter - of schools of bluefin tuna that are caught in cavernous submerged traps from April to June. They watch as the fishermen corral the giant fish into
la camera della morte - the chamber of death - where they are hauled to the surface, gaffed and bludgeoned. They listen to obscure folk songs about female temptresses, so rooted in the past that they are still partly sung in Arabic. And they wince as the blood flies.

I didn't witness a killing on Favignana. Many people do. In fact, most of those who visit the largest of the three Egadi islands off the west coast of Sicily come for a massacre. For a negotiable price, they hop onto boats with the local fishermen for a front-row seat at the bloody mattanza - or slaughter - of schools of bluefin tuna that are caught in cavernous submerged traps from April to June. They watch as the fishermen corral the giant fish into la camera della morte - the chamber of death - where they are hauled to the surface, gaffed and bludgeoned. They listen to obscure folk songs about female temptresses, so rooted in the past that they are still partly sung in Arabic. And they wince as the blood flies.

It wasn't due to squeamishness that I missed the mattanza; nor was it because of any particular sympathy with the protesters who denounce as cruel a ritual to which Homer made reference in the Odyssey. I tend to side with the fishermen, who defend their traditions as a sustainable alternative to intensive modern methods. No, it was because something awful happened during the tuna-fishing season this year: the mattanza was largely fruitless. Empty nets were reported in the chamber of death.

The Japanese (and increasingly Western) predilection for sashimi means that a single bluefin tuna can fetch up to £80,000 in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. As a result, legal and illegal fishing expeditions using sonar and satellite tracking - sometimes financed by the Mafia - are hunting the bluefin close to extinction and rendering the ancient rituals of the Egadi islands obsolete. So, when the Ustica Lines hydrofoil from Marsala dropped us at Favignana's tiny sun-baked port in June, I suspected I wouldn't be witnessing a mattanza. Today, two toothless fishermen, puffing on roll-ups and perched crookedly in front of the disused tuna tinning factory beside the quay, were offering tourists boat trips not to the chamber of death, but to swim around the grottoes on the west of the island for €10 a head.

Favignana is also known as La Farfalla - the butterfly - due to its shape. Its western "wing" is occupied by the Monte Santa Caterina, an imposing 300m peak topped with a Norman fort that watches over the whole island. The fort, previously a Saracen watchtower, was used as a prison under the Bourbon rule of the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, and is now under Italian military control. Where the west of the mountain plunges into the azure waters, picturesque tufa caves have formed, each descriptively named: Grotta Azzurra, after the colour of the sea; Grotta degli Innamorati (Lovers' Cave), because of two upright rocks flirting somewhere in the gloom; and Grotta dei Sospiri (Cave of Sighs), because of the way the wind whistles through it in winter.

The fishermen's offer sounded tempting, but we only had one day and there was more we wanted to see to the east of this tiny island. And to do it all required independent travel. The bus seemed like a reasonable option: it runs on a circular route from the quay around the island between June and August, departing hourly. But across the road from the bus-stop, the sign "Noleggio Bici Moto" caught my eye.

Dusty scooters in a row were available for hire at €13 each for the day. We briefly considered renting bicycles, and, for one jocular moment, a tandem; but the 39C heat of the fast-approaching midday sun steered us away from the thought of pedalling - even if the east of the island was flat. So, with my girlfriend Mary on the back playing Audrey Hepburn to my Gregory Peck, bowling-ball black helmets pushed down over our heads and a tight grip on the rubbery handles, we wobbled off into town on our motorino.

I navigated the main square, Piazza Europa, with trepidation, narrowly avoiding the prominent statue of Ignazio Florio in the centre. The Florio family, who were Marsala wine exporters, bought the three Egadi islands and their fishing rights in the 19th century and built the impressive vaulted tuna fishery across the bay, along with the nearby Palazzo Florio.

We swerved down the main street, past shops displaying postcards of the mattanza, into Piazza Madrice, the other main square, where young girls pointed and giggled (helmets, it turns out, are not a safety requirement but a means of identifying bad riders and tourists on Favignana). After negotiating a number of narrow alleys, we eventually made it to the main road heading east out of town along the coast.

We followed little yellow signs north to Cala Rossa - the Red Cove - so-called, it is said, because of the blood that was shed there during the Roman defeat of the Carthaginian navy in the first Punic war of 241BC, which gave Rome control of most of Sicily.

Along the coast were signs of the tufa quarrying that, over the centuries, has provided a second income for the Egadi islands. Little swimming-pools have formed in rectangular shore-side pits, where the sandy-coloured tufa has been evenly removed. The dual powers of sea and man have given rise to sharp geometric forms juxtaposed with tunnels, caves and doughnut-shaped rocks, which make for interesting spots to stop off for a swim.

The road turned back inland past some isolated tufa-built homes with exquisite gardens of palm and Indian fig trees. It eventually shed its smooth tarmac surface and turned into a bumpy gravel path. We juddered downhill, stones popping from under the tyres, past a series of deep inland tufa pits that looked more like archaeological digs than quarries - and into the little car park above Cala Rossa.

The steep walls of the cove bore the tooth-marks of past quarrying, providing a bright Cubist backdrop to the turquoise sea, and sheltering a single yacht that was anchored there. Across the strait, Levanzo rose mistily out of the water. Levanzo is the second most popular of the Egadi islands with tourists, who come to see the palaeolithic engravings and neolithic paintings that were discovered in its Grotta del Genovese. The most remote of the Egadi islands, Marettimo was out of sight to the west. Staking its claim in ancient history, Marettimo is believed to be the original Ithaca, home of Homer's Odysseus.

We scrambled down a path lined with bright yellow flowers, and found a perfect sunbathing spot in a flat-bottomed cube of carved tufa, into which the clear waters lapped. I swam for nearly an hour, diving down with a snorkel to the white, sandy bottom. Deep caves can be explored around the semi-circular bay, where you will see the evidence of bonfires and hand-painted notices urging visitors to leave Cala Rossa as pristine as they found it.

In search of something to eat we scooted back up the gravel track and around the narrow lanes to Lido Burrone, the island's largest beach, to the south. Pedalos and sea kayaks are available for hire here, and a sheltered café offers a tasty fish lunch. We ordered a mouth-watering platter of swordfish, skipjack tuna, salad and crusty bread, and a glass of dry white Marsala.

After lunch, we headed to the lighthouse on the island's eastern point, again passing some enticing swimming spots where the sea has carved pretty inlets into the soft rock. Below the lighthouse is another popular cove, the Cala Azzurra, with a small beach, high cliffs and numerous flat rocks on which to lay out a towel. Yachts harbour here, too, and the swimming is excellent, with shallow areas allowing you to stand on the soft sand - something you can't do in the deep waters of Cala Rossa.

With the sun setting behind Monte Santa Caterina, the eastern end of the island began to cool by 6pm. There was an hour left before the departure of the hydrofoil, so we scooted back towards town, stopping off near an old church, Santa Anna, where another quarry had been lovingly landscaped into a sunken garden.

After returning the scooter (to which I was by now rather attached) and paying a few extra euros for the petrol we'd guzzled, we stopped briefly at a small fishmonger's named Stella Maris - star of the sea - just off Piazza Europa. A single beheaded tuna was on display on the table in the doorway, and flies had convened around the wound for a feast. The fishmonger chatted on his mobile phone, oblivious to any enquiries we might have been making. But then, our trip to Favignana had been to explore some beautiful scenery in a remote, historic corner of the Mediterranean; not to buy tuna. Like so many traditional fishing communities around Europe, Favignana's fortunes, it seems, now lie in tourism.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

James Palmer travelled with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), which flies to Palermo in Sicily from London Stansted from around £90 return.

There is a bus service from Palermo airport to Trapani, one of the gateways t the Egadi Islands; alternatively, renting a car through Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) costs from £125 per week. Siremar (00 39 081 317 2999; www.siremar.it) operates regular ferry and hydrofoil crossings from Trapani to Favignana. Single fares start from around €2.90 (£2). Hydrofoils operated by Ustica Lines (00 39 092 322 200; www.usticalines.it) also depart on a regular basis from the nearby port of Marsala, and from Trapani for €5.30 (£3.80) one way.

STAYING THERE

The author stayed near Selinunte in south-west Sicily, at Villa Bua (01943 830 443; www.artistadventurers.co.uk) where double rooms start from £29. On Favignana, L'Approdo di Ulisse Club (00 39 0923 922 525; www.apprododiulisse.com) offers full-board from €92(£66) per person, based on two sharing a room.

MORE INFORMATION

The Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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