Favignana: Better for Tourists Than for Tuna

After taking a break, we’re resuming posting about our travels in Sicily in September with our friends AJ and baby Francesca.

Off the northwest coast of Sicily lies a trio of islands called the Egadi. Lumps of stone and scrubby vegetation, for centuries the islands offered residents only two main sources of income: fishing the big red tuna that migrate past the islands and quarrying tufa, a strong, porous stone commonly used for building in Italy. Now, with tuna and tufa dwindling, the Egadis are starting to tap another source of income: tourism.

A flooded tufa quarry

So far, most of the tourists are Italians, drawn by the islands’ proximity to mainland Sicily (less than an hour by ferry), their blue waters, and their pockets of sandy beach. We went to the largest of the Egadis, Favignana, in search of a beach getaway after the hot temperatures of Palermo.

It was fun being surrounded mostly by Italian tourists and soaking up the relaxed, but not overrun, holiday atmosphere. As Americans, we felt far off the beaten path. Luckily, enough people spoke rudimentary English that between English and our phrase-book Italian, we could usually make ourselves understood.

Being one of the closest inhabited islands to Sicily and having a good port, Favignana has long been a favorite jumping-off point for invaders trying to conquer western Sicily. In 241 BC, the waters around Favignana were the site of a huge (600-ship) naval battle between the Romans and Carthaginians during the first Punic War. In later centuries, Arab and then Norman conquerors used Favignana as a base for their invasions.

At the center of the island is a 1,000-foot hill, crowned (invariably in Sicily) by the ruins of a Norman fortress. Energetic tourists can climb up to it, but with a toddler in tow, we contented ourselves with looking at it from a distance. It makes a wonderfully historical backdrop for several of Favignana’s beaches.

The town of Favignana, the only sizable settlement on the island, isn’t quaint or charming, but it’s pleasant. Besides residents’ homes and some rental apartments, there’s a simple church, a municipal building, a small marina, and a few plazzas lined with shops and sidewalk cafes. The most imposing building in town is the three-story mansion of a former tuna baron, now turned into a tourist office (with information only in Italian) and a space for art exhibitions.

We spent our time swimming, biking, shopping for crafts and inexpensive clothes, eating lots of seafood in the local restaurants, and just generally taking it easy. It helped that Favignana doesn’t have much sightseeing.

Aside from the tourist office and the hilltop ruins, the only indoor attraction is a former tuna cannery that has been turned into a museum about the tuna industry. Ordinarily, that’s the sort of ethnographic experience I seek out, but I skipped it because I didn’t want to see pictures of the bloody way in which they used to kill the tuna (using nets to channel them into a small, shallow area and then harpooning them en masse at close range as they struggled to escape). Thus, most of our photos of Favignana are from the beach or from a day spent biking around the island.

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