A jaunty depiction of the sinking Titanic hangs slightly askew inside a dockside fish restaurant on Marettimo, part of the Egadi archipelago west of Sicily. Perhaps it is an example of gallows humour in a village – indeed the island’s only village – so thoroughly dedicated to seafaring rather than land-based enterprise that not much more than a decade ago a visitor in search of a bed might well have been directed back to Sicily.
Now though, Marettimo musters somewhere to stay and even a couple of kilometres of paved road – not that there is much traffic aside from an elderly man with a loud hailer advertising a collection of buckets, mops and brooms so vast it threatens to topple the tiny three-wheeler to which it is strapped, and Fausto Gobbo, the island’s first hotelier, nipping along on a golf buggy to ferry guests’ luggage to and from the hydrofoil.
From the sea, the village – flat-roofed, whitewashed houses piled on to the island’s only sizeable patch of flattish land – looks more typically Greek, or even north African, than Italian. Scores of blue-trimmed fishing boats are hauled up on to the quay and, if there is a house in the narrow streets whose shutters do not sport that same evocative sea-blue shade then I did not see it.
By all accounts in August those streets and every inch of the harbour walls teem with Italian day-trippers from Favignana, the archipelago’s largest island, and from Trapani, 40km away on Sicily proper. But in spring Marettimo is quiet; its waters (a protected maritime reserve) still too chilly and unpredictable to draw many scuba divers or tourists on fishing trips. Men sit around mending nets and repairing boats, looking both tough and absurdly picturesque.
But cooler weather is good for walking. The entire island is a mountain poking out of the sea, culminating in the 686-metre-high Monte Falcone. Thus the hiking is sometimes stiff, but a mostly well-signposted network of trails follows mule paths cleaving to the lines of least, though not negligible, effort. My husband and I spent three days exploring last month, and could easily have spent longer.
One trail takes you on an 11km walk to a coast-guarding castle, the Castello di Punta Troia, built around 1600 on the ruins of a far older Saracen tower. The route zigzags up and round a rocky, striated hillside, the sea a constant companion as you head to the island’s northeastern tip. The hike takes you through stands of pine trees, past shrubs such as pink cistus, clumps of yellow euphorbia and, everywhere, wild rosemary, thyme, lavender and sage. We made it up to the restored castle just as it started to rain, and ate our picnic (from a decidedly upmarket deli – tuna carpaccio, anyone?) in the tower, in front of a Guantánamo-ish pictorial recreation of a hooded and chained prisoner conjuring the castle’s later use as a jail.
Another circular walk crosses from the east to the southwest coast and the site of the Punta Libeccio lighthouse. This 14km route, my favourite, climbs through pines and signs of old terracing until it strikes out along a ledge overlooking the sea – through gorse, broom and patches of pale pink orchids – and then to the headland. The now automated lighthouse has a rather grand terrace, with wooden benches where the keeper may once have passed his time beside the pots of red geraniums.
On the path approaching the lighthouse we met a British couple who were staying at our hotel. They had just seen a Bonelli’s eagle – something increasingly rare in its southern Mediterranean habitats – and by the end of their week had seen more than 40 different bird species, including nine that never visit the UK, such as the purple heron and the hoopoe.
The route back into the village takes you past a Norman church built in the Byzantine style, hard by the remains of a Roman military lookout point. As we circled back down, the weather changed – not so long before we’d been sitting in the sun on the lighthouse terrace. We watched the late-afternoon hydrofoil approaching in suddenly choppy seas, waves drenching the dock. After yawing about for 10 minutes, a tantalising 15-metres or so away from the cluster of people waiting to board, the vessel sounded a dramatic alarm and went back the way it came. Thwarted passengers trudged off disconsolately – a reminder to factor at least one night’s leeway into travel plans.
Later we had dinner in Il Veliero, home of the jaunty Titanic painting. The waiter cheerily (but incorrectly) indicated that no one should bank on leaving the next day. A grey heron flapped low past the window, a pied flycatcher flew in and around the restaurant, which doubled in one corner as the owners’ living room. Childcare was shared between whoever happened to be nearest the toddler when he made a break for the door. One of the island’s cartoonishly lovable stray springer spaniel-esque dogs poked its head in for a few moments, but left when commanded.
Huge piles of spaghetti were followed by fish – which over the nights we ate there included shark, swordfish and squid (no pre-slicing into mimsy rings here, either: you get the whole thing intact). Alas, I don’t eat fish, earning me higher spaghetti mountains and a look of incredulity mixed with pity from the waiter. I tend to think he was right: everyone eating it looked, simply, happy.
We stayed at Marettimo Residence, still the island’s only hotel (there are a few B&Bs now too), though in a sense it is a group of comfortable whitewashed apartments, with terraces overlooking the sea and fabulous gardens. It may have been less than scorching, but a two-metre-high pink geranium by my steps gave a hint of the more usual climate. Gobbo, the owner, arrived on the island 15 years ago on a side trip from a cycling tour of Sicily. It didn’t take him long to abandon both bicycle and his job in Bologna and he has been here since.
During the regular Thursday night dinner he organises, at which fishermen and their wives cook their catch for guests, he told us he knew he had finally been accepted when a fisherman called Pippo Incaviglia gruffly ordered a meeting. Slightly quaking, Gobbo was handed down the official verdict: he was “OK”. Relations could progress. Now Incaviglia and his wife often cook for Gobbo’s clients – they served us fillet of beef and herb-studded sausages as well as tuna and barracuda. They also knocked up pizza and focaccia in the outdoor oven.
Our longer stay on Marettimo was bookended by a few nights on Sicily, just outside either end of the Zingaro nature reserve. Even insistent rain could not spoil our walks here: the views down to tiny coves and beaches and up to pine and palm-covered hills were mesmerising, but the variety and intensity of the flora was thrilling. Irises, orchids, blazing stretches of marigolds – I was left ruing my lack of a proper guide to the scores of plants I’d never seen before.
We walked past abandoned hamlets on the coast; further up some of these dwellings are now refuges. One hiker pointed us up through meadows of marguerites to the one in which he had spent two nights: a water pump outside the door and a stove ready to light inside.
We had come in via the park’s south entrance, arriving from the village of Scopello. But on our return to Sicily from Marettimo we stayed at a beautifully simple B&B, the Baglio la Luna, overlooking the sea near San Vito lo Capo, close to the park’s northern entrance. I would have loved an extra day or two there from which to return to the park. The birdwatching couple we met on Marettimo told us they’d seen a group of 30 bee-eaters outside the window of the B&B here. I saw nothing (and wouldn’t have recognised what I was looking at without their help). But, as darkness fell, I definitely heard owls.
Sue Norris was a guest of Headwater (www.headwater.com). Its week-long “Secrets of Sicily” walking trip costs from £959, including transfers and some meals