Secluded and Ill-Researched – Marettimo, Sicily, Italy
Because I seem to be forever, inexplicably drawn to making extreme changes to myself and my surroundings, I decided to go directly from loud, stinking claustrophobic Naples to the peaceful, spacious, remote island of Marettimo, off the northwest coast of Sicily. Marettimo is the furthest out of a four island chain known as the Egadi Islands. I was exposed to Marettimo by the clerk at the Six Small Rooms hostel in Naples. I consulted their fat, detailed copy of “Lonely Planet – Italy,” which only devoted a paltry, vague seven line paragraph to the island. Secluded and ill-researched, groovy!
According to Lonely Planet, Marettimo has no roads and no hostels or hotels, only a few hundred people. One can acquire accommodation simply by heading into the center of town and waiting for someone to notice you and offer you a room in their apartment. Being December, far off high season, I suspected that I would be the only tourist on Marettimo over the weekend. Possibly the only tourist for entire month. I wasn’t sure how I was going to eat or what kind of flea trap, out-back, donkey bed I would have to sleep in, I just knew that I wanted to go someplace quiet, serene and obscure so I could deflate from the relentless mental and physical onslaught that was Florence, Rome and Naples. In addition to these needs, I was gambling that I would also get a bonus in the form of the best December weather in Europe. It was a relatively scorching 75°F on my last day in Naples and I was heading southwest, ravioli whipping distance from Africa, so by my rudimentary logic I was expecting just as nice or better weather on Sicily.
While traveling to Marettimo from the continent, you get the distinct sense of having just escaped the beaten path. My journey included an 11 hour overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo, a 90 minute bus ride from Palermo to Trapani and then, after a long wait, a commuter ferry out to Marettimo, which stops at the other three, progressively smaller and remote looking Egadi Islands on the way to the end of the line. Total travel time from Naples to Marettimo; almost 16 hours. I’ve traveled from Minneapolis to Kristiansand, Norway in less time. The island is dominated by several, gorgeous, green, mountain peaks before tapering down to the shoreline where the diminutive town of Marettimo rests. All the houses on Marettimo are white washed (OK, some were off-white washed) and tightly packed into a tiny corner of the island. It looked wonderfully charming and I could feel the last remnants of my crowd anxiety evaporating into a calm, quiet, sunny weekend of inertia.
I was wrong when I assumed that I would be the only tourist on Marettimo. There were in fact two others. A middle-aged, Italian couple. I was also slightly misinformed about the accommodations situation. While it’s true that a backpacker can usually find a cheap room in short order from May to October, what I didn’t know was that finding a room during off-season was impossible. In fact, off-season is so slow on Marettimo that most of the locals pack up and leave to spend the winter back on Sicily. The majority of the town’s homes were locked and shuttered. I don’t think I saw more than 50 different people over the weekend and all businesses except for one tiny market, the pharmacy, a bakery and a bar were closed for the season.
I quickly learned that I only had two accommodations options on Marettimo. Either stay in the pricey Marettimo Residencia Apartments or sleep with the stray dogs by the dry docked boats. The owner of the Apartments was very understanding. It was clear that not only did I not need an entire apartment for myself, but I definitely could not afford to pay 100 euros a night. He gave me a poor-man’s discount on the Q.T. (The Italian couple were also staying at the Apartments) which was still way beyond my budget, but by then I had fallen in love with the island and the thought of coming all that way just to turn around and spend the night in Trapani was about as enticing as a bike tour of Naples. I agreed to stay two nights. Eventually, I discovered that despite the steep accommodations rate I was paying, my budget balanced out for the weekend after I only spent a grand total of 16 euros on food and spent nothing on booze, transportation, tourist sights or entertainment.
The Only Road
I knew I was going to look like an asylum escapee to the warmly dressed residents of the island, but it was balmy and sunny by non-Italian standards, so I switched into shorts, grabbed my camera and set out to explore the town. Contrary to Lonely Planet’s claim, Marettimo does indeed have a road. A single road. And there are vehicles on the island, but only about a dozen of these are full fledged cars. The vehicle preferences of the island residents leaned more toward the three-wheeled, putt-putt carts that you probably had to yank on a rip-cord to start, with about the same horsepower as a hairdryer. Otherwise the island was eerily quiet. Aside from a small construction site that I passed with about six men working on it, I don’t think I saw more than three people during my initial walk through town, despite being 2:00PM on a Friday afternoon. One of the town’s numerous stray dogs adopted me immediately and followed me on my stroll more tamely than our clueless, fickle family dog would have back in Minneapolis. We walked together through the town twice, out to the end of the docks and then back to the apartment after the sun fell behind the mountain and the temperature started to quickly drop.
After a nap and the first of several showers (there were about seven towels in the bathroom and I intended to use every single one), I went to the market and bought food for dinner. I had only cooked dinner for myself a handful of times while I had been on the road, but now I was paying for the use of a full kitchen and I meant to get my money’s worth. Even without the kitchen, I didn’t appear to have much choice in the matter. There wasn’t a single restaurant open on the island. The lone bar that was still open for business might have served food, but I didn’t feeling like being stared at by the other patrons who were probably wondering what the hell this blond, ridiculously dressed tourist was doing on the island in December.
I bought a huge bag of prosciutto ham-filled tortellini and some strange sauce that appeared to be half pesto and half sun-dried tomatoes, which I later learned is a concoction unique to Sicily. I stopped off at the bakery and bought their second to last baguette, then returned to the apartment to feast and lounge around mostly naked, watching Italian television.
I woke up very late on my full day in Marettimo only to discover that I had been struck with the Minnesota curse of bad weather. The sky was clear everywhere around the island for as far as you could see, but stationed directly above the island was a thick, dark cloud cover, seemingly snagged on the mountain tops, that sat unmoving all day long. To add to the dismal conditions, the island suffered from frequent and powerful wind gusts. The wind wasn’t bad in and around town, but after I was overcome by my newfound, mysterious urge to hike and explore and decided to head out to see what was at the end of Marettimo’s road, I was tormented with such ceaseless, fierce wind that I turned back after only 15 minutes sporting wind-induced ear aches. With my wandering options quashed, I settled in for a day of eating, reading and staring blankly off my balcony at the just-out-of-reach, sun soaked sea.
View from my balcony
I left the apartment a few more times during the day to clear my head and chase various vagrant animals off my balcony. At one point, I stopped and took the time to observe the construction site. Having fished the living crap out of its formerly booming tuna industry, apparently Marettimo had its sights set on tourism as its new money earner. Several new apartment buildings and the one road were being built up simultaneously. I questioned the apartment owner about this as best I could in broken English and Italian. He vehemently denied that the new buildings were apartments for tourists, but couldn’t think of the word for what they were to be used for. I ventured guesses. “Homes?” “No.” “Stores?” “No.” “Casinos?” “What?” “Nevermind.” I had read that the slow start of tourism had already begun to make the island a little cramped during high season, but I started to wonder if these people knew the meaning of the word “cramped.” After all, I had just come from Naples. Compared to that, I bet Marettimo gets about as “cramped’ as the viewing gallery at a castration demonstration. Even with the objectionable weather, I was happy to have Marettimo all to myself, but I was also a bit sad to see that yet another unspoiled place was flirting with the menace and potential disaster of luring Rube Tourism.
Another quiet evening of reading, a massive home cooked feast and drooling lethargy on my dead quiet balcony capped off my stay on Marettimo. The next morning I was on the 9:00am ferry back to Sicily to resume my stand-off with noise, exhaust fumes and fleeting personal space in order to get my fill of Sicily.
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