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The Island of Favignana

GUIDE TO SICILY

Favignana, or La Farfalla as it is often referred to thanks to its butterfly shape, is the largest and most important of the Egadi Islands. Lying some 15km off the coast of Trapani, it is a popular holiday destination in the summer months, largely thanks to the crystalline azure waters of bays such as Cala Rossa.

The main town, also known as Favignana, has a small port and is dominated by the Fort of Santa Caterina, originally built by the Arabs as a watchtower, subsequently enlarged by the Normans and later used as a prison by the Bourbon Kings. With its two piazzas, its pedestrianised streets and its lovely sandy beach, Favignana Town has an easy, unpretentious charm and a relaxing atmosphere.

Favignana Town is also home to two buildings that give us an insight into the island’s history. The first, Palazzo Florio, is a grand mansion overlooking the harbour built by Ignazio Florio, once one of Italy’s richest and most powerful industrialists. Ignazio Florio didn’t just build and invest in Favignana, however, he actually purchased the whole island in 1874, along with all commercial fishing rights. 

Favignana's community jealously guards a treasure trove of myths, legends, and peculiar stories handed down over generations.

He soon set about enlarging and beautifying an existing tuna processing plant situated across the bay from his palazzo. One of Palermo’s foremost architects, Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, was engaged to carry out this work, ensuring that the building was not only highly functional, but also aesthetically pleasing. The tonnara on Favignana was one of several owned by the Florios in Sicily, but arguably their most important, for it was here that they trialled and perfected new industrial processes, including a groundbreaking technique for preserving tuna in olive oil and the invention of a key-opened tin can.

After the demise of the Florio empire in the early 20th century, the tonnara continued to function under a variety of owners until the late 1980s. In the early years of the 21st century, it was completely restored by the regional government of Sicily and since 2010 has hosted a museum dedicated to the island’s tuna industry and the mattanza (the traditional tuna cull).

Long before the Florios came to exploit the island’s resources, Favignana had been a Roman outpost. During the First Punic War, several naval battles were fought off the coast of Favignana, including one sanguinary clash which turned the water red – hence the name of Cala Rossa, one of the island’s most picturesque bays. The spoils of the Roman victory included Favignana, which provided the Roman Empire with a rich source of tuff stone. Quarries were dug all over the island and these angular depressions are very much part of the topographical make-up of Favignana today. Our villa, Zu Nillu, is set in and above its very own Roman quarry.

If tuff stone quarrying and tuna fishing are things of the past, tourism is very much Favignana’s present, even though the island remains largely a destination for Italians in the know. What most people come for are the island’s crystalline, electric blue waters. Numerous idyllic coves have been sculpted into the coastline by Mother Nature, including the irresistible trio of Cala Rossa, Cala Azzurra and Cala Rotonda. Alternating with these coves are a myriad of sea grottoes, such as Grotta Azzurra, Grotta dei Sospiri (sospiri means “sighs” – it is said that the cave moans or sighs when the wind blows from a particular direction), and Grotta degli Innamorati (Lovers’ Cave). These can be visited by boat (we thoroughly recommend you see the island from the sea) and are particularly popular with scuba divers and snorkellers.

Like all islands, Favignana’s community jealously guards a treasure trove of myths, legends and peculiar stories handed down from generation to generation. One of the most curious is the tale of Nillu, who was born a girl but died a man. Interested? Read more here.

As you might imagine, Favignana’s culinary traditions are closely connected to the sea. Tuna – in all its guises, from the choicest cut to salty bottarga (dried and cured tuna roe) -  is still very much on the menu, even if the last mattanza took place in 2007. All eateries, from the humblest trattoria to the most sophisticated ristorante, boast menus rich in fish and seafood, freshly caught, respectfully cooked and delicious to eat.

The most popular form of transport on Favignana is the bicycle, and thanks to the island’s diminutive size (it measures under 9km from east to west), it is easy to see it all in a few days. 

If, while staying on Favignana, you wish to explore further afield, just hop on one of the frequent hydrofoil crossings to the other Egadi Islands, Levanzo and Marettimo, or to Trapani on Sicily.

Villas on the Egadi Islands >>
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