Posted on 12/14/03
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 Patrick at Six Small Room. 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. Excellent! I felt drawn
to this island the same way that I’m drawn to unusually tall, voluptuous,
long-tongued women. It was at the basic instinct level.
According to Lonely Planet, Marettimo had no roads, only a few
hundred people and no hostels or hotels. One could acquire accommodation simply
by heading into the center of town, then waiting for someone to notice you
and offer you a room from their apartment. Being far off high season, I suspected
that I would be the only tourist on Marettimo over the weekend. Possibly the
only tourist in all of December. 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 scorching
75 degrees on my last day in Naples and I was heading southwest, pasta whipping
distance from Africa, so by my rudimentary logic I was expecting just as nice
or better weather on Sicily.
When I went to procure a ferry ticket, the only question I was
asked by the ticket clerk was which nationality I was. Nothing about first
or second class, times or even if I wanted a round-trip ticket. I was simply
handed a ticket and sent off. Apparently in the off-season, the only ferry
going to Sicily from Naples is the 11 hour over-night ferry, departing at
7:00PM and arriving at 6:00AM. My seating arrangements worried me. In my condition,
I knew I couldn’t handle an 11 hour ferry ride sitting in a chair. I
needed a bed. And a fillet mignon, drowning in sautéed mushrooms and
garlic mashed potatoes with a nice merlot. And a Swedish massage from limber,
identical twins. But I would have just settled for the bed. Back at Six Small
Rooms, with much assistance, I was able to translate enough of the ticket
to deduce that I was in a “double cabin.” “Cabin”
sounded promising, but I was still preoccupied with the issue until I got
on the ferry.
Finding my way onto a ferry in Naples’ harbor was exactly
how I expected. No signs, no passenger gangway and total, screaming pandemonium
at the vehicle loading area with an impenetrable herd of cars and semis trying
to load all at once. After wandering around the area for a while and getting
thoroughly frustrated by the unavailability of any assistance whatsoever,
I just decided to follow a car onto the vehicle ramp. I was practically in
the boat when a ticket taker popped out of his hiding place and chased me
down to check my ticket. Once he was satisfied, I was allowed to board and
negotiate the exhausting obstacle course that eventually lead to the upper
decks. Other than the date and the “double cabin” designation,
I had absolutely no clue on where to make myself comfortable. I wandered around
the upper deck, checking a few door handles before I found a hotel style reception
desk. I was pretty sure that I hadn’t paid for a hotel room, but nonetheless
I hesitantly showed the concierge my piece of paper and to my surprise he
handed me a key. I was delighted to find myself in a double cabin that was
bigger and nicer than many pensions that I had stayed in, and it was all mine!
It had a comfortable bed, a desk, a full bathroom and best of all, complete
privacy. I was showered and in my pajamas (read: buck naked) before the ferry
even undocked. I worked, read and sat in wonder at the fantastic overnight,
moving accommodations that I had purchased for only 45 euros. The ferry was
huge. Driven by a sense of duty, I left my room briefly to survey the offerings
of modern ferries. I poked my head into the restaurant, bar, movie room, playground,
arcade and “card room.” Having accomplished this, I returned to
my room quickly. I wanted nothing to do with any of these distractions. I
had priceless privacy for 11 hours and I was not going to fritter any of it
away wandering through social rooms, choked in cigarette smoke and men sitting
alone drinking and staring at me. With the stares I was drawing, I wondered
if perhaps I might also be the only tourist in all of Sicily that weekend.
Either that or I had something really interesting on my face.
The eventually the ferry rumbled to life and we headed out into
the Tyrrhenian Sea. The ferry was experiencing the faintest amount of swaying
in the open sea. It was barely perceptible except for the rare occasions when
I happened to bend over in time and direction with the ferry’s pitch
and lurched lightly, but painfully into the surprisingly jagged bunk ladder.
Keeping my 6:00AM wake-up time in mind, I retired early, but
in the spirit of my ongoing, involuntary, yet self-inflicted spiraling exhaustion,
my brain started racing and I was not able to fall asleep for nearly two hours.
When I was able to expel the irksome fact from my mind that I was exhausted
by all measures, yet still not able to sleep, I was able to appreciate that
I really dug ferry travel and resolved at that moment to bypass Naples on
my return to the continent and instead chug from Palermo straight up to the
now notorious Genoa, Italy on the northwestern coast, just outside of France.
From there, I would leisurely, but attentively purchase a train ticket to
Paris, making sure I didn’t end up with a ticket to Parris, Slovenia
or some such nightmare. I planned to land into Paris with enough time to do
a little Christmas shopping before heading to Minneapolis for the holidays.
Aside from probable, sporadic, crazed incidents due to temporary insanity
as a result of insufficient of R.E.M. sleep, nothing could go wrong!
Six o’clock came with a cruel quickness. I felt like I
had only slept three hours (in reality it probably wasn’t much more).
Despite wanting nothing more in the world than to go back to sleep, even if
it meant going back to Naples, like an obedient, first-time, ferry cabin inhabitant,
I jumped up, got ready and vacated my room just as the overhead announcement
requested. What I didn’t know was that these announcements are just
done to torment the tourists. Myself and a few other ferry virgins were the
only people naïve enough to promptly turn in our keys. The rest of the
Italian passengers knew better and slept in for another hour before complying
with this request. I was feeling a little put-out, to put it lightly, while
I stood on the car dock level, bleary eyed, hauling my bags in between 200
cars and semis and sucking exhaust fumes while the smarter Italians snoozed
happily in bed. My entire life, by and large, I have been a good, rule following
boy and at age 33 I still hadn’t learned that you don’t always
need to stick to the straight and narrow. In fact, well timed departures from
the rules will often result in a much more enjoyable life. Still, stupid Italians.
Palermo was inconceivably dirtier than Naples. I honesty didn’t
think it was possible. It was refreshingly more endowed with general personal
space on the streets, but it was still far beyond acceptable levels of city
chaos and filth. Palermo could also stand to put up a tourist assistance sign
or two. There were signs everywhere, directing people to the various sporting
arenas and stadiums, but not a single sign pointing toward the train station.
Sadly, even if there were signs for the train station, it wouldn’t have
helped me answer the question of whether it was better to train or bus to
Trapani, my jumping off point to Marettimo. It was about 7:30AM and the only
people on the street at that hour didn’t look like particularly attractive
candidates to beseech for directions.
After walking for a very long time through slum-like neighborhoods,
I suddenly emerged into a respectable part of town and I found myself standing
directly in front of a four star hotel. I marched right in and asked for a
map. The desk guy was very helpful and even went so far as to advise me into
taking the bus to get to Trapani.
Things went alarmingly smoothly from there. While I had been
predictably walking in the exact opposite direction of the train/bus station,
it turned out that inter-city busses stopped at an unmarked street corner
before leaving town and that corner was only a 10 minute walk away. Upon reaching
the bus stop, I learned that a bus destined for Trapani was leaving in just
two minutes. Ninety semi-conscious minutes later I was in Trapani. The ferry
going to Marettimo wasn’t leaving for two hours, so I walked into the
city, ate a late breakfast, then made myself comfortable by the docks in the
sun and worked while enjoying the first serious fresh air I had been exposed
to since Cinque Terre, two weeks earlier. It must have been pushing 80 degrees.
I desperately wanted to switch into shorts and lose my shirt, allowing my
body to absorb as much of the yummy, life-giving sunbeam vitamins as possible,
but I was feeling a little self-conscious as it was in just a t-shirt and
kakis with all of the Sicilians walking around in vests, coats, hats and scarves.
I was visibly sweating while sitting there in the sun and these people seemed
to be perfectly comfortable in three layers of clothing. I realized at that
moment that I didn’t ever want anything to do with Sicily in the summer.
If it was pushing 80 on December 5th and people were dressing like they were
in Reykjavik, it was safe to presume that their summers would probably marinate
Eventually, I packed up and boarded the ferry for Marettimo.
The white noise hum and soft vibrations of the ferry engine caused me to nod
off almost as soon as I sat down. I briefly came to at each of the first three
stops before being shaken awake by the guy sitting inside of me as we approached
Marettimo. The island was dominated by several. gorgeous, green, mountain
peaks before tapering down into the shoreline where the town of Marettimo
was resting. All the houses on Marettimo were 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 on both accounts 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 in Trapani.
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 path up to my apartment. First balcony on the right.
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.
As I got comfortable in my fantastically large, clean and modern
apartment, I figured out that it took me longer to get from Naples to Marettimo
than it was going to take me to get from Paris to Minneapolis, but I had done
it in bumbling style and it was all worth it in the end. I was so happy to
be on warm, sunny, tranquil, scenic Marettimo that I wanted to cry. My snowballing
fatigue was causing dramatic mood swings from depression, to mania, to half-brain
deadness to total brain deadness and I was definitely feeling a surging swoon
of emotion as I stood on the front balcony of my apartment and took in the
warmth, stillness and beauty of the island and the sea.
Marettimo's street scene in December
I knew I was going to look like an asylum escapee to the warmly
dressed residents of the island, but nevertheless, 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 passed 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.
View off my balcony.
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
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.
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. When that got old (13 minutes), I popped “Shrek”
into my laptop and enjoyed a purely brain-candy evening.
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 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.
Italy's smallest church.
Don't ask me how i knew that there were going to be donkeys on the
In addition to the sweet solitude, I was on an all out, resolute
mission to heal myself as much as possible while in Marettimo. I had long
since lost patience with my deteriorating mental and physical condition bogarting
nearly every moment of every day since I left Nice. The 11 hours that I managed
to sleep the first night was a good start. I decided to keep the ball rolling,
by binging on good, natural, healthy, vitamin-packed food for the duration
of my stay. I stopped at the market and bought lunch, second lunch, dinner,
breakfast, second breakfast and a rainforest of revitalizing fruit and liquids
for the next 24 hours. Not only was I going to flood my insides with yummy
goodness, but I also had to get to work on stretching my stomach out for my
return to the States. My appetite had long since shrunk to the dainty European
standards, where about ½ the food I was accustomed to consuming in
the States was more than enough to fill me in one sitting. I knew I didn’t
have a chance in Hell, Norway of cramming down my beloved football sized omelets
and 1/2 lb. mushroom, double Swiss burgers with fries and two steins of cider
if I didn’t get my old, American stomach capacity back.
This little stone house was bizarre. Check out the stone lions on
With my wandering options quashed, I settled in for a day of
eating, reading, staring blankly off my balcony at the just-out-of-reach,
sun soaked sea and repeatedly ejecting the stray cat that had a tenacity for
wanting to enter my apartment like no other fervently discouraged, conscious
life form I had ever seen. I pushed, shoved, carried and drove this cat out
the door with a gush of water about 20 times in less than an hour. This was
going on while I was trying to cook and let some fresh air blow into the apartment
to chase away the mildew smell that had infused itself into the place from
the spare blanket I pulled out for late night warmth. The cat was, not surprisingly,
particularly interested in my cooking. In it’s dopey desire to see what
I was whipping together, it repeatedly tried to jump up directly onto the
area of the stove that I was boiling pasta. After my extensive, tireless hindrances,
I considered letting the feline learn a lesson the hard way, but my base nature
wouldn’t allow me to watch a stupid animal scald itself as a result
of it’s determined, single-minded desire to investigate the stovetop.
Swearing at it didn’t help. Closing the bottom half of the shuttered
door didn’t help (Cats can jump really high, can’t they?). Completely
closing the storm doors didn’t help (It turns out that these useless
doors could be pushed inward and open from the outside by the pathetic pressure
applied by a nine pound cat). Finally when I reached for an empty, plastic
liter bottle of Coke (I wasn’t going to hit it, just severely threaten
it), the cat raced out of the apartment and I never saw it again. I was left
to wonder what about a plastic Coke bottle instilled such fear into a cat.
Maybe it’s mother died when it pulled a full one onto itself from a
high shelf after a fed-up human gave up trying to save it from it’s
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 it’s formerly booming tuna industry, apparently
Marettimo had it’s 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 was learned that the island already gets 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. I knew that I wanted to return
to Marettimo one day, but clearly I wanted nothing to do with the place during
high season. The Rube Tourist issue aside, judging from the mild temperatures
that Marettimo was experiencing during December, I deduced that just after
high-season - October to early November - would probably be the optimum time
for a visit to the island.
After making resolute plans to sleep late the next morning and
catch the 1:30PM ferry to Trapani, before moving on to Agrigento, I was belatedly
informed that there was no 1:30 on Sundays. I had to either catch the 9:00AM
or the 4:30PM. Erg. I reset my alarm for 8:00AM and settled in for an early
In my now legendary fashion for coping severe insomnia when
I desperately need sleep, I was up until about 3:00AM, tossing turning, reading,
then more tossing. I was not in a good mood when the alarm went off. My mood
turned resoundingly vile when I swung open the balcony doors to the warmth
of a bright sun in a clear sky. I collapsed to the floor, pulled out my Timeport
and did some quick budget calculations for remaining on Marettimo for another
day. I couldn’t stomach the total and the resulting fact that another
day in Marettimo would mean one less city that I could visit back on Sicily.
Despite my dwindling motivation to lurch ahead through two more towns that
I probably wouldn’t recall at all through the din of my exhaustion,
I anticipated the regret I would likely feel six months later and knew that
I would never forgive myself for not making the most of my time on Sicily.
Even if it meant begging the hostel people to write my travelogue for me,
so as nothing would be forgotten or skewed by my temporary dementia.
I glumly loaded up on a huge breakfast and got a ride to the
ferry on the apartment owner’s electric golf cart.
Even the relatively small city of Trapani was too much for me
to cope with that morning. I wandered around forever trying to find the bus
station. There were no signs of course, but I doubt that they would have helped.
What little signage there was in Trapani was totally useless. The two signs
that I saw and tried to follow for tourism offices, lead to barren alleys.
Finally, knowing that I would regret it, I stopped in the train station to
inquire about getting to Agrigento. I had a feeling that taking the train
would mean suffering and doom and I was right. First I had to wait in Trapani
for three hours, then take the unbelievably slow train into Palermo, wait
around there for an hour, then take another equally slow train south to Agrigento.
I sighed heavily and bought the ticket. With this itinerary, I wasn’t
going to make it to Agrigento until after 7:00PM. Not the best way to conduct
a day after five hours of sleep and a drawn out, unshakable, bout of fatigue.
It was either that or stagger around the city on a Sunday morning hoping that
the bus option, when and if found, would be better. After purchasing the ticket,
I sought out an internet café to catch up on three days of unchecked
Go to Agrigento