Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Marettimo, Sicily

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 my brain.

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 season.

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

Marettimo's road.

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 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. 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 island.

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 the gate.

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 own inanity?

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 night.

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 email.

Go to Agrigento

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©Leif Pettersen 2012