Favignana was just what I needed.
Mention Favignana to most people outside of Italy and you get blank looks. Mention Favignana to Italians and you get wistful sighs. This island in north western Sicily (the largest of the Aegadian Islands) has some of the most beautiful sea in Italy, which is what I came for. 2020 so far has mostly been spent inside, in the city, in close contact and constant communication with other people. So what I wanted – what I felt I needed, or even deserved – was a solo trip to somewhere that was not a city.
Favignana has just a few thousand inhabitants. There’s not much of a “buzz”, unless you count the frenetic port, full of visitors disembarking from ferries, fishermen yelling in dialect, old men selling fichi d’india (prickly pears), and a constant, chaotic stream of bikes and scooters.
The squares in the tiny town centre come alive in the morning, with tourists and locals crowding the bars for breakfast (granita and pastries oozing with pistachio cream, if you’re feeling decadent). Then a hush descends until the wave of early evening returners, when everyone’s sun-soaked and ravenous after a day out and about on the island.
The food is sublime. Fish and seafood feature heavily on the menu – the Sicilian speciality of swordfish in particular, as well as tuna, which used to be Favignana’s main industry. One of the best meals I had was insalata di mare (octopus salad), followed by busiate pasta with swordfish, bottarga (roe) and pistachio, washed down with a glass of white wine. And of course an honourable mention has to go to pesto alla trapense. Unlike the better-known Ligurian green pesto (made with basil and pine nuts), red pesto from Trapani is made with tomatoes and almonds, and is even more delicious…
Everyone in Favignana gets around by bike or scooter. I rented a bike and cycled all around the island, from Bue Marino in the east to Cala Rotonda in the west. Although my main goal was to reach the sea, cycling was enjoyable in itself – in the golden morning light along the seafront, or through dusty roads lined by abandoned quarries, crumbling walls and flowering cactuses. I would often encounter other cyclists, on their way to or from a beach, but I sometimes had the roads to myself. On one remote road to the west my path was momentarily blocked by a herd of sheep. Another road led magically, mirage-like, to a giant orange. Inside the orange was a smiling woman – “BUONGIORNO!” – who sold me an iced drink made with freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice.
Favignana is not everyone’s idea of paradise, perhaps. While the sea is undeniably jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the island might seem too empty, too arid and rugged for some tastes. I kept thinking about “what used to be”. The ruins of the castle on the hill. The silent quarries scarring the landscape. The tuna factory converted into a museum. The name of a swimming spot, “Bue Marino”, which refers to monk seals that no longer visit. Signs of life and activity that have disappeared.
Of course, all of Italy is full of reminders of “what used to be”. I live in Rome, after all…But Favignana’s serene, subdued atmosphere and rugged landscape made me reflect on past and present, and on the contrasts between the vastness and ancientness of nature, and the human delusion of power and permanence. It all felt very Ozymandias.
The nearby island of Levanzo – population 200 – feels even more wild and ancient than Favignana, and in a cave known as “La Grotta del Genovese”, there are 12,000 year old paintings. When you’re alone, standing on a dusty road or swimming in the sea, looking at the rocks, it’s like you’ve somehow fallen out of time. Cities and modern civilisation feel distant and unreal.
I spent six days alone and never felt lonely. The solitude actually felt healing. Hardly talking, I basically stopped thinking. My internal monologue fell silent, and I found myself living effortlessly in the moment for perhaps the first time in my life. Instead of an anxious, frantic, overanalytical, self-obsessed mind, I was just a body. A body walking, cycling, climbing, swimming, eating, sleeping…absorbing sensations and experiences without analysing.
I came back from Favignana feeling completely refreshed, and with an altered perspective. A successful holiday, in other words…
Below is my guide to swimming spots in different parts of Favignana, including one on the nearby island of Levanzo. The reason I refer to them as “swimming spots” rather than “beaches” is because with the exception of Lido Burrone, “beach” is not really accurate. “Beach” makes you think of sand, sun beds and an easy walk into the water. If you want to go swimming in the clean, crystalline water of Favignana – the reason most people come to the island – you’ll have to clamber over rocks and accept the lack of comfort, facilities and life guards.
I’ve included some individual warnings for the different spots, but I’d also include this more general advice for anyone considering a trip to Favignana:
- Most of these swimming spots are inaccessible or dangerous for anyone with impaired mobility. Not for the elderly, young children or weak swimmers (due to lack of life guards). Lido Burrone is the exception.
- Again, with the exception of Lido Burrone (which has sun beds and umbrellas), there’s very little in the way of comfort or shade in these places. If you want a more conventional, relaxing beach holiday where you’re lounging on sand or a sun bed all day, maybe re-consider.
- Bring or buy water shoes (scarpe da mare/scarpe da scoglio). I bought a pair for €12 in Favignana and they were a lifesaver. If you want to swim in places like Cala Rossa or Bue Marino, I really think they’re essential. Flip-flops are useless if you need to navigate rock obstacle courses to get into the sea.
- Beware of jellyfish! I got stung while swimming near Cala Rotonda, but people have also reported jellyfish stings in other parts of the island. Just be aware that at some times of the year, some parts of the sea may have jellyfish. Watch out for them, and other swimmers who might spot them first. The Italian word for jellyfish is “medusa”, so be alert for any mention. If you get stung, keeping the skin submerged in sea water helps with the pain. No need for a Monica/Chandler moment…
The most famous of the swimming spots in Favignana. According to legend, the “rossa” of the name refers to the red blood staining the crystalline waters of the cove during a battle between the Romans and Carthaginians in 241 BC. But it’s hard to imagine that this place was ever anything but serene.
The landscape is dramatic, the sea clean, transparent, turquoise. Actually getting into the water requires some careful navigation of slippery rocks, but once you’re in, it’s fantastic. You can see right to the bottom even when the water’s deep, and fish are clearly visible.
The “beach” is a rocky slope with no shade. Good for sunbathing or as a place to leave your stuff while you swim, but otherwise not very comfortable.
Cala Rossa gets busier as the day goes on. I’d recommend getting here early (before 10am).
Facilities: A bar at the top of the cliff called Egadiyo selling sandwiches and drinks. Not sure if there’s a toilet.
Getting there: About a 15 minute bike ride from town. It’s well signposted. You can park your bike at the crossroads, and then follow the path down to reach the sea. The most direct path is a steep, tricky climb down. If you go right and curve round there’s a less steep, slightly more accessible path.
Warning! No lifeguards. Reaching the beach involves navigating a rocky descent, while you need to walk carefully (ideally with water shoes) in order to get into the sea.
After Cala Rossa, heading clockwise round the island takes you to the even more dramatic Bue Marino, named after the monk seals that used to congregate here. This part of the island used to be a quarry, and the “beach” takes the form of various ledges of rock surrounded by yellow walls of rock. Most of the beach doesn’t have much in the way of shade, but you can shelter in the quarry.
Getting to the beach is quite straightforward, but reaching the water is a challenge. There are two main access points – one on the right, and one on the far left. You really have to watch your step as you climb over the rocks, taking care not to lose your balance. Then, when you reach the flat shelf of rock that leads into the sea, I recommend taking extra care – it’s slippery! – perhaps crouching and shuffling into the water on your bum.
The water is deep straight away, but it’s easy to float, and like Cala Rossa, it’s so clean and transparent that you can see right to the bottom. The waves and the current were stronger than at Cala Rossa, so unless you’re a strong swimmer, stay close to the shore.
Although getting into the water is a challenge, it’s worth the effort. The sea is magnificent, and the whole place has a wild, almost mystical atmosphere. There are these incredible contrasts between the rocks and the sea, sparkling in patches of light and dark blue. No photo can do it justice.
Facilities: Kiosks at the top of the cliff selling drinks and sandwiches.
Getting there: About a 20 minute bike ride from town. Follow signs for Cala Rossa and keep going. You can park your bike at the top of the cliff and follow the path down to reach the beach and sea.
Warning! No lifeguards. The beach is easier to access on foot than Cala Rossa, but the sea is harder to reach and dangerous due to depth and strong currents. In my opinion, this place is suitable for fit, mobile teenagers and adults only.
“Azzurro” means light blue – the magical colour of the water in this part of the island. This is the kind of water you expect to find in Sardinia, or the Caribbean. Limpid, cool, transparent…You don’t even need to swim – you can just wade, stepping on powdery white sand.
Almost as refreshing as the water is the fact that you don’t have to navigate a slippery stone labyrinth to reach it. Cala Azzurra’s accessibility makes it a popular choice for families, so it’s comparatively crowded. While some people spread out towels on the rocks, there’s no shade and very few comfortable places to sit.
This is a place for a quick dip, just to experience the water – not somewhere to spend all day. But it’s definitely worth a visit, and the nearby bar makes for a good pit stop.
Facilities: Bar Cala Azzurra is a short walk from the beach. It’s a proper bar (as opposed to a kiosk) with a toilet.
Getting there: About a 20 minute bike ride from town. Once you’ve parked your bike it’s an easy walk downhill to get to the beach.
Warning! No life guards. But the water is calm and very shallow.
A real beach, with a sandy stretch, sun beds, umbrellas and life guards. This makes it less exotic and less appealing in a way, compared to the other swimming spots in Favignana, but honestly, I liked it. If you have limited time in Favignana, skip it, but otherwise I think it makes a nice contrast to the wilder beaches. It’s much closer to the traditional Italian beach experience. Less memorable, but more comfortable – somewhere to relax with a book and a beer.
Facilities: This is a proper stabilmento with bars, shops, toilets, showers (I think), plus sun beds and umbrellas for hire.
Getting there: About a 15 minute bike ride from town. Once you’ve parked your bike, it’s a short, easy walk to the beach – no rocks or hills.
Located on the western coast of Favignana, Cala Rotonda offers a compromise between the wild but challenging swimming spots (Cala Rossa and Bue Marino) and the accessible but comparatively crowded beaches (Cala Azzurra and Lido Burrone).
Cala Rotonda feels very remote, and with the exception of the nearby bar Pura Vida, there are really no other signs of civilisation. But while it’s remote and rugged, it’s also accessible. An easy walk to the rocky beach, and then you can walk right into the shallow water. The only downside is that the water, while very clean and transparent, doesn’t have that spectacular blue colour.
Cala Rotonda must be one of the best places on the island to enjoy the sunset – sitting on the beach or at the bar, watching the sun go down over the island of Marettimo on the horizon. I only saw the very beginning of the sunset because I was nervous about my bike’s lack of lights and the possible lack of street lights on the roads back to town – something to keep in mind.
Facilities: A bar, Pura Vida, selling drinks and sandwiches. Not sure if there’s a toilet.
Getting there: About a 30 minute bike ride from town. It’s signposted and pretty easy to reach, as there’s only one main road. You’ll have to go through a big tunnel to get there, but if you’re cycling you can go on the pavement, which is separated from the road by a guard rail.
CALA MINNOLA (LEVANZO)
This beach is located on the south eastern coast of Levanzo, the smallest of the Aegadian islands. Levanzo is a 10 minute boat journey from Favignana. There’s a regular ferry service with Liberty Lines.
From what I’ve read, many of the swimming spots on Levanzo and Marettimo are only really accessible by boat. On Levanzo there are two main spots that are within easy reach of the town (on foot) – Cala Minnola and Cala Faraglione. I was tempted by the latter, but I read that there can be strong currents, so I opted for Cala Minnola instead.
The walk to Cala Minnola is stunning itself – winding alongside the coast, with steep cliffs on one side, and shimmering, pure blue ocean on the other. The whole area is gorgeous – unspoilt nature. It’s kind of how I imagine the islands in the Odyssey.
Cala Minnola was one of the highlights of my trip. It was so peaceful, with the most incredible water. If I’d brought food with me, I would have stayed longer, as there’s a grove of pine trees just above the beach offering some welcome shade, and I think I spotted picnic benches.
The water was calm and not that deep, but getting there involves crossing a slippery shelf of rock. While I was there a woman lost her balance on the way into the sea, fell and cut her head. She wasn’t badly hurt, but she gave up on her attempt to get into the water. I sliced my finger on a rock while I was slowly trying to ease my way into the water without slipping. So proceed with caution…
There are some submerged ruins of a Roman shipwreck near Cala Minnola, but obviously they’re in deeper water, so you’d have to go on a scuba diving expedition to see them. More information (in Italian) here.
Getting there: A 20 minute walk from the port/centre of Levanzo. Follow the signposted footpath around the south east coast of the island.
Warning! No life guards. The beach is in an isolated area – nothing nearby, and the only people around will be swimmers and the occasional walker.
A Guide to Favignana (Along Dusty Roads)
Favignana: the challenging paradise (Verbalized)
Island of Favignana (João Cajuda)