The road of tuna fisheries

Accompanied by the smell of the sea of southeast Sicily, we follow an itinerary that leads us to the discovery of evocative seaside villages, lovely beaches and ancient tuna fisheries: Syracuse, Avola, Vendicari, Marzamemi and even further south, until that last part of Europe that breaks on the sands of Portopalo di Capo Passero. We follow a sensory path on the trail of the ancient tradition of the tuna fishermen.

Siracusa - The Cathedral and Baroque PlaceOur first stop is Ortigia, the old town of SIRACUSA. We arrive at sunset and immediately are immersed in that unique atmosphere that only the ancient seaside towns can give: the small fishing boats that bob in the water, the breeze that caresses the hair, and the lights of the city reflected on the sea alongside the promenade of the port. We reach the B&B MAECO’, a beautiful bed&breakfast a short walk from Piazza Duomo, where Martina welcomes us. Right from the start we can understand that she knows Syracuse perfectly and, upon learning of our curiosity about tuna and tuna fishing, suggests that the next morning we visit the market, where one can admire the freshly caught tuna.

 

Fish Market - ©Photo Fazen
©Photo Fazen

The next morning we walk to the nearby market in Ortigia that Martina suggested to us, and immediately we are enveloped by an almost intoxicating explosion of Mediterranean colours, sounds and smells. On display on the fishermen’s stalls, fresh tuna slices are surrounded by anchovies, sardines, mackerel and other local blue fish. The shouts and calls of the sellers catch us at every step, and we can understand that this is not only a place where you sell and buy, but a real showcase of the beating heart of the city.

Fishery in Avola - ©Photo Gabriele Campisi
©Photo Gabriele Campisi

We leave Ortigia and, following the ancient via Elorina that led from Syracuse to Agrigento along the southeastern coast of Sicily, we reach the seaside village of AVOLA, known as “Mare Vecchiu” [the Old Sea]. Here stand the remains of an ancient tuna fishery overlooking the marina. It was built in the 16th century, damaged by the devastating earthquake of 1693 that hit the entire Noto Valley, and then restored in the 1700s. Today, although unfortunately abandoned, the chimney and some attached warehouses remain visible. A short walk from the tuna fishery we find a small beach with azure waters. A dip in the sea beckons irresistibly, and it does not take too much to convince us. We are struck by the crystal clear water and clean sand, despite the beach being practically in the town.

After a long, refreshing bath, we are feeling a bit peckish. We are lucky, because overlooking the beach many parts of the old fishermen’s warehouse have been expertly renovated. We are attracted by a colorful sign on one of these, displaying the name SUDD THE UNUSUAL FOOD. It has a lovely veranda with tables overlooking the sea. What “unusual” means we find out a little later when Vincenzo, one of the owners of the restaurant, explains that their menu, strangely for the place, is not fish-based, but offers traditional peasant dishes. But how? Weren’t we on the way to a tuna fishery? Vincenzo seems sincere and persuasive, so we decide to taste the dishes on the menu. And we’re not disappointed: Vicenzo arrives with a gigantic cutting board in his hand that just about fits on our table. “Here is our T’arricrii [lit: ‘for your satisfaction’] cutting board,” says Vincenzo, with a knowing smile. The name explains it, but the substance is even more: on the cutting board are presented the authentic flavors of the land of Sicily: caponata, arancini, stuffed flatbreads, olives, ricotta, dried sausage and, of course, cured meats and typical cheeses, accompanied by a orange chutney. We continue with a delicate almond risotto and conclude with the Cannolo Experience, a dessert that can only be described as a real pastry extravaganza.

After lunch we resume our journey south to the VENDICARI Nature Reserve. Here you will find the most fascinating and scenically situated tuna fishery of Sicily. The path to the tuna fishery winds through the reserve, which overlook the marshy lakes of the oasis. We admire unspoiled nature and a myriad of birds, including beautiful herons and flamingos. Once we reach the fishery we are thrilled to discover that the area has been expertly restored and that the tuna fishery of Vendicari has become one of the best preserved industrial archaeology sites in Italy.

The striking remains of the tuna fishery look like an open-air theatrical stage, and crossing them proves to be a fascinating experience for us. As we are drawn further down, we admire the Sveva Tower, built by Peter of Aragon around the 15th century to defend the coast against Arab attacks. Next to the tower stands the fishermen’s house, painted an intense blue color. Inside is a small museum that tells the story of tuna fishing. The guide explains to us, in front of a miniature reconstruction of the so-called ‘mattanza’ [tuna hunt], that tuna fishing in southeastern Sicily has been practiced since the times of the Greeks and Romans. This sea, in fact, has always been where the tuna chose to breed, and the tradition of tuna fishing was passed down through the centuries, until gradually dying out in the mid-50s.

We also learn that the tuna fishery of Vendicari for many years used the nearby lakes of the reserve as salt marshes to harvest the salt necessary for the preservation of fish. In testimony to this, on the larger lake we can see the ruins of the house of the salt-maker, which was sometimes used as storage. From the tuna fishery you can enjoy a wonderful view of the long beach of Vendicari. This panorama and the crystal clear waters are captivating, and we dive into the shallow, sandy-bottomed sea that looks like the Caribbean, swimming amongst the minnows. And, as we emerge from the waters, the impressive profile of the tuna fishery enchants us and reminds us that in this magical place history, nature and tradition are intertwined to perfection.

At sunset we leave the beach to reach the nearby farmhouse LE ZAGARE DI VENDICARI. As soon as we arrive, we are intoxicated by the sweet and intense scent of zagara, the flower of citrus trees. And so we realize that in these places nature offers the visitor one gift after another. Wrapped in this aroma, Giuseppe and his wife welcome us and tell us that this property began as a family project, and that the name was chosen precisely because of the presence of the 10 hectares of citrus fruit surrounding the farmhouse. He also reveals that almost all the flavors that we will find at dinner and the next morning at breakfast are produced from the farm: pasta, yogurt, jams, brioches that accompany their typical Sicilian granita. After dinner we are so tired that we can’t wait to enjoy a sound sleep amid the silence of the countryside at this fairytale farmhouse.

The next morning we wake up and, after a fantastic and healthy breakfast, we reach the marina of Marzamemi. Here we have an appointment with Peppe, the captain of the SHARK, who has reserved us a half-day boat trip on the seas around Marzamemi and Portopalo. We climb into his 7-meter dinghy and, excited like children, anchors up and away we go. Peppe is incredibly friendly and, between jokes, reveals his deep knowledge of the place. He takes us to see, from the sea, the ancient seaside village of Marzamemi, telling us anecdotes, stories of fishermen and little sailor jokes.

Following the coastline south, we reach PORTOPALO DI CAPOPASSERO by boat, where we can admire from the sea the tuna-fishing complex that stands on the cliff. It belonged to the Princes of Villadorata, the same princes that own the most beautiful baroque palace in the Noto Valley, the Nicolaci Palace, located in Noto. Peppe knows all about this stretch of sea and points out the particular shape of the platform in front of the tuna fishery, where the boats used to unload the freshly caught tuna. He even tells us about the presence of an ancient volcano, now extinct. After a quick dip, we return towards the island of Capopassero, where we anchor. Here, after a swim through caves and along crystal clear seabeds, we relax in the sun, listening to the sound of the sea, accompanied by an aperitif of fruit and prosecco.

Returning from the excursion, we gratefully thank Peppe and the Shark boys and walk to the center of Marzamemi. All this sea has made us want fish, so we look for a little place where we can eat quickly, because the appetite is great but time is short, since we want to see every corner of Marzamemi. We ask around and are recommended a local place right behind the ancient tuna fishery of Marzamemi, where they have fish of all kinds served in a rolled-up paper cone. The name leaves no doubt: “FRITTI IN UN COPPO” is just what we were looking for–fresh-fried fish served with battered vegetables and our choice from the menu. Saro, the owner, also advises us to taste their Sicilian arancini [rice balls] with fish sauce, and fish patties. And we are happy to have followed his advice, because in just over half an hour we were able to experience all the taste of the Sicilian sea.

After our lunch break we enter the narrow alleys of MARZAMEMI. From a small fishing village it has transformed in recent years to both a tourist destination and a film set for numerous movies and TV programmes, such as the well-known series of Commissioner Montalbano. It is a real delight, situated overlooking the sea, which in the evening comes alive with its sparkling nightlife. In the centre of the village there is a charming little square surrounded by fishermen’s cottages converted into trendy restaurants, clubs and lounge bars. The square overlooks the tuna complex, now partly restored, with its chimney and warehouses that were used for the preservation of tuna.

Through a small archway we reach the balata, as it is called in Sicily–the stone slab slipway where the boats go down into the sea. They’re the stones that the Shark’s Peppe had shown us from the sea during the boat trip, explaining that they’re actually just leaning there, and the waves of the sea sometimes lift them slightly in a perennial game of balance between land and sea. We explore every little corner of the village until sunset, when the sun disappears in the distance behind the countryside and the vineyards.

 

This romantic moment calls for a candlelit dinner away from the lights and sounds of the nightlife that begins to animate the village. After some research, we book at the restaurant IL DATTERINO which is located a few kilometers from Marzamemi. The choice is perfect: we reserve a table for two nestled in a garden of aromatic plants with a breathtaking view of the Vendicari reserve. Immediately we are captivated by the tranquility of this magical place, by the sophistication of the environment and by the attention to detail that the owners have put into every corner.

The kind and professional waiter immediately understands our passion for the sea and recommends a tartare of alalunga tuna, Sicilian mango, radishes, and a cailda [a kind of crispy wafer] of rice and saffron–a pleasure for both the eyes and the palate. We continue with pasta alla norma [pasta with aubergine and salted ricotta] with a flavour as tasty and authentic as we have ever eaten. The dinner was so perfect that we ask to meet the chef to compliment him in person. The famous chef Maurizio Urso joins us at the table and he reveals that the secret of his kitchen is using local ingredients selected, elaborated, decorated, served with simplicity and modesty but with the care of those who love their profession.

 

 

After dinner we reach Santa Maria del Focallo, beyond the very tip of Sicily, where we booked for the night at VILLA IBISCUS, a pretty holiday home 100 meters from the sea. The owner Domenico and his family have kindly waited for up us and, with typical Sicilian hospitality, on arrival they offer us a limoncello to sip on the garden patio in their company. While admiring the beautiful pool lit up at night, we have a pleasant chat with them. This relaxed and familiar atmosphere makes us feel like we’re at home with friends. Upon awakening, the gleaming pool of Villa Ibiscus beckons us for a dip, as we enjoy the view from Santa Maria del Focallo across to the Isola delle Correnti.

Capopassero - Isola delle CorrentiAs we get closer to CAPO PASSERO we feel that this journey has been almost like a pilgrimage, during which the route was almost more important than the final destination. But the awareness of reaching the southernmost point of the Italian peninsula intrigues us and excites us so much that we almost tingle. Here, at the Isola delle Correnti [Island of Currents], the waters of the Ionian Sea are kissed by those of the Mediterranean. It is from here that the tuna pass offshore coming from Sardinia and then through the Sicilian Channel. All around, a wild atmosphere prevails, where the smell of the sea becomes more intense, the wind carries the salt onto your skin, and you feel far from everything. It is a place full of charm that is worth a visit at least once in a lifetime.

Our journey ends here. Beyond the horizon there is another continent: Africa.