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Saturday, 11 August 2007

Celebrity Island

An unexpected Hollywood hangout on the way to the blissfully peaceful islands off Sicily.

From the Guardian Isabel Choat writes :

I've slept in Brad Pitt's bed. Nothing for Angelina to worry about, because he wasn't in it at the time. Even so, I was pretty taken aback when I found out.
You see we weren't staying in five-star luxury in Taormina, Sicily's celebrity mecca, but in a simple agriturismo in the sleepy north-west. It was lovely, with stunning views across the bay, and fantastic food, but it wasn't glitzy or glamorous by any stretch.

Brad Pitt had stayed at the Agriturismo Tenute Plaia while filming Ocean's Twelve at the Tonnara di Scopello, a disused tuna fishery set in a ridiculously picturesque cove a mile or two up the road. The rest of the cast, including Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney, had dinner at the hotel, but only Brad had spent the night. Perhaps the lack of spa, butlers, helicopter pad and marble-clad interiors had put the other stars off. But we thought it was near perfect.
On our first night we had sat on the terrace working our way through dish after dish of anti-pasti - rissotto balls, octopus salad, slivers of rare beef and tiny squares of bread with melted mozzarella. Next came pasta with olive oil, pine nuts and mackerel, then grilled fish with lemon and garlic. Later Ignacio, our waiter, offered to drive us in to Scopello, a hillside village with a fountain and 13th-century walled square where we sat under a vast eucalyptus drinking grappa.
We were on the edge of the Zingaro Nature Reserve, which covers seven kilometres of spectacular coastline, so could walk off our dinner the next day. The path follows the coast, giving tantalising views of sandy coves and bays, the sea so clear you can make out individual rocks on the sea bed. Hot and sweaty after a three-hour walk, we tired of just looking at the beach and veered off the path to dip our feet in the deliciously cool water.

Scopello was just the starting point of our holiday, a brief taste of Sicily, before we moved on to Marettimo, the most remote and mountainous of the Egadi, a trio of islands an hour's boat ride from Trapani. Though the Egadi are just as beautiful as the north-west, they lack the necessary polish to attract Hollywood's elite. Favignana, the largest of the Egadi, has one chichi hotel (Albergo Egadi), but on Levanzo and Marettimo the choice is between fishermen's houses, pensiones or basic apartments.

Fausto, the owner of the Marettimo Residence, met us off the boat, loaded our gear on to a golf buggy and pointed us in the right direction. "We're the last building in the village. See you there." Among the cluster of flat-roofed houses, more Greek in style than Italian, we spotted La Scaletta - a bar-cum-ice cream parlour - a deli, a couple of restaurants and a bakery selling slices of focaccia pizza. The other passengers had disappeared into the narrow, shady lanes and aside from the old men who sat in a row outside the harbourside Museo del Mare - a tiny room with black and white photos of men sitting in exactly the same spot 50 years ago - we saw no one. We seemed to have the place to ourselves and began to wonder whether five days was four days too long.

But worrying about what to do is sort of missing the point. You don't come to Marettimo to race round the sights (there aren't any) or try a dozen different watersports, as there are none of those either, unless you count exploring the island's many caves by fishing boat or kayak. You come to enjoy breathtaking views of the craggy coastline, pine-covered peaks and to swim in crystal-clear sea. As we learned pretty quickly, the real joy of Marettimo is shifting down several gears and slipping into its gentle, soporific pace.
After breakfast among the olive and lavender trees at the Residence, we'd amble down to the harbour to see what the fishermen had brought in. Their cute blue and white boats looked like they'd been planted there to blend artfully with their blue and white houses, but they were working boats. One look at the catch in the morning told you what you'd be eating that night. Snapper, John Dory or calamari came grilled or fried and served with salad or, north African style, with cous cous, pine nuts, raisins and saffron. The fish that weren't sold straight from the boat were packed on to carts and wheeled round the village to cries of "pesce fresco".

In the afternoons we'd pack our beach bags and saunter down to the rocks near the Residence to soak up the sun and cool off in the sea. We nearly always had the beach to ourselves.
Come evening the empty village would start to fill up: women emerged from their homes to catch up on the day's gossip, kids raced round the shiny cobbled streets on bikes, and teenagers loitered outside La Scaletta eating brioche stuffed with ice-cream. After dinner we'd hit the bar in the romantic little square for an espresso or glass of Marsala. And then head back to the Residence under a starry sky, knowing that with no sights to see or activities to try, we'd be doing it all again tomorrow.

On other nights Fausto insisted on us joining him for dinner at the Residence. Our first al fresco meal was a giant pan of fish stew -a delicious feast of scarfolo, a spiny, red fish, cooked in onions, wine and tomatoes. Our host spoke no English but he'd roped in a friend to translate. As he guffawed at his own stories, his friend fussed around us grumbling that Fausto spoke too fast.
A few days into the holiday we decided we really ought to venture beyond the village. We had, after all, booked our trip through a walking specialist who had supplied us with a stack of idiot-proof maps. You can hike for hours across Marettimo but there's no need to feel guilty if you take a shorter route, as the views are just as spectacular. While other, older, guests at the Residence set off early for a full day's tramping, we took the easy - OK, lazy - option and followed the trail to El Castello, a ruined castle perched dramatically on a rock jutting out into the sea. On either side of the path were clumps of yellow and purple heather, so neat they looked like they'd been planted there by an expert gardener, and rosemary bushes that filled the warm air with their scent.

On another day we set out, accompanied by one of the village dogs, to Punta Campana, at 630m the second highest peak. In four hours we didn't see a soul. As we climbed, the path got narrower and rockier and at one point I was convinced we'd veered off it completely. Still, the dog knew exactly where he was going so we gave up on the map and followed him. On the way up, the air had been alive with the sounds of bees and birds, but up here there was silence. In the distance Favignano and Levanzo were swathed in mist, their peaks poking out of a blanket of white. The sea and sky were exactly the same shade of blue, making it impossible to find the horizon. We could just about make out the wash of the fishing boats. It was utterly peaceful.

The hydrofoil zips between Trapani on the main island and the Egadi trio four times a day, so it's easy to pop over to a neighbouring island. We passed a pleasant enough day on Levanzo on a tour to the Grotto del Genovese, reached by yet another stunning stretch of coast where seagull chicks were nesting among the wild flowers. Inside the grotto are drawings, thought to be around 10,000 years old, of bison and deer and men fishing for tuna.

The waters around the Egadi still teem with blue fin tuna , and the Mattanza, an ancient ritual where schools of tuna are rounded into increasingly smaller nets before being killed with spears, is still practised. It's a bloody spectacle and one we decided we could do without. We did eat tuna one night, though, when Fausto invited us back for dinner. Having taught himself how to prepare sushi, he was keen to show off his skill and served up melt-in-the-mouth tuna sushi, sashimi and sticky rice, all washed down with a hearty Sicilian red.

Fausto told us how long it had taken him to get used to life on Marettimo. After five years of running the Residence, he was only just beginning to be accepted into the community. I told him my Brad Pitt story, but he didn't seem very interested. I got the impression that, like the rest of the islanders, Fausto couldn't give a fig about celebrity gossip.

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