MARZAMEMI - East Sicily
Marzamemi is one of the most charming and authentic seaside villages in the south east of Sicily. It is 3 km away from Pachino, and is surrounded by the deep blue Ionian sea which creates two natural small seaports along the coast, called “Fossa” and “Balata.” The multicoloured harbours abound with blue, red and yellow-coloured Sicilian fishermen’s boats rocking slowly over the sea. This “enchanted village”, as it is often called, extends around Marzamemi’s well- known tuna-fishery (“Tonnara”), famous since Arab sovereignty as one of the largest and most productive tuna fisheries in Sicily for its plentiful catching of tuna fish and for its salt drying and oil canning preservation. Today the Tonnara, the Palazzo di Villadorata (once the owner’s residence) and the nearby warehouse buildings have been recovered, thanks to attentive restructuring; some sections are being partially used as tourist accommodation and as venues for special events, as well as for Sicilian-style wedding receptions. The village is made of many low-roofed little houses facing the sea made from local sandstone. The so-called “fishermen’s houses”, once the houses where the tuna fishery’s workers lived, all extend around the tuna fishery and the main Piazza Regina Margherita. This is a typical Sicilian “piazza”, square-shaped, coloured in red geraniums in the morning, extremely attractive at sunset and when nicely lit up in the evening. Strolling around the village of Marzamemi, with its old narrow alleys shining under the warm light of the sun, leaves you somewhat enchanted while at the end of each alley you perceive the intense blue of the sea. Here one breathes an air that tastes like salt, a calmness of ancient times, the atmosphere of that very old and important Sicilian profession – a fascinating one – that was once the fishing trade. Both around the square and along the two seaports overlooking the sea, it is possible to savour excellent Sicilian dishes such as fresh Mediterrenean fish dinners, while enveloped by the ancient charm of this village you sit at a table under the stars. Night clubs and local bars where to find your almond or mulberry granita at breakfast, a scrumptious cocktail at sunset or an after-dinner drink are aplenty. It is possible to buy tinned fish or Pachino tomatoes conserve in Marzamemi, as well as excellent homemade condiments and Mediterrenean tomato sauces in two large grocery stores selling organic products. A famous local product is the red tuna bottarga (dried tuna roe) which you can use to prepare a simple spaghetti recipe. Bottarga is produced locally using ancient drying techniques originating from the Arab-Phoenician cultures. Additionally, Marzamemi boasts a beautiful long beach accompanying its crystalline sea. It also offers access to well-equipped beach areas and numerous landing places for pleasure boats.
From “la Balata” seaport the celebrated and much-photographed “Isolotto Brancati” is visible, on which stands a charming red house along the dock. This was the house where Vitaliano Brancati, eminent Italian novelist and screenwriter from the twentieth century who was born in Pachino, found inspiration for his novels. In 1993 the historic village was used by the film director Gabriele Salvatores as the location for his movie “Sud” (“South”) with Silvio Orlando, Claudio Bisio and Francesca Neri as leading actors. Since the year 2000, Marzamemi hosts the International Border Film Festival at the end of July. The village, the square and the surrounding seaside area turn from film backgrounds into film sets. For a week Marzamemi truly becomes an open air cinema hall. The origin of the name, Marzamemi, is controversial: it could come from the Arabic word “marza” that means “harbor” and “memi” which means “small”, while according to the linguist Corrado Avolio the name derives from the Arabic “Marsà al hamam” that means “bay of doves “, for the abundant passage of these birds in spring. Simone Sultano notes that some did derived it from marza and memi, “lice”, because the mothers used to say this word searching parasites in the hair of the children. Finally, Antonino Terranova in his book “Pachum Pachynos Pachino stories and legends from Pachino to Capopassero”, argues that Memi would be reported to Eufemio, the commander of the Byzantine fleet who, rebelling against the Emperor Michele II Balbo, allied with the Arabs, began the conquer of the island; “Marza-memi” therefore could mean Port of Eufemio, as Marsala means “Port of Ali” or “Port of Allah.”
The village was born around the landing, which later became the fishing port, and has grown thanks to this activity, widely practiced even today. “La Tonnara” of Marzamemi dates from the time of the domination of the Arabs in Sicily. In 1630 it was sold by the owner to the Prince of Villadorata. The Villadorata restored the buildings by employing skilled carpenters from Avola and Syracuse, who then stayed in Marzamemi. In 1752 they built the palace and the church, and the little houses of the sailors. In 1912 in Marzamemi was built a building for the processing of salty tuna and later tuna in oil. Tuna fishing was a rich activity until the postwar period.